Can Uzbekistan and Pakistan Help Stabilize Afghanistan?

A recent conference on connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia was notable for the warm relations between the host, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The leaders, an ex-Soviet technocrat and a sports-hero playboy, seem unlikely allies but the necessities of politics and economics have pushed them together.

Khan was most complimentary to his Uzbek host, who returned the encomiums, but the public bonhomie has a foundation in decisions by the two states to optimize the trade routes that will grow their economies and, hopefully, stabilize Afghanistan by making it part of the regional trade regime.

It is also the start of the home-grown approach to regional stability and economic growth in the wake of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Limits of the U.S. Approach

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The United States is part of the C5+1, a platform for dialogue between Washington and the five Central Asian states, and recently announced the U.S.-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan-Pakistan Quad, a diplomatic platform “focused on enhancing regional connectivity” encouraging “long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan,” a prerequisite for regional connectivity. But the grouping is most likely a means for the U.S. to check increased Russian and Chinese interest in the region in the wake of Washington’s hasty departure.

A productive U.S. role in the region would encourage increased connectivity via better infrastructure to promote trade. At the recent meeting of the G-7, U.S. President Joe Biden promoted an alternative — Build Back Better World (B3W) — to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as part of the U.S. campaign against China.

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But rather than dire warnings about Russian and Chinese interest and investments, the G-7 needs to provide attractive alternative financing to the BRI. It should not use project finance to oppose Russia and China but instead promote local economic growth in Central Asia, where the Asian Development Bank estimates closing the infrastructure gap will cost over $500 billion. If the U.S. defaults to its habitual focus on Moscow and Beijing making moves in their own neighborhoods, it will confirm that Washington’s interest in Central Asia remains transitory and transactional – not a good look after its midnight flight from Bagram Airbase.

B3W is focused on “social infrastructure” — climate, health, health security, and gender equity and equality — not digital technology and physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and telecommunications, the primary focus of the BRI. Thus, B3W doesn’t offer alternative financing for hard infrastructure projects, so it won’t address concerns about the fictitious “debt trap” Western policymakers fret about. B3W confirms the West’s interest remains prescriptive and focused on social engineering rather than civil engineering, so it may not be as attractive to Central Asian countries. At the same, they could use offers of alternative sources of project finance to get better terms from China – something that is in the United States’ interest.

Regional Efforts Move Forward

Pakistan and Uzbekistan recently sent test shipments by truck through Afghanistan to gauge the viability of various routes in the region. If the effort is to expand, Tashkent and Islamabad will have to make clear to Kabul, the Taliban, and the warlords that continued violence will discourage trade – and diminish their own economic prospects. Uzbekistan has prioritized transport through Pakistan to the ports of Gwadar and Karachi over routes through Iran, but both options rely on the cooperation of Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan is reserving a Plan B as it is a member of the India-Uzbekistan-Iran-Afghanistan Quadrilateral Working Group on the joint use of Iran’s Chabahar port. In early 2021, India proposed that Chabahar port be part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), and invited Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to join the multilateral corridor project. The INSTC is a 7,200-km multi-modal project that links India, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia, and Europe. This Plan B should be in the back of Pakistan’s mind if it considers weaponizing transport links from Central Asia against India, although U.S. sanctions against Iran – which are a tax on the region – may limit Central Asia’s transport options and help keep Pakistan’s policy of “strategic depth” alive.

In February 2021, representatives of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan agreed to a roadmap for the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project, a 600-km track to be built over five years. The route survey will also survey the large deposits of minerals in Afghanistan that are located near the proposed route. If they can be recovered, these mineral riches will attract third-party financing to the effort, but security will be the deciding factor. The failure of a Chinese consortium to start development of the Aynak copper deposit for a variety of reasons, not specifically security, may give potential partners pause, even though the Taliban green-lighted the restart of the project.

The rail project will run alongside regional power projects – the 1,000-megawatt Surkhan-Puli-Khumri high-voltage power line and the 1,300-megawatt CASA-1000 energy project – that supply power to Afghanistan and Pakistan, reducing costs for all the efforts.

In addition, Pakistan and China will try to connect Afghanistan to the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an overland transport project intended to avoid a potential U.S. blockade of China’s main import and export lanes in the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. If that succeeds, Afghanistan will be absorbed into the BRI and China will have an opportunity to add to its inventory of rare earth minerals via deals with a Taliban-controlled government. That is why Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, where China reportedly pledged not to interfere in the country’s internal affairs – at least until Beijing’s investments are threatened.

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Russia, for its part, is promoting its Greater Eurasian Partnership, a geoeconomics project that recognizes “the economy forms the base of modern society” and strives to eliminate barriers to economic activity in the world’s pivotal geographic space. Russia doesn’t have BRI-sized funding so will have to pick its targets, such as the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline, an 1,100-kilometer line to supply 12.3 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the terminals in Karachi and Gwadar to Lahore.

Uzbekistan and Pakistan have numerous venues for cooperation and coordination. Besides the C5+1 and the U.S.-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan-Pakistan Quad venues, they may collaborate with China and Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Contingency Planning for a Taliban Regime

The U.S. declared that Afghanistan will be a “pariah state” if the Taliban seize power. That may be true as far as North America and Europe are concerned, but Afghanistan is not “where the map ends” for Uzbekistan and Pakistan. It is right next door. Tashkent and Islamabad are denied the luxury of distance; they have to deal with their neighbors, troublesome as they may be.

Beijing and Moscow will recognize a Taliban-controlled government if it suits them, regardless of U.S. sentiment and threats, providing relief when the U.S. and Europe may try to isolate any new Taliban-dominated government. Why? Because the Russian leaders believe Western sanctions will “remain forever” so what’s another démarche from Washington or Brussels?

Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia, and China are likely betting the Taliban will control the country in the not distant future and will provide political recognition and an economic footing in exchange for the Taliban eliminating the Islamic State, al-Qaida, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

South and Central Asia are focusing on geoeconomics, so what will be the U.S. response now that it has left the region? Though some observers think the U.S. left Afghanistan in order to pursue a broader geoeconomic strategy and be the “balancing” force between Russia and China in the region, Washington’s staying power is in doubt and it hasn’t demonstrated any talent for turning political advantage to money in any arena other than weapons sales. In Iraq, instead of pressing for the best oil deals for U.S. firms, it ceded the field to others; in Afghanistan, it wasted 20 years when it could have been promoting American interests to exploit the country’s trillion-dollar mineral deposits. The disorder Washington left behind will push the minerals payday farther over the horizon. That may be acceptable for some in Washington if they think it dents Pakistani, Chinese and Russian plans, but aside from the violence and destruction of property and opportunity, America’s stewardship in the country has also seen a steady increase in opium poppy cultivation, which is likely contributing to the heroin epidemic in Russia, which Moscow will lay at the feet of the U.S.

The rapid U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has likely unnerved the neighbors, who wanted the U.S. gone but without the disorder it left in its wake. Local actors will make clear-eyed decisions to preserve their borders while they try to grow their economies out of the pandemic slowdown. There won’t be much concern for far-away U.S. desires when Afghanistan’s neighbors, such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, have “greater interests at stake, and thus much greater incentive to act to prevent geopolitical calamity.”