Relations between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have been warming up recently. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks at the presidential palace in Kabul on July 15, 2018. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Haroon Sabawoon
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks at the presidential palace in Kabul in July 2018. Photo: AFP / Anadolu / Haroon Sabawoon

The Taliban, against the backdrop of tightening Uzbek-Afghan relations, last week paid a landmark visit to Tashkent, heralding new regional stature for the militant group.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry on Saturday released a terse statement confirming the visit had occurred.

A Taliban delegation, led by the head of its political office in Doha, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, visited Tashkent and the two sides “exchanged views on prospects of the peace process in Afghanistan,” it said.

The Taliban has been more forthcoming with details.

A press statement said the five-day visit (August 6-11) took place on the basis of a formal invitation from Tashkent and talks were held with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and the Special Representative of the President of Uzbekistan for Afghanistan Ismatulla Irgashev.

The parties discussed the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country as well as “current and future national projects such as security for railroad and power lines,” the Taliban said in a press release.

The Uzbeks have previously engaged in direct dealings with the Taliban.

Kamilov himself is known to have visited Afghanistan and negotiated with the Taliban government in the late 1990s.

Irgashev, too, is a familiar face to the Taliban, having served as deputy foreign minister under Kamilov.

But this is the first time that a Taliban delegation has visited Tashkent for formal talks at the Uzbek Foreign Ministry.

No doubt, this is an extraordinary development. It significantly enhances the Taliban’s regional profile and standing and is precedent setting.

Growing economic ties

In the run-up to the Taliban visit, relations between Tashkent and the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani have been exceptionally warm.

Bilateral exchanges intensified in the past year with Uzbek companies picking up lucrative contracts in northern Afghanistan.

The United States has actively encouraged such collaboration.

Washington backed the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan on March 27, sending US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon to attend alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

It was patently intended as a Track 1.5 event to marshal some degree of regional consensus behind an “Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled” peace process, without preconditions.

President Donald Trump rewarded Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev with an invitation to visit the White House on May 16, a major coup for the Central Asian leader.

Indeed, things have been going splendidly well in the US-Afghan-Uzbek triangle.

Relations between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan were strengthened on July 9, when Uzbek Foreign Minister Kamilov paid a visit to Afghan President Ghani in Kabul.

They planned for a number of major investment projects, including a free trade zone spread over 3,000 hectares on the Uzbek-Afghan border, a $500 million railway project to connect Mazar-i-Sharif with Herat (linking northern and western Afghanistan), and the establishment of six textile factories in Afghanistan by Uzbek companies.

The Uzbeks make their foreign policy moves very cautiously and the Taliban meeting in Tashkent last week doesn’t signify a U-turn in the Uzbek policies toward Afghanistan.

Ostensibly, the Taliban visit follows up on an offer made by Mirziyoyev in March.

“We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and Taliban movement,” Mirziyoyev said.

It is improbable the Taliban will accept Ghani as its interlocutor.

But to be sure, Tashkent closely coordinated with Kabul, as well as Washington.

US officials engaged in landmark direct talks with the Taliban in Doha last month, and a second round is expected in September.

Clearly, Washington has encouraged Tashkent to be a peace broker between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Consistent with the Uzbek style of diplomacy, Tashkent touched base with Moscow before the Taliban arrived, with Kamilov making a phone call to Lavrov on July 31.

The readout from Russian Foreign Ministry cryptically said the two ministers “exchanged opinions on topical bilateral matters and cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan on the international agenda.”

Counterweight to Islamic State

There is a dire necessity today for Tashkent to maintain a direct line to the Taliban as the security situation in the Amu Darya region bordering Uzbekistan is steadily deteriorating.

The growing presence of Islamic State-Khorasan in northern Afghanistan worries Uzbekistan. Its ranks have a preponderance of fighters drawn from the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has vowed to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Ghani’s ill-advised standoff with the Uzbek leader in Amu Darya, Rashid Dostum, has seriously destabilized the northern region.

Dostum’s yearlong exile in Turkey only worked to the advantage of Islamic State.

Ghani finally made peace with Dostum, going overboard and welcoming him back to Kabul last month in a grand ceremony.

But by then, the ground realities in northern Afghanistan had changed phenomenally.

The old stability that Dostum once provided as the protege of Tashkent, and then the Americans, has disappeared.

In sum, Dostum is today a freewheeling entity and no more the uncrowned king of the Amu Darya.

And it is the Taliban that has emerged as the most promising counterweight to the Islamic State-Khorasan.

In such murky situations, the Uzbek mind never loses clarity of purpose. Realism always prevails.

Tashkent sees the Taliban as a meaningful interlocutor for today and tomorrow on the Afghan chessboard.

For the Taliban, this is a game changer.

It has crossed the Rubicon in its long search for gaining international legitimacy.

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