In a dramatic shift from just a few years ago, when it closed its doors and eyes to its southern neighbor, Uzbekistan is now determined to play a leading role in global Afghanistan policy. This is evidenced by the fact that Uzbekistan hosted its third global conference on Afghanistan in as many years last month. The forum, which focused on economic development and security issues, was attended by more than 100 representatives from almost 30 countries. Most notably, it brought leaders of the Taliban into the same room with U.S. diplomats.
The conference was significant because it demonstrated the relentlessness with which the government of Uzbekistan is willing to work with the leadership of Afghanistan, regardless of who is in power.
For decades, Uzbekistan had chilly relations with Afghanistan. Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, he has realigned the country’s foreign policy by arguing that a healthy Afghanistan yields a healthy region. As Tashkent has become more comfortable with Taliban leadership, it has sought to bridge those parties, like the U.S., that still have tense relations with the Taliban.
This time Uzbekistan brought together special representatives and policy experts researching Afghanistan from around the world. This approach gave participants the opportunity for a nuanced discussion on the current situation in the hopes of greater coordination to help extricate Afghanistan from its current humanitarian crisis. It also gave the meeting attendants the opportunity to conduct a series of bilateral meetings to discuss the most pressing issues.
Representatives of the international community, including the Uzbekistani leadership, tried one more time to encourage the Taliban to allow for female education at all levels, form a government inclusive of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and ideological groups, and renounce ties to all terrorist organizations. Taliban Foreign Affairs Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi pledged “to transform Afghanistan into a center of peace, stability and economic cooperation.”
Why is Uzbekistan so actively trying to engage both bilaterally and multilaterally with the Taliban, and what are its current achievements and challenges?
First, geography matters in determining the priorities of the country’s foreign policy. Uzbekistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, believes a peaceful, stable, and economically viable Afghanistan is vital to its national interest. For decades Tashkent considered its neighbor a security threat and limited its engagement with the international community on conflict resolution in Afghanistan, focusing instead on bilateral cooperation with Kabul. However, in recent years Uzbekistan has rethought its approach to Afghanistan and emphasized economic cooperation as the key to regional stability. By integrating Afghanistan into the regional economies, it will have a positive-sum impact on both countries and the broader region as well.
Second, after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces last year and the collapse of the Islamic Republic, there is little public will in the West to remain engaged in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan sees this and understands that it has a role to play. It does not believe it can solve all problems of Afghanistan, but it can work to keep this issue at the top of global policy agendas. Hosting such conferences is one tactic in this broader strategy to keep the world involved in resolving Afghanistan’s most pressing problems.
Third, Afghanistan is a cornerstone of Tashkent’s strategic plans to connect Central and South Asia. Uzbekistan is actively promoting the construction of a 760 km railway from Mazar-i-Sharif to Peshawar and a 245 km power transmission line, Surkhon-Puli Khumri, which will improve connectivity between the regions. Before the collapse of the Western-backed Republic, both countries had agreed to these projects and the implementation phase was about to begin.
These regional connections between Central and South Asia are more important now than ever. Due to sanctions against Russia and Belarus amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, northern transport corridors are becoming complex and risky for Central Asia. Alternative shipping routes across the Black Sea have also been compromised by the ongoing Russian naval blockade against Ukrainian ports. Therefore, the opening of a new transport corridor to South Asia is an urgent issue for the diversification of regional connectivity.
Despite its increased leadership role, the most recent conference exposed several challenges to Uzbekistan’s policy in Afghanistan.
First, despite cooperation with Tashkent, the Taliban have not been able to demonstrate the capability to provide security on the Afghan-Uzbek border. Over the past four months, Uzbekistan faced at least three missile attacks from Afghan territory. Despite the Taliban’s assurances to the contrary, these incidents indicate the Taliban do not have full control of northern Afghanistan. Furthermore, the creation of a Taliban affiliate targeting Tajikistan, the Tehrik-e Taliban Tajikistan (TTT), in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province is an alarming signal for Central Asia as it demonstrates ways the Taliban can blackmail neighbors by harboring terrorists. Unlike Uzbekistan, Tajikistan has had very icy relations with the Taliban and has harbored members of the National Resistance Front, the primary opposition group to the Taliban.
Second, due to the fact that the Taliban are not recognized by the international community, funding from international financial institutions to support infrastructure projects that link Afghanistan to Central Asia is on hold. Tashkent is eager to facilitate dialogue and mutual understanding between the international community and the Taliban. However, statements by diplomatic delegations in Tashkent last month exposed deep disagreements on the inclusivity of the Taliban government, their policy toward the provision of the rights of women, various ethnic and sectarian groups, and press freedom. There has been no progress on these issues over the past year.
Third, the Taliban are now facing both internal factional divisions and resistance from many who are questioning their governance. The movement looks fractured on many crucial issues. Inconsistent decisions and internal ideological differences resulted in diverging policies on female education, media freedom, and other critical issues. Thus, agreements reached in negotiations with some representatives of the movement may not translate into policy action as it is not clear who really speaks for the Taliban. Several resistance groups operating in northern Afghanistan disagree with Taliban ideology and have not accepted their rule. While they are unlikely to overthrow the Taliban, they can be a thorn in their side for years to come, preventing the group from consolidating its power.
In recent years Uzbekistan has become a major driver of reconciliation in Afghanistan. Tashkent has become a credible partner for Kabul, notwithstanding who is in power in Afghanistan. Relations between the countries developed substantially both during the Ghani administration and under the current Taliban government.
The hosting of the big international conference in Tashkent is another sign of the Uzbek government’s effort to keep Afghanistan on top of the world’s attention. Yet, despite this work, Tashkent has not been able to generate substantial concessions from the Taliban authorities. The killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul in a home owned by a member of the Taliban leadership does not augur well for the credibility of the group. Tashkent has sought to serve as a broker between the Taliban and the world to keep Afghanistan on the agenda. But it is unclear how much of its own credibility Tashkent is willing to sacrifice — for both global and domestic audiences — to continue serving as such a bridge.