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Afghan Traditions of the Uzbek Foreign Policy

«Tashkent needs to find its niche to re-squeeze into the circle of players defining the Afghan agenda. The main indicators of success will be the launch of intensive economic cooperation (at least with the northern regions of Afghanistan), successful implementation of transport and logistics projects, and the expansion of educational programs», – notes Yuriy Sarukhanyan, an expert on international relations, a participant of the CABAR.asia School of Analytics from Tashkent.

The material was prepared as part of the internship program for participants of CABAR.asia School of Analytics in Tbilisi (Georgia).

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A brief overview of the article:

  • The main problem of Karimov’s strategy was the lack of work with his initiatives and their critical analysis;
  • Regarding a positive result, Tashkent was able to achieve bilateral cooperation with Kabul through the implementation of various economic and logistics projects;
  • Not being an innovator and logically pursuing the Karimov’s strategy, Mirziyoev adapted it to new realities, putting aside a number of outdated initiatives.
  • Tashkent is trying to act in all directions of the foreign policy on Afghan vector, by covering the maximum number of spheres;
  • In the sphere of bilateral relations, there has been a tendency of initiating ambitious and large-scale projects;
  • The active involvement of Tashkent in such an urgent issue for the international agenda, works in the new government’s favor, which, in doing so, rebuilds the dialogue with the international community and tries to gain credibility;
  • Tashkent has to separate its regional Central Asian agenda from the Afghan one.

Observations on Uzbekistan’s foreign policy suggest that the presidents of the country have a tradition. When they come to power, they are attempting to enter the group of actors, engaged in resolving of the Afghan crisis. Islam Karimov had launched this process in early 90s. However, after an active start, Tashkent faced a number of challenges, and became more unpretentious in its ambitions.

Upon assumption of power by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Afghan vector is again on the top of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy agenda. Tashkent is discussing the issue with foreign partners, offers various projects in different sectors (economic, logistics, education, etc.), and even considers prospects for organizing negotiations between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban on its soil.

We will try to understand whether President Mirziyoev radically changed Uzbekistan’s Afghan policy or continues the policy launched back in 1990s? What measures should Uzbekistan take not to be once again moves to the periphery of the Afghan agenda?

“6 + 2”, “6 + 3” and other features of the Karimov’s tactics

The Afghan issue was of particular interest for Karimov. In his efforts to consolidate his power and reinforce secular regime, he understood that the ongoing destabilization and growth of radicalism on the southern borders is a source of constant security threat. Such concerns were fueled by the civil war in Tajikistan, started during this period, as well as the redeployment of failed leaders of Islamist groups in Uzbekistan to Afghanistan and establishment of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 1996.

For the political elite, the terrorist acts in February 1999, as well as the Batken events of August-October 1999, became an additional demonstration of the regional security vulnerability and the need to quickly counter threats. Tashkent attempted to secure the Uzbek-Afghan border by establishing contacts with influential representatives of the North, in particular, General Rashid Dostum.

The most visible initiative of that period was the Contact group proposed by Karimov, consisting of the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and external actors that were involved in the Afghan processes. Launched initially as 6+2, the Group experienced an active phase, which culminated by Tashkent meeting in 1999. However, after the start of Enduring Freedom Operation in 2001, which Uzbekistan supported, by providing territory for the American and German military contingents, the Group was no longer relevant.

The quarrel between Tashkent and Western countries, provoked by the Andijan events of 2005, brought the most serious crackdown on the Group’s activities. In a state of quasi-isolation, it was difficult for Uzbekistan to continue promoting its initiatives in the international arena. After a relative normalization of relations with the West and the lifting of sanctions, Tashkent tried to revive the activities of the forgotten contact group. In 2008, Karimov proposed to change the scheme, transforming “6 + 2” into “6 + 3” by virtue of NATO. However, this curtsy did not have the expected effect. The new initiative was hardly noticed. We should also highlight that, at that time, balance of power in international relations system, the complicated relations between the participants of the proposed group and the status quo in Afghanistan significantly complicated the prospects for the “6 + 3” operation. Uzbekistan raised the topic several times during UN General Assembly meetings, but later abandoned the efforts to promote the initiative.

At the same time, Tashkent achieved relatively a positive result in bilateral cooperation with Kabul through the implementation of various economic and logistics projects. Launched in 2002, economic cooperation with Afghanistan focused on a number of aspects: infrastructure construction, energy, and trade. Uzbekistan opened customs point in Termez to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid, restored 11 bridges between Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul. With the support of ADB, the Hairatan – Mazar-i-Sharif railway was constructed. Uzbekistan also expressed interest in participating in the construction of the Mazar-i-Sharif – Herat railway in the framework of the Trans-Afghan Transport Corridor project. In addition, Tashkent has become a leading electricity supplier to Afghanistan. In 2009, the Guzar-Surkhan transmission line was laid, which allowed increasing the supply to 300 MW. As a result, Uzbekistan was supplying about 1.5 billion kW / h of electricity to Afghanistan by 2016.

The main problem of Karimov’s strategy was lack of work with initiatives. When offering something to the international community, the political elite remained idle while awaiting recognition. At the same time, officials and the expert community have been overly careful in covering the problematic aspects of initiatives. So, almost no one discussed the shortcomings of the proposed Contact group. In contrast, the initiative was presented as the most rational format for resolving the problem. Instead of interacting with all participants of the Group and trying to find a compromise in their positions, Tashkent was organizing endless round tables, where loyal international experts, whose role was to praise the proposed format, were invited.

In addition, the Afghan topic was extremely securitized. This, of course, fits into the overall picture of the country’s development of that period. At the same time, this situation can be explained by the desire of the authorities not to advertise topics anyway related to the problems of religious extremism and terrorism. After all, the Uzbek security services fought against the IMU, which was based in Afghanistan. This part of the Afghan policy of Uzbekistan is completely filled with myths and conjectures. However, the conflict between the IMU and Taliban, its defeat in Afghanistan and the announcement of self-liquidation by merging with ISIS in 2015, did not alter the behavior of Uzbekistan. Tashkent continued to behave rather modestly in Afghan direction and did not promoted even the successful aspects of its Afghan policy.

In general, Uzbekistan’s policy on Afghanistan during Karimov’s era, like many other aspects of the country’s development, was vague. On the one hand, Tashkent very actively got down to work in the 1990s, trying to indicate its presence in resolving the situation in the neighboring state. On the other hand, the passivity in promoting own initiatives, ineffectiveness of the activities carried out, lack of a critical analysis of actions, as well as problems in cooperation with Western partners, have led to the fact that all initiatives have failed. As a result, Tashkent focused on building bilateral contacts with Kabul.

Mirziyoyev’s Tactic: Total Afghanistan

Mirziyoyev, confirmed commitment to key Uzbek approach– the absence of a military solution, peace talks between all parties of the conflict, and implementation of economic projects. At the same time, he modified the style of the Uzbekistan’s Afghan policy. Tashkent resets its strategy in all areas: from cooperation with the international community to bilateral relations with Kabul.

Mirziyoyev is trying to put Uzbekistan in the international agenda on Afghanistan. In 2017, the position of President’s Special Representative on Afghanistan was introduced. This step aims at promoting Afghan vector into a separate sphere of Uzbek foreign policy.

In March 2018, a conference on Afghanistan was held in Tashkent. This event became a kind of platform for the declarations of renewed intentions of Uzbekistan. Of course, in terms of public resonance, it was inferior to the one of Mirziyoyev’s predecessor from 1999. This is explained by the fact that Karimov’s 1999 conference was original. Last year’s conference fits into a number of initiatives that are already being implemented, including the Kabul process, the Moscow format, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, etc. However, the high turnout from the international community allowed Uzbekistan to emerge from the shadow.

During the official visit of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to Tashkent in December 2017. Photo: president.uz

A significant update is also taking place in the sphere of bilateral relations. Of course, the latter remains a logical continuation of the cooperation model that already existed at that time. Alongside with that, there was a tendency of initiating more ambitious and larger projects. In December 2017, the President of Afghanistan visited Uzbekistan for the first time in 16 years. The visit ended with signing agreements worth $ 500 million. The sides are expanding cooperation in the power supply to Afghanistan through the construction of a Surkhan – Puli-Khumri transmission line, which will increase the supply by 70%. Uzbekistan expressed its willingness to participate in the construction of transport infrastructure, in particular, the Mazari Sharif-Shebergan-Mayman-Herat railway. More recently, a cross-border trade zone between the two countries was opened

One of the peculiarities of the updated Afghan vector politics is the emphasis on cooperation in education sector and launching people-to-people contact. If earlier such initiatives were not particularly advertised, now Tashkent tries to ensure their visibility. It was proposed to create an International Education Support Fund for Afghanistan. An educational center for training Afghan citizens was opened  in Uzbek Surkhandarya region on the border with​​Afghanistan. The centre received more than 100 Afghan students last year. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are planning to launch a project on providing education for Afghan women. These measures are Tashkent’s attempt to create conditions on preventing radicalization of Afghan youth, especially in the northern regions. Cooperation in capacity building for Afghan officials is implemented as well. Recently, the sides discussed the organization of trainings  for employees of the prosecution authorities of Afghanistan by Uzbekistan.

Yet another group of Afghan youth arrived to study in Termez. Photo: uza.uz

The activities of Uzbekistan over the past 3 years suggest that the Afghan strategy is based mainly on a combination of economic and image interests. Afghanistan is a promising market for Uzbekistan. Therefore, stability, at least in the northern regions, is important for promoting its economic mini-expansion. That’s why Tashkent is interested in the implementation of logistics projects to expand transport infrastructure.

As for the image, of course, the active engagement of Tashkent in such an urgent issue on international agenda works in the new government’s favor. It allows to rebuild a dialogue with the international community and tries to gain credibility.

The commitment to peace and readiness to contribute to it, increases the significance of Uzbekistan in a certain way, at least in the regional context.

At the same time, the leadership understands that it is not responsible for the political side of the processes in Afghanistan. Therefore, success of any initiatives will bring additional bonuses to the country and the political elite, while failure will not have a globally negative impact on the country’s image.

The fact that the political elite is in continuous work on their own initiatives can be included to the positive aspects of the updated strategy. If to compare with the previous attempt, the level of narcissism from the one-off events or announced initiatives is much lower. It is also noticeable that Uzbekistan is striving to make the Afghan vector an integral part of the negotiation agenda with key actors in this process. At the same time, Tashkent does not forget to contact various sides of the conflict, including the government of Afghanistan, representatives of the Taliban and other parties, and even invites them all to meet on the territory of Uzbekistan. Finally, the neglected public diplomacy can help not only to stabilize the situation in the border regions, but also to strengthen the Uzbek soft power by providing educational projects for Afghan youth.

However, there some aspects that cause wariness. First of all, it is a manifestation of some syndromes of the past. At the moment, not all officials who formulate the country’s foreign policy agenda are able to adequately perceive the launched initiatives and work on their implementation. If we analyze the reports of the press services of state bodies or the speeches of officials, then the Afghan strategy again comes down to the personality of the head of state and the events initiated by him, turning into a kind of new cult.

Ismatulla Irgashev, Uzbekistan’s Special Presidential Representative on Afghanistan. Photo: kun.uz

In addition, the role of the Special Representative on Afghanistan is not entirely clear. Judging by the news reports we can assume that it is limited to being present at the negotiations and providing comments to the media. As for the idea of ​​negotiations between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, Uzbekistan will have to undertake serious measures to work with the curators of the different Taliban groups in order to understand who will represent this movement and not to turn it into a platform of platonic meetings. In addition, this diplomatic combination will require maximum concentration. Let us not forget that the first terrorist acts in the history of independent Uzbekistan coincided with the period of preparation for the 1999 meeting in Tashkent.

In general, not being an innovator and logically pursuing the Karimov’s strategy, Mirziyoev adapted it to new realities, putting aside several outdated initiatives. Tashkent is trying to act in all directions of its Afghan policy, covering the maximum sectors. There is also a feeling that the new leadership has ceased to consider Afghanistan solely as a threat and sees a potential benefit from the implementation of economic projects in the country. The success of this foreign policy vector is extremely important for Mirziyoev. It will allow him to strengthen his international status and push Uzbekistan into the leaders of regional processes.

Diplomatic pragmatism as the perfect game plan

In the process of implementing the foreign policy on Afghan vector, Uzbekistan will have to face a number of external and internal risks that can seriously limit the effectiveness of its policies. The Afghan crisis is too complex and multi-layered. It involves a large number of overt and covert actors with their own agenda. Therefore, it will be extremely difficult for Uzbekistan to change anything globally.

However, Tashkent should not be ashamed of its limited role. On the contrary, it is necessary to admit that the degree of its influence on the Afghan processes is rather low, to understand in which sectors Uzbekistan’s policy may be most effective, and focus on them. So, it seems logical to continue the country’s participation in transport and logistics projects in Afghanistan. This will allow realizing the potential of economic cooperation. In addition, Tashkent should focus on its initiatives in education and public diplomacy sectors, especially with the northern regions of Afghanistan. The provision of education and training programs for Afghan students and officials will help to create a positive image of the country in the northern regions and have a certain influence on the processes that are taking place there.

For more effective implementation of the policy, it is necessary to continue uninterrupted work with own initiatives and stop practicing self-admiration after carrying out one-off events. Next March it will be two years since the conference in Tashkent was held. Permanent references to it as to the main event of Uzbekistan’s Afghan policy can significantly reduce the effectiveness of the activities. Moreover, in the system of rapidly changing realities of international relations, Tashkent should think about turning such meetings into regular ones. And the meetings should be not image-oriented, but result-oriented.

The expansion of power for the Special Representative for Afghanistan and his autonomation from the Foreign Affairs Ministry also looks as a logical step. At the moment, the activities of the Special Representative are inscribed in the centralized management system, turning him to a kind of Foreign Affairs Ministry’s press service on Afghan policy. Granting more independence will allow the Special Representative to be more flexible and efficient in implementing the Afghan policy.

If Uzbekistan really seeks to become a mediator in the negotiation process and provide a platform for a meeting between the warring parties, it is worthwhile to work out a more detailed system of contact with various groups and their patrons. To become an arena for a meeting which will be attended by representatives of groups that do not have enough influence to resolve the conflict, only for the sake of short-term image bonuses is irrational and will not bring any long-term political dividends.

Finally, Tashkent needs to separate its regional Central Asian agenda from the Afghan one. It is important not to fall under the charm of ideas about the macro-Central Asian region, which includes Afghanistan, popular in the past.

It is inconsistent to regard Kabul as part of Central Asia neither politically, nor culturally, nor mentally. The approach to Afghanistan should be based on the understanding that this state is a neighbor of the Central Asia – not a part of it.

At the same time, Tashkent should try to ensure synchronization of other Central Asian states’ position towards Afghanistan in order for the region to act as a single actor in medium term. If the conflict is resolved and Afghanistan becomes a normally functioning state, Central Asia will receive a substantial economic bonus due to connection with the South Asian markets through Afghanistan. But if Uzbekistan is again influenced by macro-concepts and mixes the Afghan policy with the Central Asian one, this will seriously damage the activities of Tashkent in both directions.

The success of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy on Afghan vector in the medium term should not be considered as the establishment of peace in Afghanistan. This, as we all understand, is done by other actors, and Tashkent’s participation in the process will be rather limited. Tashkent needs to find its niche to re-squeeze into the circle of players defining the Afghan agenda. The main indicators of success will be the launch of intensive economic cooperation (at least with the northern regions of Afghanistan), successful implementation of transport and logistics projects, and the expansion of educational programs.

Much will depend on the readiness of the political elite to maintain a pragmatic game plan and not to fall into euphoria after any short-term success. Given the minimal reputation risks, Uzbekistan can afford to be a little more courageous in the implementation of its initiatives, which can later play a decisive role in strengthening the international status of the country.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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