Reflections on Events in Afghanistan-23

Friendship Bridge from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan 

23. With eyes on Taliban, US to reset Uzbek ties 

When Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman lands in Tashkent on Sunday, she will be practically carving on a tiny piece of ivory. This is not to blame Sherman who is arguably a strategic asset for the Biden Administration as she brings into the foreign policy team in Washington a high-level of diplomatic skill that virtually makes her an indispensable trouble shooter — low key but highly effective. 

Sherman has a challenging task ahead — to try to negotiate basing arrangements in Uzbekistan that provides anchor sheet for a new phase of US military intervention in Afghanistan, ostensibly aimed at hunting down terrorist elements but in reality to advance the geopolitical agenda of the ‘strategic competition’ with Russia and China from yet another promising Eurasian theatre straddling their soft underbelly of North Caucasus and Xinjiang regions respectively. 

After the fiasco over the ‘evacuation’ out of Kabul airport in August and the blame game between the US state department and the Pentagon that ensued, the so-called ‘over-the-horizon’ military operations in Afghanistan has become a highly sensitive issue. 

Added to that, the Taliban have forewarned against any such US military operations in future on the Afghan territory. Russia and China have been making coordinated efforts to keep the Central Asian region out of any US-Taliban confrontation as well as to preclude US special forces from operating out of that region. 

Washington has been eyeing Uzbekistan in the recent period as the weakest link in the Central Asian regional chain. In the US estimation, despite the hype in Russian reports that Uzbekistani-Russian relations have been significantly enhanced in recent years and although the current situation in Afghanistan has presented the Kremlin with a unique opportunity to strengthen its military patronage over Tashkent, the latter has no intentions of rejoining the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or accept Russia as its preeminent security and military partner at a juncture when the threat of the regional security situation might degenerate in unforeseen directions over the coming months or years. 

On the other hand, Tashkent is highly skilled in cherry picking. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan refused Washington’s entreaties to host a US military facility on its territory, which, Tashkent noted, is precluded by its Foreign Policy Doctrine. 

But then, that did not prevent Tashkent from negotiating an agreement with Washington to transfer a group of Afghan military pilots and their families to a US military base in the following weeks. Military pilots who were believed to have been among the Afghan nationals had crossed over to Uzbekistan and the Taliban had been demanding that Tashkent turned them and their equipment over to Kabul — reportedly, 46 aircraft flown by the pilots to Uzbekistan including US-supplied Black Hawks, PC-12 surveillance aircraft, and Soviet-era MI-17s. 

According to Wall Street Journal, on the weekend of September 11-12, a total of 585 Afghan nationals would have been flown to the US military base in Doha, Qatar, for processing, from where they would be sent to live permanently in other countries. 

During the talks in Tashkent tomorrow, Sherman hopes to bank on the goodwill that accrued out of the evacuation deal, which rescued the Uzbek government from a potentially nasty brawl with Kabul. Clearly, Tashkent didn’t want tense relations with Taliban, especially since the latter despise Afghan military pilots for the carnage they wrought from the air during the war. 

Sherman is paying a hurried trip to follow up on the ‘recce’ trip to Uzbekistan by the UK Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey on September 23. Indeed, it is terribly important that the present momentum and ‘feel-good’ in Washington’s equations with Tashkent is quickly encashed, as Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is expected to visit Moscow soon, anytime after the October 24 presidential election. 

Senior Russian officials are on record that during Mirziyoyev’s expected visit to Moscow, the two countries will sign a substantial package of bilateral agreements, which will also include defence cooperation and arms purchases. 

However, as things stand, the probability is low that Tashkent will associate with any future US military intervention in Afghanistan in whatever form it may come. For one thing, Tashkent is well aware that apart from Russia, China also harbours deep misgivings about the US intentions in the period ahead.

A commentary in the Global Times by a leading Chinese think tanker has urged that ‘on the issue of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan should coordinate with Russia, Iran and Central Asian countries. These countries together should warn Europe of a possible refugee crisis, and put pressure on the US, India and some European countries to take responsible actions.’ Quite obviously, the geopolitical fault lines are surging.

The Taliban is already bristling with anger at next-door Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon for harbouring Afghan warlords and making provocative remarks about Afghan internal affairs. 

Today, Tass news agency quoted the Taliban deputy governor of Badakhshan Province in northeastern Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, Mullah Nisar Ahmad Akhmadi, that a special battalion of suicide bombers is being deployed in the north of the country to protect borders with China and Tajikistan. 

Akhmadi said, “A special suicide battalion named Lashkar-e Mansur will be deployed to Afghanistan’s borders. Defeating the United States would have been impossible without this battalion. Those brave warriors are wearing special explosive belts, and they used them to blow up US bases in Afghanistan.” 

No doubt, it is a blunt warning to Rahmon but it will also resonate in the Central Asian steppes in general. On the eve of Sherman’s talks in Tashkent, the Tass report may have unwittingly reminded the regional states about the inherent risks of identifying with the Americans in their hostile actions against the Taliban regime in the present situation. 

Sherman would do well to try to generate some more equity in the US-Uzbek relationship at this point in time. The US has floated the imaginative idea of ‘utilising the potential of Central Asia and its domestically produced goods for joint coordinated efforts in providing humanitarian assistance and ensuring food security’ for Afghanistan. read more

In the past, Tashkent has shown keen interest to tap into the economic and business spin-off from the Afghan situation that Washington could generate. Conversely, today, Tashkent will go the extra league to maintain cordial ties with the Taliban authorities in Kabul.