Tashkent and Kabul: not just neighbors

Date of publication: 1 April 2021
The development of Uzbek-Afghan relations is an important factor of stability and security in the region

“If the neighbor is calm and you will be calm,” says an Uzbek proverb. The meaning and significance of this proverb reflects the essence of Uzbekistan’s policy towards its southern neighbor, Afghanistan: Tashkent’s concern about intra-Afghan problems and its desire to achieve peaceful conditions for establishing socio-economic life in the neighboring state. Uzbekistan plays an important role in the socio-economic revival of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA), because these countries share a common border with a length of 144 km and strong historical ties that go back centuries, including involvement in the Great Silk Road.

In this regard, it is not surprising that Uzbekistan has recently significantly expanded its bilateral ties with the IRA and actively joined international efforts to resolve the Afghan problem. It is no coincidence that many experts call Uzbekistan one of the key figures in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. Moscow also highly appreciates the efforts of Uzbekistan in the inter-Afghan settlement process. This, for example, was stated on March 24 during an online briefing on the results of the consultations of the “troika” (Russia, Iran and India) on a peaceful settlement in the IRA by the special representative of the President of Russia for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov.

The fact that Tashkent pays close attention to the development of relations with Kabul may not seem strange, since Uzbekistan understands that the prospects for stable and sustainable development in Central Asia (CA) are inextricably linked to the achievement of peace in the IRA. It is quite obvious that it is impossible to ensure the prosperity of the region without solving the “Afghan problem”, since Afghanistan has always been and will remain an integral part of Central Asia. The States of this region and Afghanistan share a common history, religion, culture and traditions, as well as common security interests.

A peaceful and stable Afghanistan can provide the Central Asian countries with the shortest access to the ports of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, and connect South Asia with the markets of Europe and China. Taking into account these factors, it is extremely important to start considering Afghanistan not as a source of regional problems, threats and challenges, but as a unique strategic opportunity that can give a fundamentally new impetus to the development of broad trans-regional ties throughout the Eurasian space. It seems that this is well understood in Uzbekistan.

In this regard, Tashkent is actively implementing a consistent and verified line for the comprehensive development of trade, economic, transport, energy, cultural and humanitarian ties with Kabul. Speaking on September 23 last year at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly (due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all events were held in the video conference format), President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev noted that the country’s leadership has introduced a new approach aimed at the socio-economic development of the IRA and the expansion of transport corridors. This is confirmed by the fact that Uzbekistan has started implementing such major infrastructure projects as the construction of the Surkhan-Puli-Khumri power line and the Trans-Afghan Railway from Mazar-I-Sharif to the ports of the Indian Ocean. And a significant role in the implementation of these projects, which, however, some experts consider risky, is assigned to Tashkent.

The favorable geographical position of Uzbekistan allows it not only to carry out transit transportation of goods from China, but also to export its own goods to Afghanistan. In the future, the flow of goods along this route may increase significantly. The development of the IRA infrastructure will help to increase the volume of transit traffic and serve as a catalyst for the economic growth of the region. At the same time, Uzbekistan, thanks to its active participation in these projects, will be able to strengthen its position as a strong regional player, contributing to the process of positive transformation and sustainable development of the entire Central Asian region.

It should be noted that today railway construction projects not only contribute to the expansion of transit corridors, but also contribute to the development of trade, opening up great prospects for all parties involved. The railway from Mazar-I-Sharif will help Afghanistan establish economic ties with the port of Chehbehar in Iran ― the gateway to Central Asia, as well as with important seaports in the Indian Ocean, including the port of Karachi in Pakistan.

A developed energy system with a large amount of generating capacity and significant natural gas reserves have allowed Uzbekistan to become the largest electricity producer in Central Asia and an investor in the energy sector of the IRA. Thanks to the 260-km transmission line between Surkhan and Puli Khumri, located 230 km north of Kabul, more than a thousand megawatts of electricity will be supplied to the Afghan power grid. This transmission line will transmit up to six billion kilowatts per year, increasing the supply of electricity from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan by 70%. Access to low-cost electricity will play an important role in the socio-economic development of the IRA and the strengthening of trade and cultural relations between the countries. According to the representatives of the National Energy Company of Afghanistan Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), upon completion of the construction, the Surkhan-Puli-Khumri power line “will be able to provide light to the residents of 10 provinces of the country.” So Uzbekistan’s assistance to the IRA in many areas is taking shape.

In turn, Kabul tries to reciprocate the neighboring country. The Afghan authorities highly appreciate the role of Uzbekistan in the reconstruction of their country’s economic infrastructure, in particular, in the implementation of transport, communication, energy and other projects. Tashkent also enjoys the support of Kabul in the foreign policy arena. For example, the Afghan leadership supported the proposal of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to hold a high-level international conference on cooperation between the countries of Central and South Asia in Tashkent in July 2021. By the way, during a recent visit to Moscow, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to this forum.

During the talks in the Russian capital, Lavrov and Kamilov also discussed the problem of Afghanistan. The parties recognized that the conflict in this country has no military solution and can be resolved exclusively by political and diplomatic means. Moscow and Tashkent also agreed that this work should be continued using well-established mechanisms, including the contact group of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia and Uzbekistan are members, and Afghanistan has the status of an observer of this association.

In conclusion, we note that the CAVID-19 pandemic reduced Uzbekistan’s activity in relations with the IRA and made some adjustments to the dialogue between Tashkent and Kabul. However, the gradual retreat of the coronavirus allows us to hope that soon Uzbek-Afghan contacts will resume and surpass the previously achieved level.

Sergey Sajenko, international columnist



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