Regional Ambitions Through Trade? Tracing Kazakhstan’s Aspirations From A Taliban-Ruled Government In Afghanistan – Analysis

By Anant Mishra and Prof. Dr. Christian Kaunert

As the Taliban fail to appease Western economies, an informal engagement from Central Asian states (Kazakhstan adding to the list) reflects some sense of urgency in maintaining diplomatic relationships without formally recognising the Taliban. Is it humanitarian aid or strengthening regional trade with the new rulers, cloaked with regional ambitions?

As the world transcended into 2024, the situation in Afghanistan remains unchanged even after two years of Taliban rule. The state continues to suffer from an acute humanitarian crisis, and in accordance with the latest report published by the UNICEF, in 2024, an estimated 23.7 million people – more than half of local Afghan population – are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The Afghan economy remains fragile, completely reliant on external humanitarian aid and remittances from donor nations. According to some scholars, this situation can be attributed to expulsion/forced migration of undocumented Afghans refugees from Pakistan, directly affecting the lives of almost 1.3 million Afghans. 

Taking note of the aforementioned challenges, with a background of limited resources, Afghanistan continues to remain a lesser priority for many European states and, in particular, the United States. Scholars largely blame this neglect on the continued on-going Russo-Ukraine as well as the Israel-Hamas War, forcing nations to prioritise foreign policies. To that end, it will not be incorrect to state that, Afghanistan is a lost cause in many policy deliberations.

That may be true, the decision taken by Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, to remove the Taliban from its list of terror organizations, puts it in the lead of all nations still wondering about actions/ramifications for dealing with the Taliban. That said, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Aybek Smadiyarov underlined the decision citing the Taliban as not listed as a terror organization by the UN Security Council, surprising scholars watching the press conference on the New Year’s Eve, this decision was largely anticipated at least by this report, considering this decision inevitable. 

Astana’s decision can be traced back to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s remark in 2021, when he argued about the possibility of Afghanistan becoming more stable, sovereign, and politically united, integrating itself with the neighbouring states. This may have reflected Astana’s decision to actively engage/contribute in Afghanistan’s regional growth through infrastructure development, in the areas of transportation, supply chain, energy among other soft infrastructures to name a few. Astana’s mission could have been to, ultimately, integrate Afghanistan into central Asian economies, opening doors for Kabul for greater global trade.

What happened next was Kazakhstan becoming the latest entry in the list of Central Asian economies to host Taliban envoys without formally recognising the new rulers as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. This situation unfolded during the time when the previous legitimate government of Ashraf Ghani still had diplomats in-control of embassies in the West and in some states in Asia. The Foreign Ministry Spokesperson defended Astana’s decision by underplaying it to merely informal engagements with the new rulers, pointing to any formal recognition in accordance with the prerogative of the United Nations. 

That said, is Astana aiming to develop a greater cross border trade corridor, perhaps with intent to limit the impact of humanitarian crisis and prevent subsequent collapse of the Afghan economy? Astana has been one of the donors for humanitarian aid to the local Afghans for many decades, even during the first Taliban rule, yet, removing the Taliban from its list of terror organizations or, informally accepting its envoys, is not going to make a huge impact.

Integrating Afghanistan as a regional partner 

That said, interpreting the statement made by President Tokayev in 2021, Astana aims for Kabul to become a bridge, rather than a trade barrier. This can be attributed to Kazakhstan’s growing trade after the arrival of new rulers. Bilateral trade between the two countries rose to $1 billion in 2022, almost twice as that of 2021. More than half were exports of flour. Afghan imports did not cross over $9 million in 2022, mostly comprising sugar beverages, dried fruits, vegetables and paper. Astana aims to increase trade to at least $4 Billion in 2024-25, doubling trade compared to 2023. 

To enhance trade and further strengthen economic relations between the two economies, Astana played host to a Kazakh-Afghan business forum in August 2023, which witnessed, in attendance, over 300 public officials and representatives of over 500 business houses (private enterprises) from both countries, resulting in an estimated deals worth $200 million supply of grain and flour to Afghanistan from Kazakh businesses. According to one scholar, such business platforms/exhibitions ensured that both private entities facilitate links between business houses of the two countries and expand trade to other goods.

According to one scholar, who attended the summit, one business house received a contract for providing wheat and rice worth $5 million, estimated to over 300,000 tons, every year, for three years. Platforms, such as these, not only ensure certainty in food deliveries but open doors for Astana to provide timely relief to Kabul. In 2022, Kabul had imported almost 1.30 million tons of Kazakh flour, becoming a key buyer in this commodity, next only to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In 2022, Afghanistan witnessed trade of over 70 percent of Kazakh flour exports, importing non-alcoholic drinks to Afghanistan.

That said, 2024 appears to be ambitious for Astana. It may hope to boost grain exports, not only to Afghanistan, but complete the construction of a grain terminal on the eastern border of Tajikistan. Taking the lessons from a business forum in 2023, Astana may aim to expand the trade of goods by hosting various such forums in 2024. This may include trade forums on food/beverages including beef, lamb, ready-made varieties of flour, and other confectionary products, heavy earth moving equipment, chemical, metallurgical, light machinery and industrial goods.

In the context of a bilateral engagement, it is highly likely for Astana to expand its warm negotiations with the Taliban over next few months, leaving many scholars perpetually perplexed. The cooperation between Kabul and Astana appears to increase, which would benefit the region at least economically, as highlighted by this report in the aforementioned arguments. This also provides a possible opportunity for the Taliban government to seek international recognition, all the more from the largest central Asian economy, which is willing to invest heavily in trade, overlooking alleged restrictions imposed by women’s education, deplorable human rights violations among other infringements minorities. 

That said, Astana may have stated that formal recognition of Taliban is subject to a recognition by the United Nations Security Council, but, potentially increasing the trade partnership, engagement/cooperation in terms of strengthening soft infrastructure in Afghanistan not only ensures the latter’s integration with the central Asian economy, but also fulfils Astana’s regional ambitions in two ways: 

A. By expanding the trade partnership with Afghanistan, Astana not only aims for greater economic gains, but also aims to diversify investment opportunities in the context of its highly ambitious transport corridors, such as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, which it has been promoting for years. With Taliban onboard, Astana would elevate to become the sole facilitator of trade, controlling the flow of goods between Asia and Europe.

B. By seeking the Taliban’s support, Astana aims to monitor the flow of Islamist factions entering into central Asia. As a lead facilitator, it is in a unique position to not just contain the spread of radical factions outside of Afghanistan, but also to strengthen law enforcement capabilities of the Taliban led security establishments. With greater engagement, it is not only in a unique position to divert any attack conducted by ISKP (Daesh) and Al Qaeda on the regional economies, it could possibly even open doors for the regional economies to develop a dedicated security apparatus for central Asia, relieving stress on its fragile economy, which is experiencing strain due to sanctions imposed by the West on its largest trading partner, Russia.

By engaging with a very volatile state with a fragile economy under the control of the radical Islamist group Taliban in a tussle for power against the struggling, yet lethal, ISKP, the spill-over effect not only poses a serious risk to Kazakhstan’s domestic security, but to the region as a whole. That said, tracing the trajectory, Astana could potentially involve neighbouring Central Asian economies, in the first half of 2024, in an effort to integrate Afghanistan as a regional partner and potentially to develop/strengthen its trading routes securing its access to Central & South Asia.

About the authors:

  • Anant Mishra is a visiting fellow at the International Centre for Policing and Security, University of South Wales.
  • Dr. Christian Kaunert is Professor of International Security at Dublin City University, Ireland. He is also Professor of Policing and Security, as well as Director of the International Centre for Policing and Security at the University of South Wales. In addition, he is Jean Monnet Chair, Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence and Director of the Jean Monnet Network on EU Counter-Terrorism (

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.