Help From Our Friends

Why Uzbekistan matters for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan placed the country at the center of his foreign policy. But America isn't the only nation that wants a stable Afghanistan. Russia, China, India, Iran and the former Soviet republics all have reason to prevent the Taliban from retaking Kabul.

A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would be a crisis for almost every major power in the international community. An Islamist Afghanistan would prove dangerous for China, which has its own internal problems in its Muslim-populated western regions. America and Europe, of course, would face the prospect of terror attacks planned and directed from a remote Afghan base. Russia would risk a reinvigorated terrorist network in the North Caucasus, which could potentially receive significant inflows of foreign manpower, material and technological assistance from a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Pakistan's entire western frontier would be placed in jeopardy. And India, with its troubles in Kashmir, would probably see an uptick in terrorist-related violence. Even Iran would face a direct challenge to its interests. There have long been tensions between the Taliban and Tehran's theocracy.

Uzbekistan has a long history of serving as a mediator for competing interests in Afghanistan. The question now is whether America, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran can follow some of the initiatives set forth in Tashkent. Because of its shared border with this conflict-ridden country, the Uzbek government was already on the scene before the American invasion. In 1999, under the auspices of the UN, it initiated the "6+2" group-including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, China, Russia and the United States-to discuss Afghanistan's stability. The conference, which was organized that year in Tashkent, helped to create a basis for further dialogue between these countries.

Based on the success of the 6+2 group, in 2008, Uzbek President Islam Karimov proposed making it "6+3" at the NATO Summit in Budapest, by extending the body to include the alliance. This would create a place for multilateral dialogue between all the diverse actors, allow them to hash out their disagreements and help avoid unnecessary tension. The aim would be to make Afghanistan a terrorist-free zone with a stable government. As such, the forum will have to provide some program of economic development for the country.

Here too, Uzbekistan serves as an instructive model. Because of corruption and poorly planned development strategies, the current international approach of injecting large amounts of cash into the Afghan government and army isn't working. Uzbekistan's aid programs instead focus on integrating Afghanistan into the regional economy and transport infrastructure.

To strengthen trade links between the two countries, Uzbekistan is building a railroad line between Termez, an Uzbek town on the Afghan border, and Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest economic center of northern Afghanistan. The money for the railroad was cobbled together from the Uzbek and Afghan governments, and the Asian Development Bank. It should be completed soon and will give Afghan businesses access not only to the Uzbek market, but also to other Central Asian countries, Russia and China. More such links to the regional economy will encourage Afghanistan's own industry, and give its neighbors a further interest in keeping the country stable so it will be a better market for their exports.

But Uzbekistan can only do so much on its own. The 6+3 group should make an effort to encourage Kabul's financial, economic, cultural integration into the Central Asian community. Afghanistan remains a poor state and is seen by investors as high risk. As long as that perception continues, the Taliban will always have a disaffected and unemployed base from which to replenish its ranks.

Only by joining together with all the other interested parties in the region will America be able to break this vicious cycle. A multilateral forum focused on curbing terrorism and economic integration is the best way to turn Afghanistan into a vibrant, stable member of the Central Asian region.

 

Gulnara Karimova is the ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the Kingdom of Spain. She is also the permanent representative of Uzbekistan to the United Nations office and other international organizations in Geneva, as well as the director of the Center for Political Studies in Uzbekistan.