Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban's stunning takeover of their country are finding an uneven reception among their country's northern neighbors, welcomed in some but turned back from others — or tolerated for only a few hours during refueling stops on the way to Europe or elsewhere.
Several Central Asian countries were active participants in the U.S.-led campaign to drive the Taliban from power in Kabul 20 years ago, but aggressive diplomatic efforts by the Taliban in recent years have prompted some of those former Soviet republics to reassess their loyalties.
And Russia, with its own political and security interests in the region, is also playing a role.
Among the most welcoming to fleeing Afghans is Tajikistan, which is working with U.N. and other agencies to establish camps and other facilities in two provinces bordering Afghanistan to house up to 100,000 refugees.
At the same time, the Tajik government is bracing for an increased threat of terrorism spilling over from Afghanistan. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has said that "terrorist organizations are strengthening their positions" along the Tajik-Afghan border.
It is a very different story in next-door Uzbekistan, where the government says it has received assurances from the Taliban that Afghans returned to their homeland will not be punished. Already several hundred have been sent back since mid-August.
Tashkent also insists that the border is secure and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yusup Kabuljanov reports that its embassy in Kabul and its consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif are operating normally.
Despite its hard line on refugees, Uzbekistan is facilitating evacuation flights bound for other countries. It is allowing the United States, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia and Kazakhstan to use its facilities and air space, granting landing and overflight rights while providing logistical services.
"There is a system with foreign partners to transit Uzbekistan as they evacuate their citizens and Afghans," the ministry said.
Thousands, including Americans and Afghans, have transited Tashkent's two airport terminals. The average stay is six hours, limited to the transit area. In some cases, Tashkent allows longer stays but evacuees cannot leave the airport. They are provided food, water, and medical care.
Kyrgyzstan does not immediately border Afghanistan and so is less concerned about a direct influx of refugees, officials told VOA, but officials there worry that more could arrive if Tajikistan widens its opening.
"Kyrgyzstan is party to the U.N. Convention on Refugees, so it has international responsibilities," said Jipara Mambetova, head of the relevant agency. Officials say Bishkek will extend Afghan student visas and increase assistance to those studying and working in the country.
In Kazakhstan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called for ethnic Kazakhs living in Afghanistan to be able to return safely to his country. But, as Afghan citizens, they will be required to go through legal procedures.
Tokayev has also permitted the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to temporarily relocate its staff to Kazakhstan to remotely coordinate their activities from there.
The wary approach of several Central Asian republics stands in contrast to the region's role in 2001, when Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan hosted American forces during the drive to oust the Taliban and others assisted in other ways. A major incentive at the time was the opportunity to crush extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had found safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Much has changed since then, with Washington losing its Uzbek base in 2005 after harshly criticizing human rights abuses, and Kyrgyzstan canceling its partnership in 2014. Meanwhile the Taliban have engaged in active diplomacy, especially with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Still, Washington's decision to pull its troops out of Afghanistan was greeted with some dismay in Central Asia. Tashkent and Dushanbe, especially, reminded visiting Americans that Afghanistan would be messier without them.
“We told them again and again that leaving Afghanistan would bring more trouble,” says a high-level Uzbek official no longer involved in Afghan policy. “We knew Afghans could not handle the country themselves, so we preferred the status quo.”
On Monday, regional leaders agreed to integrate counterterrorism measures at a virtual meeting of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Uzbekistan, although not a member, attended.
According to Russian media reports, the participants "expressed deep concern that [the Islamic State extremist group] maintains a strong presence in Afghanistan," and President Vladimir Putin urged the participating nations to reject Afghan refugees.
"We don't want militants coming in pretending to be refugees, or to see a repeat of the 1990s and 2000s," he was quoted as saying.
Putin’s intervention was not welcomed in all quarters, especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where an independent observer, Abdumalik Qodirov, complained that Russia “is just trying to control Uzbekistan, which is not a CSTO member. The Kremlin wants it back in the bloc.”
And Tashkent-based Uzbek analyst Anvar Nazir said Moscow is "already in bed with the Taliban, while trying to scare Central Asia with what's happening next door. Russia wants to strengthen its military bloc, pull in Uzbekistan, and have more bases in the region."
Kyrgyz expert Chinara Esengul does not see a direct threat to Central Asia from the Taliban but worries about its extremist ideology spreading in the region. "The public and government should adopt measures to fight the spread of radicalism," he said.
Ethnic affinities are also an issue for several of the Central Asian countries, with millions of Tajiks and Uzbeks especially having lived for generations in northern Afghanistan. In the case of Uzbekistan, it has long sought to maintain cultural and social-economic ties with the Afghan Uzbeks while taking care not to irritate the government in Kabul.
Tashkent's official position on these Uzbeks is no different than toward those elsewhere in Central Asia. Special Representative on Afghanistan Ismatilla Irgashev told VOA earlier this year that "Uzbeks in Afghanistan are citizens of that country, and it is the responsibility of their state to care for them."
Nevertheless, some Uzbek refugees are being permitted to remain in Uzbekistan even as others are sent back to Afghanistan, according to Uzbek scholar Farhod Tolipov. "Previously, Uzbekistan never accepted refugees. But Uzbekistan's priority is still national security," he said.
Nazir, who leads an initiative to help Afghan Uzbeks flee the Taliban, wants to see the Uzbek leadership do more. "The Taliban is already removing the Uzbek language from education. What happens to their identity and culture?" he asked.
Nazir argues it would be a mistake for the region's governments to give diplomatic recognition to the Taliban.
"Recognizing them will only lead to trouble. Don't trust them since they can't keep promises. They are already hurting us by spreading their ideology. We validate them with diplomacy," he said.
"Other Central Asian states are also oblivious to their psychological impact. Think of what the Taliban does to young minds. They are crushing fellow Uzbeks, but Tashkent treats them as legitimate. The Taliban, brutal as they are, will not remain in power long."
Navbahor Imamova is a multimedia journalist with VOA's Uzbek Service.