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Taliban cross the Rubicon

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | August 12, 2018

The Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry announced in a terse statement on Saturday that a Taliban delegation led by the head of its political office in Doha, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai visited Tashkent last week and the two sides “exchanged views on prospects of the peace process in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban has been somewhat more forthcoming with details. A press statement said that the 5-day visit (August 6-11) took place on the basis of a “formal invitation” from Tashkent and talks were held with Foreign Minister Abdul Aziz Kamilov and the Special Representative of the President of Uzbekistan for Afghanistan Ismatulla Irgashev. The press release added that the two sides “discussed current and future national projects such as security for railroad and power lines,” apart from exchanging views “about the withdrawal of foreign forces and how to achieve peace in Afghanistan.”

The Uzbeks have had direct dealings in the past with the Taliban. Kamilov himself is known to have visited Afghanistan and negotiated with the Taliban government in the late 1990s. Irgashev, too, is a familiar face to the Taliban, having served as deputy foreign minister under Kamilov. But this is the first time that a Taliban delegation has been invited to visit Tashkent for formal talks at the Uzbek Foreign Ministry.

This is an extraordinary development. It significantly enhances Taliban’s regional profile and standing and is precedent setting.

The relations between Tashkent and the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani have been exceptionally warm of late. The bilateral exchanges intensified in the past year with Uzbek companies picking up lucrative contracts in northern Afghanistan. The US has actively encouraged such collaboration. Most certainly, Washington promoted the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan on March 27, which was attended among others by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon. The event was intended to marshal some degree of regional consensus behind an “Afghan-led, Afghan controlled” peace process without any preconditions regarding the presence of US troops in Afghanistan.

As a gesture of gratitude, President Donald Trump rewarded Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev with an invitation to visit the White House on May 16, the first-ever visit of that kind. Indeed, things have been going splendidly well in the US-Afghan-Uzbek triangle. During a visit to Kabul on July 9 Kamilov discussed with Ghani several big investment projects such as a free trade zone spread over 3000 hectares on the Uzbek-Afghan border, a $500 million railway project to connect Mazar-i-Sharif with Herat (linking northern and western Afghanistan), establishment of 6 textile factories in Afghanistan by Uzbek companies and so on.

However, the Uzbeks have a reputation for making their foreign policy moves very cautiously and therefore, the meeting in Tashkent last week should not be seen as signifying a shift in the Uzbek policies toward Afghanistan.To be sure, Tashkent has closely coordinated with Kabul and Washington. Interestingly, Kamilov also had made a phone call to Lavrov on July 31. The crisply worded readout from the Russian Foreign Ministry merely said that the two ministers “exchanged opinions on topical bilateral matters and cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan on the international agenda.” Quite obviously, consistent with the Uzbek style of diplomacy, Tashkent touched base with Moscow before the Taliban arrived.

Ostensibly, therefore, Tashkent is following up on the offer made by Mirzoyiev after the Tashkent conference in March when he had said: “We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and Taliban movement.” Clearly, Washington has encouraged Tashkent to be a peace broker between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Following the first-ever direct talks between the Taliban and US officials at Doha last month, a second round is expected in September. The meeting at Tashkent comes in between.

However, it is highly improbable that the Taliban will accept Ghani as its interlocutor. Tashkent must be quite aware of the strong undercurrents in regional politics as well. Therefore, trust Tashkent to have made its own calculations in self-interest, too.

The point is, there is dire necessity today for Tashkent to maintain a direct line to the Taliban. The security situation in the Amu Darya region bordering Uzbekistan is steadily deteriorating. The growing presence of Islamist State-Khorasan (ISK) in northern Afghanistan worries Uzbekistan, since its ranks have a preponderance of fighters drawn from the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is sworn to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Ghani’s ill-advised standoff with the ethnic Uzbek leader in Amu Darya, Rashid Dostum (who was forced into exile in Turkey for a year and was prevented from returning. Dostum’s prolonged absence seriously destabilized the northern region, which also worked to the advantage of the ISK. Ghani finally made peace with Dostum and beseeched him to return – and eventually went overboard by giving him a grand ceremonial welcome on arrival in Kabul last month. But the ground realities in northern Afghanistan have changed phenomenally. The old stability that Dostum provided has disappeared.

There was a time in the 1990s when the Uzbek leadership of late president Islam Karimov had regarded Dostum as its Praetorian guard in the Amu Darya region. He used to be lionized and lavishly funded by the Uzbek intelligence during his regal visits to Tashkent. But Tashkent summarily dumped him once the US moved into Afghanistan in 2001 and co-opted him as their warlord. (The US too subsequently dumped him.)

In sum, Dostum is today a freewheeling entity available to the highest bidder and is no more the uncrowned king of the Amu Darya. And yet, he is still locked in a blood feud with the Taliban dating back to 2001 when in a bloody massacre he slaughtered a few thousands Taliban fighters who had surrendered in the northern provinces following the US intervention and were assured of safe passage to Pakistan.

Tashkent seems disinterested in Dostum. On the other hand, the Taliban have emerged today as the most promising counterweight to the ISK in the Amu Darya region. In such murky situations, Tashkent never loses clarity of purpose. Realism always prevails. Conceivably, Tashkent is beginning to see the Taliban as the most meaningful Afghan interlocutor for today and tomorrow  – and, perhaps, forever.

Of course, for Taliban, this is like hitting the jackpot. The invitation from the foreign minister of an important neighboring country to hold direct talks is a novel experience. It is a game changer, no doubt. The Taliban have crossed the Rubicon in their long search for gaining international legitimacy.

August 12, 2018 - Posted by | Aletho News | , , , , ,

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