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ISIS-K threat to Uzbek railway dream opens doors for Taliban

Isolated Afghan Rulers Offer Central Asia Assurances At Conference

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The Taliban's foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, in January: He attended a conference in Tashket this week, where he offered assurances about terrorist groups operating from Afghan soil.   © Reuters

ISLAMABAD -- An Islamic State group affiliate's threats to Central Asia are opening diplomatic doors for Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, particularly in Uzbekistan, which fears the danger could upend plans for a transnational railway to reach Pakistani ports.

On Tuesday, a Taliban delegation led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi attended an international conference in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. The event was ostensibly held to discuss "security, economic growth and regional connectivity of Afghanistan," and gave the Taliban a chance to discuss foreign investment and aid as it seeks greater international recognition.

But experts believe the main purpose of the conference was to discuss the growing strength of ISIS-K, the Islamic State branch active in South and Central Asia, and the Taliban's ability to contain it.

Muttaqi offered assurances that "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will not allow any of its own members, or any other individual or group, including al-Qaida, to pose a threat to the security of others from the soil of Afghanistan."

The attendees included Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, and Brian Nelson, U.S. undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, along with representatives of 20 countries, including Pakistan, Iran, India and Central Asian states.

While Muttaqi did not name ISIS-K specifically in his remarks, it is no secret that the group is commanding the attention of Central Asian leaders and the Taliban alike.

Leveraging the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban to position itself as Afghanistan's last jihadi movement, ISIS-K has focused on recruiting new supporters, both from within the Taliban and from other transnational and ethnic separatist movements in the region, including Central Asian countries.

Most importantly, ISIS-K has managed to woo members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al-Qaida-linked terror group, which helped the Taliban capture most of northern Afghanistan last year.

"Given regional concern over ISIS-K's evolving operational activities in the north, recent rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, integration of Uzbek foreign fighters who could potentially return home to conduct attacks and increased rhetorical hostility toward Tashkent, the Taliban wants to shore up regional confidence and convince its neighbors that the situation is under control," said Lucas Webber, a researcher specializing in nonstate actors and militant organizations and an editor of the Militant Wire website.

Although Uzbekistan and Tajikistan deny that rockets fired by ISIS-K earlier this year reached their territories, the United Nations Security Council has warned that "the risk of similar attacks remains." In a report on July 15, the Security Council said the aim of such attacks is to "undermine the credibility of Taliban security forces by demonstrating their inability to control the borders, and to attract new recruits from the region."

Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, observed that "ISIS-K has increased its focus on Central Asia" because some of its factions comprise Tajik and Uzbek militants who have kinship ties in the region. He told Nikkei Asia that the group can exploit these ties to recruit and "spread its tentacles to the Central Asian countries."

A cargo train carrying coal rolls through the port area in Karachi, Pakistan.   © Reuters

This is looming over plans for a railway that would help Uzbekistan and other landlocked Central Asian states expand their trade options.

On the sidelines of the Tashkent conference, Muttaqi on Monday met Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov to discuss the launch of the railway through Afghanistan, according to Bakhtar, a state-run Afghan news agency.

Uzbekistan and its neighbors rely on Iranian ports. But in February 2021, Afghan, Pakistani, and Uzbek officials agreed on plans to build a railway across Afghanistan that would connect Uzbekistan to seaports in Pakistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development is providing technical and financial support to the project to boost "regional trade integration and connectivity."

In July 2021, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. formed a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform to support peace and stability in Afghanistan, and to foster regional trade and business ties.

"The route through Afghanistan to the ports of Karachi in Pakistan is about 2,800 km shorter than the route to Bandar Abbas in Iran," said Irshad Hussain, a Karachi-based trader who deals in overseas trade.

However, experts say ISIS-K wants to disrupt the Taliban's efforts to attract foreign investment and infrastructure projects, particularly the railway plan.

"ISIS-K's Uzbek supporters have deemed this [railway project] a conspiracy to spread democracy in Afghanistan and have vowed to resist the project's implementation using force," Webber said.