“Today the old stereotype is gradually falling away, and the countries of Central Asia are already trying to include Afghanistan in their international agendas” – notes political scientist Rafael Sattarov in an article written specifically for cabar.asia.
In Tashkent, after a long silence, the subject of Afghanistan returned to the foreign policy agenda. For the first time since 1999, Uzbekistan convened a major international conference with high-level guests from Russia, the EU, India, Iran, and its fellow Central Asian neighbors. The relevance of this conference, according to high-ranking officials from Uzbekistan, was to address a lack of diplomacy and political approaches to solving the Afghan problem.
Relations between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, after the death of Islam Karimov, are beginning to change and enter a new reality. Since Soviet times, Tashkent has been in the forefront of the Afghan vector.
In Uzbekistan, Islamic religious figures were trained not only in the Soviet republics but in wholly socialist camps. Even after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan religious figures improved their qualifications via the educational institutions of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan.
Before Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, the Soviet special services secretly led the leaders of the Parcham faction of the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, Babrak Karmal and Anakhita Ratebzad, to the Uzbek SSR. For a while they even lived in the residence of the long-standing leader of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, Sharaf Rashidov. It is from this period that Uzbekistan begins to become an important hub for Soviet diplomacy and activity in Afghanistan.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, independent Uzbekistan certainly had and has serious interests in Afghanistan in matters of security, economy, and transportation. Gradually, these interests divided into vitally strategic approaches and long-term development goals with areas such as economics, cultural, and humanitarian objectives falling by the wayside. Uzbekistan’s share of Afghan imports is only 3.4% while Kazakhstan occupies 13% and China 14%.
The fighting within and general destabilization of Afghanistan make it a refuge for militants. It is for this reason that Uzbekistani interests in Afghanistan regarding security issues extend well beyond the borders of Afghanistan itself. Based on this logic, since 1999 Tashkent has been constantly trying to convey to global players its concerns about the situation in Afghanistan and methods for reducing conflict within the country.
The Uzbek leadership, realizing the risks of confrontation of external forces in the region, offered an optimal solution to the Afghan problem via the 6 + 3 initiative (six neighbors of Afghanistan, plus Russia, the United States, and NATO) where all major forces were equally represented, but neither the US nor Russia showed special interest in this platform. The reason for the initiative’s failure is that Uzbekistan was unable to create a broad coalition among the regional forces. The regional forces themselves did not show much interest in such formats, and the big powers remained skeptical about such efforts. The United States stated that they cannot support a project that excludes the participation of the sovereign government of Afghanistan.
Today, after constant disappointment from its Afghan policy, Tashkent again began to look for channels of communication with major players with their own interests in Afghanistan. Measures to resolve the intra-Afghan conflict remain unchanged. Tashkent’s blueprint for reducing conflict is as follows: peace talks between warring factions and ethnic forces, non-interference and suspension of armed support of these groups by neighboring states, socio-economic development, the formation of an effective management system and security agencies, and the inclusion of Afghanistan in economic and cultural projects of Central Asian states.
Uzbekistan’s energy policy towards Afghanistan plays a dual role in the internal political life of Uzbekistan. On the one hand, Tashkent delivers electricity to Kabul for a high price. Statistics on the consumption of Uzbek electricity change quite often, albeit minutely. For example, in 2015 this share was 33% while in 2016 it constituted 35% of Afghanistan’s consumption. Afghanistan pays the most expensive rate for the supply of this energy because Uzbekistan has the technical capacity to supply electricity in winter, which Tashkent uses to establish its price.
Yet, Uzbekistan allegedly illuminates the streets of Kabul for free, which is often touted by Uzbek government figures for domestic political propaganda. However, the construction of electricity transmission lines carrying Uzbek electricity abroad was carried out thanks to a grant from India and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In January of this year, the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, ordered a tariff reduction for the supply of electricity to Afghanistan from $0.076 to $0.05 per kilowatt. In 2017, Uzbekistan produced more than 60 billion kWh of electricity, of which 6 billion kWh were distributed to Afghanistan.
The increase in electricity supplies will solve the problem of electrification of the Hayraton-Mazar-i-Sharif railway since the trains on this route use diesel fuel. The Uzbek leadership is optimistic about future projects to expand power lines and build new railways. However, there is not enough funding for these projects so both Kabul and Tashkent hope that this time the ADB will provide grant and credit assistance again.
Mirziyoyev’s course and some recommendations
Sherzod Abdullayev, a prominent and influential expert among high-ranking politicians in Uzbekistan who make major decisions on foreign policy, was the first public voice about the need for a new approach to Afghanistan. In March last year, his team proposed two major points:
- Afghanistan should not only be viewed as a threat but also as an opportunity for regional development as a whole hence the international community needs to change its point of view on the Afghan problem and consider it from a different angle.
- We need to look at Afghanistan in a broader context as a strategic opportunity to change the current status quo. Such an approach, according to Sherzod Abdullayev, would give a new impetus to intra-regional development and a completely different geopolitical focus for the efforts of all the states of the region.
In May 2017, Ismatilla Irgashev, an experienced diplomat, was appointed the special representative of the president of Afghanistan. In Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan, there is an understanding that a strategy of isolation from its southern neighbor will not bring border stability, and most importantly, will not strengthen border security. Uzbekistan will need to reconsider some aspects of its approach towards Afghanistan.
Firstly, cultural and humanitarian ties need to be addressed in Uzbek soft power. Uzbekistan’s soft power in Afghanistan slowly spread not because of but in spite of state policy. Afghan Uzbeks were in fact completely cut off from their fellow tribesmen beyond the Amu Darya River. For many years there was no mutual connection between them. Uzbek music, pop culture, and cinematography spread quite differently.
Afghan Uzbeks could not receive education in Uzbekistan’s universities, schools, and lyceums. There were only isolated cases when the children of rich Afghans with a dubious background could live and study there, and this was a drop in the ocean! The most tragic fact was that Uzbek literature was absolutely incomprehensible to contemporary Afghan Uzbeks. They could not read the literature in Uzbek on the basis of Cyrillic lettering, and literature in the Latin script, even in Uzbekistan itself, has a meager share, since the transition to the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan, if not failed, is at least stalled.
It was left to Turkey and Kazakhstan to fill the void of cultural influence. Turkey provided a large scholarship program for Afghan Uzbeks under the Türkiye Bursları program while officers from Uzbek field groups, such as those commanded by General Dostum, received military training in Turkey’s war colleges. In Kazakhstani educational institutions, students from Afghanistan are represented in many institutions. In 2016 alone, around 190 students from Afghanistan completed their degree studies. Back in 2009, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan signed an educational cooperation agreement in which the Kazakhstani government allocated $50 million for educating 1,000 students from Afghanistan.
Today, suspicion towards Afghan Uzbeks is gradually changing. For the first time since independence, Uzbekistan opened an educational center dedicated to training Afghan citizens in Termez, which lies along the border with Afghanistan. The center received the first 110 students for a two-year program at the Faculty of Uzbek Language and Literature. In the future, the center plans to train specialists in the field of railway transport, energy, and other spheres.
Second, economic ties must be fostered. Despite the fact that Uzbekistan actively supplied food, petroleum products, and electricity, as well as household appliances to Afghanistan, Tashkent continued to look at Kabul as a source of security threats. For a long time, suspicious approaches hampered the expansion of economic ties. In addition, there were cases when wealthy Afghan entrepreneurs expanded their businesses into Uzbekistan with capital of dubious origin. As a result, many high-ranking officials in Uzbekistan’s domestic and foreign economic departments hardened their opinion that many rich Afghans investing in Uzbekistan are drug dealers and are trying to legitimize and launder their money. It is difficult to understand which course was so overstated: the cleanliness of the Uzbek business climate or the unscrupulous opportunities of Afghan entrepreneurs?
Given the current environment, we need to change our approaches to expand business contacts with small and medium-sized entrepreneurs by doing the following:
- Do not obstruct investment ventures that will grow independently of government projects.
- Create conditions for information exchange and expansion of business sites. There are difficulties in the development of cross-border trade associated with increased traffic across the Termez-Hairaton border crossing, as well as a lack of infrastructure for markets and trade areas closer to the Uzbek border from Afghanistan.
Thirdly, despite Uzebkistan’s excessive emphasis on the security problem in Afghanistan, is still impossible to get away from this issue. The ability of the Afghan armed forces and security services to control internal threats leaves much to be desired. Tashkent will have to take this factor into account, and it would be more expedient to create training camps for Afghan officers and cadets in its military and security training institutions. This is in the interest of Uzbekistan and it is important for strengthening its image in Afghanistan.
Lastly, to reduce threats within Afghanistan, as has been said before, a major international conference is not enough. It is increasingly necessary to consolidate efforts with other Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has established a network of diplomatic relations to promote its international platforms for peace talks. Moreover, Astana has much better lobbying ties in major capitals of the world, as well as access to major publications and analytical centers. Kazakhstan has only one drawback, which is that many of these efforts are aimed at promoting the image of Nursultan Nazarbayev. According to various sources, the ultimate goal is for him to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The joint actions of Tashkent and Astana can bring real results, unless, of course, Tashkent sets a goal of only promoting the image of Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Earlier, the capitals of Central Asian countries were annoyed by the fact that larger powers were including Afghanistan in many regional projects in Central Asia, notably the USA’s “Greater Central Asia” project. Today the old stereotype is gradually falling away, and the countries of Central Asia are already trying to include Afghanistan in their international agendas.
One must approach current events cautiously while gradually moving away from rapidly gaining illusory ideas. Perhaps the situational development will lead to a scenario in which the process of activity in the first stage will be so ineffective that it can lead to ruinous chaos and finally to a breakdown in ties altogether?
Within the framework of Tashkent’s proposed initiatives and platforms for negotiations with each of the participants, Uzbekistan must take active diplomatic efforts aimed at reducing Afghanistan’s problems. Nevertheless, it can be noted with regret that funding is not always consistent with the goals. From Tashkent, active diplomatic efforts are required to convey their positions. Such a problem as exists in Afghanistan requires numerous behind-the-scenes negotiations and coordination. Many regional actors are playing in the dark and are not too quick to contribute to reducing the conflict in Afghanistan, as this does not meet their geopolitical interests.
 “Afghanistan.” OEC – Afghanistan (AFG) Exports, Imports, and Trade Partners. Accessed April 25, 2018. https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/afg/.
 Sattarov, Rafael. “Andrey Sushentsov: Central Asia in the Spectrum of Russian-American Relations.” Central Asian Analytical Network. November 29, 2016. Accessed April 25, 2018. http://caa-network.org/archives/8014.
 Jahanmal, Zabihullah. “Uzbekistan Cuts Electricity Tariffs For Afghanistan.” TOLOnews. April 9, 2018. Accessed April 25, 2018. https://www.tolonews.com/business/uzbekistan-cuts-electricity-tariffs-afghanistan.
 “Expert: There Is No Need to Look at Afghanistan as a Source of Problems.” Sputnik.ru. January 27, 2017. Accessed April 25, 2018. https://ru.sputniknews-uz.com/analytics/20170127/4687430/Expert-Afganistann-problemy.html.
 “Special Representative of the President of Afghanistan Appointed for the First Time to Uzbekistan.” ASIA-Plus. May 29, 2017. Accessed April 25, 2018. https://news.tj/ru/news/centralasia/20170529/v-uzbekistane-vpervie-naznachen-spetspredstavitel-prezidenta-po-afganistanu.
Author: Rafael Sattarov, independent political scientist (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of cabar.asia.