Central Asia Can Help Bring Afghanistan into the International Fold

The mountains of Afghanistan reflected in the Pyang River at the Tajikistan border. Photo: TCA

Afghanistan’s situation remains deeply troubling, reflecting a complex history of conflict and political instability that has severely impacted its social and economic fabric. The Soviet Union’s invasion 45 years ago, followed by the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996 and the U.S. involvement after the September 2001 terrorist attacks linked to Al-Qaeda, and finally the Taliban’s return to leadership in 2021, have all shaped the current crisis. Today, Afghanistan appears no closer to becoming a functioning state capable of contributing positively to the global community. As recent as 2020, nearly half of the country’s population lived below the poverty line. The plight of women and girls continues to be particularly dire as they have been denied secondary education since the Taliban regained power nearly three years ago.

An invigorated engagement with the international community would no doubt provide multiple benefits to not only Afghanistan’s own people but also to the larger region. Whether the troubled country remains a zone of conflict or becomes a contributor to a sustainable future will depend on its ability and willingness to eventually integrate into broader regional and global frameworks. A state’s adherence to modern democratic values is often seen as one of the conditions for recognition as a genuine international partner by the global community. These norms are usually associated with Western-oriented ideologies and are therefore difficult for today’s Taliban-led Afghanistan to embrace and implement.

There are possible ways to bridge this apparent divide. At a meeting held in Doha on 18-19 February 2024, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reported that he had begun consultations on the appointment of a UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan to “coordinate engagement between Kabul and the international community.” Pakistan, who shares a 2,640-km border with Afghanistan, proposed that the envoy should be a “Muslim, experienced diplomat and from the region”. Pakistan’s candidacy is tarnished, however, by accusations that it provided military support to the Taliban, which Pakistan’s government denies. Turkey, another possibility, is a NATO member that has sustained political and economic ties with Afghanistan. However, its geographical distance makes it less of a stakeholder in the economic and security environments impacted by Afghanistan and as such, it lacks some of the necessary incentives and leverage points needed to influence Afghanistan’s actions.

 

Central Asia’s unique insights and motivations to help Afghanistan

In the same Doha gathering, Guterres also proposed establishing a contact group of states that might include the “P-5 [the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom] with a group of regional countries and relevant donors” for a more coordinated approach to engaging Afghanistan’s “de facto authorities”. The Central Asian republics making up the “C-5” should certainly be considered among the “regional countries” grouping that Guterres mentioned.

Firstly, Central Asia has been affected by economic and security developments in Afghanistan, including narcotics trafficking, as well as by the overflow radical extremism and a resurgence of the militant cause. The region plays critical role today in curtailing the spread of illiberal and violent ideologies and the illegal narcotics transit coming from Afghanistan.

Secondly, Central Asian republics hold valuable insight into the geopolitical and cultural nuances of the larger region, derived from their own experiences navigating the post-Soviet landscape. Central Asia’s people were pulled into the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) with the requirement to deploy soldiers. In the past 30 years, Central Asia has marched towards the kind of modernization and integration that lays before Afghanistan today. This further enables Central Asians to consider solutions with a much-needed sensitivity towards historical, ethnic, and political complexities characterizing the challenges in and around Afghanistan. Their comprehensive understanding of regional dynamics strengthens the position of these states as potential future mediators.

The region boasts economic motivations as well. Afghanistan’s stability is a requisite for guaranteeing Central Asia’s prosperity. This particularly comes into focus in case of the proposed Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) project, also known as the “Middle Corridor”, which extends across the Caspian Sea and through the South Caucasus to Europe. It is not unimaginable for Afghanistan to eventually become part of the corridor’s network. Economic feasibility of the project’s development relies on increased throughput, which could be impacted by Afghanistan’s position in multiple ways. To reach Pakistan’s markets, for instance, the transportation corridor would have to pass through Afghanistan. Moreover, Afghanistan’s own natural resources could be transported through the Middle Corridor. For any of this to happen, however, Afghanistan will first have to be considered secure enough by investors to domicile road and rail infrastructures.

 

Kazakhstan is best positioned to be a successful mediator in the region

Among the Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan arguably do not possess sufficient diplomatic resources to undertake a mediation role with regards to Afghanistan. Additionally, in the case of Tajikistan, the fact that ethnic Tajiks are estimated to compose slightly over a quarter of Afghanistan’s population renders it a further unlikely candidate.

The two other C-5 Central Asian republics are Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, like Tajikistan, has a large diaspora in Afghanistan, which represents just under one-tenth of the latter’s population. The Taliban leadership would be particularly wary of some Uzbeks given such cases as Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek and former first vice-president of Afghanistan, who led a resistance against the Taliban in the north two decades ago and is now in exile. Consequently, Uzbekistan is unlikely to be seen by Kabul as a fair arbiter.

This leaves Kazakhstan with a quite objective view on future prospective of Afghanistan development. Diplomatically, Kazakhstan has demonstrated its principled neutrality, for instance by refusing to take sides in the recent Russia–Ukraine conflict. Its multi-vector foreign policy could enable Kazakhstan to engage with multiple global powers simultaneously (including the P-5) without overtly aligning with any of them.

As an added plus, Kazakhstan does not share a border with Afghanistan, nor does it have a significant ethnic diaspora that could complicate mediation efforts. There is no risk of prioritizing ethnic interests over pursuit of peace and stability.

From a perspective of economic incentives and clout, Kazakhstan is well-positioned as both a leader of and a reliable partner in the above-mentioned Middle Corridor, which seeks to diversify trade routes away from traditional regional powerhouses.

Additionally, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has already been positioning his country as a key mediator in addressing the complex issues surrounding Afghanistan. Since taking office in 2019, Tokayev has leveraged Kazakhstan’s geostrategic location and diplomatic clout to foster integration with global frameworks, emphasizing the importance of constructive dialogue and international cooperation. His administration’s dedication to humanitarian concerns in Afghanistan, alongside advocating for the country’s stability and integration, mirrors Kazakhstan’s broader strategy to mitigate regional challenges such as violence, drug trafficking, and migration. Kazakhstan has also sought to expand such assistance within United Nations frameworks.

In summary, Central Asia as a whole should be taken into consideration in the ongoing discussions about establishing a contact group to coordinate between Afghanistan and the international community. This will keep intact the approach set out by Antonio Guterresh – known as a “regional approach,” when Roza Otumbayeva, first Central Asian national, was appointed as a Head of the UNAMA bakc in 2022.

Within this region, Kazakhstan stands out as the most suitable country to serve as a reliable mediator. It has both the motive and the means to perform this role; it does not have an apparent ideological ambition or an ethnic diaspora in Afghanistan that could complicate its perception by local authorities, and most importantly, its diplomacy has proven to be motivated by a pragmatic understanding of geopolitical and economic dynamics (i.e., a “Realpolitik” synthesis of economic, security and political imperatives). As such, with its intricate balance of diplomacy and strategic interests, Kazakhstan has a good chance to navigate the challenges and opportunities surrounding Afghanistan and to help it succeed in future international engagements.

 

Aidar Borangaziyev is an expert at the Astana based Open World Center for Analysis and Prognosis