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Why Ayman Al Zawahiri’s killing may block gains of Tashkent conference on Afghanistan

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A strong Taliban delegation was present during the end-July Tashkent conference on Afghanistan

The intention was noble. And the event was much needed. An international conference on Afghanistan was also perhaps long overdue. The Ukraine war since the end of February has stolen the spotlight from Afghanistan. Yet the country continues to suffer – with hunger, natural calamities, terrorism, collapsing economy, and draconian social laws slowly but surely strangling the life out of the people. And the killing of terror kingpin Ayman Al Zawahiri on Sunday by a US drone strike may further push the Taliban-led Afghanistan further in the international doghouse.

An international conference, therefore, it can be argued was just the thing. And Uzbekistan did just that. “Afghanistan: Security and Economic Development” held in Tashkent over two days 26-27 July saw the participation of more than 100 delegates, and representatives of 20 countries, including the US, EU, Russia, China, Turkey. India was represented by J.P. Singh, Joint Secretary in the MEA. The Afghan delegation was led by acting Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. Yet, the writing was long on the wall. Any such conference would yield few tangible results.

Uzbekistan has been at the forefront of normalising relations and integrating the Taliban at least in the region. In 2018 the country hosted an international conference on Afghanistan in Samarkand where the willingness of the US to have the then Ashraf Ghani- led government negotiate with the Taliban was made official. President Ashraf Ghani who also attended the high-profile conference which had amongst others, China’s Wang Yi, Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, and the EU’s Federica Mogherini, officially announced that it would negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. At this conference, thus, the Taliban officially became a legitimate political stakeholder in Afghanistan.

In 2021 Uzbekistan hosted another high-profile conference which while on connectivity between Central and South Asia, had Afghanistan at its core. After the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan Uzbekistan dispatched humanitarian aid and its foreign minister even travelled to Kabul to meet with the former. It has continued trade and other engagements with Afghanistan.

Why has Uzbekistan been expending so much energy and effort in organising conferences on Afghanistan?

Three main factors underpin such an exercise. The first is the new bold foreign policy moves of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is determined to have Uzbekistan take its rightful place and play an ambitious and major role in regional politics. Uzbekistan shares a 144 km long border with Afghanistan and also has cultural, linguistic, and ethnic linkages with the country’s Uzbek community. What happens in Afghanistan does not remain in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan had been majorly impacted during the Taliban’s first ascendancy, when jihadist and secessionist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Islamic Jihad of Uzbekistan had found both refuge and support from the Taliban, and makes it a legitimate stake-holder in Afghanistan’s peace and security. That is why Uzbekistan was one of the first countries in the region to support the US war in Afghanistan, extending bases to the Americans. It also opted for a regional counter-terror strategy and houses the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Tashkent. With the ISIS-KP making inroads into Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, which had many of its citizens flock to Syria and Iraq to join the terror group there, and with the ascendancy of Taliban 2.0 becoming imminent, Uzbekistan became one of the first countries in the region to establish ties with the UN proscribed group.

Finally, Afghanistan’s geostrategic location as the roundabout connecting South and Central Asia makes its territory a highly coveted transit route for landlocked states of Central Asia in order to access the markets and resources of South Asia and perhaps even further. Uzbekistan, the most populous, is doubly landlocked. Connectivity, therefore, acquires even greater salience, for the country.

Transit passage through Afghanistan provides the shortest route. To that end Uzbekistan has been constructing the Termez – Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul - Peshawar railway, and also joined effort with Iran and India to join for the use of Chabahar Port.

At the connectivity conference last year Uzbekistan also became part of the South Asia- Central Asia QUAD along with the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan for “Regional Support for Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement”, “in principle to establish a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform focused on enhancing regional connectivity”.

This year’s conference was pursuant to the above; and the effort was admirable. For the countries of the region at least remember what it was when once the Afghan jihad had been won, Soviet forces expelled, the country was forgotten till the 9/11 attacks happened. The price of forgetting Afghanistan is too high, but the world seems to be doing just that. Once the brouhaha over the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul last year in August died down, news of atrocities against former government officials, against women, against minorities, against journalists, the dire humanitarian crisis gripping the country and the lawlessness it is once again slipping into, has become commonplace.

The world’s attention is focused on the Ukraine crisis and the Russia-China confrontation with NATO for much of this year. That is why it was admirable that Tashkent made this humungous effort to convene this conference where the Taliban, without any official recognition by any government attended as the de facto representatives of Afghanistan.

The outcome, however, still remains to be seen. What is most tangible has been that the Uzbek foreign minister called for unfreezing Afghan funds. The US and European countries froze US $9.5 billion of Afghanistan ‘s assets after the Taliban came to power in August 2021.

"Unfreezing Afghanistan's financial assets abroad is one of the main factors of restoring the economy of Afghanistan, of tackling acute social issues currently facing the people of this country, which is friendly to us, and of implementing important infrastructure projects," said Vladimir Norov

The United States also expressed its willingness for the same but called for reforms in the Afghan economy and banking sector for the same. Russia announced it would remove duties on Afghan import and resume oil and grain supplies to the country. Given that trade has been continuing between Afghans and its neighbours after the Taliban’s takeover of the country, this does not really amount to much.  The conference simply made the Taliban more visible as the legitimate though yet unrecognized representatives of Afghanistan.

It is difficult to envisage any meaningful engagement between the international community and Afghanistan if there is no change in the government and governance. The Taliban are slowly but surely reverting to the style of governance that they had introduced during their previous stint. And this is the crux of all development within and around the country. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev outlined this clearly in his address to the conference. “…., forming a broad representation of all layers of the Afghan society in state governance, ensuring basic human rights and freedoms, especially of women and all ethnic-confessional groups remain a fundamental condition for establishing a lasting peace in Afghanistan....” Yet this is not happening.

The Taliban have been repeatedly urged by the international community to implement a broad-based government and respect the rule of law. While the group keep giving assurances of doing just that. what is happening on the ground is starkly different. There have been more attacks on minorities. About 50 people were killed when the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) attacked the Karte Parwan Gurdwara in Kabul on June 18 of this year.

Mirziyoyev also called on the “…. current government of Afghanistan to show a firm will and take resolute measures to prevent and counteract terrorism in all of its forms and manifestations, break up the ties with all international terrorist organizations…. Yet, on Sunday Ayman Al Zawahiri the head of Al Qaeda was killed on Afghan territory.

The Taliban’s reaction was to issue a reprimand of US actions which violated Afghan “sovereignty”. The Haqqani Network continues to be part of the current Afghan administration. Women and girls have been deprived of some of their basic rights like education, employment, and freedom of movement. Amnesty International, in its latest 27 July 2022 report “Death in Slow Motion” noted that “Women in Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban group are experiencing slow-motion death caused by a system of repression” as the Taliban “have violated the right of women and girls to education, work, and free movement.

They have canceled the protection and support system for women and girls fleeing domestic violence. Women and girls have been arbitrarily detained for disobeying the Taliban’s discriminatory regulations. And they have helped to increase the rate of child, early, and forced marriage in Afghanistan. Also, women who protested peacefully against these restrictions and policies have been harassed, threatened, arrested, forcibly disappeared, detained, and tortured.”

Meanwhile, internal strife continues inside the country between the Panjshir Resistance and the Taliban, as also between the Taliban and the IS-KP. The Panjshir Resistance also has external support. Without internal peace and security, it is difficult to envisage Afghanistan as a stable link in regional connectivity and development. And that is why the conference, while well intentioned remains utopian in its expectations.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

Also Read: Uzbekistan willing to engage with all stakeholders in Afghanistan, including Taliban—Uzbek scholar