Central Asian role in Afghan peace process should not be overlooked

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Central Asian role in Afghan peace process should not be overlooked

Kazakhstan this month hosted the first Regional Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan. Held in the capital, Astana, it brought together delegations from Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the US and Uzbekistan. Even Ivanka Trump, the daughter of US President Donald Trump, sent a personal video message.

It is no surprise that this conference was held in Central Asia. The countries in this region have the most to gain if Afghanistan becomes a stable and economically prosperous country. They also have the most to lose if it does not.

When the international community talks about a “regional solution” for Afghanistan, most of the time it is referring to the situation in Pakistan. Sometimes the regional solution is expanded to include India and China. Rarely, if ever, are the Central Asian republics formulated into policy-making regarding Afghanistan. 

This is because many people fail to see Afghanistan for what it really is: A Central Asian country. Afghanistan is not part of the Middle East, and referring to it as part of the so-called “broader Middle East” is also misleading. At least half of the country is culturally, historically, economically and geographically part of Central Asia. Policy-makers must recognize this. 

This lack of geopolitical awareness of Central Asia’s importance to the future of Afghanistan is especially true of the US. When the Trump administration announced its new Afghan strategy last year, Central Asia did not get a single mention. Failing to recognize Afghanistan as part of a larger geopolitical puzzle in Central Asia means that Washington cannot properly deal with its many challenges in the region. These include an aggressive Russia, an emboldened China, energy transit for many of its NATO and Asian allies, the presence of extremism, and the flow and recruitment of foreign fighters.

On top of this, the region is experiencing the growing influence of Iran, India and Turkey. Some of that can be good; much of it can be very bad for US security interests.

The two countries in Central Asia that play the most important roles in Afghanistan are Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. While Kazakhstan does not share a land border with Afghanistan, it is intertwined through historic trading routes that still link the two countries. Over the years, Kazakhstan has played a constructive role in Afghanistan. As the region’s biggest economy and a secular republic, it has a direct interest in ensuring that Afghanistan becomes stable.

Kazakhstan has used its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to focus on the Afghan situation. For example, this year it organized a visit by Security Council members to Afghanistan.

Astana has offered millions of dollars of assistance to Afghanistan and has agreed trade deals with Kabul worth hundreds of millions more. So far this year, trade between the two countries has increased by 18 percent compared with last year — and there is potential for increasing this trade activity even further. 

This month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced $50 million would be provided to educate 1,000 Afghan students. This is particularly important because evidence shows that Afghans who study in the region are more likely to return home and contribute to rebuilding the country, while those who travel further afield for their education tend to remain overseas.

Since the death of former Uzbek President Islam Karimov in September 2016, Uzbekistan has made gradual but important steps toward opening up and reforming its governance. Relations with neighboring countries, which have been strained for years, are starting to improve. This new approach under the leadership of Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, cannot be understated, especially for Afghanistan. 

Culturally, Uzbekistan has close ties to Afghanistan: More than 9 percent of Afghans are ethnically Uzbek. Geographically, the two countries share a 150-kilometer border. One of Afghanistan’s three rail links to the outside world runs to Uzbekistan from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Uzbekistan also has specific security concerns in Afghanistan, since the terrorist group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operates from safe havens there. 

Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have played important roles in helping the US and NATO resupply troops in Afghanistan

Luke Coffey

Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, this year hosted a peace conference on Afghanistan involving more than 23 countries and international organizations. Last month, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Kabul and met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to discuss trade, economic and counterterrorism issues. This sort of cooperation was unheard of during Karimov’s reign.

Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have played important roles in helping the US and NATO resupply troops in Afghanistan, allowing non-lethal military equipment and supplies to transit through their territories. Astana has also been important in promoting US interests in the region behind the scenes. During recent negotiations over the legal status of the Caspian, Kazakhstan was able to ensure that the US can continue to use the sea to ship supplies to Afghanistan, via the Kazakh port of Aktau, even though Russia and Iran did not like the idea.

Overall, Kazakhstan has been the regional leader in helping Afghanistan. Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov used the recent women’s conference to call on the other Central Asian countries to get more involved — this is desperately needed. 

So, while the international community looks to Afghanistan’s south and focuses on Pakistan and India, it should not ignore the important role the Central Asian countries can play in bringing about a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan. 

  • Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey
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