In the late 1990s, when the Taliban were in power in Kabul, Uzbekistan, along with Tajikistan, Russia, India and others, supported the anti-Taliban United Front (Northern Alliance) that had controlled parts of northern Afghanistan. Now, when the Taliban are back in Kabul, after a gap of 20 years, Tashkent is experimenting a different policy — cautious engagement.
To be sure, Afghanistan’s domestic and regional environment is different this time from the 1990s. The Taliban now control almost all of the country’s territories. There’s no Northern Alliance. The remnants of the anti-Taliban forces have formed the National Resistance Front (NRF), but unlike the Northern Alliance of the 1990s, the NRF neither controls land inside Afghanistan nor has regional backing. As the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan appears to be stronger, regional powers seek guarded cooperation, while pushing for changes in the Islamic Emirate’s policies. Uzbekistan is leading the effort.
Last month, Uzbekistan hosted a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries in Samarkand, in which the Taliban Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also participated. Mr. Muttaqi, who held bilateral talks with Uzbek Foreign Minister Bahtiyor Saidov, said Kabul was ready for the Trans-Afghanistan Railway project, which will connect Uzbekistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan and will significantly contribute to regional economic integration”.
“There’s a new reality in Afghanistan. The global community has demanded that the government in Afghanistan should be inclusive; rights of minorities and women should be protected and the country should not be a staging ground for terrorism. Uzbekistan has the same demands,” Manish Prabhat, India’s Ambassador in Uzbekistan, told a media delegation from India at the embassy in Tashkent. “But at the same time, Uzbekistan is sending humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, like India is also sending. It’s our shared view that terror should not spill over into Central Asia. Any instability in Afghanistan will affect us,” Mr. Prabhat said.
In the 1990s, the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun, faced military resistance from the militias that represented Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The Northern Alliance, commanded by Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, was a conglomerate of anti-Taliban forces. Uzbekistan, under the leadership of Islam Karimov, the country’s first President after it became independent in 1991, largely acted as a patron of Gen. Abdur Rashid Dostum, who commanded an Uzbek militia that was part of the Alliance. But President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who succeeded Karimov in 2016 after his death, is pushing for dialogue, engagement and cooperation.
Also read: Analysis | How Kabul fell
In September last year, while speaking at the 22nd summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand (in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended), Mr. Mirziyoyev said the imposition of sanctions on the Taliban-run Afghanistan “will isolate Afghanistan and increase extremism in the country”. He called for “constructive contact with Kabul”.
In December, Mr. Mirziyoyev’s government submitted an initiative to the U.N. Security Council, calling for the formation of a high-level international negotiating group to coordinate with the Taliban for the step-by-step implementation of the demands of the international community, which includes lifting the ban on girl’s education and women’s participation in the workforce.
“In my mind, we should listen to what they want. At least we will be able to see what they are thinking about Central Asia, about the future of our neighbours. Because we are too close. If you go to Termez, you can see Afghanistan, just across Amu-Darya (the river that divides Uzbekistan and Afghanistan). You cannot ignore them. They have taken political power. Why should we keep silent? We have to work with them,” said Beruniy Alimov, director, New Media Education Center, a Tashkent-based NGO.
“We have our problems with the Taliban. Look at the water problem of Central Asia. If there will be war in the region, it will be in the name of water. The Taliban started digging a canal on the Afghan side taking more water from the Amu-Darya. That could lead to Amu-Darya drying up. This is one point. Another point is about security. But how do we address these issues if we don’t talk to them?” asked Mr. Alimov, who was the Press Secretary of former President Karimov.
When in the past Uzbekistan supported Gen. Dostum and his Afghan Uzbek militias, the Taliban hosted the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a jihadist group that wanted to overthrow Karimov’s regime and create an Islamic State under Sharia. Today, Tashkent seeks assurances from the Taliban that they would not allow jihadist groups such as the IMU to launch terror attacks in Central Asia.
“We have to work with the Taliban on the security question. They have promised that they would not allow any terrorist group to operate inside Afghanistan. We should make sure that they stick to the promise,” said Mr. Alimov.
Besides the security question, the overall relationship between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan has transformed over the past 20 years. Mr. Mirziyoyev doesn’t want the regime change in Kabul to impact his strategic bets on big ticket connectivity projects.
For example, the ambitious Trans-Afghan Project, first proposed in 2018, aims to extend the Afghan rail network from the Uzbek border through Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul and then to Nangarhar in Afghanistan’s east, from where the railway would run into Pakistan via Peshawar (roughly 573 k.m.). The Taliban are also very keen on the rail project. A rail link is already operational from Uzbekistan to Mazar through the Dustlik Bridge across Amu-Darya. The bridge is Afghanistan’s main gateway to the outside world through which humanitarian aid flows in.
Uzbekistan is also the top supplier of electricity to Afghanistan, which is importing 75% of its consumption. Uzbekistan has spent millions of dollars to build and upgrade electricity infrastructure across the border and as per an ADB report, the country is supplying 57% of Afghanistan’s imported electricity which could rise to 70% soon. Tashkent wants the business to continue, while making sure that the Taliban do not support groups that would spread instability in Central Asia, say experts.
“If Afghanistan stabilises, it’s good for both India and Uzbekistan, as well as for Central Asia,” said Mr. Alimov, who studied in the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi in the 1990s. “Afghanistan is a bridge between us. When Babur (the founder of the Mughal Empire) came to India, he went through Afghanistan. Today, we use the same route. So Afghanistan should be very peaceful. That will make our cooperation better.”