Another meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers held July 13-14 in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, mainly discussed the Afghan problem, where the level of uncertainty (and the danger to neighbors) is sharply increasing due to the accelerated withdrawal of the US and some NATO countries’ remaining military contingents from the country.
For obvious reasons, the three interested and significant (direct or indirect) participants in the Afghan problem were not represented at the talks in Dushanbe, which are the USA, EU, and Turkey. To present their views, an International Conference “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity. Challenges and Opportunities” was scheduled in advance (on July 15-16, that is, immediately after the event in Dushanbe) in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. This allowed the representatives (foreign ministers) of the countries that had just discussed the same problem in Dushanbe to participate.
The importance of the Tashkent event was also given more priority compared to the Dushanbe event level of some of its participants. The host of the conference (Uzbekistan) and the “culprit” of regional turbulence (Afghanistan) were represented by the presidents, while the prime minister represented Pakistan. The USA was represented in Tashkent by the Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (of Afghan descent), and the EU was represented by EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, Turkey was represented by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Perhaps one of the most notable outcomes of the Tashkent conference was the formation of a new “Uzbekistan-USA-Afghanistan-Pakistan” platform, as stated in a press release from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, “expand regional connectivity.”
There are several points to note in this regard. First of all, it is not easy to count the number of such sites that are in one way or another tied to the Afghan problem. Since 2019, for example, a configuration involving the same Afghanistan and Pakistan plus the PRC is in effect.
Second, the very fact that a representative of the United States (not related to the region at all) took part in the Tashkent conference, as well as in the formation of the quadrilateral configuration, means that by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Washington intends to maintain opportunities to influence the situation developing here. This is evidenced by the itinerary of Zalmay Khalilzad’s trip. Before arriving in Tashkent, the special envoy of the American president made intermediate stops in Qatar, where in recent years, he had meetings with representatives of the Taliban (banned in Russia) and Pakistan, which is one of the main actors in everything that is happening on the territory of Afghanistan.
Third, the absence in this configuration of India, China, and Russia (although Moscow was invited to join by Tashkent), which are also closely involved in the Afghan problem, indicates that Washington’s plans are unlikely to include a favorable resolution. Apparently, the USA does not yet have a well-thought-out strategy in this region, and everything is still limited to considerations in the style of “somehow we will stay here, and then we’ll see.”
This can be a source of serious problems. In the author’s opinion, the best option would be for the USA to withdraw from here. For Washington’s attempts to remain here in some form only increase the level of uncertainty about the nature of regional processes.
It is hardly possible today to combine in any way the directly opposing (in general and in particular) interests of Washington and its now primary geopolitical opponent in the form of Beijing.
Today, the Taliban who have already come to the Chinese border is seen by Beijing as a serious source of threats to the situation in Xinjiang. Despite assurances from the Taliban that they have no intention of interfering in the affairs of the autonomous territory of the PRC.
In this regard, attention was drawn to the fact of the bombing of a bus with Chinese engineers and workers in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, the Taliban- based Pakistani wing on July 14, which was the subject of a telephone conversation between the prime ministers of both countries. Attacks on PRC personnel working at various Pakistani facilities are not uncommon, but this latest was the bloodiest (9 Chinese and 4 Pakistanis were killed) in many years.
Both this terrorist attack in neighboring Pakistan and “separate excesses” in the course of Taliban advancement on the territory of Afghanistan itself once again actualize fundamental questions from the practical point of view: What is really behind the generalized Taliban label? Is there something like centralized management within it? What about the signatures made on his behalf under specific contractual obligations.
Nevertheless, the absence of representatives of the Taliban (banned in Russia, remember, again) at the events in both Dushanbe and Tashkent can hardly be seen as a positive fact. If only because, according to various reports, the Taliban already control about 80-90% of the country and are near the most prominent cities, including the capital. The only reason they are not being seized is that the Taliban leadership wants to look like a fully cooperative partner in its dealings with those same participants in the Dushanbe and Tashkent events.
As demonstrated during the last meeting with the representatives of the Kabul government in Tehran (July 7) and in Moscow with the leadership of the Russian Foreign Ministry (July 9). They will have to show the same ability to reach an agreement during the upcoming inter-Afghan negotiations in Qatar.
As for the discussions on the margins and during the conference in Tashkent, of particular note were the Russian-Chinese talks between Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi and the lively polemic that arose in the triangular configuration of the representatives of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. The discussion with the latter was once again brought to the surface the main (hidden and obvious) difficulties that exist in the relationship between them.
The fact of a telephone conversation between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chinese leader Xi Jinping immediately after the conference in Tashkent is also notable. President of PRC president expressed “strong support for the Afghan government’s efforts to protect national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” and welcomed political dialogue (based on the principle of “Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans”) with opponents of official Kabul.
As a result of the conference held in Tashkent, its participants adopted a fairly general Joint Statement. In part touching on the issue discussed here, this document notes “Afghanistan’s role as a ‘regional bridge’ to connect Central and South Asia” and calls “for the promotion of economic development of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through common regional projects in world economic relations.”
As the saying goes, from your lips to God’s ears. As for the countries somehow involved in the Afghan problem, they all need a well-thought-out, i.e., internally non-contradictory strategy in order not to “fail.”
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.