The Afghan Question and Kyrgyzstan

The situation in Afghanistan is among the most difficult international problems for Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states. More precisely, there are several fundamental factors shaping Afghanistan‘s present and, what’s more, its future, with the potential to affect the future of the entire region. These factors certainly include drug production in Afghanistan and the sluggish international response, transformative trends in ideological and financial support for terrorism and extremism in connection with the rise of ISIS in that country, and others.

I would like to stress right away that, from my point of view, we should keep in mind the symbolism of the term “Afghan threat,” while speculating about threats emanating from that country, because the geography of threats, risks and challenges today is much wider than one country as implied by the term “Afghan factor.”

The entire situation generates several questions:

Are the international public assessments and analyses of the situation in Afghanistan accurate? Do they square with assessments formulated by the Central Asian countries?

Estimates offered by countries and international organizations that seem to have certain justified interests in Afghanistan, which are recognized by other international actors, generally don’t inspire a positive perception of the situation in that country. Incompatible positions revealing the different and occasionally irreconcilable interests involved in the “Afghan process” are behind proposals and recommendations that differ in substance and, most importantly, in how they assess future developments and ultimately the concrete plans and actions of the so-called concerned parties.

Kyrgyzstan’s own assessment is a mixture of alarmism and skepticism. Its alarmism is occasionally excessive, while some Afghan and international factors are either blown out of all proportion or, on the contrary, ignored. All of this prompts Bishkek’s ongoing distrust of goings-on related to Afghanistan. It is essential to overcome this distrust to enable a real analysis and adequate appraisal of the situation in Afghanistan. Moreover, all of this creates an atmosphere of political and diplomatic discomfort both at the bilateral and multilateral levels internationally. It is also obvious that being aware of the urgency of providing assistance to Afghanistan combines bizarrely with a hidden striving to shut off anything related to that country. By all evidence, there are also subjective reasons for this being so.

According to some Afghan experts, “Today people in Afghanistan are highly distrustful of the international community as compared with when the international military presence was just established in 2001” (Prof. A.G. Lival, Afghan Center for Regional Studies).

As a political and humanitarian issue, distrust is the most sensitive factor in relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors and between Afghanistan’s neighbors themselves.

To this day, Kyrgyzstan’s main evaluative dimension has been that Afghanistan is and presumably will be in the future the principal source of cross-border crime and other dangers. Shared by other Central Asian states, this approach will not change in the short term. Moreover, it is likely to become even more pessimistic under the significant influence of developments in Syria, Iraq and more generally in the wide zone stretching from Maghreb to Afghanistan, where national states are being destroyed and conflicts are growing between both countries in the region and participants from elsewhere.

The situation in long-suffering Afghanistan is also increasingly alarming as ISIS steps up its operations there. Afghanistan’s current foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani, said in this connection: “Today they [ISIS] are not very numerous and are rather one of many groups pitted against the Taliban, but we must take this threat very seriously, given their growing popularity.”

These assessments give rise to the following questions:

Could Afghanistan even presumably be regarded as a state with a potential to engage in constructive relations, including in politics, culture, trade and investment? Should this issue already now be put on the foreign policy agendas of Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan? Attempts are being made within the Istanbul Process to portray Afghanistan as making strides and capable of doing even better in its transit and infrastructure role as a link between Central and South Asia.

Washington’s New Silk Road proposal is a multi-purpose project whose implementation will largely depend on US military, political, financial and investment sponsorship, and Russian and Chinese political support. We should add the problem of trust between the participants in the electricity transmission project (CASA-1000) and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline).

This brings to the fore yet another question:

What future lies in store for Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors?

There are several public forecasts of what will happen if the US withdraws all its forces from Afghanistan.

Diplomats, experts and specialists in various fields believe that Afghanistan can exist as (1) a unitary state, (2) a federation or (3) a confederation.

Most experts correctly understand the situation and forecast a negative trajectory. They hope, however, that Afghanistan will, in the long run, become a peaceful and stable developing state, without saying how this will be achieved in practice. Others propose “Afghan revival” projects that are unacceptable for both Afghan political forces and external actors. (We must say for fairness’ sake that it is a tall order to propose a project or a program that would be supported by everyone inside and outside Afghanistan.)

As I see it, there are several factors contributing to the current situation in Afghanistan:

1.     The politicians and experts who claimed that the US had an entry but no exit strategy were obviously right. At any rate, the current state of affairs is generating suspicion and justified worry. The new US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement can hardly be described as a strategic approach to the problem. But the most important thing is that the likely US pullout may leave the country even worse off than before.

2.     The neighboring countries’ approaches are controversial. On the one hand, most of them want the Americans to leave. But, on the other, they know that an international withdrawal may trigger an escalation of violence and increase military, political, social, humanitarian and economic problems, with the conflict spreading outside of Afghanistan. We must add that none of them objected to President Obama’s intention to leave US forces after 2016.

3.     Kyrgyzstan, like other countries in the region, is increasingly aware that it should somehow join the effort to solve the “Afghan problem” that was earlier delegated to the United States and other major powers. Otherwise disloyal projects could be offered from the outside. At the same time, rebuilt infrastructure links on the Tajik-Afghan and Uzbek-Afghan borders make one cautiously optimistic that this will be followed by the emergence of trade and economic cooperation.

Unlike Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan has very few interests in Afghanistan and its general approach to the Afghan situation is based on perceptions and concepts borrowed from other countries in the region, Russia, the CSTO and the SCO. No matter what scholars and experts say, this is the optimal, most objective and fairest way to formulate a position on Afghanistan for a small country like Kyrgyzstan. Why so?

First, Kyrgyzstan lacks a shared border with Afghanistan. Its geographic remoteness and linguistic and cultural differences make the perception of danger somewhat nebulous, if towering.

Second, unlike many of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan lacks ethnic-related interests, which obviates the emergence of ethnic solidarity, along with perceptions of danger and challenges. A small number of the Kyrgyz living in Badakhshan, Afghanistan, are more of a humanitarian than a military-political or economic problem. At any rate, it is not a source of danger or basis for demanding certain political or other privileges. Proposals to resettle these people in Kyrgyzstan appear from time to time, but disappear just as fast as they came. Occasionally humanitarian aid is delivered to the area. But that is all.

My country’s government and expert community are more concerned about the migration of Kyrgyz who are members of various terrorist and extremist groups based in the Tribal Areas in Pakistan or in northern Afghanistan. But this is not an ethnic-related problem.

Third, it is hard to define Kyrgyzstan’s trade and economic interests in Afghanistan. Even if they exist, they are so scarce that don’t lend themselves to a broad discussion.

Clearly, it is not very easy for Kyrgyzstan to promote bilateral relations with Afghanistan. There are a number of obvious reasons for that, some of which were mentioned earlier. Therefore, the best way for Bishkek to become involved in “Afghan affairs” is through its membership in international organizations engaged in addressing Afghanistan’s problems, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO would do well to establish a Committee for Friendship and Cooperation with Afghanistan that could include not only member-states but also observers and dialogue partners.

Muratbek Imanaliev is President of the Institute of Public Policy, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, former Secretary General of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.