On July 25-26, Tashkent will host an international conference “Afghanistan: Security and International Development.” Valdai Club expert Ulugbek Khasanov writes why it is crucial to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a source of permanent threats for the neighbouring countries, to ensure the participation of all ethnic and religious groups in the country’s social, political, and economic life as a key pre-requisite for the completion of the process of national reconciliation.
Modern international relations have earmarked Central Asia as a region that is once again opening up to the outside world; first of all against the backdrop of hopes for peace and stability after decades of war and suffering in Afghanistan. The country has real opportunities to emerge from its long-term internal crisis, socio-economic devastation and transition to the construction of a full-fledged state.
Today, one can observe many countries’ attempts to establish their own strategies, and this process will take concrete shape as positions of the states of the entire region strengthen. Afghanistan continues to be an exceptionally important vector of foreign policy interests, especially for the states of Central Asia as well as China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Russia, due to its special role in the world.
The experience of Afghanistan’s development throughout the 20th century has clearly shown that Afghanistan has always been central to the geopolitical interests of the world powers. The key reason for the crisis in Afghanistan was the consequences of the 1973 events and the Saur Revolution of 1978, when the country was essentially not ready to be transformed in accordance with socialist “patterns”: the nature and specifics of interethnic, intra-regional relations, national traditions, the role of religion were not taken into account. Serious disagreements within the PDPA between the Khalq and Parcham factions led to a split in Afghan society, on the one hand, and an increase in the role of external players on the other. Iran, Pakistan, the USA, and China sought to discredit and weaken the USSR.
The civil war of the early 1990s completely destroyed the country and plunged it into chaos, which was reflected in the radicalisation of Afghan society and the activation of extreme forms of religious fundamentalism. The political vacuum in the country was filled by supporters of the Mujahideen, which at that time transformed into the Taliban movement, and Al-Qaeda. In those years, the most serious challenge facing the states of the post-Soviet space was the spread of terrorism, which prompted them to pursue closer consolidation with Russia in developing and creating adequate forms of countering the emerging threat, the first of which was the Collective Security Treaty within the Commonwealth of Independent States, known as the “Tashkent Treaty”.
Many years of conflict in Afghanistan, the devastating impact of its complex set of internal contradictions, and the frequent change of priorities in the approaches of external players have further aggravated the situation in this strategically important point in Central Asia. The fiasco that unravelled last year amid the hasty US departure from Afghanistan, led to a severe crisis in the country and revealed a number of systemic causes of the current situation: a lack of understanding of the causal factors of the Afghan crisis, the ethno-cultural, religious, tribal and traditional values of Afghan society, as well as many other less painful prerequisites for protracted conflict.
In fact, the current situation in Afghanistan dates back to September 18, 2001, when the US Senate and House of Representatives adopted a joint and extremely short (only five sentences and two sections) Congressional resolution authorizing the use of military force (PL107-40/107th Congress). American officials and researchers often cite this document as a “justification” for the invasion of Afghanistan. Despite promises not to enter into a dialogue with terrorist organisations, in July 2018, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wales held a private meeting in the capital of Qatar with representatives of the political office of the Taliban Movement, which further led to the signing of an agreement on the last day of February 2020.
The hastily-drafted document did not provide for a specific mechanism for the formation of a coalition government, the transfer of control over the armed forces, financial resources, the problem of refugees and many other vital aspects of the transition period. Most importantly, the negotiations and discussion of the future of Afghanistan were held separately, behind closed doors, and the institution of international guarantors of the fulfilment of the terms of agreements or groups of international observers was completely absent, despite the fact that such a practice is recognized as fundamental and widespread in international legal and diplomatic activity.
Today, some features of the events of thirty years ago are still instructive. Then, despite the haste of Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev’s promises to President Ronald Reagan during the summit on December 8, 1987 in Washington and the decision on the imminent withdrawal of the Limited Contingent of Soviet Troops from Afghanistan, Soviet diplomacy made every effort to make this process legal and transparent. The negotiations in Geneva from the very beginning assumed a direct dialogue between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan (representing the interests of the Mujahideen) through the mediation of the UN. Most importantly, the two superpowers, the USSR and the USA, supervised the phased withdrawal of troops, acting as the guarantors of the implementation of the agreements. The package of documents signed on April 14, 1988 provided for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghan territory within nine months, the conditions for national reconciliation, and the cessation of interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. As some experts rightly point out, in the 2-3 years following the end of 1988, 81% of provincial centres, 46.8% of the county and local centres, and 23.5% of the provinces remained under the control of the pro-Soviet government of what was then called the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, DRA government forces controlled most of the country’s territory (26 out of 28 provinces, 114 out of 187 county centres and 6,110 villages), while the opposition armed groups controlled only two provinces — Bamiyan and Tolukan, as well as 76 counties. Najibullah’s government collapsed after the complete cessation of economic assistance from the Soviet Union in the very beginning of the 90s, which later resulted in detrimental consequences.
The current negotiation process with representatives of the Taliban government has taken on new significance, especially in the context of multilateral efforts to overcome the humanitarian chaos that has developed over the past decades and help create conditions for overcoming the severe economic crisis. This further compels the southern neighbour of the Central Asian states to pursue full-scale cooperation and defines a sustainable political future for Afghanistan. This is why it is crucial to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a source of permanent threats for the neighbouring countries, to ensure the participation of all ethnic and religious groups in the country’s social, political, and economic life as a key pre-requisite for the completion of the process of national reconciliation.
The countries of the region, as traditional and natural parties to the negotiation process, maintain balanced and constructive relations with representatives of the Afghan government, which sees it as the main force in the Eurasian security system, where Central Asia has occupied and will continue to occupy an important determining position. In particular, this is clearly seen in the example of several international platforms: the International Contact Group on Afghanistan, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, the Moscow Format, as well as the 6+2 and 6+3 Contact Groups initiated by Uzbekistan. These were reinvigorated by the head of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the framework of the high-level international conferences on Afghanistan, titled “Peace Process, Security Cooperation and Regional Interaction” and “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities”, held in March 2018 and July 2021 respectively. They also include consultative meetings of various formats on a peaceful settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. Similar topics underpinned the visit of an official Uzbek delegation to Kabul and negotiations with the leadership and members of the interim government of Afghanistan, held in early October 2021, which had rather constructive results. Already amid the new conditions, the issues of developing the geo-economic potential and opportunities of the Termez – Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar Trans-Afghan corridor, which since the end of last year has been the focus of Uzbek-Afghan-Pakistani political consultations, have come to the fore.
In the near future, such a trans-regional logistics project will most likely serve as the main transport corridor, connecting the states of Central Asia along the shortest route (only 760 km) to the Karakorum corridor and further to the Pakistani seaports of Karachi-Qasim and Gwadar. This would reduce the length of almost all existing transit networks in the region by 30% with a predicted cargo transportation volume of at least 15-20 million tons per year. The significance and effectiveness of the trans-Afghan project is associated with the synchronisation of the construction of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China railway, which connects China with the countries of Central Asia along an alternative trans-regional route (433 km), which will significantly increase the volume of traffic due to cargo from China reaching the countries of Central and South Asia and vice versa, and also significantly activates the cargo turnover flows of the North-South and East-West corridors. Last May, Acting Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Vladimir Norov announced that a High-Level International Conference would be held on July 25-26 Afghanistan in Tashkent, in which the representatives of 21 countries and 12 authoritative international organisations have expressed an interest. The Taliban officials are expected to voice their vision and approaches to creating an inclusive government, and the assembled nations will determine a number of conditions for the international recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
In other words, a new format of dialogue is being formed in the region. Representatives of states, international organisations, experts and the official delegation of the Afghan interim government are determined to search for optimal approaches in the post-conflict reconstruction of their southern neighbour in order to overcome the humanitarian crisis in the country. According to a new report from the UN Mission in Afghanistan, released on July 22, “at least 59 per cent of the population is now in need of humanitarian assistance – an increase of six million people compared with the beginning of 2021”.
This why priority will be given to continuation of the supplies of cereals, seeds, potash fertilizers, agricultural equipment and industrial production, development and construction of interstate railway networks, the Surkhan-Puli-Khumri power line, the Centre for the Reception and Distribution of Humanitarian Aid and the Educational Centre for the Training of Afghan Engineers for the Operation and Maintenance of Railways in Termez, funded by the government of Uzbekistan. These efforts are aimed at determining how Afghanistan can obtain legal-subject status in the community of states, overcoming international isolation and creating favourable conditions for its involvement in regional, world-political and economic relations, which will directly affect the maintenance of stability throughout the geopolitical macro-region of Central and South Asia.
Undoubtedly, the well-coordinated activities of states in the international arena, on such a vital issue for the entire region as the peace and sustainable development of Afghanistan, will give impetus to the process of recognising its international legal subjectivity. Describing the pattern of such trends, Sodiq Safoyev, First Deputy of the Senate of the Republic of Uzbekistan, noted that today there is “... the need to create a legal, and in the future, an institutional framework for interaction on the key issues of the international agenda and, first of all, to promote the socio-economic recovery of Afghanistan. The main factor in making a favourable environment in Central Asia irreversible is the strengthening of confidence-building measures. It is important to formulate principles, conceptual foundations for understanding the essence of processes, in the development of which not only state and non-governmental, but also private business structures play a significant role.”
The creation of a new political climate in the region indicates that the process of more closely involving the peoples and countries of Central Asia in strengthening peace and stability in the region has become an objective reality, and openness in relations between the closest neighbours lays the foundations for sustainable development throughout the entire region.