Central Asia and Afghanistan 2014: High-Risk Area

Central Asia and Afghanistan 2014: High-Risk Area

By Galia Ibragimova

Afghanistan’s presidential elections on April 5б 2014 did not deliver an outright winner, and the second round is scheduled for late May. Although people in Afghanistan, the adjacent regions and the wider world all cherish the hope that the future Afghan president will usher in an era of improvement and renewed development, many fear that the new leader will be no better than his predecessor, will fail to stabilize the domestic arena, where security remains the key concern. Besides, NATO is set to withdraw most of its contingent from Afghanistan by the end of this year, giving way both to fresh risks and new opportunities. These developments are closely watched by the Central Asian states, not least due to their impact on regional security.

 

We met with Farkhod Tolipov, PhD in Political Science, Director of Caravan of Knowledge, an Uzbek think tank, to hear his views on Afghanistan’s future, the magnitude of the Afghan threat for Central Asia, and developing relations between Kabul and other regional capitals.

 

President Hamid Karzai has been long haggling with the United States over the future security agreement, trying to ensure the Americans commit to certain obligations, which they resist. Is this bargaining appropriate, given Afghanistan’s troubles, and why is it going on at all?

 

Leaving Afghanistan out in the cold would imperil the admittedly modest results NATO has won during its lengthy and costly operation.

 

The presidential campaign in Afghanistan is still on, and Mr. Karzai, who is to step down soon, is definitely weighing up his own prospects. The critical rhetoric regarding the security agreement, aimed at the United States, is surely intended to win points in the eyes of his compatriots, although it also seems rather a subjective factor, intrinsic to his personality.

 

Despite the difficult negotiations between Mr. Karzai and Washington, I am sure that some international military presence in Afghanistan will remain, with or without a bilateral security agreement, since foreign troops had been set to stay in the country through 2024 long before these latest complications surfaced. Leaving Afghanistan out in the cold would imperil the admittedly modest results NATO has won during its lengthy and costly operation. And the Americans are fully cognizant of the risks involved.

 

The United States is often criticized for failing to significantly improve the situation within Afghanistan. How would you assess the past 13 years of U.S. and NATO presence in the country?

 

Accusing the United States of inefficiency or the incompleteness of their military operation in Afghanistan would be to oversimplify the reality.

 

First, the Americans toppled the Taliban, which had ruled the country since 1996. Current surveys show its popularity in Afghanistan at a mere three percent.

 

Second, the Americans have eliminated Osama bin Laden.

 

Third, thanks to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Afghanistan has launched an unprecedented rebuilding program covering peripheral areas, with help of so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams. In addition, Washington and NATO have managed to gather a broad coalition of states, involving them in the Afghan operation: unparalleled international cooperation united by the joint fight against terrorism.

 

Fourth, with the military operation almost over, Afghanistan seems to be acquiring institutions such as government bodies, security forces, the army, and the police.

 

Accusing the United States of inefficiency or the incompleteness of their military operation in Afghanistan would be to oversimplify the reality.

 

For Central Asian states, how grave are threats emanating from Afghanistan? How are they going to counter them after 2014?

 

Many threats for Central Asia will remain, due to geographic proximity alone, although this will be at a level well below that seen in 2001. The international military presence in Afghanistan has markedly bolstered the regional security environment through NATO and U.S.-sponsored exercises and border-guard training for Central Asian forces.

 

The key security threat lies in drug trafficking from Afghanistan, the source of about 30 percent of narcotics that enter Central Asia. And the Afghan economy is sure be hooked on drug revenues long after ISAF withdraws, making life still harder for Central Asian states.

 

The threats of terrorism and extremism in Central Asia will remain, although, if I may repeat myself, at a much lower level.

 

Let me remind you that before the tragic events of 9/11, when Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, terrorists used to carry out raids into Central Asian territories. Perceiving this as a common threat, the states set up a unified Coordination Headquarters, through which Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan harmonized their operations to neutralize particular terrorist groups arriving from Afghanistan. This kind of cooperation became a positive example of intergovernmental interaction, demonstrating that the potential in this area is enormous. Unfortunately, later, cooperation in this area evaporated, possibly because Afghanistan security issues became NATO's headache, rendering joint action by Central Asian states redundant.

 

One notable element of intergovernmental cooperation was the initiative on joint Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan action against Afghan threats that President Islam Karimov launched during his visit to Astana in September 2012. A month later, the issue – cooperation to counter Afghan threats after 2014 – was raised again during talks between President Karimov and Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, indicating that Central Asian states are looking for interregional cooperation arrangements to enhance security, albeit still on a bilateral basis.

 

ТMany threats for Central Asia will remain, due to geographic proximity alone, although this will be at a level well below that seen in 2001.

 

How does Uzbekistan see the situation in Afghanistan developing after 2014?

 

Uzbekistan has been always active in matters related to security in Afghanistan, repeatedly launching proposals on international assistance for their resolution. In the late 1990s, Tashkent initiated the "6+2" mediation group for Afghanistan, which incorporated six countries that share a border with Afghanistan plus Russia and the United States as powers capable of influencing the situation inside Afghanistan. This negotiations format existed until 2001, when the Afghan and global scene changed dramatically in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But in 2008, when the NATO operation in Afghanistan was established as a long-term commitment, Tashkent proposed reviving the contact group and including NATO. Unfortunately, this initiative was never implemented.

 

Later, Uzbekistan proclaimed the principle of bilaterality, although this approach sometimes proves unsuited to dealing with matters in relations with third countries. In a sense, by relying on bilateral relations in regional and international security issues, Uzbekistan has lost some assets and opportunities to influence the situation through broader, multilateral efforts.

 

Uzbekistan's involvement in Afghanistan includes active participation in the construction of: the railway to Mazar-e Sharif, schools, hospitals, and housing. Uzbekistan also provides Afghanistan with electricity. In other words, the Uzbek contribution to the rebuilding of Afghanistan is quite palpable.

 

How do you see the future relations between Central Asian states, particularly Uzbekistan, and NATO, the United States, Russia, and other parties involved in the Afghan conundrum post-2014?

 

Uzbekistan is often referred to as a proponent of pendulum politics, because Tashkent has displayed a certain tendency to switch its foreign policy stance.

 

In a sense, by relying on bilateral relations in regional and international security issues, Uzbekistan has lost some assets and opportunities to influence the situation through broader, multilateral efforts.

 

Relations between Central Asia, Russia, and the West are affected by the obsolete myth of great power competition in the region, which dominates the republics' foreign policy establishments. This approach is not one I share, as it sets limitations on the countries and makes them balance between the great powers, which results in the pendulum politics.

 

There does not seem to be any ready-made replacement for Russia's weight in Central Asia, and there is no off-the-peg substitute for U.S. influence. However, this does not mean that Russia and the United States have become or are becoming great, opposing, poles in Central Asia. Dialogue on regional cooperation would be a more productive approach.

 

 

RIAC

 

 

12.05.2014

 

  

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