August 7th, 2012
04:00 PM ET

Could Uzbekistan hold the key for U.S. ties to Afghanistan?

By Sarah Chayes, CEIP

Editor’s note: Sarah Chayes is a senior associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, where this article was originally published, and former special adviser to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The views expressed are her own.

The United States and Pakistan have just signed a memorandum of understanding detailing conditions for reopening the border with Afghanistan to NATO transit traffic, closed after a friendly fire incident killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. Thousands of fuel tankers and gaudily caparisoned cargo trucks are untangling seven-month-old snarls at ports and windswept border posts, to lumber back onto the roads. But that breakthrough shouldn’t detract from the importance of another of Afghanistan’s neighbors: Uzbekistan.

By demonstrating to U.S. and allied officials the fragility of the critical Pakistan land route, the long blockade abruptly raised interest in Uzbekistan. Negotiating teams from key NATO countries have been cycling through Tashkent to hammer out details of bilateral transit agreements. But Uzbekistan is worthy of attention not just for its infrastructure, namely the Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya River and the lone rail link to Afghanistan embedded in its tarmac. Uzbekistan’s president and much of its top leadership have held office since a year after the Soviets departed Afghanistan across that same bridge in 1989, and their personal relationships with key Afghan actors are long-standing and intimate, their insights into Afghan dynamics profound. And they, like many Afghans, seem already to be operating in a post-2014 world. Washington might have something to learn.

U.S. policymakers usually consider Afghanistan in its region by way of a two-state construct: AfPak. Further discussion may bring India into the mix, at least theoretically, and Iran, as a poorly defined threat to stability and the U.S. mission. China looms on the periphery, mainly noted for its ties to Pakistan and its investment potential. Uzbekistan is, at best, an afterthought. And yet, a stroll through back neighborhoods in the Ferghana Valley, watered by canals and shaded by grape arbors vaulting the quiet streets, conjures nothing so much as what Kabul must have looked like before the wars. The cultural commonalities with much of Afghanistan are arresting.

While present in fewer numbers than in Pakistan or Iran, Afghans travel and live in Uzbekistan, and those encountered, from senior diplomats to an itinerant rug merchant, are enthusiastic about the country and the role it has played in theirs – a contrast with the attitudes of most Afghans toward Pakistan. That rug merchant boasts of forwarding 2 percent of his profits to Abdul Rashid Dostum, mercurial former Afghan general and warlord, seen as a leader of the ethnic Uzbek community. Every businessman he knows, claims the merchant, even non-Afghan citizens, tithes likewise.

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This active involvement in affairs across the border offers insight into the role the Uzbek government may also be playing in Afghanistan. U.S. officials privately bemoan what they describe as Uzbekistan’s standoffish attitude. They measure that by the government’s reluctance to participate in the grandiose international conferences that have punctuated international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and plan for its future development: Lisbon, Kabul, Bonn, Tokyo. But just because Uzbek officials stay away from these highly orchestrated spectacles (perhaps judging them more flash than bang) does not mean they are not paying attention to their southern neighbor.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov is believed to set little store by the legitimacy or competence of the Karzai government or its ability to withstand – militarily or diplomatically – the withdrawal of most NATO troops by December 2014. He, like many others, seems to judge disintegration into civil conflict a likely scenario, with combat and extremist incursions potentially swirling up against his border. That outcome would represent a serious national security threat to Uzbekistan.

Karimov’s implacable stance against radical Islam is legendary – though he may underestimate some of its secular drivers, such as the sort of acute corruption seen to characterize his rule. He maintains long-standing ties with key figures from the anti-Taliban fight of the 1990s, some of whom own homes in Uzbekistan. It’s hard to believe that he or his people aren’t deep in discussions with them about contingencies – ignoring Karzai government and international institutions, and functioning, for all intents and purposes, under post-2014 conditions. The mid-July assassination in northern Afghanistan of an ethnic Uzbek former mujahideen commander and key opposition political figure, Ahmad Khan Samangani, suggests that the Islamist militant side, too, is looking past 2014 and targeting Afghan leaders capable of rallying northern forces against a Taliban advance, whatever their connections to the Karzai government.

Shafiullah Afghan, who in 2004 and 2005 was chief of staff to the provincial police chief in Balkh, the Afghan province that neighbors Uzbekistan, says significant arms shipments were crossing the Friendship Bridge into Afghanistan back then. “We were telling ISAF officers about the ‘sea-cans’ and containers of Kalashnikovs,” he says. Uzbek and Western observers express complete conviction that, in case of serious conflict in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan will support northern, anti-Taliban forces, militarily as well as financially or morally.

Transport of arms or munitions could turn the Friendship Bridge into a legitimate military target from the perspective of Pakistan, which is now recognized as backing Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials should be concerned that the Uzbek government, by planning for a contingency it judges to be probable and dangerous, may inadvertently exacerbate the threat. But the embedded opportunity here is the deep experience of Afghanistan that Uzbek officials possess. U.S. policymakers might do well to take time to listen to how Uzbeks see events in Afghanistan playing out, and perhaps to base some contingency planning of their own on the insights. Uzbeks’ relationships and potential leverage with key Afghan interlocutors are also precious assets. What about some quiet meetings in Tashkent with Afghans and Uzbeks, to brainstorm creative ways out of a presaged implosion?

In these dangerous days, Uzbekistan is worthy of focus. And the country’s recent withdrawal from the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization can be read as a sign of its interest in engaging.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Taliban • Terrorism • United States

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Marc

    What a brilliant idea! Sarah!
    US should get in bed with yet another distant, small, autocratic, corrupt, and above-all LAND-LOCKED Central-Asian country as a means of staying tied to our current problem-Afghanistan. Just brilliant. Unless Uzbekistan has a tunnel to Georgia, your suggestion is pointless.

    August 7, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    I think it's a good idea. Uzbekistan has been a supporter of the US against terrorism in the past. Relationships took a downturn when the US and UK started meddling in Uzbekistan's internal affairs during the Andijan protests... Since then Uzbekistan has been leaning more towards Russia and China, but if the US plays it's cards right, I believe it can work.

    August 7, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      It will Ferhat, if we pay them enough!

      August 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
      • Jamil

        If who pays who Jo?

        August 8, 2012 at 11:29 am |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        The U.S. government will, Jamil. Who else? On the other hand, Uzbekistan could be the seat of future negotiations between the U.S., the Karzai regime and the Taliban.

        August 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
      • Jamil

        Jo, in a previous conversation I read that you thought the USA to be broke, how could they pay anyone off?

        August 8, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • nina

      The Andijan massacre occurred when Uzbek Interior Ministry and National Security Service (SNB) troops fired into a crowd of protesters in Andijan, Uzbekistan on 13 May 2005. How was the UK and the USA involved?
      Are you able to give a couple of examples of "Uzbekistan has been leaning more towards Russia and China"?

      August 7, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • Thomas

      No frontal assaults will be done by the Taliban... Their fight will rigtly wax and wain as per Sun Tzu.......... But when the occupying forces withdraw, the fierce implacable Afghans will clean out ALL the rot..... So If the U.S. wants Uzbek President Islam Karimov to be way up on top of the Taliban hit list... then they should cozy up.. For perspective see see the history of SE Asia after the ignoble U.S. route from, Vietnam.............. Is Uzbekistan Cambodia or Laos...??? The U.S. fuiture there is lose lose lose..... The only debate is: How many...???? How much...????

      August 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
      • Jamil

        You would get along very well with Absolem!

        August 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    The repressive government of Islam Karimov sees Muslims as a threat to the secular regime.
    Human rights organisations accuse Uzbekistan of imprisoning thousands of Muslims who have been depicted as extremists seeking to overthrow the government and set up an Islamic state. In this respect the regime inTashkent wants to keep the Taliban at bay. Islam Karimov tolerates no opposition; political and rights activists have fled. He shows no signs of giving up power. Despite frequent criticism of its poor human rights record, Uzbekistan's energy resources and strategic location have led both Russia and the West to seek closer ties with the regime.

    August 8, 2012 at 7:58 am | Reply
  4. Sam Villa

    Does the CIA think we are stupid enough to believe the nonsense that it's 'journalists' spew!?!? Uzbekistan is only one of two countries in the world, which is double landlocked meaning it is surrounded by countries which themsleves are landlocked. secondly Uzbekistan is not an actor in Afghanistan it like Turkmenistan has a negligible population, armed forces and economy which can exert influnece. The strongest influence by far is Pakistan which is home to a large sophistcated and well-integrated Pashtun population within Pakistan's armed forces, bureacracy, intelligentsia, and business community, these Pashtuns view Afghanistan as a Pashtun Country where Pashtuns should hold power. The second power broker is Iran which is the benefactor to the Shia minority, and to a degree the Dari speaking population. On the periphery India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, China and Russia have their actors. But Uzbekistan is as much of an actor in Afghanistan as Canada is.

    August 8, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  5. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007 ©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484

    I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti American, anti GB, anti semite, anti India, anti modern anything because I am a good moooooslem. I steal people's monikers because I am so ashamed of myself and post the most stupid comment. When people get angry with me, I claim insanity. I am the same guy.

    August 18, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply

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