Wed, 18 Sep 2019

Fostering peace is a complicated process, and Uzbekistan just received a strong hint that best intentions can be interpreted as unwanted actions.

Tashkent is trying to help promote peace in Afghanistan. Other parties are too, but the outcome of events in Afghanistan has a direct bearing on Uzbekistan, which shares an approximately 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan hosted a regional security and development conference in November 2017 that focused heavily on Afghanistan, and a conference specifically on Afghanistan in March 2018.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov has been shuttling between Kabul and Doha (Qatar) to meet, respectively, with Afghan government officials and representatives of the Taliban to convince the two parties to conduct peace negotiations in Uzbekistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani agreed to this at the end of March.

'Uzbekistan is ready to host the talks if Taliban is ready to directly talk with the Afghan government,' Kamilov said at the time, naming the ancient city of Samarkand as the venue.

The next step, of course, was to convince the Taliban to send representatives to such talks.

On August 8, a delegation from the Taliban's political office in Doha, led by deputy Taliban leader Mullah Beradar Akhund, met with Kamilov in Tashkent.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry released a statement on August 10 saying that, while Kabul appreciated international and regional cooperation, the 'formal reception of Taliban representatives by the Republic of Uzbekistan and the dynamics of the talks do not help in facilitating peace talks between the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban.'

Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry called on 'all countries, particularly our neighbors, to respect the leadership and ownership of the people and government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in the Peace Process.'

The Taliban Go Sightseeing

The 'reception' the Taliban delegation received in Uzbekistan was indeed cordial.

Kamilov met the delegation at Tashkent's airport. Then they held talks at the Foreign Ministry.

The Taliban delegation stayed well beyond the talks.

On August 9, they went to Samarkand, met with Samarkand Provincial Governor Erkinjon Turdimov, and toured that city, including the mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas, who is credited with bringing Islam to the Samarkand area in the seventh century.

On August 10, the Taliban delegation went to another ancient Silk Road city, Bukhara, where they met with Provincial Governor Uktam Barnoev and visited local holy sites.

On August 11, the delegation was back in Tashkent to observe the Kurban Bayrami Muslim holy day at the central mosque.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev attends a multilateral meeting on Afghanistan aiming to lay the ground for direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban, in Tashkent in March 2018.

For Kabul, it probably looked to be an excessively warm welcome for the delegation of a group with which Afghan government forces are locked in battle throughout Afghanistan.

But there are some things worth considering from Uzbekistan's point of view.

Whether a peace deal is reached or not, the Taliban are likely to be in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

Safe Haven

The Taliban has been Uzbekistan's neighbors in the past, in the late 1990s, and the Uzbek government then took a hostile attitude toward the group. The Taliban made multiple claims of Uzbek interference when Taliban forces were trying to capture areas in northern Afghanistan near the Uzbek border.

Uzbekistan was among the first Central Asian countries to offer the use of its military bases to the U.S.-led coalition that attacked the Taliban following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

During the few years that the Taliban controlled northern Afghanistan, it allowed a terrorist group from Uzbekistan -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) -- to use Afghan territory as a safe haven where they could regroup and rearm to attempt to carry out their goal of toppling Uzbekistan's government.

Uzbekistan shares part of its southern border with Afghanistan.

Such contacts as the Uzbek government had with the Taliban during the latter's final months in control of much of Afghanistan were focused on convincing the Taliban to hand over IMU militants.

The situation in Afghanistan now is much more complicated than it was in the late 1990s. The IMU as a group no longer exists, but its fighters have been dispersed around northern Afghanistan. Some have joined with the Taliban, but others have joined other groups in Afghanistan, among them the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), an offshoot of the radical group that has waged brutal combat in Iraq and Syria for much of this decade.

Uzbekistan would not be the only party trying to broker a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that sees ISK as the greater regional threat, though the ISK ranks are thought to be far less numerous than the Taliban's.

So it is natural that Uzbekistan might try different tactics in its dealings with the Taliban than those Tashkent pursued 20 years ago. And after all, Uzbek authorities were hoping to bring representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban to meet and discuss peace in Samarkand, and the Taliban delegation said during the visit that they were interested in such a meeting.

It is also understandable that Kabul might view this recent visit by the Taliban delegation to Uzbekistan as the Uzbek government trying to bolster its own security by warming ties with the Taliban.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, and Afghan Service, known locally as Azadi, contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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