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Can Uzbekistan Help Mediate the Afghan Conflict?

 
 

On June 19, 2018, Uzbekistan invited representatives of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban to hold peace talks in Tashkent on Afghanistan’s political future. This call for dialogue was triggered by the Taliban’s acquiescence to a three-day ceasefire with Ghani in early June.

As Uzbekistan hosted major Afghanistan peace talks in March, Tashkent’s call for further dialogue was widely viewed as a reaffirmation of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s desire to increase Uzbekistan’s diplomatic influence on the world stage. Uzbekistan believes it could be an effective mediator in the Afghanistan conflict for three reasons.

First, Uzbekistan has a long history of engaging with rival factions in the Afghanistan conflict. Historically, the Uzbek government’s strongest partner in Afghanistan has been Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been in exile in Turkey (though his return to Afghanistan may be imminent). After the Taliban established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in September 1996, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov viewed Dostum as the protector of Afghanistan’s Uzbek minority, and encouraged the international community to support his resistance efforts.

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As tensions have recently risen in northern Afghanistan’s Faryab Province over the arrest of Nizamuddin Qaisari, a leading ally of Dostum, Uzbekistan might be able to leverage its long-standing links with Dostum to prevent an intensified conflict between Dostum loyalists and the Afghan military. As cooperation between Tashkent and Kabul has strengthened since Ghani’s December 2017 visit to Uzbekistan, the Afghan government may welcome an Uzbek mediation effort in a standoff that is becoming an unwelcome distraction to Ghani’s core mission of battling the Taliban.

In addition to maintaining productive relationships with Dostum and Ghani, Uzbekistan also has a history of covert dialogue with the Taliban. Although Karimov had a strained relationship with the Taliban due to the militant organization’s alignment with the opposition Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Karimov stated in 2000 that he would be willing to diplomatically engage members of the Taliban who were committed to peace and described Afghanistan’s regime type as an “internal affair.”

Uzbekistan’s willingness to cooperate with Taliban members that are interested in a political settlement has remained a feature of its foreign policy under Mirziyoyev. Although the Taliban refused to participate in the March 26-27 talks, Uzbek officials established covert dialogue linkages with Taliban members that could result in Taliban participation in subsequent talks.

While the Taliban’s unwillingness to consider a long-term ceasefire with Ghani is a blow to these engagement efforts, Uzbek officials believe that the stagnant situation in Afghanistan could convince some Taliban members to ultimately participate in peace talks if sufficient incentives are provided. If Tashkent can play a role in convincing some members of the Taliban to come to the bargaining table, Uzbekistan’s status as a regional mediator will increase greatly.

Second, Uzbekistan has distinguished itself from many other regional powers because of its ability to balance ties with Pakistan with criticisms of Islamabad’s links to extremist groups in Afghanistan. This balancing act dates back to the July 1999 Tashkent Declaration. In his 2013 book Uzbekistan and the United States: Authoritarianism, Islamism and Washington’s Security Agenda, Shahram Akbarzadeh describes how Uzbekistan lobbied for the creation of the UN Six Plus Two Group on Afghanistan. This group included Pakistan and applied pressure on Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to detach Islamabad from its patronage of the Taliban.

While relations between Uzbekistan and Pakistan have improved markedly since the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, Pakistan’s sponsorship of Islamic extremist groups remains a point of tension between Tashkent and Islamabad. The participation of Pakistan in the March Tashkent peace talks and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s praise for Uzbekistan’s mediation efforts have raised hope in Uzbekistan that Tashkent could once again be a forum for frank dialogue over Islamabad’s links to terrorist groups in Afghanistan

Third, there is a growing consensus among major international stakeholders in the Afghanistan conflict that Tashkent is a neutral location for constructive peace talks on resolving Afghanistan’s political crisis. As Uzbekistan provided its Karshi-Khanabad(K2) air base for U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 2001-2005 and cooperated with U.S. officials on counterterrorism, Washington has a favorable view of Uzbekistan’s mediation offer. This positive outlook was revealed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent praise of Uzbekistan’s willingness to step up its diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan.

As Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China is likely to support Tashkent’s mediation efforts as further peace talks could indirectly strengthen the SCO Contact Group in Afghanistan. Although Uzbekistan has been historically wary of Russia’s hegemonic ambitions in Central Asia, the sustained improvement in Tashkent-Moscow relations under Mirziyoyev has reduced the chance of Russian resistance to Uzbekistan’s conflict mediation efforts.

This broad support has caused Uzbekistan to present itself as an indispensable actor in the resolution of hostilities in northern Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s November 2010 construction of a long-distance railway from Hairatan to Mazar e-Sharif, and November 2017 finalization of the Surkhan-Pul-e-Khumri power transmission project gives Tashkent considerable economic influence over actors on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. This growth in influence caused Uzbek political scientist Rafik Sayfulin to argue in 2017 that no regional power can resolve the northern Afghanistan security crisis without consulting Uzbekistan, and Tashkent will be keen to leverage this indispensability in multilateral peace negotiations.

Although the Tashkent peace talks face stiff competition from rival peace frameworks in Muscat, Moscow and Istanbul, Mirziyoyev has worked hard to position Uzbekistan as an effective mediator in the Afghanistan conflict. If Tashkent can continue to balance between rival international actors and internal factions in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan could bolster its international status and credibly rival Kazakhstan as a Central Asian crisis arbiter in the years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.

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