COMMENT: Uzbekistan will have to host Afghan refugees in the near future

COMMENT: Uzbekistan will have to host Afghan refugees in the near future
Afghan Border Police and coalition forces seen at Freedom Bridge located at the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. / NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, public domain.
By independent analyst Abdulla Abdukadirov July 13, 2021

As more and more Afghan refugees seek shelter in neighbouring states amid the worsening crisis triggered by the US military pullout from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, in the near future, will have to let in some of the refugees in order to prevent the growth of extremist attitudes among armed formations of the country that are suffering a military defeat. After all, if we do not let them in peacefully, then they will have no choice but to attempt to break through by fighting, having no other hope of saving their lives.

Undoubtedly, such admissions should only be carried out after consultations with the main traditional political partners of Uzbekistan. The attention of the entire world community must be drawn to a possible humanitarian problem, with the mobilisation of international financial and humanitarian programmes.

All such issues are set to be included on the agenda of an international conference, "Central and South Asia: regional dependence. Threats and opportunities", scheduled for July 15-16, and convened at the initiative of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Events in Afghanistan are developing very rapidly, and, as often happens in such cases, it is difficult to distinguish amid the huge flows of information what exactly reflects real trends and what will determine the future quality of life of people in Afghanistan and its neighbours. Also hard to distinguish are "accidental facts", which excite the public consciousness.

Ethnic Uzbek children in Afghanistan (Image: Nasim Fekrat, CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Peace in Afghanistan is necessary not only for the Afghan people, but for the entire region, although everyone understands perfectly well that neither a military nor a religious extremist threat from this country should be expected.

Among the superpowers, only China is really interested in peace in Afghanistan. It has invested a lot in this country in recent years. According to The Economist, over the past three years, militants of the radical Taliban movement have started to more often support Beijing's projects. The Taliban is seeking to enlist the support of China, recognising it is an economic giant in Asia. That is why the Taliban has approved Chinese projects for the construction of highways in Afghanistan and the development of the large Aynak copper deposit.

China is well aware that in the 21st century the struggle with the US for trade routes will be very tough. It will not miss the opportunity to gain alternative access to the Indian Ocean via the territories of Central Asian countries. And China has influential allies abutting the region, Pakistan and Iran. All this, to some extent, provides hope that peace in Afghanistan will be long-term and stable.

Contrary to forecasts, an anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan has not yet formed as a united front that could effectively resist the Taliban; we especially do not see significant resistance to the military seizure of new territories in the north and northeast of the country. We have not yet observed significant facts to support the idea that the Taliban will have to enter into a coalition with other forces and seek compromises in consolidating the Afghan people. There are no convincing forces that would constitute a combined worthy force set against the Taliban's monopolistic control of Afghan society. On the contrary, we see a lot of evidence of how the Taliban "roughly" punish local inhabitants who, in their opinion, have not strictly observed the norms of Sharia law.

Accordingly, without significant external support, in particular, from Uzbekistan, the Northern Alliance, and the Tajik and Turkmen tribes in a coordinated manner, there is no hope of counter-balancing the influence of the Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan.

The standpoints and comments expressed by Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov to American TV presenter Dennis Waley reflect the main vector of the political mainstream of Afghanistan in building relations with neighbouring countries.

To understand the essence of the political system of the Afghan government, it is necessary, first of all, to keep in mind that in this country the tribes are a universal social organisation, with their relatively autonomous and steadily reproducing economy. In Afghanistan, the special relations formed over the centuries between members of the same society, based on kinship and tribal ties, are called kavm. The kavm, or "tribe", has its own well-established management system, a system of subordinating goals, with the managing of people, conducting of the economy and the protecting (including with military resources) of its interests. The more effective this control system is, the more opportunities there are for forming military formations and supplying them with weapons, and the more numerous the kavm and its influence in the country is.

Ethnic Tajiks seen on donkeys in northern Afghanistan (Image: Steve Evans, from Citizen of the World, CC-BY-SA 2.0).

This identity is layered with another, no less important component-nationality. The Afghan people consist of the following ethnic groups (in descending order of size): the Pashtuns (the most numerous ethnic group), the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Baluchis, Pashais, Nuristans, Aimaks, Arabs, Kyrgyz, Kyzylbashi, Gujars, Braguis and others.

Any ethnic group in Afghanistan is represented by several kavms located in different regions of the country, which, due to centuries-old historical events, eventuated in neighbourhoods of other kavms of other ethnic groups. Such a complex tribal mosaic creates a special difficulty in determining and guaranteeing the interests of different kavms living in the same area.

Another factor in the kaleidoscope of political and economic life in Afghanistan is the factor of faith, religious affiliation. Up to 80% (and according to some estimates up to 90%) of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, although there are also Shiite Muslims (Kyzylbash and Tajiks, for example). According to various estimates, 7-18% of the population profess Shiite Islam.

In economic terms, the country has a potential that is not inferior to that of Uzbekistan, despite the more significant problems associated with water scarcity and periodic droughts, and of course the ongoing war of more than 30 years. The latter does not allow for an objective assessment of the GDP of Afghanistan. GDP per capita is more than $500, with an annual economic output of more than $19.5bn. For comparison, the GDP per capita in Uzbekistan is $1,700, with economic output $57.7bn.

These well-known facts confirm the words of the Uzbek Foreign Minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, who stated that there was no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. That's at least the case because almost every kavm in Afghanistan is perfectly adapted to lead a relatively or completely autonomous life in hard-to-reach, poorly adapted areas of the country and can withstand a siege of many months, while conducting fierce military resistance, with great ingenuity, courage and knowledge of military affairs.

Most of the population of the country still live in rural areas. There are four large cities: Kabul (4.2mn people), Herat (0.55mn people), Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif (almost 0.5mn people each). The rest of the cities are small and are points for the exchange of goods between the village and the city. With such a dispersion of the population, it is very difficult for any military force to claim full control of the situation throughout the country. That is why, even in the most "successful years", the US-led coalition forces controlled only large cities, having no influence in rural areas, especially in the south and southeast of the country.

The second very important thesis of the minister is thus: the international community should promote the early withdrawal of foreign military forces from Afghanistan and assist all the political forces of Afghanistan in uniting around the basic ideas of building a secular, democratic state with elements of Sharia, namely the fundamental set of laws for the absolute majority of the population who profess Islam. And here it is very important to understand that we, the neighbours of Afghanistan, should not allow insinuations in opposition to secularism and the basic norms of Sharia, bearing in mind that even the "Code of the Builder of Communism "was compiled based on the basic commandments of Christianity. After all, the absolute majority of Sharia norms are also aimed at observing human rights, with property independence and a clear separation of the order of appointment/election, as well as the responsibilities of the executive and judicial authorities.

The third important point: With reference to the thesis of the leaders of the Taliban movement ("We do not want our territory to be occupied by foreign military forces. We want to guarantee the rights of women, girls and so forth. Women can work in the fields of education, medicine and other fields. We want to build friendly relations with neighboring countries."), Kamilov made it clear that the Taliban movement does not pose a threat to the population of Uzbekistan and its political system. And this is important for us.

The Taliban movement, amid the withdrawal of US-led coalition troops, is gaining more and more territories in Afghanistan, preparing its triumphant return to real and indisputable power. It is precisely because of the military superiority of the Taliban movement that Uzbekistan should maintain the most active dialogue with its leaders in order to:

- prevent the thoughtless destruction of residents of Afghanistan who, for various reasons, were not on the side of the Taliban, and even worse, cooperated with coalition troops.

- prevent another humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and beyond its borders (due to consequential problems with refugees and local military skirmishes);

- prevent the growth of extremism and terrorist attitudes among individual churches and political movements;

- maintain good-neighbourly relations and build close economic cooperation, to resume cultural exchanges with the Afghan people;

- confirm the readiness for dialogue with each kavm and with the leaders of various political movements, taking into account the interests, first of all, of the Uzbek people.

The author Abdulla Abdukadirov is an economist, analyst and former deputy finance minister of Uzbekistan.