Central Asia Expresses Interest in Afghanistan

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by Joshua Foust on 6/7/2012

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has admitted Afghanistan as an observer.

Russia and China have long seen the six-nation group as a way to counter U.S. influence in Central Asia, and hope to play a significant role in Afghanistan’s future development, especially in economic reconstruction. Granting Afghanistan observer status will strengthen their contacts, something Beijing and Moscow hope will dilute U.S. influence and more closely align Kabul’s policies with their own aims.

This isn’t a particular surprise — after all, Pakistan is an SCO observer as well (and Pakistan wants to join as a full-fledged member). Including Afghanistan is only logical.

But Afghanistan’s admittance as an SCO observer is part of a larger plan for the alliance. While it’s no surprise to hear Russia and China want to play a role in post-2014 Afghanistan, lots of folks seem surprised to hear the Central Asia states also want more of a role:

Despite their sometimes anti-American tone, Russia and fellow SCO member nations Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are doing their part to ensure an orderly NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, having agreed to allow the reverse transport of alliance equipment after Pakistan shut down southern supply routes six months ago.

The fourth Central Asian member of the SCO is Tajikistan.

Tajikistan is something to worry about. Richard Rousseau summarized why it matters to Afghansitan’s future:

While drug trafficking continues with practically no constraint, armed Islamist factions have also started stirring trouble in Tajikistan. President Rakhmon’s troops have suffered considerable losses in sporadic skirmishes with guerrilla groups. Low-intensity conflict along the stretched Afghan-Tajikistani border has been going on for years, and infiltration of Tajikistani territory is on the rise. In September 2010 more than 25 Tajik soldiers were killed, according to official reports, in a single ambush on a military convoy in the Rasht valley, which lies east of Dushanbe and was a stronghold for forces opposed to the Rakhmon government during the 1992-97 civil war. This glaring failure clearly illustrates that the corrupt government of Tajikistan is badly equipped to handle even modest security threats. The army is weak and consists mostly of young conscripts from rural areas who cannot afford to bribe their way out of compulsory military service.

In the mid 1990s, refugees fled from Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan to escape the civil war. So this is not a dead issue. But Central Asia can play a much bigger role in Afghanistan that just as a possibly destabilizing factor. In 2010, I wrote a paper for The Century Foundation that was about precisely this:

A unified Central Asian response to Afghanistan would be a tremendous force for good in the region, but that is unlikely to happen. Uzbekistan in particular seems incapable of coexisting with its neighbors without occasionally nasty fights (though Tajikistan also has a large number of border disputes, most of which relate to water usage)… What these issues share is the capacity to derail any role Central Asia could play in Afghanistan. Despite some promising signs coming from the NDN, Central Asia seems much more concerned with its own affairs, especially when it comes to the survival of each regime. Even Kazakhstan, which is barely mentioned here because it simply does not have the same immediate issues with border disputes or security challenges as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Kyrgyzstan, cares much more about its ultimate disposition vis-à-vis the United States rather than Afghanistan.

Central Asia clearly will play a role of some sort in Afghanistan’s future. But any regional process will not be led by Central Asia. Since the other players involved—the United States, Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia—all carry greater weight at the negotiating table, the Central Asian states will have to be included in some way in any future talks. Afghanistan’s issues with transnational criminal groups pose a critical challenge to every state in Central Asia. It is unclear how well the border states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and to a greater extent Kyrgyzstan, can maintain their tentative internal security arrangements with an active, and unchallenged, criminal network operating in Afghanistan. In Kyrgystan in particular, rumors abounded that the recent riots were largely the work of criminals and smugglers trying to carve out space for themselves.119 Tajikistan’s experience with criminals and insurgents in the Rasht Valley also point to how critical the issue of Afghanistan’s stability is for the government. The Central Asian states should be consulted on any plan to combat transnational crime and counternarcotics operations…

But if the challenges facing Central Asia are not immediate, the opportunities are. In particular the NDN, beyond any American designs for leveraging its influence regionally, presents a tremendous opportunity for the development of international trade. Additionally, the nascent steps taken in electricity sharing between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan hold out hope that those relations could be used to ameliorate some of the troubling power and water conflicts with Tajikistan. Additionally, if the countries of Central Asia are integrated more tightly into regional deliberations about Afghanistan’s future, their governments will become more active partners in the process.

And so on. Really, read that — it’s a bit out of date considering the latest that’s happened in the region but the basics are all still there and I remain very proud of it.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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