Strategic uncertainty in Uzbekistan`s Afghanistan policy
Farkhod Tolipov (CACI/Universal)

TASHKENT - Thursday, July 07, 2011 - Some years ago, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov used the expression “strategic uncertainty” to describe the ambiguous geopolitical situation emerging in Central Asia due to the complex game played by great powers in and over the region. Recent trends in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, especially towards Afghanistan, reveal a strategic uncertainty in its own right due to Uzbekistan’s recent controversial moves on the international arena. In turn, this perplexity reflects the ambiguity of geopolitical trends in the entire region. Uzbekistan is well positioned to play a role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but needs to revise its foreign policy in line with emerging regional realities.

BACKGROUND: Uzbekistan has continuously sought to draw international attention to the problem of Afghanistan, and has put forward official statements and initiatives reflecting Uzbekistan’s view of solutions to the conflict in several international forums over the years. The four key points in Uzbekistan’s official position towards Afghanistan are that Afghanistan’s territory has become a sanctuary for international terrorist organizations which pose threats to international security; a critical view of the international community’s inadequate efforts to resolve Afghanistan’s problems; a conviction that the UN should play a leading role in resolving the Afghan crisis; and that Uzbekistan has always been interested in establishing direct and positive ties with Afghanistan’s authorities and contributing to the country’s reconstruction. However, recent developments in the Afghanistan campaign, especially in the context of the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, have confused Uzbekistan’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Since 2008, Uzbekistan has been obsessed with its initiative to establish a 6+3 format of negotiations, including six neighbors of Afghanistan plus the U.S., the Russian Federation, and NATO. This was an attempt to consolidate the regional dimension of the Afghan problem. Already in the late 1990s, Uzbekistan initiated a 6+2 format, which existed until 2001 but was abandoned after 9/11. Both formats have revealed serious limitations of regional approaches.

The 6+3 format has suffered from insufficient support. While it is the only tangible regional proposal for the time being, it also has serious weaknesses. First, the proposal came late and largely serves as a means for engaging the U.S. in Afghanistan, while the U.S. plans to disengage. Second, NATO itself deals with each neighboring state separately on issues relating to Afghanistan and does not engage them on any regional basis. The same goes for the U.S. and Russia. Third, the format does not include Afghanistan, and also leaves out India which is an important actor in the region.

Fourth, one question to which there is no consensus either among the neighboring countries or among interested third parties, is whether to engage in negotiations with the Taliban. This certainly complicates the prospects for any regional approach.

IMPLICATIONS: The foreign policy steps Uzbekistan has recently taken are only partly the product of strategic calculations. They are simultaneously a result of larger geopolitical changes in the region.

The concept of regionalizing the Afghan process has its strengths and weaknesses. Its strength is obvious: a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in the interest of regional countries. Therefore, a more extensive involvement in the Afghan process on their part is much needed and expected. But the concept’s weakness is also obvious for two reasons. First, the strategic positions of regional states regarding Afghanistan are not always compatible, which contributes to strategic uncertainty. Second, the Afghan crisis itself is not so much a regional issue as a global one.

At the OSCE summit in Astana on December 1-2, 2010, Uzbekistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Norov made a speech containing two controversial statements. First, “Uzbekistan will construct its relations with Afghanistan only on a bilateral basis and will not participate in any programs and projects adopted on a collective or block base”. This statement contrasts with Uzbekistan’s inclination to cooperate with NATO on Afghan affairs, which is reflected in the initiation of the 6+3 format – in any case a multilateral design. Second, “There is no military solution to the Afghan problem, and the strategy of the coalition forces does not yield expected results”. This statement was also controversial because the overall success of the coalition forces in Afghanistan since October 2001 is obvious.

On the other hand, in a speech given in Samarkand in December 2010, President Islam Karimov expressed serious concern with the perspective of U.S. troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. He said that after the withdrawal, Uzbekistan will have to stand face-to-face with Afghanistan, and should therefore do its best to maintain and develop traditional friendly relations with this country. He added that Uzbekistan will not pursue any pro- or anti- policy regarding its interactions with great powers over Afghanistan, but conduct its own independent policy based on national interests. This statement also seems to conceal strategic uncertainty because “conducting an independent policy based on national interests” can contradict the task of conducting a coordinated policy based on the international agenda for Afghanistan.

In such conditions, Tashkent is eager to demonstrate that it actively participates in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s assistance to Afghanistan includes providing its airspace and basing rights to international coalition forces for deliveries of humanitarian cargo; constructing electric transmission lines for electricity export; constructing the Khayraton – Mazar-i-Sharif railroad; reconstructing the Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul highway; building new schools, hospitals and other infrastructure in Afghanistan; and direct bilateral trade and economic cooperation.

However, economic relations between Central Asia and Afghanistan remain quite modest. Afghanistan’s share in Uzbekistan’s foreign trade is about 1.3 percent, while Uzbekistan’s share in Afghanistan’s foreign trade is about 3 percent. Afghanistan’s trade turnover with the five neighboring countries constitutes about 8-10 percent of all its foreign trade.

In sum, regional economic cooperation has yet to develop and can become effective only with the successful reconstruction of Afghanistan. Understanding that in the short term perspective the current status quo in the neighboring country will hardly change for the better and that strategic uncertainty will protract in the entire region, especially in the context of the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. forces, Tashkent’s policies vis-à-vis Afghanistan have become increasingly uncertain.

CONCLUSIONS: Two interrelated factors stemming from the Afghan question affect Tashkent’s regional and international behavior. First, political and analytical circles in Uzbekistan are skeptical of U.S. plans to withdraw its forces. Second, the concept of a regional approach to resolving the Afghan crisis cannot be utilized practically because it contradicts the strategies chosen by the regional countries. Against this context, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy posture towards Afghanistan appears ambivalent.

Given its strategic controversies and the current confusion in its foreign policy towards Afghanistan, two issues need to be addressed from Uzbekistan’s perspective: First, Uzbekistan is a key state north of Afghanistan and can both benefit and lose from the status quo in that country. It can benefit internationally but lose locally. The status quo helps Tashkent to position itself as an important strategic actor in Central and South Asian affairs and thereby boost its international credibility; however, the status quo poses permanent national security challenges which Tashkent needs to terminate or reduce.

Second, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy strategy needs to be updated in line with current geopolitical trends in the region. In particular, Tashkent should give up its obsolete 6+3 concept and replace it with other initiatives, more adequate to meeting the new situation in Afghanistan.