Tashkent shows ambition and pragmatism as it accepts Taliban-appointed envoy
A Taliban-appointed ambassador has taken over at Afghanistan’s diplomatic mission in Tashkent in a sign of further strengthening of ties between the two neighbours.
The step is in line with the policy of engagement with the Taliban that the Uzbek government has followed since the hardline regime’s return to power in 2021 and the West’s effective abandonment of Afghanistan.
Tashkent’s position, which includes involvement in regional capitals’ joint efforts to establish working relations with the Taliban government, shows both pragmatism and regional political ambitions.
Long-term stability in Afghanistan would reduce security risks and allow implementation of economic projects that would benefit the whole of South and Central Asia.
The appointment of Mawlawi Maghfoorullah Shahab as the Taliban government’s ambassador to Tashkent took place in early February. He is the seventh Taliban-appointed Afghan envoy to a foreign country, after officials assigned heads of the country’s diplomatic missions in Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, China, Russia, and Qatar.
It comes amid an intensification of official Uzbek-Afghan contacts, as well as other regional diplomatic activity around Afghanistan, in recent months.
A large Uzbek government delegation visited Kabul in late October to present a “trade road map” for boosting mutual trade to 3bn dollars from the current 600m (the bulk of which are Uzbek exports of electricity, oil, gas, fertilizers, and flour), according to reports.
In November, Afghan, Uzbek and Pakistani officials launched Trade and Transit trilateral meetings to work out ways to reduce trade barriers and simplify customs procedures. In July, the three countries signed an accord on building a railway linking their territories.
In late January the Taliban hosted a conference of diplomats from Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Turkey, India, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia.
Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi said at the meeting that the Taliban government wanted to improve relations with regional countries. He repeated the Taliban’s pledge to not let Afghan territory be used to threaten other countries.
Muttaqi also said the Taliban government «expects others to respect Afghanistan’s interests, governance and development choices and models».
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group welcomed the Taliban and regional countries’ efforts to engage on both economic and security issues as “fraught”, but “worthwhile”.
“Failure could spell instability in a vast area,” it said.
The report said regional countries believed that “patient deliberation with Kabul, rather than ostracism” was the best policy in the long term — from the strategic point of view, a prosperous Afghanistan would help with regional stability.
Regional capitals are also seeing “glimmers of commercial opportunity” — a peaceful Afghanistan could be used to multiply trade corridors in the region, opening new markets for Central Asian oil, gas and electricity.
The Taliban, in their turn, need to prove they can successfully run the country and are “impatient” to get down to economic projects, the ICG report said.
The ICG report called on Western countries not to “stand in the way” of regional efforts to engage with the Taliban, suggesting they should instead support them “or, at a minimum, refrain from blocking them”.
In addition to the Western sanctions, there are other hurdles: the Taliban’s refusal to include in its Cabinet all ethnic groups, which would mean some former enemies; its refusal to kill or capture suspected militants (instead breaking up command structures and relocating militants so they can start new lives); some regional countries’ limited resources; and the lack of a legal framework in Afghanistan.
There is also a separate point of tension in Uzbek-Afghan relations – the construction of the Qosh Tepa canal in Afghanistan which is expected to reduce the already dwindling level of water in the cross-border River Amu Darya, a crucial source of irrigation for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Nonetheless, the Uzbek government appears to be confident about its ability to navigate the difficulties of doing business with the Taliban.
Perhaps, after learning the lessons of serving as a staging point for the Soviet and US military occupations of Afghanistan, both ending in humiliating withdrawals, and its own attempt to back the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the past, Uzbekistan is now determined to play a different game of its own.