President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani is on an official visit to Uzbekistan. He arrived on December 4 and started his visit today, on December 5 with a meeting with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The Afghan leader laid flowers to the Independence and Humanism Monument in the Independence Square, visited Hazrati Imom mosque where he familiarized himself with Koran Osman manuscript. Ashraf Ghani will finish his visit with a lecture at Bukhara University. Local media have already called it a landmark visit.
These are not mere words. The Afghan president has visited Tashkent for the first time over the last 16 years. Although Uzbekistan has come out for peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict and called Kabul’s involvement in regional projects expedient, it has kept distance from Afghanistan until recently and passed from words to deeds most cautiously. Such caution is normal, considering that the situation in Afghanistan has been unstable and with obscure prospects for many years. The country is deemed to be a source of challenges and threats.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Ashraf Ghani discussed the Uzbek-Afghan relations and priority cooperation areas in the long-term outlook. The sides focused of such issues as fighting terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking, as well as upgrading security in Central Asia. The talks resulted in a general joint statement. The two presidents signed a package of intergovernmental and inter-department documents.
In particular, the sides agreed to provide security to the Hairatan Bridge linking the two countries, set up joint commissions on security, transit of cargoes, construction of a new 500kWt power transmission line from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, cooperation in the construction of Mazari-Sharif to Herat railway. Besides, the sides agreed to provide assistance in family-related, civil and criminal cases, determine border crossing points and cooperate in the field of governance. Some agreements were signed between agricultural, educational, health care and standardization departments.
Talking to EADaily, Omar Nessar, director of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA), said the Afghan president’s visit to Tashkent is significant as it took place amid Uzbekistan’s efforts to change its policy towards neighbors, including Afghanistan.
“Uzbekistan’s policy resembles Turkmenistan’s policy of recent years. Central Asian countries perceive Afghanistan as a threat, a source of instability. There are certain risks, indeed, but they do not hold Turkmenistan from trying to establish good-neighbored relations with Afghanistan. Ashgabat has even embarked on some quite expensive projects, though without any serious success so far,” Omar Nessar says.
He said Tashkent used to declare such policy, calling inadmissible the settlement of the intra-Afghan conflict by force. Nevertheless, it has not invested in any project. “The situation has changed. It is normal. Uzbekistan believes that future cooperation with Afghanistan is possible. I am speaking about big projects involving financial organizations, such as Asian Development Bank, World Bank and others. It is hard to say if these projects will be implemented. For instance, they even launched the construction of TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) gas pipeline. However, I think the situation in the territory of Afghanistan is not stable enough for implementation of such project. Therefore, perhaps, the projects planned by Tashkent will greatly depend on the security level and stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan,” Omar Nessar said.
Talking to EADaily, the political analyst draws attention to the following circumstance: as soon as a project takes shapes, situation in the region where it is set to be implemented grows tense. “For instance, Badakhshan. Just two years ago, China expressed an interest in the Badakhshan corridor and the tensions in that region have increased dramatically. The project was postponed until things go better. Some countries take advantage of that weak point of Afghanistan and the government’s failure to control its own territory, and use that situation against rivals in the region. Uzbekistan is not an exception – without security guarantees, it will hardly step up efforts to boost economic cooperation,” Nessar says.
It is still unclear who can undertake security of some specific projects at least theoretically. Although, Afghan government has repeatedly promised to set up special police units, such scenario is hardly possible in nowadays Afghanistan. They will have to deal with the groups that cause instability. I mean Taliban, “Islamic State” (ISIS, a terrorist organization banned in Russia) and forces of the former Northern Alliance in the uncontrolled or poorly controlled north of the country.
“They will have to make arrangements with these groups. U.S. regularly speaks of its readiness to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and liberate it from ISIS. However, U.S. will do it mostly through air strikes. In Afghanistan, air strikes can tend to be inaccurate, especially in the north. It is very hard to differentiate those groups. For instance, by some data, ISIS coordinates its actions with Taliban in some areas, whereas they act independently in others. How to recognize them? If Americans strike Taliban targets they may help ISIS. If they hit the forces of the former Northern Alliance, Taliban and ISIS will gain from that. I cannot even imagine how they are going to implement that operation,” Omar Nessar says. He thinks that such operation will drive all those groups closer to the border with the Central Asian region.
EADaily Central Asian Bureau