Despite criticism and pressure, neighboring Central Asian countries, except for Tajikistan, maintained cordial ties with Taliban leadership in order to uphold peace along their shared borders
By Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta
After the Taliban seized control of Kabul in August 2021, two of Afghanistan’s northern neighbours, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, chose to cooperate with them despite the extremist group’s turbulent relations with the Central Asian countries. The Taliban have endured diplomatic isolation, with hardly a single nation recognizing their regime. Despite criticism and pressure, neighbouring Central Asian countries, except for Tajikistan, maintained cordial ties with Taliban leadership in order to uphold peace along their shared borders.
For negotiations on trade, economy, and border security, they hosted many Taliban representatives. Turkmenistan’s relationship with the Taliban remains transactional. However, Uzbekistan has taken one step forward and pushed for the release of frozen Afghan assets, the inclusion of Afghanistan in trade, transport, and economic corridors, as well as the provision of humanitarian aid. A Regional Humanitarian Logistics Hub was established in Termez near the Tajik-Afghan border at the initiative of Uzbekistan and as a component of the UNHCR’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Despite a peaceful and amicable exchange, differences over using the Amu Darya’s water may jeopardise the Taliban’s relations with the neighbouring Central Asian nations. Qosh Tepa Canal, which is 285 km long and 100 metres wide, is being aggressively built by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, raising concerns for the water-scarce Central Asian countries about whether exercising strategic patience with the Taliban was worth the cost. Although it is anticipated that the Canal may irrigate 550000 hectares of land in Northern Afghanistan, it also has the potential to significantly impact Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan’s water supplies. Even though the Taliban, Iran, or Central Asian countries do not wish to endanger their existing point of engagement, water sharing is one problem that might affect regional politics.
The Amu Darya River is the most important water source for Afghanistan and its neighbouring nations. The allocation of water of the Amu Darya may be dated back to the Soviet Union and even before that. The four Central Asian Republics (CARs)—the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were allocated water from this river basin by the Soviet government under Protocol 566. Protocol 566 also specified that Afghanistan would annually release 2.1 cubic kilometres of water from the Amu Darya for these downstream countries. Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of five autonomous Central Asian republics (CARs) in 1991, CARs signed the Almaty Agreement. They consented to uphold the allocation quotas outlined in Protocol 566. Afghanistan was excluded from regional water-sharing accords and water management procedures at the time because CARs viewed the Taliban as an extremist group seeking to seize control of Kabul.
Upstream Tajikistan uses the Amu Darya to irrigate 0.5 million hectares of agriculture. In Afghanistan, water from Amu Darya contributes to the irrigation of 1.15 million hectares of agricultural land. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two downstream nations with the maximum irrigated area; they use the Amu Darya to water 2.3 million and 1.7 million hectares of agricultural land, respectively. The water from the Amu Darya is only utilised to irrigate roughly 0.1 million hectares of land in Kyrgyzstan.
The Taliban contend that they have not used their due share of water from the Amu Darya for many years and may now use it for socioeconomic development. They also claim that the initial phase of the Canal was financed entirely by the Taliban leadership. The first phase will cost around USD 91 million. The Taliban administration intends to fund the following two stages by selling mines, specifically the Dar-e-Souph Mine. The Canal is projected to convey 650 cusec (cubic metres per second) of water for agriculture in the provinces of Balkh, Jawzjan, and Faryab. According to sources, the first phase of the Canal, a 100-kilometer segment, is nearly finished.
Even though the Qosh Tepa will boost Northern Afghanistan’s economy, challenges are foreseeable. The water level of the two main rivers in Central Asia, Amu and Syr Darya, is gradually decreasing, further exacerbating the region’s water-sharing issues. A recent assessment of the Qosh Tepa Canal’s construction quality using satellite images also produced negative results. According to the study, the primary strategy used during the construction phase I was crude excavation without adequate groundwork for the Canal’s surface zones. These elementary construction techniques may eventually pose a serious risk of significant water seepage and unnecessary loss.
Moreover, the Qosh Tepa Canal’s construction can potentially affect regional dynamics. The Canal, envisioned in the 1970s as a means for Afghanistan to channel a significant amount of water from the Amu Darya, was unable to get off the ground owing to objections from the neighbouring countries. However, the dynamics have changed, and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are willing to negotiate, which is a positive step towards encouraging regional cooperation in sustainable water management. However, the Taliban government should recognise that the countries supporting them during their diplomatic isolation should not be intimidated by their irrational behaviour.
Central Asian nations have expressed their concerns with the Taliban. CARs have also attempted to implement a coordinated plan to address this issue on a regional basis. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan had their first trilateral meeting on August 4. Water management was a critical topic in light of deteriorating water supplies. The need to build a sustainable management system in the Amu Darya basin and increase “mutually beneficial cooperation” among the countries that share the river’s water was highlighted throughout the discussion. Despite this, the Canal’s construction is proceeding without interruption.
Uzbek President Shawkat Mirziyoyev emphasised the issues that Afghanistan faces in his address to the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2023, and encouraged the international community to support Afghanistan. He also mentioned Central Asia’s ecological challenges, such as the Amu Darya River, but omitted the Qosh Tepa Canal. This demonstrates that Central Asian nations prefer a peaceful resolution to water-sharing difficulties over provoking conflict with Afghanistan.
One may argue that it is now difficult to terminate this project, but a collaborative approach for responsibly utilising water of Amu Darya may be implemented. To prevent additional damage to the Amu Darya’s sustainability, Central Asian nations may provide technical and professional assistance, while the Taliban needs to adopt a qualitative approach while building this Canal. Some sustainable methods may also be implemented by both Central Asia and Afghanistan in order to preserve this river basin. This may include contemporary irrigation methods, diverse crop patterns, and a commitment to sustainable practices, including water conservation, recycling, and the introduction of cutting-edge technology.
Source : FE