Afghanistan’s peace process could be taking a major step forward in August with the potential commencement of intra-Afghan talks, said the U.S. chief negotiator on Friday. “This is an important moment for Afghanistan and for the region—perhaps a defining moment,” said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Peace in Afghanistan would redound to the benefit of the entire region. As the peace process stumbles forward, one critical but often overlooked element is the role of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors.
"We believe that [Central Asian] countries have an important role to play in encouraging the Afghan sides—the government, and the Taliban—to overcome the challenges that remain," Khalilzad said in an online event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was joined by Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani, Uzbek Ambassador Javlon Vakhabov and Ambassador Erzhan Kazykhanov of Kazakhstan.
The Central Asian countries, all former republics of the Soviet Union, have been closely involved with developments in Afghanistan since the Soviets invaded in 1979. Over the last two decades, Central Asia provided access for NATO troops and supplies to Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network. Today they provide foreign assistance support, technical know-how, and opportunities to obtain education to young Afghans in addition to affordable energy resources and market access to Russia, Europe, and beyond.
The Latest on the Peace Process
Since the U.S.-Taliban deal was struck in February, there has been little forward movement in the broader Afghan peace process. Violence has soared and Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of the violence. In a report released on Monday, the United Nations said 1,300 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2020 and that there was a 33 percent increase in deaths caused by the Taliban over the same period.
Meanwhile, as the violence has undermined trust, the Afghan government and Taliban for months struggled to come to agreement over prisoner releases. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said at a USIP-hosted online event in June that he would be accelerating prisoner releases in an effort to speed the beginning of intra-Afghan talks, which the head of Afghanistan’s peace council, Abdullah Abdullah, confirmed in another event hosted by the Institute.
Khalilzad noted that this stumbling block has nearly been overcome. “Most of the distance has been traveled in this difficult road,” he said, after noting that the Afghan government had released more than 4,440 out of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the Taliban had released 861 of 1,000 prisoners.
“Afghanistan has never been closer to an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process,” said Khalilzad. His comments were followed by further positive developments. Ghani announced today that his government would soon complete the release of the rest of the Taliban prisoners and called on the group to come to the negotiating table. Soon after his remarks, the Taliban announced a three-day cease-fire to coincide with Eid-al-Adha at the end of this week.
Central Asia and Afghanistan: A Bridge to Regional Integration
Several Central Asian countries, notably Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have stepped up in recent years to support the peace process and they have been key economic partners.
Uzbekistan in 2018 brought together 21 countries, the U.N., and EU to support the peace process at the Tashkent Conference, which reaffirmed strong support for intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban without preconditions. Afghanistan is already a top 10 trading partner of Uzbekistan, noted Vakhabov, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United States. Uzbekistan is also expanding its supply of electricity to Afghanistan with projects that will not only increase production capacity, but create new jobs for Afghans, he said.
Kazakhstan’s flagship Bolashak education program has trained more than 1,000 Afghan students in Kazakhstan's universities, said Erzhan Kazykhanov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States. In 2018, Kazakhstan hosted a regional conference on empowering women in Afghanistan, he said. Among other initiatives, he noted that Kazakhstan provided more than $80 million of assistance to Afghanistan through its foreign aid agency KazAID. In fact, the lion’s share of Kazakhstan’s foreign aid budget to date has gone to Afghanistan, where KazAID focuses its attention on infrastructure, humanitarian aid, and gender equality initiatives.
The historic ties between Central Asia and Afghanistan are strong. Afghanistan once served as an important segment of the Silk Road, connecting different parts of the Asian continent, noted Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first woman ambassador to the United States. “Our shared history and cultural heritage [are] a testament” to the connection between Afghanistan and the region, she said.
But it’s not just neighborly comity that is leading to Central Asia’s involvement in advancing Afghan peace. Today, noted Rahmani, “Central Asia and South Asia are among the least integrated regions in the world.” A peaceful Afghanistan would serve as a bridge between Central and South Asia, and ultimately the rest of the world.
“Fortunately, opportunities for collaboration are abundant and we recognize that our economic development, security, and futures are tied together,” said Rahmani. She pointed to electricity, technology, agriculture, and loosening borders as low-hanging fruit that could help spur greater regional integration.
“Afghanistan should become an important bridge connecting Central Asia with [the] enormous market of South Asia and beyond,” said Vakhabov. “The prospects of sustainable development in Central Asia are inextricably linked with the achievement of peace in neighboring Afghanistan.”
Kazakhstan’s Kazykhanov struck a similar note: “A strong and peaceful Afghanistan as a good neighbor of Central Asia will have a strong, positive impact on our region.”
The State Department’s C5+1 initiative—consisting of the five former Central Asian Soviet republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and the United States—is one regional framework that could more meaningfully include Afghanistan and deepen regional integration. It serves as a format for dialogue to facilitate joint efforts to address common challenges.
“We favor an ever-stronger relationship between C5 and Afghanistan … we think that’s an important format, and increased cooperation and integration of Afghanistan... we believe is an important objective,” said Khalilzad. The other ambassadors expressed similar sentiments about the critical role C5+1 could play.
Supporting the Peace Process
Hope for prosperity in the region will hinge on the prospects of peace in Afghanistan. Recognizing this, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are throwing their weight behind building peace in Afghanistan.
“We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange on the territory of Uzbekistan direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement," said Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev on the heels of the 2018 Tashkent Conference.
Vakhabov added more detail to his president’s comment: “In order to achieve sustainable and long-term peace in Afghanistan, we deem it necessary to hold on to key principles ... [like] abstention from violence, comprehensive cease-fire, readiness to dialogue, and compromises.”
The ambassadors also endorsed intra-Afghan talks as the only way to bring peace and said that their countries would help. “We believe that Central Asian countries can play a pivotal role in providing a basis for the intra-Afghan talks," said Kazykhanov.
These talks should focus on everyday Afghans and preserving their hard-won rights. “We are firm believers that intra-Afghan talks should reflect the best interests of all Afghan people,” said Vakhabov.
But it’s not as though the entire region is unified on Afghan peace or how to get there. Khalilzad pointed to Iran as a potential spoiler and Pakistan has long been criticized for providing haven to the Taliban.
While the economic benefits of peace are clear, they have yet to serve as an enough of an incentive for peace, pointed out Scott Worden, USIP’s director for Afghanistan and Central Asia. Central Asian and other countries looking to build peace will need to insert economic issues in the peace process in a way that can help bring the parties together.
“In order to stop this vicious cycle, we need to take bold steps,” said Rahmani. “The lack of security causes no development and the lack of development leads to insecurity … We need to bring the benefits of peace high enough to break this cycle.”