Reports about Afghanistan and its neighbours to the north usually lump the five former Soviet Central Asia republics together as an undifferentiated block – ‘the Stans’. Such an approach does not reflect the reality of five countries with very different, mainly bilateral and very local relationships with Afghanistan. The distortion has only been worsened by the way big top-down projects, like Heart of Asia, have imagined a region – with a lot of fanfare and, not surprisingly, little actual impact. A different approach has been taken in a major new AAN report by Christian Bleuer and Said Reza Kazemi, “Between Co-Operation and Insulation” (download here). It looks at what is actually happening on the ground, in terms of politics, security and business and brings together diverse sources of information into one report and its annexes.What do we have in common? The picture shows the opening of a Afghanistan-Central Asia Conference in December 2013. Photo: Pajhwok
Despite the many common historic, ethnic and religious ties between Afghans and their neighbours to the north, Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia remain strangers, unable to overcome the numerous barriers to more substantive connections. On the Afghan side of the border, different groups of people (political-military figures, government authorities, traders, students, former migrants and other local people), mainly in northern areas, do interact with neighbouring Central Asia, albeit on a restricted basis. However, their cross-border relations do not amount to a basis for any enduring and significant relationship.
Since the gradual opening of the borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and especially since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, there has been a considerable expansion of economic ties between Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia, but it started from a very low level. However, economic integration in the region will continue to suffer due to the fact that all the countries remain marginal economic hinterlands mainly connected in different directions (Afghanistan to Pakistan and Iran; Central Asia to Russia and China), combined with serious security and infrastructure problems. Afghanistan cannot be expected to offer much of significance to the Central Asia economies, in comparison with a valued partner such as China. Furthermore, there is a tendency of all states in this region to avoid genuine multilateral co-operation while embracing restrictive border regimes.
For Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the economic significance of Afghanistan can only be seriously felt in some of the smaller towns immediately adjacent to the Afghan border. There, local populations on both sides of the Afghan-Central Asian frontier have benefited from more active exchange. Also close to the centres of power in these two states there are individuals and companies with economic interests in Afghanistan. However, the accumulated interests are quite modest when measured against other, far larger, trade partners.
Turkmenistan has hopes for some significant economic infrastructure that would tie it to Afghanistan, especially the proposed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) oil/gas pipeline. Nevertheless, scepticism remains about the pipeline’s fate amid deteriorating security and a lack of funding.
… and bridging the Amu Darya
Where there has been a more substantial expansion of economic ties, albeit local ones, is along the Afghan-Tajik border, mainly in Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces. In Sher Khan Bandar, especially after a bridge was inaugurated over the Panj border river in the summer of 2007, regular inter-governmental interactions have been taking place, including regular meetings of local government officials, customs officers and traders. The bilateral trade through this river port is not without problems, though. Corruption is rampant in getting Tajik visas on both the Afghan and Tajik sides, including for traders. Moreover, the trade has significant illegal aspects, from which a confusing group of corrupt Afghan and Tajik state and non-state actors benefit, including drug traffickers.
Nevertheless, considerable people-to-people contact and economic activity takes place between local populations from Afghanistan and Tajikistan through at least six bridges and three common markets in Badakhshan. (1) Aside from licit trade in foodstuffs, textiles, auto parts and consumer goods, an important part of the trade is reportedly the trafficking of precious stones such as rubies and lapis lazuli as well as opium and heroin, which are sometimes exchanged for Russian-manufactured weapons, particularly Kalashnikovs. An expert on the Tajik side noted that “there is a disagreement over how much of the illicit trade comes via the markets and official crossings and how much via the ‘green’ border.” Local security officers control this trade, and in Eshkashem it is done on a larger scale than everywhere else. More bridges and common markets will likely be developed in the future, as declared by the two countries’ presidents in March this year.
Further to the west, on the Afghan-Uzbek border, local trade through the Hairatan port, ie over the Friendship Bridge, is, by contrast, extremely restricted under the “serious security measures” adopted by the Uzbek government; conditions, said one highly placed interviewee were like those of “a war zone”. There is also some trade between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan over the Amu Darya’s waters. When, for instance, the first oil-carrying tanker arrived at Hairatan port in October 2012 after some 16 years’ absence, it “[raised] hopes of a [further] boost in trade between the two countries”.
In the northwest, since late 2001, the Torghundi and Aqina ports between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have been thriving, mainly due to security-driven economic demands from tens of thousands of US/NATO-led ISAF troops based in Afghanistan. Prior to 2001, trade between the Afghan and Turkmen sides fluctuated between total closure and high or low levels at the border, given the vagaries of the time. Trade through Torghundi and Aqina will likely decrease once ISAF supply needs are gone (see also the section on Turkmenistan).
Although trade-generated income has increased and further development, mostly in terms of infrastructure, is taking place at both Torghundi and Aqina, security-related incidents have increasingly been threatening the regular flow of trade (see AAN analysis of the region here; here and here). Further west, on the road between Torghundi and Herat, many travellers who are working for the Afghan government or for national and international non-governmental organisations go to great lengths to hide their institutional identity and are generally afraid of embarking on the trip. A similar situation prevails in Faryab.
Administratively, legal cross-border movement of traders between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan is extremely difficult and time-consuming. At Torghundi, for example, “even if a trader has a registered company, he has to wait for some two months to have his [Turkmen] visa issued,” according to an Afghan local government official. There are also serious complaints about corruption and misappropriation of public funds in both Torghundi and Aqina.
Multilateral projects externally driven
All in all, prompted by the international community, the Afghan and Central Asian (and, in the case of TAPI and CASA-1000, South) Asian governments have increasingly engaged one another on a multilateral, regional level – mainly focusing on energy and infrastructure projects. However, prospects for growing regional co-operation are uncertain, due to increased uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future security and political stability, and also because of the West-led international community’s potential imminent decline in interest in the region.
Each of the five republics has its own foreign policy according to the interests of its leadership. Overall, the governments of the Central Asian republics are focused on internal threats to their rule which have little or nothing to do with Afghanistan. Terrorists and insurgents active in northern Afghanistan are overwhelmingly recruited from among Afghan citizens and focus on the local fight, not on cross-border operations. Threats to Central Asian governments instead emanate from militants originating in their own countries who have spent time in Russia’s unstable North Caucasus region. More recently, the governments of Central Asia have been dealing with the fact that some of their citizens have joined the civil war in Syria on the side of the Sunni opposition (see here and here). Even external threats are almost always not connected to Afghanistan but related to bilateral tensions such as those between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which nearly developed into a border war. Therefore, this report argues, security risks that link Afghanistan to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are usually overstated, including the alleged link between narcotics trafficking and radical Islamist groups.
Russia has already re-activated its policies towards former Soviet republics, including in Central Asia, with establishing multilateral security and economic mechanisms. This includes Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union. With the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan and the tensions between Russia and NATO over the Ukraine, Central Asia is coming even more into Moscow’s focus. Its main goal is to maintain its military presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan while keeping an eye on Uzbekistan and, to a lesser degree, Turkmenistan, both of which have remained outside the Moscow-dominated multilateral mechanisms and are, as yet, more independent in their military and strategic relations. Recently, the Russian intervention in Ukraine has likely caused some anxiety on the part of Central Asian leaders, who realise that Russia is able and willing to intervene in a variety of unorthodox ways throughout the former Soviet Union (see here and here).
Links between Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics can only grow in an organic way. For that to happen, it will need genuine mutual interest – and mutual interests – both between countries and multilaterally. Externally provided incentives, for example, the Heart of Asia process, can only support such growth. It cannot spark it. On the side of the Central Asian republics, it would help if governments would stop casting Afghanistan as a threat, or potential threat, instead realising that it is a nation with many ties to the region. The growth in the web of relationships will be a long-term process. Moreover, it should be born in mind when looking to the future that psychological barriers are often more difficult to cross than physical borders.
(1) The bridges include, from west to east: the Shurobad-Khwahan bridge, the construction of which started in 2011; a bridge near Kala-ye Khumb in Darwaz, built in 2004, an international border crossing between Afghanistan and Tajikistan; one at Vanj, connecting the Tajik side with the Afghan district of Maymey, inaugurated in 2011; Tem bridge near Qala-ye Bar Panj on the Afghan side and Khorugh, the capital of the Autonomous Region of Mountain Badakhshan, on the Tajik side, open since November 2002; a bridge in Eshkashem district centre, facing the namesake town on the Tajik side, opened in 2006 (the latter two are official international border crossings); and the bridge near Gaz Khan in Wakhan district and Langar on the Tajik side.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020