SAMARKAND — Afghanistan continues to hijack security discussions in Central Asia, transforming them into a much wider conversation that goes far beyond the five states of the region.
That broader security discussion is itself hijacked by bilateral bad blood and deep mistrust, underscoring the reality of how difficult it will be to achieve the grand dream of regional cooperation. The security discussion about South and Central Asia is mined with bilateral cleavages – India-Pakistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Pakistan-U.S., Iran-U.S., and, not to mention, the various tiffs between Central Asian states – that distract from developing a coherent pan-regional strategy.
On November 10, delegations from across the region and around the world descended on the heart of the ancient Silk Road – Samarkand, Uzbekistan – for a regional security and cooperation conference.
The first part of the conference was slathered in diplomatic niceties. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev laid out the conference’s theme — “Shared Past and Common Future” – and highlighted the major threads of his first year at the helm of Central Asia’s most populous state: good neighborliness and a focus on economic development.
The conference – perhaps unthinkable in the form it took under the administration of Islam Karimov – fits neatly into Uzbekistan’s measured opening. The first half of the day was calm and diplomatic, with foreign ministers from across Central Asia joining their voices in support of cooperation and the pursuit of mutually beneficial and sustainable development.
Even then, bilateral bad blood seeped through the pristine cooperation-centric agenda. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev mentioned the ongoing Kazakh-Kyrgyz border problems and noted that in order to have sustainable development, such barriers need to come down.
But the real excitement came later, sprung from the contentious relationships between Pakistan and the United States, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Lisa Curtis, the U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for South and Central Asia, labeled the Trump administration’s new Afghanistan strategy as R4+S (Regionalize, Realign, Reinforce, Reconcile and Sustain). While analysts can bicker over how different the administration’s strategy is from previous attempts to solve the Afghan puzzle, there was a core contradiction in Curtis’ remarks. (To be fair, the contradiction is pre-existing.)
“The U.S. is ready to facilitate a more constructive relationship between Islamabad and Kabul,” she said, going on to stress that “cooperation between the two countries will be critical to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, reducing violence and starting economic development.”
But, a few sentences later, Curtis underscored that the United States “will not tolerate the existence of terrorist sanctuaries…” Curtis did not name-drop Pakistan (thoughU.S. President Donald Trump did in unveiling his strategy for Afghanistan), but that was certainly the implication.
The next speaker, National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nasser Khan Janjua, was clearly prepared to combat the accusations lobbied by many that Pakistan has long served as a sanctuary for the Taliban leadership.
Seeking to illustrate what Pakistan’s shared past with the region was, Janjua decided to start with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
On a powerpoint slide which depicted the Soviet invasion as a big red arrow pushing down into Afghanistan and stopping at the Pakistani border the words “None of our doing” appeared. He then proceeded to make a convoluted argument that had Pakistan not supported the Afghan mujahedin in fighting the Soviets the USSR may not have collapsed and ipso facto Central Asia would never had become independent.
“If the USSR had not been dismembered, could the Berlin Wall fall?” Janjua asked.
The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. The USSR collapsed in 1991.
It’s a fair argument to say that Pakistan was instrumental in helping push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but Janjua followed that argument beyond reason moving on to say that Pakistan is unjustly blamed for instability in Afghanistan.
“How did Pakistan behave after 9/11?” Janjua asked. “What was Pakistan’s role?”
He described Afghanistan as a vacuum following the Soviet withdrawal, into which al-Qaeda and others were deposited, by the United States. And there the 9/11 attacks were plotted, “with which Pakistan has nothing to do,” he stressed.
“Excessive use of force and vengeance in Afghanistan made this conflict perpetual,” Janjua said. Like Curtis before him avoiding using the word “Pakistan,” here Janjua did not mention the United States by name, but the implication was clear: the chaos in Afghanistan was Washington’s doing. A final jab at the United States came with Janjua’s recommendation that stakeholders in Afghanistan focus not on winning the conflict, but on closure.
Three speakers later, Faramarz Tamanna, director general for the Center of Strategic Studies in the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, belayed his prepared remarks to rebut Pakistan’s denials.
Tamanna said there are two worlds: the one viewed by the international community, the United States, Russia, China, NATO and others, “and the other world is the Pakistani perspective.”
Tamanna urged his Pakistani counterparts to look at the U.S. strategy in South Asia and also at the recent BRICS declaration, which expressed concern about a litany of terrorist groups but never mentioned Pakistan directly. And further, the groups mentioned – such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network – have all technically been banned by Pakistan. But as Kunwar Khuldune Shahid wrote, “the issue is not the formal naming of these groups, but the consistent duplicity of Pakistan in dealing with these groups.”
In Samarkand, Tamanna reached a similar conclusion. “Give me an answer, anybody,” Tamanna said, “Osama bin Laden, in which place was he found? Where is the Quetta Shura? Where is the Peshawar Shura? Where is the Haqqani Network?”
“Regional security,” Tamanna urged, “should be defined honestly.”
While the broader tone of the Samarkand conference, as of the close of the first day, was heavy on optimism as to how powerful cooperation can be in furthering regional prosperity, there are cracks in that idyllic veneer.
As long as the war in Afghanistan persists, Central Asia’s own security interests will be beholden to a war far beyond its control but not far from its borders. The contentious relationship between Pakistan and both Afghanistan and the United States is a significant impediment to realizing the cooperation Central Asia dreams of, let alone the peace Afghanistan has so long sought.