Central Asian Perspectives on Afghanistan by Nargis Kassenova
IndraStra Global

Central Asian Perspectives on Afghanistan by Nargis Kassenova

US Soldiers interacting with Afghan village elders at Zabul
By Nargis Kassenova
Central Asian perspectives on the prospects for conflict resolution and stabiliza- tion in Afghanistan are mostly similar with regard to the causes of the conflict in Afghanistan, with some differences resulting from ethnic solidarity. Central Asian experts generally explain protracted armed violence in Afghanistan as having been caused by a combination of factors, including (a) the failure of political centralization and state-building processes, which has led to a weakened state; (b) ethnic, religious and tribal divisions, which have funnelled tensions and the struggle for power; (c) the meddling of external actors, whose promotion of their own interests has come at the expense of unity and stability in Afghanistan.
Both officials and experts characterize the security situation in Afghanistan as unstable and highly likely to deteriorate. In the words of one senior Kazakh MFA official, explosive ‘latent processes’ in this country are waiting for a ‘detonator’, and one such potential detonator could have been provided by the April 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan It was expected that since the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, could not be re-elected, and there were no obvious alternative candidates, the situation in the country would be unpredictable. However, the relatively successful elections seem to give hope that the worst-case scenario can be avoided. Central Asian experts state that their governments will accept the choice of the Afghan people and will adapt to it.
Central Asian officials and the expert community have been generally mildly critical of the current stabilization approach and view the international efforts with respect to the security problems in Afghanistan as inadequate. For example, there are doubts regarding the military aspect of stabilization. Central Asian officials speaking at international meetings often state that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem. At the same time, ISAF is criticized for not paying enough attention to enhancing the capacity of the Afghan armed forces, which lack heavy armament and ammunition, thus considerably limiting their ability to conduct independent and large-scale military operations.
The political component of the stabilization of Afghanistan is also questioned. When discussing political solutions for Afghanistan, Central Asian experts do not bring up democratic instruments. The general view is that Afghan society is too traditional and not ready for the imposition of Western-style democracy. So far, efforts to promote democracy have only aggravated the inter-elite and inter- ethnic divides in the country and weakened the state. While such views were common before the 2014 presidential elections, the successful conduct of the elections suggests that skepticism in this regard might decrease.
As for the international aspect of stabilization, the official line of Central Asian states is the necessity of keeping the process under the aegis of the United Nations.
While the necessity of an intra-Afghan political solution is emphasized, there is no clear common vision on how it should be achieved. For example, Tajik experts tend to believe that the policies of the USA and NATO favour and promote the dominance of the Pushtun people in Afghanistan at the expense of ethnic minorities. Such policies are considered potentially dangerous, as the weakening of the Northern Alliance would make it easier for the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan, and would lead to another wave of confrontation between the Pushtun-dominated south and the north of the country, where ethnic minor- ities—including Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras—dominate.
Most experts view the status quo—which is characterized by a balance of power among ethnic groups in the government—as unsustainable in the long run. Tajik and Uzbek experts argue that, unless the interests of minorities are taken into account, any peace agreement will not be durable. Consequently, some experts believe that only the introduction of the principles of federalism would ensure long-term stability in Afghanistan. According to a prominent Tajik expert, the dilemma facing Tajikistan in this regard can be summarized as follows:
On the one hand, Tajikistan is not interested in realization of federalism principles in Afghanistan—this a way for separatism and further to the civil war . . . On the other hand, Tajikistan is not interested in the complete political domination of Pushtuns in Afghani- stan. It could happen in case of the return of the Taliban to power and as a result of the NATO activities. Therefore, Tajikistan prefers the existing status-quo situation in which Pushtuns share power with representatives of other non-Pushtun ethnic groups.
Although ethnic solidarity is an important factor in shaping the policies of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan towards Afghanistan, it is not the decisive one. Rather, the main drivers are security and economic interests. Both countries have a stra- tegic interest in developing alternative trade routes via Afghanistan to South Asia to help decrease their dependence on their northern neighbours (Uzbekistan for Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan and Russia for Uzbekistan). One representative of a leading Tajik trade company articulated this interest as follows:
For me personally it doesn’t matter who is in power in Afghanistan—Tajiks or Pushtuns. For my company it is much more important to get access to transportation routes through Afghanistan to Karachi, India and Iran. Today we have to deliver all needed goods via Russia and Uzbekistan, passing through numerous bureaucratic and corruption obstacles; in addition it is very expensive. The way through Afghanistan would be much shorter (two days instead of six or seven) and cheaper.
There is no consensus on the issue of negotiations with the Taliban. On the one hand, experts believe that an intra-Afghan political process and peace settlement with the Taliban is a prerequisite for the stabilization of Afghanistan. On the other hand, the way in which this intra-Afghan dialogue should be organized remains unclear. Tajik experts tend to doubt the existence of ‘moderate’ elements within the Taliban. They also express scepticism with regards to the usefulness of negotiations with moderate Taliban members, viewing the Taliban as using the opportunity to accumulate forces and resources for a future offensive. According to one senior Kazakh Government official, while negotiation is necessary, it is important to negotiate with Taliban representatives who have influence, rather than with ‘moderate’ Taliban members.Kazakh experts generally take a less biased position, with some even tending to sympathize with Pushtuns attracted to tribal culture, including Pushtunwali (the informal code of honour).
Experts and government officials agree that international forces have not made sufficient efforts to reduce drug production in Afghanistan. For example, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev recently criticized the USA and ISAF for insufficient efforts in this regard. According to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, while various assistance programmes for border manage- ment are necessary, the main focus needs to be on Afghanistan as a source of opium production. This is in line with the Russian position on the matter. More generally, official statements on stabilization in Afghanistan emphasize the necessity of making the Afghan economy viable by reviving its various sectors and integrating Afghanistan within regional trade networks. In this context. Kazykhanov argues that the starting point should be agriculture, and that inter- national assistance should be concentrated in areas where intensive agricultural growth can be achieved. In his opinion, encouraging Afghans back into product- ive employment on the land will have a major economic impact and improve the security situation.