Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

US-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Trilateral Tests Out New Format for Engagement

The new trilateral fits into existing efforts to increase regional cooperation and integrate Afghanistan’s into Central Asian thinking.

Catherine Putz
US-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Trilateral Tests Out New Format for Engagement
Credit: Catherine Putz

This week representatives of the United States, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan met for a (virtual) trilateral, which highlighted ongoing cooperation between the three states as Washington experiments with new formats for engagement.

On May 27, an inaugural United States-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan trilateral meeting was held between U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar and Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. Held via videoconference, the discussion touched a wide range of issues from regional security to combatting COVID-19. 

A joint statement released after the meeting identified a litany of priority areas for deepening cooperation, focusing on evergreen elements — such as connectivity, trade, and regional energy projects – and novel issues such as the global pandemic and its consequences. The participants, per the statement, committed to increasing cooperation and “called on countries of the region and the broader international community, to promote the Afghanistan peace process and to support the goal of a durable political settlement preserving the gains of the past 18 years to end the war in that country.” 

In a call with journalists on May 28, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia Jonathan Henick reiterated the points laid out in the joint statement, calling the trilateral “an opportunity to address our countries’ shared interests in partnership, peace, security and prosperity in Central Asia and Afghanistan.”

Henick stressed that the trilateral effort is designed to augment the United States’ other diplomatic initiatives. “We remain totally committed to the C5+1 platform,” Henick said, referencing the main vehicle for U.S. multilateral diplomacy with the countries of Central Asia. The C5+1 dialogue platform came into being in November 2015 and has broadly been viewed as a successful mechanism for bringing together the five states of Central Asia with the United States. The C5+1 met most recently in early February in Tashkent.

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“We are experimenting with different platforms with a view toward advancing our shared objectives,” Henick said, underscoring the functional reality that “When you have six countries sitting around the table, discussion naturally gravitates to a certain level. When you reduce the number of countries around the table to three countries you can focus a little more specifically on issues that relate to bilateral issues between two of those countries.”

As for next steps, Henick said that working groups will need to be formed to follow up on specifical technical areas agreed upon and outlined in the joint statement. He said the State Department anticipates the trilateral will become a recurring format to be revisited in the future.

Henick stated that the United States is exploring the possibility of similar trilateral meetings with other countries — namely Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — which share long borders and serious interests in Afghanistan and regional security. 

“There are similar technical issues on the other borders, with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. We are considering this format as a model for discussion with those countries as well,” Henick said.

Henick noted that the impetus for the trilateral came not just from Washington; the implication being that for a U.S.-Afghanistan-Tajikistan trilateral to come to fruition, Dushanbe and Kabul would have to want it too, but Washington is engaging its counterparts on the possibilities.

It’s not a surprise that the first regional version of such a trilateral meeting involved Uzbekistan.

Over the last few years, specifically since the late 2016 rise of power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan, there has been a growing effort on the part of Tashkent to actively engage with and about Afghanistan. This engagement has been broad, encompassing trade, transport, and connectivity issues — as demonstrated in concrete efforts to improve rail connectivity between the two countries — as well as diplomatic efforts to support and bolster the peace process

Uzbekistan’s efforts with regard to Afghanistan stem in large part from Miriziyoyev’s larger vision for the country as a leader in the region. Engaging Afghanistan services several levels of interests for Tashkent from diversifying Uzbekistan’s trade routes, which supports Mirziyoyev’s economic initiatives to promoting regional cooperation, to boosting relations with Washington, which clearly appreciates an active partner in the region. If an unstable, at-war Afghanistan is a security and economic risk to Uzbekistan, it follows that a peaceful, stable Afghanistan could be of great benefit.