Afghanistan’s Other Neighbor

Source: Getty
Uzbek officials have deep and valuable insights into Afghanistan. Washington would do well to pay attention.
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The United States and Pakistan have just signed a memorandum of understanding detailing conditions for reopening the border with Afghanistan to NATO transit traffic, closed after a friendly fire incident killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. Thousands of fuel tankers and gaudily caparisoned cargo trucks are untangling seven-month-old snarls at ports and windswept border posts, to lumber back onto the roads. But that breakthrough should not detract from the importance another of Afghanistan’s neighbors: Uzbekistan.

By demonstrating to U.S. and allied officials the fragility of the critical Pakistan land route, the long blockade abruptly raised interest in Uzbekistan. Negotiating teams from key NATO countries have been cycling through Tashkent to hammer out details of bilateral transit agreements. But Uzbekistan is worthy of attention not just for its infrastructure—the Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya River and the lone rail link to Afghanistan embedded in its tarmac. Uzbekistan’s president and much of its top leadership have held office since a year after the Soviets departed Afghanistan across that same bridge in 1989. Their personal relationships with key Afghan actors are long-standing and intimate, their insights into Afghan dynamics profound. And they, like many Afghans, seem already to be operating in a post-2014 world. Washington might have something to learn.

U.S. policymakers usually consider Afghanistan in its region by way of a two-state construct: AfPak. Further discussion may bring India into the mix, at least theoretically, and Iran, as a poorly defined threat to stability and the U.S. mission. China looms on the periphery, mainly noted for its ties to Pakistan and its investment potential. Uzbekistan is, at best, an afterthought. And yet, a stroll through back neighborhoods in the Ferghana Valley, watered by canals and shaded by grape arbors vaulting the quiet streets, conjures nothing so much as what Kabul must have looked like before the wars. The cultural commonalities with much of Afghanistan are arresting.

While present in fewer numbers than in Pakistan or Iran, Afghans travel and live in Uzbekistan, and those encountered, from senior diplomats to an itinerant rug merchant, are enthusiastic about the country and the role it has played in theirs—in contrast to the attitudes of most Afghans toward Pakistan. That rug merchant boasts of forwarding 2 percent of his profits to Abdul Rashid Dostum, mercurial former Afghan general and warlord, seen as a leader of the ethnic Uzbek community. Every businessman he knows, claims the merchant, even non-Afghan citizens, tithes likewise.

This active involvement in affairs across the border offers insight into the role the Uzbek government may also be playing in Afghanistan. U.S. officials privately bemoan what they describe as Uzbekistan’s standoffish attitude. They measure that by the government’s reluctance to participate in the grandiose international conferences that have punctuated international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and plan for its future development: Lisbon, Kabul, Bonn, Tokyo. But just because Uzbek officials stay away from these highly orchestrated spectacles (perhaps judging them more flash than bang) does not mean they are not paying attention to their southern neighbor.

The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, is believed to set little store by the legitimacy or competence of the Karzai government or its ability to withstand—militarily or diplomatically—the withdrawal of most NATO troops by December 2014. He, like many others, seems to judge disintegration into civil conflict a likely scenario, with combat and extremist incursions potentially swirling up against his border. That outcome would represent a serious national security threat to Uzbekistan.

Karimov’s implacable stance against radical Islam is legendary—though he may underestimate some of its secular drivers, such as the sort of acute corruption seen to characterize his rule. He maintains long-standing ties with key figures from the anti-Taliban fight of the 1990s, some of whom own homes in Uzbekistan. It is hard to believe that he or his people are not deep in discussions with them about contingencies—ignoring Karzai government and international institutions, and functioning, for all intents and purposes, under post-2014 conditions. The mid-July assassination in northern Afghanistan of an ethnic Uzbek former mujahideen commander and key opposition political figure, Ahmad Khan Samanghani, suggests that the Islamist militant side, too, is looking past 2014 and targeting Afghan leaders capable of rallying northern forces against a Taliban advance, whatever their connections to the Karzai government.

Shafiullah Afghan, who was chief of staff to the provincial police chief in Balkh, the Afghan province that neighbors Uzbekistan, in 2004 and 2005, says significant arms shipments were crossing the Friendship Bridge into Afghanistan back then. “We were telling ISAF officers about the ‘sea-cans’ and containers of Kalashnikovs,” he says. Uzbek and Western observers express complete conviction that, in case of serious conflict in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan will support northern, anti-Taliban forces, militarily as well as financially or morally.

Transport of arms or munitions could turn the Friendship Bridge into a legitimate military target from the perspective of Pakistan, which is now recognized as backing Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials should be concerned that the Uzbek government, by planning for a contingency it judges to be probable and dangerous, may inadvertently exacerbate the threat. But the embedded opportunity here is the deep experience of Afghanistan that Uzbek officials possess. U.S. policymakers might do well to take time to listen to how Uzbeks see events in Afghanistan playing out, and perhaps to base some contingency planning of their own on the insights. Uzbeks’ relationships and potential leverage with key Afghan interlocutors are also precious assets. What about some quiet meetings in Tashkent with Afghans and Uzbeks, to brainstorm creative ways out of a presaged implosion? In these dangerous days, Uzbekistan is worthy of focus. And the country’s recent withdrawal from the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization can be read as a sign of its interest in engaging.

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Comments (2)

  • Nick Fielding
    1 Recommend
    This is, to say the least, a very naive article. Karimov, according to most sources, is widely loathed by his people. Stability in Uzbekistan is guaranteed by a regime that routinely practices torture and murders its own citizens. According to Amnestry Interational in 2011: "Reports of torture or other ill-treatment continued unabated. Dozens of members of minority religious and Islamic groups were given long prison terms after unfair trials. Human rights defenders continued to be imprisoned after unfair trials. The authorities forcefully rejected all international calls for an independent, international investigation into the mass killings of protesters."
    As for Dostum, he is one of the worst of the Afghan warlords, guilty of war crimes. Rather than thinking about how the United States can partner with Uzbekistan to plan a post-2014 Afghanistan, strategists would be better employed in planning for a post-Karimov Uzbekistan.
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  • Frank from London
    I agree with Nick Fielding that strategists would be better employed planning for a post Karimov regime. Uzbekistan is a kleptocracy, and what better way to get the ill-gotten gains away from rivals than to have a daughter in the "jewellery" business with diplomatic status. The Central Bank Governor is thus kept in the dark about such FX transactions? If you want to know where the money goes, check this address on Google maps "chemin de la Prévôté 7, Cologny, in Geneva. Gulnara Karimova bought it for 18,200,000 euros. You can use Google satellite to see it from the air, but not from the street (it is a private road). Her sister owns a similar place a few hundred yards away on the other side of the golf course, set a little further back from Lake Geneva at 1253 Vandœuvres (bought for 43,500,000 euros) in the name of Timur Tilayaev (Lola Karimova's partner). Of course as a sceptical researcher you must be wondering how Gulnara with her catwalk model looks and her groomed image of doing "charity work" can be involved in anything nefarious, then you need to research some stories on business theft and dilution scams in Uzbekistan. (Uzbekistan is the fourth most corrupt country in the world according to one survey). Your own Newmont Mining (the largest gold miner in the world) suffered (American employees became targets of arrest warrants as a result of a business disagreement). Then there was Oxus Gold, a British mining company in which Gulnara's company, Zeromax, took a stake in it at a price that was depressed by an Uzbek Govt. announcement to bankrupt the company with a $220m back-tax claim, only for the claim to be withdrawn as soon as the deal was consummated. Then there was Metal-Tech (an Israeli company who had its business bankrupted for repatriating loan interest: the Uzbeks decided it was a dividend payment and therefore the Uzbek 50% equity partner needed a matching "dividend" pay-out, and so it goes on ad nauseam. Your own Tashkent ambassador, Mr Purnell, said in the Wiki leaks papers that Gulnara was the single most hated person in the country. I expect the combination of doing charity work and business theft at the same time perhaps has something to do with that. On the grounds of group grievances, factionalised elites and poor human rights, Uzbekistan is ripe for the next Arab spring. Nick Fielding is correct: better to plan for a post Karimov era.
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