A New Dawn in Uzbekistan?
Tashkent’s self-imposed international isolation ended this week when it hosted a major peace conference on Afghanistan at the end of March. The meeting, which takes place today, brings together the foreign ministers of India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Afghanistan, all four Central Asian Republics, and the UN, as well as representatives from the US and EU.
Tashkent also invited the Taliban to attend, but it is unlikely that its representatives will do so. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had offered the Taliban recognition and unconditional peace talks in February, but the group did not respond to that offer either—so far. Instead, on March 20, the Taliban offered to discuss peace conditions with Afghan jihadist groups that were opposed to the US forces’ presence in Afghanistan. These militants would include former mujahedin leaders who fought the Soviets back in the 1980s. It is unlikely, however, that the Afghan government or the US would agree to such an arrangement.
Uzbekistan’s initiative comes at a time of worsening security in the entire region. Senior Uzbek officials at a recent conference told me that they are deeply concerned by the presence of several thousand Islamic State and Taliban fighters in northern and eastern Afghanistan, not far from its border with several Central Asian countries.
US intelligence reports cite more than twenty terrorist groups now active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of them originally from Central Asia. Groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are allied with ISIS, yet also fight for the Taliban. The US is deploying up to 1,000 more Special Forces and trainers to help the Afghan army, bringing total US-NATO strength to an estimated 15,000 troops.
NATO officials have long confirmed that there are hundreds of Uzbek and Tajik fighters in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and many of them are now returning home to their countries of origin. Together with ISIS and the Taliban, these fighters are trying to create bases in northern Afghanistan and infiltrate back into Central Asia. In early March, ISIS released a video in which its fighters boasted of establishing a “caliphate” in northern Afghanistan. Another ISIS and Taliban goal is to capture Kunduz, a city on the Uzbek border that fell to insurgents last year but has since been recaptured by Afghan Army forces.
The threat to Central Asia comes just as Uzbekistan, with a population of 34 million and a powerful army that make it the largest and most influential state in the region, is for the first time attempting to open up its closed political and economic systems, under a new and unusual president. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev served for thirteen years as the country’s prime minister under the ruthless dictator-for-life President Islam Karimov, who died in 2016 after ruling the country for over twenty-seven years.