Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Uzbekistan’s Role in Afghan Reconciliation

Uzbekistan and the Central Asian states can offer Afghanistan a neighborly helping hand and the Taliban a clear understanding of their new responsibilities and obligations.

By James Durso for
Uzbekistan’s Role in Afghan Reconciliation
Credit: Freestock.ca

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently announced the release of 400 Taliban prisoners in what was supposed to be the last step before direct talks between the Afghan government at the Taliban. While the prisoner release has been halted, hopes remain that the anticipated intra-Afghan talks will occur soon.

According to Uzbek sources, Ambassador Ismatulla Irgashev, the special representative of the president of the Republic of Uzbekistan for Afghanistan, was to visit Doha — where the Taliban have a political offices and where the intra-Afghan talks were expected to take place — to help facilitate the negotiations. The Tashkent Declaration of March 2018, which supported such talks, formalized the interest of the Central Asian states in the intra-Afghan negotiation process.

The 2016 rise to power of Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, changed the tenor of the region’s view of Afghanistan and resulted in the recognition of Afghanistan as part of Central Asia. This was at odds with the conventional view that recognized the boundaries of a region that was actually “Soviet Central Asia + the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic” and not the wider region (Central Asia, Mongolia, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan) as a single cultural space.

The U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is fast declining and there will be “less than 5,000” troops in country by the end of November, which will likely also see a drop in troops from other NATO members. Fewer troops likely also means less of the foreign funds that Afghanistan relies on. In the case of the United States, almost $140 billion has been appropriated for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since fiscal year 2002.

It’s hard to argue that all that money made a difference: Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world (173rd out of 180) according to Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, and it is the biggest producer of opium in the world (an estimated 90 percent of the world’s heroin is made from opium grown in Afghanistan.)

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Furthermore, Afghanistan isn’t any less violent with the drawdown of U.S. troops. The Afghanistan Analysts Network reports “civilian casualties at the hands of both parties [the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)] have risen” but neither party has publicized them. Also, the U.S. no longer publishes all the same critical data on its activities that it had in the past.

As foreign government spending drops it will be necessary to grow the economy to make up for reduced aid, claw back economic gains lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, and employ demobilized Taliban fighters. The goal is to avoid a repeat of the fall of the Najibullah government in April 1992, which folded not because the Soviet troops left but because of the collapse of foreign aid and natural gas exports.

But, unlike in 1992, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors are now able to take a role in integrating Afghanistan into the region’s economy and ensuring against another collapse of the government and civil war.

The Central Asia states are affected by what happens in Afghanistan but they can’t contribute equally to its reconciliation. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have weak economies and fractious polities; Turkmenistan is habitually neutral and isolated. Uzbekistan is best placed by location and has the human and natural resources to take the lead while partnering with Kazakhstan, which has the region’s largest economy. 

What can Uzbekistan do? 

First, it can be the gateway for exports and imports via the Termez Cargo Center (rail and road) and Navoi International Airport. This will ensure Afghanistan has alternatives to southern transport routes via Pakistan’s Karachi and Gwadar ports and to Chabahar port in Iran. This is also prudent in light of the Taliban’s accommodation with China and Pakistan and its agreement that it won’t provide safe haven or support to persecuted Uyghurs from western China, a position it is unlikely to shed once it takes on a role in Kabul, and a good reason to assume it will seek aid from these patrons to bolster its position in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan’s road and rail network is being upgraded as part of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Afghanistan is also a beneficiary of CAREC-sponsored upgrades in infrastructure connectivity, and benefitted from Uzbekistan’s expertise in railroad modernization with the construction of a link from Hairatan, on the Uzbek-Afghan border, to Mazar-i-Sharif, a major city in northern Afghanistan. The link was partly funded by Uzbekistan.

The line that ends at Mazar-i-Sharif may be extended to Herat, in northwest Afghanistan, and farther on to Iran, which will enable shipments between Central Asia and ports on the Persian Gulf.

In addition, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (funded by the ADB) will connect Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.

A transport strategy for the region can hasten Afghan reconciliation by ensuring that it can ship to all points on the compass. 

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Uzbekistan is also a gateway to training and education for young Afghans through the Educational Center for Training Afghan Citizens in Termez, a cooperative effort of Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education, the European Union, and the United Nations Development Program. 

Places like the Termez center facilitate Afghan reconciliation by giving young Afghans the opportunity to meet and learn from each other away from the hothouse environment of their country. It is also a place where these young people will be introduced to the ways the world does business, such as labor standards, financial transparency, and honest public tenders. Just as importantly it can demonstrate to Afghans that Uzbekistan functions productively and peacefully even though (or, more likely, because) its citizens span the spectrum from very religious to irreligious.

These young Afghans, whom analyst Doug Brooks calls the “NATO Generation,” have high expectations that will likely clash with the Taliban’s vision for their country.  

And it’s not just the kids. The Asia Foundation’s 2019 Survey of the Afghan People found “This year, the proportion who say they have no sympathy with the Taliban has grown by almost 3 percentage points, from 82.4 percent in 2018 to 85.1 percent this year.” 

The Taliban leaders have likely promised the rank and file good jobs after “victory,” so it will be necessary to create opportunity somewhere other than the narcotics sector. The Taliban likely feel they have nothing to learn from the Kabul government, NGOs, or delegations of well-meaning parliamentarians, so Uzbekistan may have to be the “explainer.” That is, it may have to explain to the Taliban that investors won’t enter a market known for violence and corruption. 

For example, Afghanistan may have $1 trillion in mineral wealth according to the U.S. Geologic Survey, but war and corruption has made it virtually worthless. The Aynak copper mine has been delayed due to allegations of corruption, the discovery of archeological relics at the mine site (which encouraged the theft of relics), and falling copper prices, which have only recently recovered. The 2018 contracts to mine gold in Badakhshan and copper in Sar-i-Pul in northern Afghanistan have been dogged by allegations of corruption and self-dealing. The economic collapse caused by the COVID-19 lockdown has depressed the market for natural resources, pushing the hoped-for pay day farther over the horizon.

The Uzbeks can explain the facts to the Taliban: violence drives away investors; keeping women out of the workforce dilutes the value of an investment as the investor has access to only 50 percent of the labor force; financial transparency reduces the perceived risk of a project; and international conventions such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) will encourage investment, though it may reduce rents for the political class. And importantly, that from here on out the country needs engineers and accountants, not more gunmen.

The Taliban may also learn, as they become part of the Afghan political process, that they are also responsible for contributing to a solution to the robust production and smuggling of the opium that produces 90 percent of the world’s heroin. They should also articulate their ideas to stifle al-Qaida, the Islamic Jihad Union, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic State, and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, all of which operate in Afghanistan and endanger regional security. 

Uzbekistan and the Central Asian states can offer Afghanistan a neighborly helping hand and the Taliban a clear understanding of their new responsibilities and obligations.

The Uzbeks will shoulder more of the load in the wake of NATO’s departure, so the United States, EU, and other leading economies like Japan and South Korea, must ensure they have the political support they need, such as supporting infrastructure funding that gives them some distance from entanglements that will come with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s proprietary interest in the region.

The United States can contribute by using fora such as the C5+1 and the U.S.-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan trilateral for making decisions and not just for “pulse taking.” Washington will find that if the sessions are for senior leaders to make decisions, the relationship will become more sound.   

Uzbek President Mirziyoyev has said, “The security of Afghanistan is the security of Uzbekistan, a guarantee of the stability and development of entire Central and Southern Asian region.” Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia are ready to help Afghanistan seize the opportunity to join the world’s economy and keep it from becoming an ungoverned safe harbor for terrorism, and a hub of trafficking of drugs, arms, and people.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. He served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Central Asia.