The start of peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government on September 12 sparked unprecedented enthusiasm among Uzbek officials. An eventual peace settlement means a new era of economic development opportunities for Uzbekistan. Only two days after the negotiations began, the Taliban’s top political leader made a statement assuring that they would not allow any threats to Uzbekistan to emerge in Afghanistan. He also guaranteed support to Uzbekistan’s economic projects in Afghanistan.
The head of the Taliban movement’s political office in Qatar, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, spoke to an Uzbek media representative on the sidelines of the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In the interview, he promised the safety of personnel from Uzbekistan working on infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. The statement was perhaps an indirect response to an attack against an Uzbek worker on the Hayraton-Mazar-i-Sharif railroad project in August. Although no organization claimed responsibility for the attack, a Taliban-affiliated group could have been the instigator, and Baradar’s message was aimed to assure Tashkent that his group would not target Uzbek citizens.
The second part of Baradar’s statement was a guarantee against threatening the security of Uzbekistan and any other Central Asian states. That statement has unprecedented geopolitical implications for the region, given latent fears that the Taliban’s movement and ensuing violence could spill over into Central Asia. Such fears, unrealized as they may be, have shaped the region’s perspective on Afghanistan. The Central Asian states largely isolated themselves from Afghanistan for decades, concentrating on building up their militaries to withstand possible invasion from Afghanistan. In a way, Baradar’s statement is aimed to neutralize those fears and put the countries of the region into a cooperative mode by relaxing their security fears.
Baradar’s statement was the first time a Taliban leader officially offered assurances for the protection of citizens and stability to Central Asian states. Whether the message was merely downplaying threats or uttering honest intentions is difficult to determine at this juncture, but given that first contact between the Taliban and the Uzbek government was established leading up to the peace conference on Afghanistan held in Tashkent in March 27, 2018, the current developments are a great stride forward for Uzbekistan.
Tashkent’s optimism for peace is at its highest, and it welcomes the developments among the U.S., Taliban, and the Afghan government. Eldar Aripov, head at the Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies under the president of Uzbekistan, commenting on the launch of negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan on September 12. He said, “We are closer than ever to establishing peace in Afghanistan… For the first time we are discussing opportunities for peace.”
For Tashkent a lot is at stake, both in economic and political terms. The economic angle focuses on numerous railroad projects. Tashkent plans both to serve as a transit country for Chinese goods and, to a lesser extent, to export domestic products via Afghanistan. The future Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China railway project that Tashkent has strongly advocated for will allow access to Pakistani, Indian, and Iranian sea ports as long as the infrastructure and security in Afghanistan is conducive to thru-traffic.
As far as the political angle goes, the economic projects fit into Uzbekistan’s political goal of establishing itself as a greater political and economic player in the region with far greater role in the international arena. The reconciliation process could change the tone of regional relations with Afghanistan from a security-only, protection mode to an economic collaboration mode.
The peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban opens doors for Uzbekistan to have grand ambitions for economic projects connecting the country to major international transportation corridors with access to sea ports in South Asia and the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan shaped the domestic and foreign policies of Uzbekistan for three decades in ways that mainly consisted of protecting itself from the security challenges emanating from Afghanistan. Tashkent is now signaling that those fears could be put aside in favor of economic projects.