President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani has recently paid an official visit to Uzbekistan. His meeting with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has resulted in signing of 20 agreements in fields of trade, transit, security, electricity and education. As a matter of fact, relations between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have seen an upper trajectory in last one year, marked by sustained political dialogue and high economic engagements. Improvement of relations between these two landlocked neighbors is a welcome sign for the region at large.
Tashkent- Kabul Relations at a Glance
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan are ‘strategically located’ neighbors. Uzbekistan borders all other Central Asian Republics (CAR) and Afghanistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan is a bridge between South and Central Asia. It borders three of the five CARs, namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Both these countries are landlocked and therefore, depend on each other for trade, transport and connectivity. Uzbekistan and Afghanistan share the border of about 137 kilometers, which is a ‘natural’ boundary of the river Amu Darya.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan enjoy historical commonalities and ethno-cultural linkages, as they were part of the same geo-political space for considerable time in history. During the Soviet times, interaction from across the border was very high, especially during its Intervention in Afghanistan (1979-1989). The Uzbekistan-Afghanistan Friendship Bridge was constructed in 1982 near the Afghan border-town of Hairatan, establishing a firm link across Amu Darya.
Diplomatic relations established after the Uzbek independence in 1991 crumbled down after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. In 1990’s, Uzbekistan was also facing the challenges of radicalism and violent extremism, which multiplied because of the Tajik Civil War (1992-1997) and emergence of the Taliban. Uzbek government was concerned about the spillover from across the border, and thus, closed the Friendship Bridge in 1997, which was reopened only in 2002. The 9-11 and subsequent War on Terror was a big breakthrough in the regional dynamics. Uzbekistan at that time had provided an airbase to the United States (US) at Karshi-Khanabad and a base for German unit at the bordering town of Termez. However, US base was closed down in 2005 after the Uzbekistan- US estrangement over the Andijan incident. One of the supply lines of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) passed from Uzbekistan through the Friendship Bridge, which carried almost 70 percent of the oil used for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations.
Uzbekistan-Afghanistan relations have experienced steady improvement in last couple of years, based on cooperation in fields of trade, transport, electricity, etc., as follows:-
• A railway line from Termez to Hairatan carries wheat and flour, fuels, fertilizers and consumer goods from Uzbekistan. This is one of the most important freight carriers to Afghanistan. • In 2011, Uzbek national railway company Temir Yu’llari constructed the 75 kilometer long Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway. The cost of USD 1.5 billion was funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). • Uzbekistan also constructed 11 bridges and crossings on the road connecting Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul. • Uzbekistan is one of the most significant suppliers of electricity to Afghanistan. A power transmission line was laid in 2009 with the capacity of 150 megawatt (mW) to supply electricity to Kabul. It was then increased to 300 mW.
With the population of 32 million, Uzbekistan is the most-populous country in Central Asia. With its vibrant and diversified economy, it can potentially offer a lot to Afghanistan in its process of national re-construction, especially in terms of food security, energy and technological assistance.
Uzbekistan has been concerned with the spillover of insecurity from Afghanistan, which has multiplied in the aftermath of US withdrawal. Any blow to security and stability in Afghanistan is seen as the destabilizing factor for neighboring CARs. Even though considerable number of ethnic Uzbeks live in Afghanistan, it has seldom been a decisive factor in the bilateral relations. Major drivers in this regard are security concerns and economic interests.
Mirziyoyev’s Policy of ‘Neighborhood First’
President Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, after coming to power in 2016, reiterated that Central Asia forms the top priority agenda of his external affairs. Being a landlocked country, Uzbekistan heavily depends on all its neighbors for internal as well as external growth. Keeping this in mind, Mirziyoyev has been working hard to improve relations with other CARs and Afghanistan. This was reflected in his 12 visits to the CARs in a year and several rounds of bilateral meetings during the visits and on the sidelines of various international summits.
In first nine months of 2017, the trade turnover between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan has increased by 30 percent. Similarly, its improving relations with Kyrgyzstan are underlined by the delimitation of border, opening of border crossings and attempts at solving the water dispute. In case of Tajikistan, a direct flight between Tashkent and Dushanbe was resumed after the lapse of more than 25 years. The balanced, open and pragmatic foreign policy of Mirziyoyev has created a positive environment of regional cooperation.
Enhancing Uzbek-Afghan Ties
Relations between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have considerably enhanced in last couple of months. In January 2017, the Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Mr Abdulaziz Kamilov paid an official visit to Kabul. During this visit, the two sides signed a bilateral trade and economic ‘Road map’ for increasing the bilateral trade up to one billion USD. In 2016, the trade turnover was about USD 520 million. Agreements were also signed for cooperation in fields of transport infrastructure, security and combating drug trafficking.
Uzbek-Afghan Presidents held bilateral meetings in Astana on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in June 2017 and the Science and Technology Summit of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in September 2017. In May 2017, Mirziyoyev appointed Mr Ismatilla Irgashev as President’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.
In November 2017, a direct passenger flight between Tashkent and Kabul was started for the first time by Kam Air, Afghan national airline. Aviation cooperation between the two countries also includes training of Afghan pilots, maintenance of Kam Air aircrafts, and transit facilities in Tashkent.
President Ghani’s December 2017 visit to Uzbekistan was a step forward in enhancing Uzbek-Afghan ties. The two presidents conducted talks in narrow as well as extended format and signed a Joint Statement. 20 inter-ministerial agreements were signed in the fields of trade, transit, security, electricity and education. Take away points from the visitare as follows;
• Agreement on constructing a railway line between Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. • Construction of Surkhan- Pul-i-Khumri Power Transmission Line with capacity of 500 kw. • Establishment of Joint Commission on the Security matters. • Agreement on cooperation in security of the Hairatan Bridge. • Uzbek-Afghan Trading Houses set up in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, and International Logistic Center in Termez. • Afghan Consulate was opened in the border city of Termez.
The two countries pledged for joint efforts to fight the challenges posed by international terrorism and foreign fighters, extremism, transnational organized crime, illegal migration, illicit drug and trafficking of psychotropic substances. The Presidents also stressed the need for political solution to ensure peace and reconciliation between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban through an Afghan-led process. It was emphasized that peaceful settlement should be in compliance with funda mental international norms and principles enshrined in the United Nation Charter.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, being neighbors, form the core of each other’s foreign policy. Security situation in Afghanistan can have a direct impact on security and stability of Central Asia. Therefore, Uzbekistan is supporting the Afghan government in restoring peace. It is also providing assistance for development of transport and energy infrastructure and integration of Afghanistan into the regional economic process.
India has also cultivated robust relationship with Afghanistan, which spans political, security, economic, educational, cultural and humanitarian spheres. Recently, we have sent the inaugural consignment of 15000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan through the Chabahar Port. This has opened up a new trade and transit corridor for India to connect with Afghanistan and CARs. Cooperation in arenas of trade, connectivity, energy and security can bring closer the regional powers like India, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, which cherish Civilizational Connect of thousands of years.
(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)