Crossroads Asia

How Worried Is Uzbekistan About Afghan Instability?

At CIS meeting, Mirziyoyev’s worries about instability in Afghanistan were on display.

How Worried Is Uzbekistan About Afghan Instability?
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Service

When Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power, his posture toward Afghanistan was significantly different than that of his predecessor. Instead of shielding Uzbekistan from Afghanistan and viewing the country primarily as a center of instability, Mirziyoyev enthusiastically embraced Afghanistan as an economic and security partner. Even before Mirziyoyev officially assumed the presidency in December 2016, his administration offered Uzbekistan’s territory to Afghanistan for potential negotiations with the Taliban.

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani paid an official visit to Uzbekistan on December 4-6, 2017, more than 20 agreements were signed on economic cooperation, transit of goods, electricity supply from Uzbekistan, and health and education cooperation. In addition, during the same meeting more than 40 export contracts worth over $500 million were also signed. In late March 2018, Tashkent hosted a multinational conference on peace and stability of Afghanistan that, according to Uzbek officials, ignited the latest bout of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

These activities demonstrate how Tashkent in the past two years has broadened its view of Afghanistan from mainly focusing on its security threats to increasingly considering what else the country has to offer. Tashkent’s new administration was not lacking enthusiasm and initiatives in rebuilding Afghanistan and is slowly turning into an active player in these efforts.

Lately, however, signs appeared that the new administration could be reconsidering its current posture and return to viewing Afghanistan as an area of instability and of great concern. Mirziyoyev in the speech to the heads of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), focused on terrorism threats posed by Afghanistan. Of the nine topics he covered in his address, Afghanistan’s instability was granted the most space. He spoke of well-equipped and well-financed terrorist groups moving from the Middle East to Afghanistan and closer to Central Asia.

To carry over the spirit Tashkent has cultivated in the past two years, Mirziyoyev could have called on the CIS heads to join Uzbekistan in economic and social projects in Afghanistan. Additionally, he could have encouraged the participants to join and assist in peace negotiations. Mirziyoyev had a perfect audience: The presidents of two other Central Asian countries, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, with Afghan borders and more importantly Russia’s  President Vladimir Putin were present at the meeting.

Mirziyoyev’s statement on Afghanistan at the CIS summit also indicated a misalignment with his administration’s think-tank — the Institute for Strategic and Regional Research. Recently its director and the upcoming chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as of January 2019, Vladimir Norov, stated in an interview that the information on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is “nothing more than wishful thinking.” Norov was referring to the reportedly fake letter that appeared in Russian media that described the dire security situation in the Afghan-Uzbek border. In the letter, a senior Uzbek official informs of 5,000 militants driven from Syria and Iraq who were moving to Afghanistan and approaching the border with Uzbekistan. To further defy the legitimacy of the letter, Norov in the same interview reiterated that Uzbekistan passed the period of viewing Afghanistan as a security problem, and sees it as an economic partner offering the shortest route to the Persian Gulf.

This shift in Mirziyoyev’s posture toward Afghanistan is not clear. Mirziyoyev’s speech at the CIS summit indicated a departure from his previous rhetoric of active engagement in the peace process, but this was also one speech. The prominence of security issues has, however, been rising lately for the current administration along with reportedly ascending influence of the security services over Mirziyoyev. It could well be that these worries are motivating a shift in Mirziyoyev’s position and opinion on Afghanistan.