PANNIER: Uzbekistan’s relations with Taliban start to fray

PANNIER: Uzbekistan’s relations with Taliban start to fray
Taliban Acting Defence Minister Muhammad Yaqoob has twice demanded Uzbekistan hand over warplanes and helicopters it seized from Afghan government troops who fled Afghanistan while the militants were marching on Kabul. / Afghan state TV, screengrab.
By Bruce Pannier February 22, 2023

Of the five Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan has the best relationship with the Taliban. Recent events, however, demonstrate the Uzbeks’ difficulties in dealing with the current rulers of Afghanistan.

Uzbek authorities and the Taliban leadership quickly came to a business arrangement after the militant group returned to power in August 2021 and pledged that Afghan territory would never be used to launch an attack on a neighbouring country.

Uzbekistan had prepared for the possibility of the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan. In March 2019, then-Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov held talks in Doha with Taliban representatives. The following August, a Taliban delegation visited Uzbekistan.

Uzbek and Taliban officials continued to meet in the months before foreign forces concluded their Afghanistan exit.

An Afghan border police officer stands guard at the Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge border crossing in May 2010 (Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O’Donald, US Armed Forces, public domain).

When the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, 2021, the Uzbek embassy remained open. While the crossings along the 144-kilometre (89-mile) Uzbek-Afghan border—including the key Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge—closed, bridge traffic resumed within weeks.

The secular Uzbek government—the top officials of which grew up when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union—have little in common with the Taliban. In fact, during the Taliban’s late 1990s reign in Afghanistan, the Uzbek government provided aid to anti-Taliban forces. But infrastructure projects built during the 20 years when foreign forces propped up the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments were lucrative for Uzbekistan and became indispensable for Afghanistan.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) helped fund the construction of power transmission lines between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan now accounts for 60% of Afghanistan’s electricity imports. Some unfinished projects from years back, if completed, could significantly boost that figure.

On January 2, Tashkent and Kabul prolonged the Uzbek electricity supply agreement to cover 2023, but on January 13, Uzbekistan halted electricity exports to Afghanistan, citing technical problems. By January 22, with supplies still suspended and temperatures around Central Asia plunging, the Taliban seemed to be losing patience.

Taliban Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said that day: “Uzbekistan cut off electricity supplies; now people are facing problems. Neighbours and friends should help each other in difficult moments.”

Supplies were restored on January 24, but remaining tensions over the power outage were clear. Then on February 1, Uzbekistan’s state railway company Uzbekiston Temir Yollari announced a temporary suspension of Uzbekistan-Afghanistan railway traffic “[d]ue to the fact that the Afghanistan Railroad Authority is not able to implement agreed measures in time…”

The railway line is important for both countries. It connects to railway lines from China (the first China to Afghanistan goods train arrived in 2016) and to other Central Asian rail routes, linking through to Russia.

Representatives of Uzbekiston Temir Yollari state railway company and the Afghan Railway Administration meeting in December (Credit: Uzbekiston Temir Yollari).

Some disagreements appeared to have been rumbling since early December.

Afghanistan’s Tolo News reported on December 5 that Afghanistan Railway Authority acting chief Bakht Rahman Sharafat said Afghanistan had signed a contract with Kazakh company Mansour Fatih on maintaining the railway from the Uzbek border to the northern Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Dustlik Bridge connecting Uzbekistan and Afghanistan was completed in 1982. It is a vehicle and railway bridge, with train tracks laid down the middle. The railway route was meant to bring supplies to Soviet troops in Afghanistan. But it ended just a few kilometres inside the country.

Funding from international organisations saw it extended to Mazar-i-Sharif, 75 kilometres from the Uzbek border. The extension opened in 2011 and ever since that time, Sogdiana Trans, an Uzbekiston Temir Yollari subsidiary, has managed it.

In the Tolo News report, Sharafat said Sogdiana Trans was “only providing us service for 22 kilometres, only to Hairaton port” and that the Kazakh company pledged to maintain the line as far as Mazar-i-Sharif.

Sharafat also said Afghanistan would only pay the Kazakh company “$4.1 million annually,” while “we were paying $15 million to Sogdiana Trans….”

A search for more information about Mansour Fatih revealed nothing prior to Sharafat’s mention of the company, so it is unclear what its experience is in railway system management.

Tolo News reported that “deputy head of the Fatih company, Bisn Bai Makhanov, said that they would increase the number of employees based on capacity.”

On December 7, Uzbekiston Temir Yollari referred to “distorted information” from some media outlets about the railway line.

It also mentioned that Sharafat was just present in the Uzbek border town of Termez, connected by Dustlik Bridge to Afghanistan, and denied making remarks about Sogdiana Trans losing the contract with Afghanistan.

At a meeting in Termez over February 8-10, a new protocol for Sogdiana Trans to manage the line to Mazar-i-Sharif for another two years was signed. Rail service resumed.

Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, on January 5 had stated that Uzbekistan “received with deep concern the news about the introduction in Afghanistan of a ban on the study of women and girls in public and private higher educational institutions.” It continued that Uzbekistan “look[s] forward to reconsideration of this decision as a sign of determination to support the aspirations of the Afghan people to build a peaceful and prosperous future.”

The Taliban leadership has been shrugging off similar criticism from various quarters of the international community, but it surely noticed Uzbekistan’s comments.

On February 16, Akhror Burkhanov, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry’s press secretary, tweeted: “We're saddened to learn about the damaged monuments of the great poet Alisher Navoi in #Afghanistan.”

Alisher Navoi is a revered Uzbek poet who wrote in Chagatai, an earlier form of a language that became modern Uzbek. When he was writing, most writing and poetry in areas now part of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan was written in Persian.

Navoi was born in, and is buried, in Herat, Afghanistan.

Burkhanov noted “Afghan Gov reps.” said the vandalism of the monuments in Balkh Province did not reflect government policy, but he added that “the incident, which is an unauthorised & thoughtless action of unknown people, can damage our common historical & cultural heritage”.

Importantly, there are other parties connected to Afghanistan seeking to drive wedges in the Uzbek-Taliban partnership.

The terrorist Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has twice fired rockets from Afghanistan towards Uzbekistan. Both occurrences were near Termez, seemingly to prove Dustlik Bridge is not secure.

None of the rockets fired in mid-April 2022 made it across the river to Uzbek territory, but a couple of rockets fired in July hit a residential area near Termez, damaging homes but causing no casualties.

In propaganda posted online, the ISKP has increasingly criticised Uzbekistan for its relationship with the Taliban.

Abdul Rashid Dostum pictured in September 2014 (Credit: US State Department, public domain).

More recently, ethnic Uzbek Afghan commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, a veteran of Afghan conflicts going back to the 1980s Soviet occupation (Dostum fought on the Soviet side), called on Tashkent to give seized Afghan government warplanes and helicopters to the National Resistance Front (NRF) that is still battling the Taliban in areas of northeastern Afghanistan.

Afghan government troops flew several dozen planes and helicopters to Uzbekistan as the Taliban were marching on Kabul in mid-August 2021.

The Taliban’s acting defence minister, Mullah Yakoob (former Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s son), has twice demanded that Uzbekistan hand over the aircraft.

Uzbekistan supported Dostum’s forces in the late 1990s when they were located in areas bordering the country. But there is little chance Tashkent would give the aircraft to NRF forces, who have no base for them anyway. Dostum’s appeal to Uzbekistan will, however, remind the Taliban of the existence of the military assets they claim as Afghan property.

Given Uzbekistan’s close past association with Dostum, some Taliban officials are probably suspicious that some of the aircraft could go to their enemies inside Afghanistan.

The arrangement between the Uzbek government and the Taliban is holding—for now.