The Afghan Transition: The View From Tashkent

2012-10-12 By Richard Weitz

Last month, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Uzbekistan meeting with government officials, think tank researchers, university faculty and students, and other members of the country’s national security community. Much of our discussion focused on Afghanistan, which I would like to summarize for the benefit of SLD’s expert community.

Uzbekistani experts do not anticipate that NATO can defeat the Taliban insurgency or that the major NATO military presence in Afghanistan will continue for more than a few more years.

They consider that the outcome of the American presidential elections will not appreciably affect this drawdown, and see the other NATO governments as already leaving the battlefield.  They do not believe that the Afghan National Security Forces will prove able to crush the Taliban either, though they do not believe the Taliban is itself capable of conquering all of Afghanistan, especially the non-Pashtun regions.

My interlocutors believe that neither China nor Russia has the will or capacity to fill this security vacuum.

Uzbekistani experts do not anticipate that NATO can defeat the Taliban insurgency or that the major NATO military presence in Afghanistan will continue for more than a few more years. Credit Image: Bigstock 

At best, the major regional security institutions under Beijing’s and Moscow’s influence–the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Uzbekistan is a founding member, and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Uzbekistan recently left–will try to contain the regional security problems such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and arms smuggling emanating from Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan’s national security community considers such efforts at region-wide containment futile.

They emphasize that Afghanistan is an organic component of Central Asia and that chaos in that country will invariably adversely affect their country—which they describe as a “front-line” state in the war on terror—and their neighbors.

Indeed, Uzbek experts believe that the Afghan turmoil has already contributed to the rise of terrorism in Tajikistan and the ethnic tensions in the Kyrgyz Republic, where the Kyrgyz minority waged a pogrom on ethnic Uzbeks in the summer of 2010.

Uzbekistan has sought to help Afghanistan bilaterally by providing considerable economic assistance. Uzbek firms have helped build Afghanistan’s national infrastructure, including roads, railroads, bridges and telecommunications, including parts of Afghanistan’s Internet networks. Uzbekistan also supplies electricity to Afghanistan. Most recently, Uzbekistan has constructed Afghanistan’s first national railway line.

The Uzbekistani government still supports the “6+3 proposal” first described by President Islam Karimov at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. The idea is to revive the “6+2” group established in 1999 under the UN’s auspices but to add NATO to the construct. The “six” members are the neighboring states of Afghanistan: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The “two” additional members are Russia and the United States.

These nine actors would provide a supportive framework for direct negotiations between the Afghan government and “moderate” members of the Taliban insurgents. They would establish a six-plus-three contact group that would propose compromise solutions regarding the main divisive issues dividing the parties, backed up by their great guarantees.

Uzbekistan’s 6+3 proposal presents several problems for Western governments.

First, it equates the democratically elected Afghan government with the Taliban insurgents. This position reflects Uzbek doubts about the ability of the Kabul government to survive in the absence of substantial Western military assistance. Last month, President Karimov called for establishing a coalition government that represented “the main conflicting ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan.”

Second, the Uzbeks consider this concession essential for enticing the “moderate” Taliban to participate, but there is little indication whether such a group exists or has the power to induce the non-moderate Taliban to accept any peace settlement that is negotiated without their participation.

Taliban leaders have this far shown little interest in negotiating with the Afghan government, which they describe as a Western puppet regime.

Taliban negotiations insist on holding direct negotiations with the United States and NATO, which the Kabul government refuses to allow except for preliminary “talks and talks”—about how any substantive negotiations should be structured.

Third, the “6+3” framework excludes India but includes Iran.

The Indian presence in Afghanistan has grown considerably in recent years, especially in the economic dimension, and many Afghans rate India as their preferred foreign partner.

Meanwhile, Iranian diplomats lobbied hard if unsuccessfully to prevent the Afghan parliament from enacting the Afghan-U.S. Strategic Partnership Agreement in May.

Uzbekistani analysts acknowledge some of these concerns but still consider the 6+3 proposal superior to any other concept currently in circulation. That said, they also have taken out a double hedging policy.

On the one hand, Uzbekistan has been trying to deepen bilateral security ties with China, Russia, the West, and even Kazakhstan. Relations with Moscow have their ups and downs, but Tashkent has made sure never to break ties completely. China’s ties with Uzbekistan continue to grow, in the security as well as the economic sectors.

Following years of strained relations over human rights issues, ties with NATO and the United States have been on the upswing ever since the alliance realized Uzbekistan’s importance as a logistical hub to send supplies to the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, the US Congress relaxed the arms export ban on Uzbekistan, while Tashkent agreed that NATO could withdraw men and materiel from Afghanistan through Uzbekistani territory.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Karimov held his first summit in years with Kazakhstani leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. The two presidents , often seen as rivals for influence in Central Asia, affirmed their interest in the fate of Afghanistan and pledged to provide economic aid and other support for the Afghan people.

But there are limits to Uzbekistan’s multinational diplomacy regarding Afghanistan or regional security issues.

On August 1, Uzbekistan’s Parliament (the Oliy Majlis) approved, “The Concept Paper on the Foreign Policy Activity of Uzbekistan.” This new national security strategy affirms that Uzbekistan will not join politico-military blocs. In addition, the Concept Paper prohibits foreign military bases on Uzbekistani territory. It insists that Central Asia’s security problems should be addressed by the regional countries themselves, without interference from external powers.

In addition, Tashkent has a harder element to its hedging policy.

Uzbekistan has laid mines in several of its border regions that might be vulnerable to terrorist infiltration. Furthermore, Uzbekistan’s internal security agencies have been ruthlessly efficient at suppressing religious extremism and militarism. Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country that has not experienced a major terrorist incident in recent years.

Finally, Uzbekistan has developed perhaps the strongest ground force of the Central Asian countries.

Although the Uzbekistani army lacks much power projection capacity, Uzbek experts are confident it can protect their national border with Afghanistan as well as interdict Islamist militants seeking to infiltrate into Uzbekistan through the other Central Asian countries that surround Uzbekistan.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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