Amid a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, strategic coordination with Uzbeks needed

Columnist  | Skand Tayal

World, Asia

Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are secular democratic Republics and are ideologically strongly opposed to the Taliban.

A file photo of the ‘Afghanistan: Peace Process, Security Cooperation and Regional Connectivity’ conference that brought together Afghanistan, the five Central Asian countries, the United Nations and other stakeholders to work towards peace, increased security and regional development in Afghanistan and the region

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is a cause of deep concern, which India shares with its strategic partners in Central Asia. Taliban fighters are steadily gaining territory and their recent audacious attack on Gazani has exposed the weakness of Afghan security forces. The Eid ceasefire offer of a beleaguered President Ashraf Ghani has been expectedly rejected by the resurgent Taliban.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are frontline states in the regional struggle against Taliban. As Afghanistan is gradually sinking in the morass of uncertainty, it is important for India to coordinate its strategic options with all the alarmed neighbours of Afghanistan particularly Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Russia.

Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are secular democratic Republics and are ideologically strongly opposed to the Taliban. They are expected to do their utmost to work with the Ghani government to prevent a takeover of large tracts of Afghanistan by the radical Jihadi forces-whether allied to Taliban or ISIS.

Uzbekistan is very conscious of the ever present threat of Islamic fundamentalism to its secular principles, tolerant culture and a modern progressive society. Under the firm guidance of its first President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan never hesitated in putting the fundamentalist forces down with a heavy hand. After the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, Uzbekistan made its airbase Karshi at Termez available to the US for movement of US troops and supplies into Afghan territory. It is to be noted that Uzbekistan did not demand any payment for the use of these facilities as compared to Kirghizstan, which was paid a hefty annual sum for the use of its airbase at Manas or Ganchi.

However, relations with the US became estranged as US severely criticised the decisive Uzbek action against an open revolt by Islamists in the city of Andijan in May 2005, whi-ch led to hundreds of casualties. US judged this acti-on largely on the scale of human rights, whereas, the Uzbek state was fighting for the principles of secularism, tolerance and political stability. Unfortunately, even after the emergence of failed states in Libya, Iraq and Syria which became a breeding ground for Jihadi forces, US fails to understand the value of political stability in societies vulnerable to Islamist indoctrination.

Stung by severe American criticism, Uzbekistan demanded that the US forces withdraw from Termez and the last US troops left in December 2005. However, Germans continued to use this base for transit of its forces and material till December 2015.

It may be noted that Uzbekistan maintains the largest Army in Central Asia with 65,000 servicemen. The command structures of the armed forces are based on the erstwhile Soviet Army but gradual modernisation of equipment and operational strategy is taking place. Realistically speaking, Uzbekistan does not face a conventional threat from any of its neighbours, and the focus of these forces is on maintaining internal stability and anti-terrorist operations. Uzbekistan is a prominent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and hosts the SCO’s Regional Anti-terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent. Uzbekistan was a strong advocate for India’s membership in the SCO, which finally happened in 2017.

Uzbekistan is playing a leadership role in developing a regional strategy for the future stability of Afg-hanistan. Uzbekistan hosted a conference on “Afghanistan: Peace Process, Sec-urity Cooperation and Regional Connectivity” in Tashkent on 26-27 March 2018. High-level delegations from 23 countries including CARs, India, United States, Iran, Afgh-anistan, China, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia etc., participated in the conference in which an important declaration was ado-pted. Speaking on the occasion, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziayev affirm-ed that “Afghanistan’s security is security of Uzbekistan, linchpin of stability and prosperity of the entire greater region of Central and South Asia”. He observed that “security is indivisible and it can be ensured only through joint efforts”. Significantly, President Mirziayev declared that “we do not have a right to perceive some threats as ‘our own’ and yet others as ‘not ours’”. India can only hope that Pakistan delegation listened carefully to this sage advice from the Uzbek President.

To resolve the Afghan imbroglio President Mirz-iayev advocated a comprehensive peace process with an intra-Afghan dialogue among all forces including the government and the Opposition. He also offered Uzbekistan as a venue for any such talks between the government of Uzbekistan and Tali-ban. President Mirzioyev also advocated the necessity of a firm consensus at the regional level “primarily with the support of Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and CARs.”

Addressing the conference, India’s minister of state for external affairs Mr M.J. Akbar had remin-ded the participants that “there can be neither solution nor resolution without principled commitment to law, to democracy as the basis of order and to human rights”. He conveyed India’s deep appreciation for the “vision shown by our Uzbek brothers towards finding such a real and sustainable pea-ce. The emancipation and progress that we see on the streets of Tashkent is what we must protect and preserve on the streets of Kabul.”

Mr Akbar also conveyed India’s commitment to “any process, which can help Afghanistan emerge as a united, peaceful, secu-re, stable, inclusive and economically vibrant nati-on, with guaranteed gender and human rights.” He also cautioned that “we must all conform to internationally recognised red lines” and declared that “we seek the peace of the famed Afghan garden, not the dead peace of the graveyard.”

In a position at some variance from India’s kno-wn views about the futility of any peace agreement with the Taliban, the Tash-kent declaration emphasised ‘that a political settlement with the Taliban is the best way to end violence in Afghanistan, and there is a need for direct peace talks between the government of Afghanis-tan and reconcilable elements of the Taliban without any pre-conditions’. The declaration voiced ‘strong backing for the national unity governm-ent’s offer to launch direct talks with Taliban with the ultimate goal of reaching the comprehensive peace agreement with the Taliban’. The conference supported an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process’.

Subsequent intensified terrorist actions by the Taliban against the hapless people of Afghanistan have belied any hopes for a peaceful settlement betw-een the legitimate and ele-cted government of Afgha-nistan in Kabul and the bloodthirsty and fanatical leadership of Taliban. Tal-iban have also clearly signaled that their aim is complete domination over Afghan territory with no power sharing.

President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirzioyev is expe-cted to visit India in late September.

It would offer an opportunity for India to convey that the pernicious ideology of Taliban is not a cancer which can be contained within the territory of Afghanistan; it is a plague which is bound to infect its neighbours and must be resisted by the international community with undiluted resolve.