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US-Central Asia: New Trilateral Dialogues Bring Regional Focus to Afghanistan

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US-Central Asia: New Trilateral Dialogues Bring Regional Focus to Afghanistan

In May 2020 and March 2021, the United States started up two new trilateral dialogues pairing Afghanistan with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. 

US-Central Asia: New Trilateral Dialogues Bring Regional Focus to Afghanistan
Credit: Pixabay

On March 17, Afghanistan, the United States, and Tajikistan inaugurated a new trilateral format to promote development, security, and peace in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The meeting was chaired by the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Muhammad Hanif Atmar and Sirojiddin Muhiddin, together with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale. The participants discussed trilateral cooperation in the security, political, people-to-people, energy, and economic realms. Moreover, enhancing connectivity between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, construction of energy and transport infrastructure, and further support for capacity building in the border security and counter-narcotics forces of both countries were emphasized during the online negotiations. 

A similar trilateral dialogue between Afghanistan, the United States, and Uzbekistan was officially launched in May 2020. During the online conference, Atmar and Hale, alongside Uzbek Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulaziz Kamilov, underlined the increasing role of cooperation to address issues of mutual interest. The declared agenda for the trilateral format is very comprehensive and includes a variety of priorities like security cooperation, improving connectivity and trade, food security, energy supply, humanitarian collaboration, gender equality, and more. 

The strengthening of such platforms seems to be a part of U.S. President Joe Biden’s approach toward Central Asia and Afghanistan. It is noteworthy that this process began almost a year ago under the previous U.S. administration. Many experts do not expect substantial changes in Washington’s policy toward Central Asia. The C5+1 dialogue format between the United States and the Central Asian states was initiated during the Obama administration, then preserved during the Trump presidency and presumably, it will be a major multilateral tool for interaction with the region during Biden’s term

There are three reasons for the inauguration of these new trilateral platforms in Central Asia.

First, the United States is keen to minimize its military involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan. The agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban set May 2021 as a deadline for the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Afghanistan. While the Biden administration has not yet announced the conclusion of its review of that deal, it seems committed to exiting Afghanistan at some point in the near future. In a recently published, but undated, letter U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Kabul to consider new initiatives for a roadmap toward the creation of a new interim Afghan government and warned that the full withdrawal of the U.S. troops from the country remained an option. Washington is truly absorbed with the idea of finally finishing its military campaign in Afghanistan, the longest war ever fought by the United States.

However, considering the ongoing violent clashes in the country and the stalled intra-Afghan peace talks, the prospects for a full-fledged peace in Afghanistan and the establishment of a stable state anytime soon still remain elusive. In this light, the U.S. needs regional partners in Central and South Asia that might support Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the near future. Taking these plans into account, Washington is testing different ideas like the new trilateral dialogues in Central Asia to build an updated strategy for Afghanistan. If the trilaterals with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan prove successful, this model may be extended to cooperation with other neighbors of Afghanistan, like Turkmenistan.

Second, the reconciliation of the situation in Afghanistan is a top priority for both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Tashkent, in particular, has been seeking more agency in encouraging peaceful negotiations between the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban movement for the last five years. Considering the positive attitude toward Uzbekistan among the opposing Afghan political forces, Tashkent’s mediatory mission might be quite productive. The settlement of the Afghan conflict can bring a variety of benefits to Uzbekistan, including better security in bordering provinces, new economic and trade opportunities, enhanced connectivity with the developing South Asian region, and shorter routes to the sea.

Expecting a lasting compromise solution to the conflict in Afghanistan requires Uzbekistan, and others, to take a long-term view on the future development of the country. Reaching an agreement between the warring parties and establishing an inclusive Afghan government alone cannot ensure the country’s sustainable development into the future. In such a situation, the international community and particularly neighboring states have a major coordinating role to play in the socioeconomic rebuilding of Afghanistan, the construction of vital infrastructure, the creation of jobs, and the fight against poverty. Without guaranteed and tangible international support, the hoped-for success of the negotiations and onset of peace may be threatened with an early collapse and rollback.

Third, and finally, the United States intends to demonstrate its comprehensive presence in Central Asia and to counterpoise the influence of China and Russia in the region. By initiating new platforms like the trilaterals, Washington wants to send a strong signal to Afghanistan and Central Asia that it has no plans to fully abandon the region, even if U.S. forces exit Afghanistan in the coming months, and stress that its presence will be a long-term phenomenon. This commitment is especially important for the region considering the increasing role and activity of China and Russia in Central Asia, promoting the Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union, respectively. Greater U.S. involvement in Central Asia will help the region construct balanced and predictable relations with all the great powers, avoiding over-dependence on any one of them. 

On the whole, the major challenge for these new trilateral dialogues is the necessity to achieve tangible results in the short- and medium-term period. Afghanistan and Central Asia are in dire need of effective and positive outputs from the perennial discussions and negotiations around the Afghan conflict. If we just briefly look at the history of attempts to bring peace to Afghanistan, we can find various initiatives, negotiation platforms, contact or coordination groups, quadrilateral, trilateral or other multilateral formats, which were ultimately not very productive. Most of these initiatives could not reach their declared aims because they suffered from inadequate coordination and leadership, were fractured by their participants’ contradictory interests, or exploited the Afghan conflict mainly for the benefits of the chattering states. 

So many past peace initiatives have failed because there was too much talking and not enough tangible outcomes for ordinary Afghans. The country acutely needs electricity, hospitals, schools, roads, railways, manufacturing plants, and a new generation of public servants, educated professionals in various spheres to overcome the current crisis. The international community should help in building infrastructure and educating the country’s youth. The creation of narrow groups like the U.S.-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan and U.S.-Tajikistan-Afghanistan dialogues can effectively serve in addressing these pressing issues. Implementing small but substantive economic and social projects for Afghan sustainable development should be the inevitable consequence of all endless negotiations on conflict reconciliation.