Accessibility links

Breaking News

Qishloq Ovozi

Former Taliban militants surrendering their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Herat, Afghanistan on June 24

For any Central Asia governments that thought they had time to consider their policies toward Afghanistan while the last foreign troops are withdrawing from the country, the clock already seems to have run out.

Few could have foreseen the rapid advances Taliban fighters have made in northern Afghanistan since the start of May. The fighting has spread swiftly to Afghanistan's northern borders and already involves Central Asia.

The defeat on June 22 of Afghan government forces at the town of Shir Khan Bandar, with its vital border crossing into Tajikistan, seems to have been as much of a shock to Central Asian authorities as it was to the 134 Afghan soldiers who escaped the Taliban assault by fleeing into Tajikistan.

Adding to the alarm, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry has confirmed that 53 armed Afghan troops and allied militia fighters also fled into Uzbekistan on June 23.

Tashkent says that after questioning those soldiers and militia fighters, Uzbek authorities sent them back.

Uptick In Fighting

Eight Afghan provinces border former Soviet republics in Central Asia. From west to east, they are Herat, Badghis, Faryab, Jowzjan, Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan.

Those provinces were relatively peaceful for most of the decade after U.S. troops first arrived in Afghanistan in late 2001. There was little cause for concern in neighboring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

But Afghan security forces have become increasingly involved in fighting the Taliban and other militants since 2013. At times, some battles have taken place just across the border from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Stray rounds of artillery and gunfire have even occasionally landed in their territory.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported on June 25 that the Afghan town of Andkhoy in Faryab Province had fallen to the Taliban the previous day.

Reports suggest government forces on June 25 were staging counter attacks on Andkhoy, which is just 10 kilometers from Turkmenistan.

The nearby town of Aqina, about 30 kilometers from the Turkmen border, is the location of a dry port and railway station for the only railway connection between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. It also is a key link for the Lapis Lazuli transit route that connects Afghanistan with Turkey and Europe.

Afghanistan’s private Tolo News reported on June 19 that Taliban forces captured Faryab’s Khwaja Sabz Posh district. Fighting also was reported outside the provincial capital Maimana.

In the neighboring province of Badghis, fighting in the districts of Murghab and Gormach has been going on since 2014.

In February 2014, militants crossed the Murghab River into Turkmenistan and killed three Turkmen border guards. Months later, militants crossed the border from the Gormach district -- killing three Turkmen soldiers and stealing their weapons.

In Jowzjan Province, to the east of Faryab, there are reports that the districts of Hamyab and Qarqin on the border of Turkmenistan have fallen under the control of the Taliban along with the districts of Aqcha, Mangijal, Faizabad, and Mardyan.

The town of Shir Khan Bandar, from where Afghan troops fled across a 700-meter-long bridge to Tajikistan, is in Kunduz Province.

In 2015 and again in 2016, Taliban forces temporarily seized parts of the provincial capital, Kunduz city, before they were forced out by Afghan counterattacks supported by U.S. air strikes and special forces.

All three districts of Kunduz Province that border Tajikistan -- the Imam Sahib district where Shir Khan Bandar is located, Dasht-e Archi, and Qala-e-Zal -- reportedly were under Taliban control on June 25.

The province's southern-most district of Aliabad also reportedly was captured by Taliban militants. But a report from Afghanistan’s Tolo News said Aliabad had been retaken by government forces.

Tolo News reported on June 21 that eight of the 12 districts of Takhar Province, just east of Kunduz, had either fallen to the Taliban or been evacuated by Afghan security forces during the previous week.

Those districts include Chal, Baharak, Ishkamish, Namak (Chah) Ab, Yangi Qala, Khwaja Ghar, and Hazar Samooch.

That report said Khwaja Ghar and another district, Bangi, were soon recaptured by government forces.

WATCH: Tajikistan Tense As Fighting In Afghanistan Approaches Border

Tajikistan Tense As Fighting In Afghanistan Approaches Border
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:03:20 0:00

Yangi Qala and Nama (Chah) Ab both border Tajikistan as does the district of Darqad, which has been under Taliban control for several years.

Takhar's provincial capital, Taloqan, was also reportedly under siege from Taliban forces.

Between the provinces bordering Turkmenistan and Tajikistan is Balkh Province -- the only Afghan province bordering Uzbekistan. With its capital of Mazar-e Sharif, most of Balkh Province has long held out against Taliban incursions.

But the 53 soldiers and militia fighters who fled into Uzbekistan on June 23 crossed from Balkh's Shortepa district.

Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry’s statement did not elaborate on why the group crossed into Uzbek territory.

At the time, there were no reports of fighting in the Shortepa district. But there have been recent reports of fighting in Balkh Province further to the south of the Uzbek border.

Deals With The Taliban

The Taliban briefly seized the province’s Balkh district on June 12. But government forces recaptured the territory by June 22.

Other districts in the province like Chimtal, just southwest of Balkh district, also have seen fighting in recent weeks.

As Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan watch these events unfold, their governments have surely seen reports of retreats by Afghan government forces.

In some cases, security forces have simply run out of ammunition or failed to receive reinforcements. Other times, they've reached deals with advancing Taliban -- leaving their weapons and other equipment behind in exchange for safe passage.

WATCH: Amid Taliban Offensive, Afghan Civilians Are Taking Up Arms

Amid Taliban Offensive, Afghan Civilians Are Taking Up Arms
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:03:17 0:00

There is now little room for optimism that Afghan government forces can hold out long against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, especially after September 11 when the last foreign troops are due to leave.

The government in Kabul already has signaled that it wants paramilitary forces to play a larger role in the fight against the Taliban.

But that raises a familiar old problem for the Tajik and Uzbek governments.

During the latter half of the 1990s, when Taliban fighters were advancing across much of northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan threw its support behind the ethnic-Uzbek Afghan commander Abdul Rashid Dostum -- a controversial figure often described as a warlord.

Tajikistan threw its support behind ethnic Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masud -- the legendary "Lion Of Panjshir."

Now, with Afghan government forces on the backfoot, there may be elements in Tashkent and Dushanbe looking for Afghan proxies to guard the doorstep of their countries.

Their concerns may not be so much about the Taliban, but rather, about radicalized Islamists from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who are fighting in the ranks of the Taliban or other militant groups.

Most concerning to them are their citizens among groups like the Islamic State of Khorasan, or Central Asian extremist groups that now operate in Afghanistan -- the Tajik-dominated Jamaat Ansarullo or Uzbek-dominated groups, the Islamic Jihad Union, Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, Katibat Tahwid al-Jihad, or the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan, with its official policy of neutrality, has always tried to stay out of Afghanistan’s internal conflicts.

In March 2019, when about 100 government soldiers attempted to flee into Turkmenistan to escape a Taliban advance in the Murghab district of Badghis Province, they were turned back by Turkmen border guards. That subsequently led to their capture by the Taliban.

Four years earlier, Turkmen border guards turned back a group of Taliban fighters who were fleeing an attack by fighters under the command of General Abdul Rashid Dostum in the Hamyab district of Jowzjan Province.

Uzbekistan now seems to be trying to follow this model -- judging by its decision to return the 53 pro-government fighters back into Afghanistan.

In contrast, Dushanbe this week allowed fleeing Afghan troops to remain temporarily in Tajikistan. The wounded were treated at hospitals there.

The head of Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region, Yodgor Fayzov, told a meeting of regional administrators on June 21 that they should be prepared to take in at least 5,000 and as many as 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan.

As the situation continues to unfold on the Afghan side of the border, the governments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are also likely to be double-checking the bilateral and multilateral defense and security agreements they have -- just in case.

Farmers working in the field in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan.

It goes without saying that it's going to be scorching hot in Central Asia in June.

But this year, many places are setting new records for high temperatures and -- adding to the misery -- drought is setting in and taking a toll that can only be fully known in the coming weeks.

The upstream countries -- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- are facing difficulties with too little water and some want to keep more of it while the downstream countries -- namely Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- are seeking guarantees and offering deals for ample supplies of water to continue flowing.

Record Heat

June in Uzbekistan started with a warning from the State Meteorological Agency, Uzgidromet, that June 3-7 would see a drastic climb in heat with temperatures seven to 10 degrees hotter than usual.

The temperature in the capital, Tashkent, was 42.6 degrees Celsius on June 6, easily surpassing the previous highest temperature for that day, which was registered in 1811 when the temperature was 38.5 degrees Celsius.

The next day was slightly cooler at 40.8 degrees Celsius, still enough to top the previous record for that day that was set in 1894.

The Toktogul Reservoir in Kyrgyzstan
The Toktogul Reservoir in Kyrgyzstan

According to Uzgidromet, the hottest temperature ever recorded for Tashkent was on July 18, 1997, when thermometers reached 44.6 degrees Celsius.

On June 8, the director of Tajikistan’s meteorological center, Jamila Baydulloeva, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that during the first week of June there were days when the thermometer hit 45 degrees Celsius in the capital, Dushanbe, and in the southern Khatlon region. It was the hottest temperature seen in early June in decades.

The capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, was also experiencing temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius in June.

And summer is only beginning. Usually, July and August are the hottest months of the year.

The Drought

For several months it has been obvious Central Asia was heading into a period of severe drought.

The massive Toktogul Reservoir in Kyrgyzstan is a bellwether for 2021 in Central Asia.

Already in March, officials in Kyrgyzstan were warning the level of water in the reservoir was alarmingly low -- 8.7 billion cubic meters (bcm) -- well below the capacity of 19.5 bcm.

The reservoir takes water from the Naryn River, which itself eventually feeds into the Syr Darya, the longest river in Central Asia that brings essential water from its headstream in Tajikistan to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Toktogul is also the location of Kyrgyzstan’s largest hydropower plant (HHP), which supplies some 40 percent of the country’s electricity.

There has been talk in Kyrgyzstan about closing the floodgates and allowing the reservoir to replenish itself, though Kyrgyz Energy Minister Doskul Bekmurzaev said on June 16 that the water level had risen to 10.9 bcm.

The Kempir-Abad Reservoir on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border
The Kempir-Abad Reservoir on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are obviously against the idea of closing the floodgates at Toktogul.

Both are negotiating electricity for water deals that would have Kyrgyzstan keep the water flowing from Toktogul and, in return, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would supply electricity to Kyrgyzstan to temporarily lessen its dependence on the Toktogul HHP for domestic power.

For Kazakhstan, the need for water in the Syr Darya is already clear.

The Kazakh meteorological agency is already forecasting severe drought for areas in six of the country’s 14 provinces: Aqmola, Aqtobe, East Kazakhstan, Mangistau, Kyzylorda, and Kustanay.

In Kyzylorda, which draws much of its water from the Syr Darya, local officials reduced the number of rice fields under cultivation this year, but the situation with fodder for livestock animals is grim and the heat is taking its toll on the animals.

The same is true further west, in Mangistau Province. Kazakh officials are already saying more than 2,000 animals, most of them horses, have died for lack of water and food in Kyzylorda and Mangistau provinces.

The situation is the same in the Yavan district of Tajikistan’s Khatlon region, where shepherd Abroriddin Haydarov told Ozodi there is almost no grass for his animals to graze on.

Kazakh officials are promising to bring in hay and water from other areas of the country and dig more wells in Mangistau, where a video posted by a local resident showed some farmers forced to feed their camels and horses with cardboard, and another of a horse being fed dirt.

The rush by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to procure hay for livestock is having an effect in Kyrgyzstan where the drought is just as severe in some areas.

The price of hay in Kyrgyzstan increased in the second week of June, for some by 50 percent.

Crop Failure

In Kyrgyzstan's Chui Province, some farmers are predicting a total loss of crops this year.

The lack of water coupled with aging canal systems badly in need of repair are leaving some fields dry.

Kyrgyz Agriculture Minister Almazbek Sokeev noted that water levels in many small reservoirs and rivers in the province are at less than half their normal amount, which perhaps led to him receiving a reprimand on June 14 .

Farmers in Chui Province met outside a government building in Bishkek on June 14, demanding state action be taken to save their crops.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov promised help for farmers.

“Despite the budget deficit, we are trying to pay for the damage,” Maripov said on June 17. But he also noted that Kyrgyzstan is strapped for cash and it is difficult to see where money will come from to compensate farmers, especially with a possible food crisis looming.

The drought is also devastating agriculture in Turkmenistan’s eastern Mary and Lebap provinces, with many of its farmers also predicting large-scale crop failures.

But Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov once again predicted a successful harvest at a June 2 session of the government, calling on officials to ensure farmers are provided with all the seeds, fertilizer, modern equipment, and water that they need.

Farmers in the Karakum district of Mary Province told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that their cotton crops are already ruined.

“From the very beginning our fields were left without [enough] water and fertilizer and now, because of the fierce heat, the cotton plants that were just turning green have dried up,” said one farmer. “This is the first time we have seen so much cotton dry up.”

The local water reservoir has apparently fallen into total disrepair, and several farmers told Azatlyk that local officials seemed clueless about how to rectify the problem.

It is perhaps not surprising that farmers in Mary Province do not have water for their fields as a separate Azatlyk report said many areas in the capital, Ashgabat, are without water for most of the day in temperatures that sometimes reach 45 degrees Celsius.

The Turkmen government is often accused of gross mismanagement and, in what can only be described as its latest “own goal,” the government ordered famers in Mary Province’s village of Peshanay to burn the straw left over from the last wheat harvest.

Officials offered no reason for ordering farmers to destroy the straw, which many depend on to feed their farm animals. Officials also did not offer to provide farmers with other fodder for their animals.

The Consequences

Food prices are already rising sharply in many places across Central Asia.

The global coronavirus pandemic that hit the region early in 2020 crippled supply chains and this year’s drought in Central Asia guarantees food shortages in the months to come.

RFE/RL’s Current Time program aired a segment about the rising prices for fruits and vegetables in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakh Trade Minister Bakhyt Sutanov is headed to Tashkent to talk about the export of Uzbek carrots and potatoes to Kazakhstan.

In Turkmenistan, the price of a kilogram of meat is 65 manats, or nearly $20 at the official rate, and five liters of cooking oil is 250 manats, slightly more than $70 at the official rate.

In eastern Tajikistan, people are also complaining that prices for basic food items in their less-developed, remote areas are on par with the prices for staples in shops in Moscow.

So far, good relations between the Central Asian governments are being maintained despite the problems and Uzbekistan in particular seems to be playing a key role in supplying neighbors with food, water, and electricity. It is, however, curious that the Uzbek media has not been reporting the same problems in Uzbekistan connected to drought that the country's neighbors are experiencing.

How long amicable ties between the five countries can be preserved under difficult circumstances is an important question, as is the patience of the people in those countries who seem to feel their governments should be doing more to help them.

Load more

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


Blog Archive