By Yuri M Yarmolinsky
The report of the US National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2040, contrasts most strongly with the consolidated diverse peacekeeping initiatives in Afghanistan, broad efforts in this field by regional players (for example, Uzbekistan), and signs of a certain détente in Kashmir along the disputed India-Pakistan border. Both Afghanistan and Kashmir have long been a seething cauldron of systemic contradictions and conflicts.
The document notes that during the next five years, India and Pakistan may stumble into a large-scale war neither side wants, especially following a terrorist attack that the Indian government judges to be significant. The report puts a special focus on the fact that a full-scale war could inflict damage that would have both economic and political consequences for years. The report underlines that US actions in Afghanistan during the next year will have significant consequences across the region, particularly in Pakistan and India. This would be especially true if a security vacuum emerges in Afghanistan that results in a civil war between the Taliban and its Afghan opponents, expanding manoeuvreability for regional terrorist networks, or criminals and refugees flowing out of the country. It predicts that the events in Afghanistan will fuel political tensions and conflict in western Pakistan and sharpen the India-Pakistan rivalry.
Uzbekistan: A future regional player
Considering these forecasts and practical realities, attention should be drawn to the diplomatic activity of Uzbekistan in South and Central Asia. President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has announced a fundamentally new aspect in his foreign policy with a focus in the southern direction. In particular, the development of cooperation with South Asia and the promotion of peace in Afghanistan have been identified as priorities.
Tashkent’s vision of the settlement of the Afghan conflict and its impact on regional processes, including throughout the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) territory, was outlined in February by Eldor Aripov, Director of the Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan. In his opinion, the prospects for stable and sustainable development in Central Asia are inextricably linked with the achievement of peace in Afghanistan.
For many centuries, Afghanistan has been an important link in the regional trade, cultural, scientific, and intellectual exchange, playing the role of a connecting bridge for Central and South Asia. Harnessing Afghanistan’s transit and infrastructure potential will provide the Central Asian countries with the shortest access to the seaports of Pakistan, which would benefit not only Uzbekistan, but also all the Central Asian republics, South Asian states, and the monarchies of the Middle East. The strengthening of interconnectedness will facilitate the formation of favourable internal and external prerequisites for the development of interregional trade, cultural and scientific exchanges, as well as for maintaining peace and stability throughout the vast areas of the two regions.
In turn, Vladimir Norov, SCO Secretary-General, notes that the speedy settlement of conflict in Afghanistan is a key factor in establishing stability in the SCO space. The establishment of an early peace in Afghanistan is an ideal recipe for strengthening the interconnectedness amongst the countries of Central and South Asia. In this context, Uzbekistan’s initiatives to build the trans-Afghan transport corridor, and other Afghanistan-related projects launched within the framework of the SCO are quite consistent and reasonable. The plans to strengthen connectivity between Central and South Asia logically follow Tashkent’s regional policy, through which it manifests itself as a driving force for regional transformation.
However, it is clear that Uzbekistan’s efforts alone are not enough and Tashkent needs to step up diplomatic efforts to strengthen its role as a voice for all Central Asian states in the neighbouring region. To meet this challenge, the Uzbek Foreign Minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, made a tour to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, soliciting the support of Uzbekistan’s neighbours. In addition to the bilateral agenda, the issue of developing economic ties with Afghanistan and the countries of South Asia has been discussed during the high-level talks.
For Tashkent, Nur-Sultan’s encouragement of its plans is a matter of fundamental importance, given the hidden competition for regional leadership. In an effort to ensure a broader international consensus, the Uzbek authorities have already invited delegations from the UN, SCO, Afghanistan, Iran, India, China, Pakistan, Russia, and other states to take part in the international conference “Central Asia and South Asia regional connectivity: Challenges and opportunities” being organised under the initiative of President Mirziyoyev in July.
It is obvious that in the context of the Afghan settlement, Uzbekistan will receive certain support from the United States, including encouragement of its ambitions for the role of a regional leader. However, the United States Strategy for Central Asia adopted in 2020 focuses also on Kazakhstan. The declining US interest in the other three regional republics (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) probably means that Washington seeks to focus on the key vectors to achieve immediate benefits. The endless war in Afghanistan and Washington’s inability to achieve even relative security and stability at the peak of its military presence nullified the implementation of priority transport and energy projects. Therefore, peace in Afghanistan is vital for the full-fledged interregional cooperation, not to mention a breakthrough in the development of interregional ties.
In the meantime, other transport corridors have been promoted, including the International North South Transport Corridor with the participation of India, Russia, and Iran as founding members. The route from Mumbai to St. Petersburg should pass through the Caspian Sea, but it is adjacent to the transport infrastructure of Central Asia and is suitable for the development of cooperation with India.
The 2011 Ashgabat Agreement among Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan aims to implement a transport corridor project that also has the potential to link Central and South Asia. The major role in this respect has been played by Iran, namely, the Chabahar port, reconstructed by India, which opens the way to the Indian subcontinent.
Another route bypassing Afghanistan runs through China. The Karakoram Highway connecting China and Pakistan is considered a key transport route. In October 2017, a new transport corridor Tashkent–Andijan–Osh–Irkeshtam–Kashgar was opened offering an access to South Asia. However, the bypass routes are longer, and this negates the main advantage of the southern vector. They deprive Central Asia of one of its major assets—the shortest possible route to the World Ocean, while the region itself is considered as part of larger projects. For these reasons, none of the logistics plans resulted in strategic changes. Thus, Afghanistan’s uncertain future continues to delay trans-Afghan transport and energy projects complicating the quest for the cherished goal.
Yet, to its credit, Uzbekistan demonstrates persistency and pragmatism: Despite the protracted Afghan conflict, Tashkent does not refuse to develop transport projects in the southern direction. The foundation is laid for the project of the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway to connect the South Asian railway system with the Central Asian and Eurasian branches and provides access to the Pakistani seaports (Karachi, Qasem, and Gwadar). The trans-Afghan railway construction project worth over US $4 billion has been approved by Prime Minister Imran Khan and is scheduled to start in September 2021.
The Kashmir question
Yet, in order to fully open South Asia and enter the markets of India and other South Asian states to the east of Pakistan, a more significant obstacle beyond the Afghan factor must be cleared – the India-Pakistan conflict. The Kashmir issue has led to a zero-sum game across the entire spectrum of bilateral relations, with regional and global implications. Pakistan and India deny each other transit through their territory. It is no coincidence that the transport corridors bypassing Afghanistan, connecting Central and South Asia, lead to only one of these states.
In general, today the prospects for resolving the conflict in Kashmir, as well as the entire complex of relations between India and Pakistan, despite the agreements on a ceasefire in the disputed territory, seem even more uncertain than the peace process in Afghanistan. Therefore, the expansion of interregional relations in Central and South Asia, the realisation of the immense potential of their complementary markets and transit capacity may look natural and logical but they are stuck in the vortex of geopolitical turbulence and have become hostages of the Great Game 2.0. The security situation in Afghanistan, coupled with the vague prospects for a peaceful resolution, leaves each of the trans-Afghan projects largely as declarations of good intentions, while the India-Pakistan conflict further blocks the corridor of opportunities for full interregional integration.
The limited resources of Tashkent’s own influence on these processes, and other factors make Uzbek initiatives so far only a good resource for the future transformation of interregional relations. A resolution of these conflicts will fundamentally reshape the geopolitical landscape of Central and South Asia. From this perspective, Uzbekistan’s diplomatic efforts to bring the conflicting parties and other stakeholders to the same table in July and repeat 55 years later the success of the 1966 Tashkent Declaration, merit every respect and deserve support.