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Uzbekistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan: New Vision of Old Challenges

Afghanistan has been a dichotomy for Uzbekistan

Dr Farkhad Tolipov

Throughout the 30 years of independence, Uzbekistan has passed two major periods of development, they can be called “Uzbekistan-1.0” (related to the first President Islam Karimov) and “Uzbekistan-2.0” (related to the incumbent, second President Shavkat Mirziyoev). These two periods have fixed two relatively different positions and policies vis-à-vis Afghanistan. President Islam Karimov was quite cautious about the southern neighbour which he considered a source of threats to the security of Uzbekistan, and pursued the policy of limited engagement with Afghanistan. Although Uzbekistan-1.0 was not indifferent towards the situation in Afghanistan in terms of advancing various initiatives and projects directed to peacemaking in and cooperation with Afghanistan, his vision of this country more often than not was determined by security threats perception. This is quite understandable since Uzbekistan-1.0 faced a number of terrorist attacks and challenges from 1990-s till 2010.

President Mirziyoev changed Uzbekistan’s position vis-à-vis Afghanistan. His vision of southern neighbour is expressed in the thesis that Afghanistan should be regarded not as a source of threats but as an area of opportunities. This doesn’t mean that he denied existence of threats, he only shifted focus to more positive perspectives. By continuing decades-long efforts on opening the shortest transport corridor to the ports of the Indian ocean, Mirziyoev initiated the big international conference “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities”, which was held on 15-16 July, 2021. Besides, three years ago, in March 2018, a big international conference on Afghanistan was also held in Tashkent. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan has met with leaders of Taliban in Tashkent in August the same year. All these efforts aimed at pacifying Taliban and starting the project of the century: construction of the railroad Mazari-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar – Karachi with further link to India. However, situation in Afghanistan suddenly turned into chaos in August 2021 when Taliban seized power in Afghanistan after the US forces withdrawal.

Tragic events of August shed the new light to old challenges: Afghanistan again seems to become the source of threats rather than the area of opportunities. This time, the level and scope of threats seem to be bigger than in 1990-s for several reasons.

First, in 1996-2001 the was a civil war between the Northern Alliance (NA) and Taliban and the NA served as a buffer between Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, due to US forces coming to Afghanistan NA defeated Taliban. This time, Taliban didn’t face any resistance at all and their victory was due to surprising surrender and retreat of the Afghan army forces – unprecedented situation for any war. This created rumours and suspicions about collusion of certain people and groups which made such a sudden Taliban’s victory possible, what in turn cannot but cause concerns and apprehensions on the part of Central Asian countries.

Second, total chaos in the capital Kabul caused by nightmare that gripped people trying to flee the country from the first day of Taliban’s entering Kabul illustrate the fate of Afghanistan which fell into the hands of terrorist organization. The bomb explosion that happened at the Kabul airport which claimed about 200 lives including 13 Americans just added to this nightmare. Afghanistan seems to turn into the comfortable and attractive territory for international terrorists, primarily ISIS. This is, as one can see, a relatively new situation that significantly raises the level of threats to Central Asian countries.

Third, Uzbekistan never before encountered the problem of massive refugees flow. During the first Taliban’s ruling period there were almost no refugees in Uzbekistan because Karimov’s rejection to accept them. This time, Uzbekistan encountered quite unique type of refugees – military of the Afghan army who escaped Taliban and crossed the border of Uzbekistan. Subsequently, Afghan air planes also crossed air border of Uzbekistan; the airport of Uzbek city Termez was provided to them for landing. Currently, Uzbekistan provides airports of Bukhara and Navoi cities for transferring of people from European countries evacuated from Afghanistan. 

Refugees issue provoked different reactions of state officials and society. Remembering many cases happening in Europe, people talk about possible penetration of extremists and terrorist into Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. It’s in this context that the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan F. Arziev stated that “those who are involved in terrorist organizations will not penetrate Uzbekistan using evacuation flights from Afghanistan through the territory of the republic”. Nevertheless, this is relatively new situation which cannot but affect social moods.

Fourth, in the wake of US forces withdrawal and Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan, geopolitical challenges to the region have increased. For instance, right in the beginning of US forces withdrawal, the question was raised about possible redeployment of some parts of those contingents in the territory of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Such allegation immediately caused nervous reaction of the Russian side which made it clear that such a would-be US “base deployment” in Central Asia is undesirable. So, Moscow denied Tashkent’s or Dushanbe’s independent decision on that matter.

Subsequently, opposite signals began to spread that Uzbekistan can join the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). President Mirziyoev even showed up in the SCTO summit as an observer. Although according to its Defense Doctrine Uzbekistan doesn’t participate in the military blocks, Afghanistan context prompted some official and media circles to argue that Uzbekistan’s membership in SCTO is a likely scenario. 

One of the challenging implications of the worsening situation in Afghanistan can be worsening geopolitical environment in Central Asia. Since Washington left the region to its geopolitical rivals – Russia and China – Central Asian states’ capability of geopolitical manoeuvring between them will obviously be diminished.


In this difficult time the unity of Central Asian countries is demanded more than never before. Common position and coordinated policy of Central Asian states vis-à-vis Afghanistan are highly needed. For example, Tajikistan doesn’t recognize Taliban and doesn’t keep contacts with them. Uzbekistan, on the contrary, meet and negotiate with Taliban and, as Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulaziz Kamilov stated, even denies Taliban is a terrorist organization. At the same time, in July 2021 the “C5+1” (US and 5 Central Asian states) meeting was held in Tashkent in which the Joint Statement was adopted. In particular, it says that “C5+1” endeavours to “Create stable and prosperous conditions favourable to the Afghan peace process, including reaffirming to all parties: the urgency of substantive negotiations on a political settlement; that the only path to a just and durable peace is through a negotiated political settlement that results in an inclusive political system and respects the fundamental rights of all Afghans; that there is no support for the imposition by force of a new government in Afghanistan; and that terrorists and third party forces must never be allowed to use Afghan territory to threaten or attack the C5+1 countries or any other country”. 

Besides regional efforts, much will depend on international cooperation in the sphere of counter-terrorism and countering other threats to reginal and international security. In the opening ceremony of the July conference mentioned above President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoev stated that “Together we can effectively confront terrorism, extremism, transnational crime, including in the cyberspace. As a first step we propose to work out joint counter-narcotic action plan in cooperation with the UNODC”. He also pointed out that similar measures should be adopted on issues of fighting international terrorism. President Mirziyoev also noted that Uzbekistan is ready to organize special expert meeting on these issues with representatives of two regions. “Such a meeting might be conducted on the margins of upcoming in November 2021 international conference in Tashkent devoted to the decade of the adoption of the UN action plan on realization of the global counter-terrorist strategy in Central Asia”.

In this respect, particularly India as a South Asian state can play crucial role in fighting terrorism. India and Uzbekistan signed in 2011 a Joint Statement “On Strategic Partnership”, in which the two sides “resolutely condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and reaffirmed that international terrorism was a threat to global peace and security" (Clause 16). They emphasized the need for adoption of the “Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism” in the near future. The sides expressed the intention in this context to continue consultations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and to coordinate their efforts within the framework of the Joint Working Group on Combating International Terrorism”.

Finally, the role of the United Nations should be of profound importance. Taliban is included in the UN list of terrorist organizations. From this perspective, the UN Security Council resolutions are expected to give fair, principled and strong assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and take the lead in peacemaking and peace enforcement in this war-torn country.

(The author is Visiting Senior Fellow (Central Asian Studies), Tillotoma Foundation. This article is republished courtesy, Tillotoma Foundation—a global think tank working on International Relations, Diplomacy and Policy.)