Home / Articles / New Canal Threatens the Peace Between the Taliban and Central Asia
Since their return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have managed to reach an understanding with most of the Central Asian governments to preserve a relative calm along the areas of the Afghan-Central Asian frontier.
Disputes over water use have suddenly become an issue that could derail ties between Afghanistan and Central Asian states. Specifically, the construction of the Qosh Tepa canal in northern Afghanistan could lead to the loss of water for tens of thousands of people in downstream communities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
In addition, three people were killed in recent clashes between Iranian border guards and Taliban fighters along the Afghan-Iranian border over rights to water from the Helmand River.
When the Taliban entered Kabul in mid-August 2021, the Central Asian governments, with the exception of the Tajik government, simply continued, to the extent possible, business as usual with Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan temporarily closed its border crossings with Afghanistan, mainly to prevent Afghans from fleeing into Uzbekistan. But traffic resumed before the end of August and during the following weeks, all the Central Asian states, again with the exception of Tajikistan, sent diplomatic missions to Kabul to meet with Taliban officials.
There were Central Asian militants in Afghanistan, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, who were the Taliban’s allies in fighting against the Afghan government and foreign troops. The Taliban promised not to allow these Central Asian militants to use Afghan territory to plan or launch attacks against the neighboring Central Asian countries.
That promise, combined with infrastructure and communications projects completed during the twenty years when foreign forces were in Afghanistan that connected Central Asia to Afghanistan economically, seems to have convinced Central Asian governments that some level of cooperation with the Taliban was beneficial. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, all the Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan were hostile to the Taliban with the result that tensions were always high along the Central Asia-Afghan border.
The situation now is different. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan sell electricity to Afghanistan via power transmission lines constructed during the years foreign troops were in Afghanistan. Tentative trade between Central Asia and Pakistan and India via Afghan roads has started and there are plans to build a railway line through Afghanistan that would connect Central Asia to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.
In April, Kazakh Trade Minister Serik Zhumangarin visited Kabul to deliver a shipment of humanitarian aid. Zhumangarin announced Kazakhstan would open a trading house in Afghanistan. Taliban acting Foreign Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar said during his meeting with Zhumangarin that Kazakhstan had also agreed to reopen the Afghan embassy and consulate and Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov later confirmed the accreditation of Taliban diplomats.
Taliban representatives have already moved into the Afghan embassies in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (as well as the Afghan embassies in Russia, China, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan).
Tajikistan was the one Central Asian country that continued to warn of dangers from Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power. It shunned contact with new Afghan government. The Afghan embassy in Tajikistan is still occupied by the ambassador appointed by ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Some suspect the Tajik government is supporting the National Resistance Front, a group of former Afghan government soldiers, mainly ethnic Tajiks, who are still fighting the Taliban in northeastern Afghanistan.
A Taliban delegation visited Tajikistan at the end of March, stopping in the capital Dushanbe before going to Khorugh in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast to inspect the Afghan consulate there that suffered damage during an avalanche this last winter. The Tajik government did not mention the visit, but according to at least one report, control of the consulate passed to the Taliban sometime in early 2023.
New Canal Threatens Water Flows in Central Asia
In late March 2022, work started in northern Afghanistan on the Qosh Tepa canal that will run through the Balkh, Jowzjan, and Faryab provinces. The approximately 175-mile canal aims to help irrigate agricultural fields in northern Afghanistan and ease some of Afghanistan’s chronic food shortage problems.
The water for the canal will come from the Amu-Darya, one of Central Asia’s two great rivers and also the border between Central Asia and Afghanistan for some 950 miles. The canal will connect with the Amu-Darya along the Uzbek border, so upstream, Tajikistan’s section of the river is not affected by the project. According to some estimates, some 15 percent of the water from the Amu-Darya could be diverted into the Qosh Tepa canal.
The Amu-Darya once reached the Aral Sea. Diversion of water from the river to irrigate fields, mainly cotton fields, in southern Uzbekistan and southeastern Turkmenistan, not to mention fill the Kara-Kum canal that runs some 850 miles to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, has led to Uzbekistan’s section of the Aral Sea drying up. Water to downstream communities in the areas along the Turkmen-Uzbek border continues to gradually decrease.
A report from June 4 said water in Amu-Darya in Turkmenistan’s eastern Lebap Province was at one-third of its normal level for this time of year. Once finished, the Qosh-Tepa canal, which would take water further upstream, will compound that problem.
Uzbekistan’s kun.uzreported the Qosh Tepa canal “could have serious consequences for [Uzbekistan’s] Khorezm, Bukhara, Surhandarya and Navoi provinces, as well as the Republic of Karakalpakstan.”
Taliban acting Foreign Minister Baradar said at the end of March that he had discussed construction of the canal with Uzbek officials and the latter indicated they were prepared to cooperate in building the canal. It was unclear from Baradar’s remarks what sort of cooperation that would be.
On June 20, Uzbek Minister of Water Resources Shavkat Hamrayev confirmed that offer to Taliban officials and said the Uzbek delegation had expressed concerns that the Qosh Tepa canal could contribute to water shortages in Uzbekistan. According to Hamrayev, Taliban officials said they need the water to ease food shortages in Afghanistan and construction of the canal would not halt.
Turkmenistan still has not commented publicly about the Qosh Tepa canal.
The loss of water will affect tens of thousands of people in downstream communities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The canal is not due to be completed until 2028, but construction is proceeding ahead of schedule.
Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors have not signed any agreements on water use. During the Soviet era, water was diverted from the Amu-Darya without consulting Afghanistan. More than forty years of war have prevented Afghanistan from undertaking projects that use water from the Amu-Darya, so the Taliban can reasonably argue they are only taking their fair share after years of Afghanistan being unable to take advantage of the water the same way as its Central Asian neighbors have been.
Afghan media outlet Khaamasaid as much on March 16, writing that “due to the two decades of conflict, [Afghanistan] has yet to be able to use its water resources … most neighboring countries took advantage of the situation and utilized the water.”
Tough negotiations seem inevitable and while the governments in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan ponder their strategy, they must be alarmed at the May 21 clash on the Afghan-Iranian border caused by a water dispute.
Deadly Afghan-Iranian Border Clash
Iran has complained for several years that the Afghans are not allowing Iran to have its fair share of water from the Helmand River that originates in Afghanistan. Several dams were built along the Helmand River in Afghanistan between 2001–2021. The Iranians say Afghanistan is restricting water flows out of these dams. The Taliban say water levels are simply low.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited the parched eastern Sistan and Baluchistan Province on May 18. After hearing reports from local officials, Raisi said, “I warn the rulers of Afghanistan to give the people of Sistan and Baluchistan the right to water.”
Raisi said Iran was prepared to send experts to Afghanistan to check Taliban claims about low water levels upstream in the river. He also said the Taliban should “Take my words seriously so that you don’t complain later.”
The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted a statement on May 19 that read, “Iranian officials should first complete their knowledge about water in Helmand and then present their requests with appropriate language.”
The Taliban, who banned music when they were in power in the late 1990s, increased tensions when they released a music video on pro-Taliban accounts online several days after Mujahid’s statement. The song that accompanied the video of Taliban fighters and military vehicles urged “our leader Mullah Yaqoob to stand against Iran.” Mullah Yaqoob is the acting Taliban defense minister, and the son of deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Then on May 27, fighting erupted at a place along Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Each side blames the other for starting the clash. The two sides used mortars and heavy machine guns. At least two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter were killed. Officials from both sides eventually calmed tensions but the underlying cause of the dispute remains.
Afghanistan has the right to use water from the Amu-Darya just as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been using it for decades. But the Qosh Tepa canal will be costly for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Both countries are looking at a major blow to agriculture and the resettlement of thousands of people. And now the Turkmen and Uzbek governments have seen from the Iranian-Afghan border clash that finding a compromise with the Taliban might be difficult.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.