Can ‘Stans’ integration tempt the Taliban into breakthrough talks?

Can ‘Stans’ integration tempt the Taliban into breakthrough talks?
Taliban insurgents turning themselves in to Afghan National Security Forces at a forward operating base in Puza-i-Eshan.
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty August 30, 2018

The five “core” Central Asian nations—namely Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—have long found themselves largely devoid of interaction with war-torn neighbour Afghanistan. Headlines from local news providers have seldom ventured beyond general worries on the potential for spillovers from the intractable war in the form of incursions by Islamic extremist groups, or on interceptions of Afghan heroin consignments.

But all of that is changing now. With the growing role of newly reform-minded Uzbekistan as the facilitator of regional cooperation and the desperate need of Turkmenistan to turn Afghanistan into its natural gas transit zone, the “sixth” Central Asian nation is finally coming to the fore. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have unexpectedly emerged as the bearers of some promise when it comes to regional peace and stability.

Meetings with US officials
Most surprising to observers this year has been the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban as a political force capable of negotiation—starkly contrasting with its reputation as a defiant warmonger. In the past several months, the Taliban have reportedly met at least twice with US officials to discuss peace prospects, despite Washington’s previous insistence that the Taliban and the Afghan government should be the only parties engaged in negotiations. The Taliban has insisted on only talking to the US while, some analysts note, sending out mixed signals—such as announcing an Eid-al Fitr religious holiday ceasefire in June, but rejecting the Eid al-Adha holiday ceasefire offer in August.

That said, a mutual push to make peace prospects possible has been increasingly seen on the part of both the Afghan government and the militant group. This was demonstrated in the latest Uzbekistan-based talks between the two sides—an encounter observed as an odd occurrence considering the Taliban’s claimed desire to only speak to US officials. US observers portrayed the event as a mark of the Taliban’s rise as a political group and mostly relegated Uzbek interests to anxieties over Islamic State and Uzbekistan’s own extremist group, the IMU, which is Afghanistan-based.  

What many observers may have missed was the role of the Uzbek-led and Turkmen-supported Central Asian integration efforts in bringing out the militant group’s previously unseen, albeit still complex, proclivity for dialogue. At the heart of Afghan concerns on both sides of the conflict lies the opium poppy cultivation market which stands as a vital part of the nation’s economy—and the two regional neighbours have for the first time in a long time offered a real alternative to the crop used as the essential ingredient in heroin production.

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is valued at nearly $3bn per annum by the United Nations. In 2017, the country’s opium output rose by a record 87% y/y, according to UN statistics and, not surprisingly, opium accounts for a big share of the Taliban’s revenues. During the group’s first three years ruling Afghanistan, their regime encouraged local farmers to grow the crop, offering government protection for exports. The Taliban collected taxes on both the harvest and heroin production, but in a move for international acceptance in 2000, following a severe drought, opium was banned. The move is believed to have been one reason behind the regime’s swift collapse in 2001.

The country had come to depend on the monocrop for both income and employment. Now, the present Afghan government is unsuccessfully attempting to foster significantly less profitable wheat cultivation in place of opium production. The Taliban, on the other hand, may have learned their lesson too well and they have come to depend on the crop once more. Opening up a route to peace will be impossible without comparable legal substitutes to the opium economy.

Alternatives to the heroin economy
That fact was precisely demonstrated when the Taliban, to everyone’s surprise, in February announced support for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project in exchange for a future share of transit revenues. On top of that, some of the militants immediately began offering to discuss peace with the current Kabul regime in exchange for pipeline jobs. The $10bn and 1,814-kilometre-long pipeline is expected to export 33bn cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas per year from Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh gas field, one of the world's largest hydrocarbon fields with estimated reserves of 13,100 bcm. Turkmenistan’s current main gas export market by a very long way is China—Beijing receives approximately 30 bcm of Turkmen gas and pays the ex-Soviet state roughly $185 per 1,000 cm.

That means every additional 5 bcm of gas yields $1bn in export revenues—a multibillion dollar project like TAPI could at least partially rival the poppy cultivation-based economy in both transit fees and the scope of employment prospects. It is likely no coincidence that the Taliban’s desire to facilitate talks with the US came around the same month as the beginning of the Afghan stage of the TAPI project.

The project is also set to gain China’s support, according to Pakistan’s officials. Earlier this month, the CEO of Pakistan’s state-owned Inter State Gas Systems, Mobin Saulat, told Reuters that China is considering building a spur from the Pakistan stretch of the TAPI. According to Saulat, Beijing sees the potential spur as an alternative to its previous plans to construction a fourth arm of the Central Asia-China pipeline, also known as Line-D. It was planned that Line-D would originate in Turkmenistan and span several nations in the region before reaching China.

The Line-D project has continuously stalled, but there are contradictory reports on its current status. A China-to-Turkmenistan line would have to cross several mountain ranges and Saulat said it would be cheaper and easier for China to build a line from inside Pakistan’s territory to cross the Karakoram range to its western border.

TAP in parallel with TAPI
TAPI is not the only Turkmen project that would benefit from a more peaceful Afghanistan. The Asian Development Bank-supported Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) power transmission line project—essentially running parallel to the TAPI investment—is designed for the annual transfer of at least 2,000 megawatts of power in its first phase, with Afghanistan to receive “$200mn in transmission rights”. A number of similar projects are set to follow as Turkmenistan aims to ramp up its electricity exports to 6.9bn kWh by 2020 up from the currently estimated 3bn kWh. Turkmenistan and Afghanistan in July announced plans to officially launch the Rabat-Kashan to Kalay-Nau 110 kV power transmission line.

An equally important variable to Turkmen efforts in the Afghan peace equation is the rise of Uzbekistan as the country that is spearheading efforts towards cooperation between the ‘Stans’. Following the death of the long-ruling isolationist autocrat Islam Karimov, the new Uzbek regime, headed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, set out last year to end all regional hostilities and revive cooperation with neighbours for the first time since the USSR collapsed. Afghanistan, primarily seen as a source of security threats to Uzbekistan, could prove to be much more than just that.

Uzbekistan in 2017-2018 moved to cut electricity export tariffs charged to Afghanistan and pledged to help its neighbour build a railway between the two countries “in order to have a direct route to Iran”. The Afghan railway administration earlier noted that the new northwest link would in fact help increase trade between Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. That would also be in line with China’s massive One Belt, One Road trade infrastructure initiative which seeks to form transit zones in Central Asia for Chinese goods exports headed to Europe and other destinations.

Other notable new Uzbek-Afghan endeavours include the start of regular direct flights between Kabul and Tashkent and the launch of a joint trade transit hub at the mutual border.

The highlight to date of the most populous Central Asian nation’s newfound interest in Afghanistan—Uzbekistan’s population stands just shy of 33mn, whereas Afghanistan’s numbers around 35mn—is the Uzbek agreement to join the Turkmen TAPI project without clarifying any immediate benefits that the move could yield for Tashkent. It was following that initiative that Mirziyoyev went on to offer to mediate peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

The Taliban subsequently stated that it had established a political office in the Uzbek capital, with the aim of developing better ties and demonstrating that they had no intention of supporting local insurgent groups.

During Mirziyoyev’s mid-May visit to the White House, the situation in Afghanistan proved to be the primary point of discussion between the Uzbek president and US counterpart Donald Trump. The amount of influence this may have had during recent US talks with the Taliban is unknown, but it remains clear that Uzbekistan’s interests in Afghan stability go beyond surface-level chatter.

Alas, good intentions alone will not be sufficient in building a safe and secure Afghanistan.

"Do or die" for Turkmen
Turkmenistan has committed to covering 85% of the construction costs for TAPI. And that is something of a problem as the remote nation presently appears to be struggling to cover a range of crucial budget costs. The Turkmen state is believed to be close to a full-blown economic crisis, or even collapse, given lost profits caused by the effect of the previous oil and gas price slumps and longstanding difficulties in diversifying gas exports beyond supplies to China. TAPI amounts to a “do-or-die” project for the Turkmen—the worst performers in Freedom House's Nations in Transit report—and its failure could bring about the demise of both Turkmenistan and Afghan peace hopes.

Things may not be as grim as they sound, nevertheless. China and Uzbekistan’s support for the pipeline will certainly ease the project’s progress and the TAPI Consortium’s plan to split the cost of the project between two phases shows promise.

With the objective of obtaining additional financing, the consortium has divided the TAPI construction into a pair of phases instead of the previously planned single phase. The construction in the first phase is to complete the pipeline without compressors. That will reduce costs but lead to cuts in gas volumes. Once the pipeline starts generating sufficient cashflow, the consortium will raise financing for the second phase in order to install 11 compressors. This will allow the project to gain “momentum with the Chinese,” according to Pakistani officials.

Concerns over the security of the TAPI project have, of course, not yet dissolved. The Natural Resources Monitoring Network (NRMN) earlier this year raised concerns over the growing security threat posed to TAPI by ongoing fighting in provinces through which the pipeline is to pass. It cited fierce fighting in the centre of the city of Farah in western Afghanistan as evidence that the Afghan government lacks the will to take security measures seriously enough.

The fighting at Farah does not necessarily imply the Taliban does not regard its pipeline security commitments with the necessary sincerity, but the hostilities, along with a case in which five TAPI-affiliated mine-clearance workers were killed in an attack during May, make some observers sceptical as to the viability of the investment.

These risks aside, it is the efforts to bring about far more Central Asian integration coupled with China’s enormous OBOR initiative that are currently the best opportunities in terms of priming tools that will bring the Taliban to the table. Short of that, the poppy fields and long fight with the militant group are not going away any time soon. Neither the US, nor Russia, which recently made a probably doomed attempt to join the bandwagon in hosting Afghan talks after being knocked back by Washington and Kabul, can stem the conflict via diplomacy alone. 

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