Uzbekistan Hosts Momentous Conference on Afghanistan

On 26 and 27 March, Tashkent will host representatives from over 20 countries and international organisations for the high-level International Conference on Afghanistan “Peace Process, Security Cooperation and Regional Connectivity”. The conference comes shortly after the Kabul Process event held in the Afghan capital last month, in which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed peace talks with the Taliban without preconditions. The Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan, which is expected to tackle a wide range of topics ranging from peace and reconciliation, combatting terrorism and trafficking and regional connectivity, is an integral part of the new foreign policy of Uzbekistan under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, which is one of pro-actively and constructively building a more secure regional environment in Central Asia and the immediate neighbourhood.  On the margins of the conference, the first meeting of the C5 (5 Central Asian Countries) + Afghanistan will be held. After the historic Astana gathering of Central Asian leaders last week, it is expected that the C5 countries will increasingly take common positions in order to address regional and global challenges including Afghanistan.

The international community has welcomed the initiative of the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently acknowledged the signs of “enhanced cooperation between Member States in Central Asia and Afghanistan” and has noted that “the countries of Central Asia have a particularly important role to play” in Afghanistan. Acknowledging the leadership role being taken by Uzbekistan in the region, the EU High Representative for Security and Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini will pay her second visit to the country in less than five months, which is unique (following her participation in the Samarqand conference last November).

Uzbekistan has been an integral part of past and ongoing efforts to address the Afghan crisis and is well placed to take the momentum of the Afghan peace process forward. In 1999 it hosted a peace conference on Afghanistan in the format of the 6+2 Contact Group, which included Afghanistan’s direct neighbours — China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — in addition to the United States and Russia. Currently, Uzbekistan is active in the Kabul process, Moscow regional consultations, Heart of Asia-Istanbul process, Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA), or the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Programme.

Analysts largely agree that Afghanistan is the missing piece of the puzzle in a reconnected Eurasian heartland. The centrality of Afghanistan’s location in the Eurasian core points to its geo-economic importance for regional cooperation and integration. For Central Asian Countries in particular, connectivity is the key rationale for a peaceful Afghanistan, which can provide them the shortest possible access to the sea. Furthermore, without a stable and secure Afghanistan, many of the inter-regional and pan-Eurasian connectivity initiatives cannot be realised – such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan India (TAPI) pipeline; CASA-1000; Lapis Lazuli Transit, Trade and Transport route or the Five-Nation Railway Corridor, to name a few.

Under President Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has made it a priority to strengthen connectivity with Afghanistan, a country with which it shares a 137-kilometer border. During the last heads of state meeting between President Mirziyoyev and President Ghani in December 2017, over 20 agreements covering economic, trade and transit facilitation, energy and transportation were signed. Based on these agreements, Uzbekistan has, for example, reduced transit fees by 50 percent for goods coming from Afghanistan. These measures are firmly aligned with President Mirziyoyev’s belief that strengthening of trade and transportation links between Afghanistan and Central Asia can contribute positively to regional stabilization. This is particularly true for landlocked countries, as they are highly dependent on secure and stable neighbourhood for access to global supply chains and transportation corridors, as well as sea access.

Uzbekistan and Afghanistan furthermore signed an agreement to extend a railroad connecting the two countries. Already in 2011, Uzbekistan’s state railway company built a short link between border town Hairatan and Mazar-e Sharif, a major city in Northern Afghanistan. Tashkent has since expressed interest in extending that line to Herat, in North-western Afghanistan. Another railroad will in the future connect Herat to Iran, which may eventually give landlocked Uzbekistan critical access to sea ports and key sea lines of communication.

The Tashkent conference complements other efforts by central Asian countries to tackle the Afghan question. Kazakhstan, during its rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, made Afghanistan a priority topic and organised a visit of the Council’s delegation to explore opportunities for strengthened regional economic cooperation particularly with countries of Central Asia. Kazakhstan has moreover announced plans to host a conference on gender equality in Afghanistan soon. Last November, Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, hosted the 7th Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) meeting under the theme “Deepening Connectivity and Expanding Trade through Investment Infrastructure and Improving Synergy”.

In conclusion, it is hoped the Tashkent conference will keep the momentum alive for regional and multilateral efforts at promoting a peaceful political process in Afghanistan and reintegrating the country into the regional environment. In the end, Afghanistan’s security and prosperity depends on its neighbours, and vice versa. As such, Uzbekistan, bordering Afghanistan in addition to all central Asian countries, is well positioned to be a proactive contributor and integral part of any process for the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Mr Alberto TURKSTRA, Programme Coordinator, European Institute for Asian Studies

Photo Credit: Office of Chief of Staff for the President, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan