How the Exodus from Kabul is Affecting Afghanistan’s Northern Neighbours
A new era in Afghanistan: the world still holds its breath to see what happens next. Image: timsimages.uk/Shutterstock
A week after the Taliban completed its lightning conquest of the Afghan capital, around 25,000 people have been airlifted out, with around 20 deaths reported in stampedes of those trying to escape. Reports of chaotic scenes around Kabul airport continued to dominate world news feeds over the weekend. Less visible, however, have been the situations in the Central Asian nations that Afghanistan’s northern neighbours.
After the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif and then Kabul, some 1500 Afghan citizens were reported to have reached the south side of the border bridge though only 84 were initially allowed to cross. Reportedly this mainly included loyalists to Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek commander. He had once been first deputy president of Afghanistan and is said to own a house in the normally sleepy border city of Termez, from where Soviet tanks had once rolled into Afghanistan in the 1970s. Although the border was officially closed on August 14, disputed reports suggested that over 150 Afghans later swam across the border to reach Uzbekistan. At the weekend, however, the border seems to have tentatively reopened to at least a limited level of trade. There is confusion as to how many Afghan aircraft flew across the border into Uzbekistan from assorted Afghan airfields, but estimates suggest over 20 planes and around 26 helicopters, bringing with them around 600 individuals. Another 400 refugees were reportedly given temporary shelter by the Uzbek authorities on August 21.
Tashkent denies rumours that Abdul Rashid Dostum has fled Afghanistan for Uzbekistan. Abdul Rashid Dostum (C), an ethnic Uzbek leader, Ahmad Zia Massoud, former Afghan vice president, High Peace Council chairman Salahuddin Rabbani (R) talk during a ceremony to formally announce the creation of Etihad in Kabul August 29, 2013. Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan, together with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, were among the countries listed by US State Department spokesperson Ned Price as having offered services as transport hubs for temporarily assisting with evacuation flights of US and other citizens from Kabul.
There have been few reports from the borders with Turkmenistan: the main crossing at Turghundi had been captured by the Taliban back in early July, around the same time that the Iran-Afghanistan frontier post at Islam Qala fell. Since then, Ashgabat claims that the frontier posts have reopened for limited trade but are said to be refusing passage to evacuees, even those of ethnic Turkmen heritage. Turkmenistan, known for its dislike of media attention, had reportedly dispatched a large contingent of national security agents a week earlier to border regions to ‘calm’ (or suppress) panic over the situation across the border. Since talks in Qatar with Taliban representatives on August 11, Turkmenistan appears to have been relatively early in essentially recognizing the group’s de facto control of Afghanistan and consular staff remain in place at Turkmen diplomatic offices in Kabul Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, all with Taliban-approved security. The country has, however, granted over-flight air rights to NATO and other evacuation planes.
Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan
Like Uzbekistan, the Tajik government has accepted that aircraft land in its territory as part of the air-bridge evacuation effort from Kabul. The first arrivals on August 20 were four Turkish military planes that unloaded an unspecified number of NATO troops at Kulob Airport, 200km south of Dushanbe. Kyrgyzstan is still reportedly mulling over the idea of whether to join the effort. Although Kyrgyzstan has no direct land border with Afghanistan, the Bishkek government has been watching the situation with concern and has tightened restrictions on visas for Afghan citizens, hoping to avoid a major influx of refugees and asylum seekers. Meanwhile, at least 11 Kyrgyz citizens escaping Kabul were repatriated in a very circuitous route via Qatar. On Monday 23, Kazakhstan welcomed a second plane of NGO and UN evacuees to Almaty pending repatriation to their various countries. The earlier one had landed on August 18.
As foreigners flee, Afghanistan’s new rulers have set about improving their media interaction. Having (so far) defied global preconceptions by peaceably allowing the troops of its sworn enemies to pack up and go, the Taliban has also been using social media to the same effect. For example, their ‘influencers’ have been tweeting videos of their elite Badri 313 special forces apparently maintaining calm in Kabul while sporting captured uniforms and guns.
Whether or not Taliban fighters will prove able to operate them all, the new regime has shown off a vast collection of captured US-built arms worth over US$200 million, including black hawk helicopters, Humvees, M4 carbines and at least half a dozen US-Brazilian Super Tucano A-29 aircraft. Meanwhile, the internationally peddled image of the culturally unsophisticated Taliban took a knock from a humorously satirical photo. It appears to show Taliban fighters raising the white flag of the new regime in a fashion that consciously apes the famous Joe Rosenthal image of US marines raising the stars and stripes at Iwo Jima near the end of WW2.
While the Taliban appears to control the vast majority of Afghanistan, one pocket of resistance remains – in the Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul. Like a flashback to the 1980s, this is the same region that put up the stiffest resistance to the Soviet invasion under the almost mythical warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud.
I just spoke to Ahmad #Massoud on the phone. He told me: “I am the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud; surrender is not part of my vocabulary.” This is the start. The #Resistance has just begun. #Afghanistan #Panjshir #Kabul #LionOfPanjshir @ahmadmassoud01 pic.twitter.com/Xlj8mKKr1v— Bernard-Henri Lévy (@BHL) August 21, 2021
Massoud’s followers in the Panjshir Valley present the last outstanding opposition to Taliban rule.
And today, it is none other than Massoud’s son who heads the remaining group of defiant fighters. For any Afghans who might have hoped to travel from Kabul towards Central Asia, this last conflict is now reportedly blocking the Salang Highway, the only land route north to Central Asia.