Nearly 30 nations engage with Taliban at Tashkent conference
For 20 years, the United States and its Western allies have played a major role in shaping the future of Afghanistan. But with the Taliban takeover nearly a year ago, regional powers, such as Uzbekistan, are increasingly driving international engagement as Washington and the West wait for concessions. of the Taliban.
In Tashkent this week, Uzbekistan convened an international conference on Afghanistan. More than 100 delegations from nearly 30 countries attended the event, mingling with the Taliban. Many governments, particularly those in Central Asia, were clearly pushing for an eventual normalization of relations with the new powers in Kabul.
“This event is important for anyone interested in Afghanistan,” said Najibullah Sharifi, an Uzbek observer from Afghanistan’s Takhar province. “Let’s see what developments this leads to.”
At perhaps the biggest multilateral event with Taliban participation since the group seized power last August, Kabul officials appeared emboldened and assertive. Central Asian diplomats told VOA that the Taliban were well prepared and confident, something journalists covering the event also noted.
Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told the conference that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was open for business.
“Before we came to power, everyone was calling for an end to the violence in Afghanistan. Look, we are discussing the reconstruction of our country and the development of its economy,” he said.
But Muttaqi said the Taliban’s ambitions extend to their former antagonists. He urged the West, particularly Washington, to establish direct ties.
Yet Muttaqi also wants something from Washington: Afghan assets once held by the former regime that were frozen when the Taliban took over.
“We want investment,” he said.
The United Nations, European Union, United States and other Western officials have interacted with the Taliban, which is not unprecedented since Washington negotiated with them in Doha, Qatar, for years. They also reiterated their demands to the US delegation, led by Thomas West, the Biden administration’s special representative for Afghanistan, asking for concessions from the Taliban.
In an interview with UzReport TV, a VOA affiliate in Uzbekistan, West said, “The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is one of the highest priorities driving American decision-making.
“We have spent nearly $1 billion in humanitarian assistance since August,” he added, saying the United States does not prevent any aid or company from helping the Afghan people.
Stressing that America remains the largest donor to Afghanistan, West pointed to four sectors that Washington specifically supports: agriculture, health, livelihoods and education. He said the international community prevented famine in Afghanistan last winter. “But there are still too many Afghans suffering today.”
Non-Western actors place few, if any, conditions on their own engagement, and they are critical of Washington. Russian representative Zamir Kabulov blamed the United States and its allies for dire conditions in Afghanistan. Washington supported “the corrupt puppet government in Kabul for 20 years”, he said, accusing the United States of now pursuing punitive policies.
Members of some Central Asian research groups suspect that at least 20 militant groups still have roots or bases in Afghanistan, a charge the Taliban vehemently deny.
Observers in Tashkent told VOA that the delegations were diverse and sometimes quite critical of each other in their statements, but all credited host Uzbekistan with urging the world to tackle challenges from Afghanistan.
“The international isolation of Afghanistan will inevitably lead to a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation. It is important not to allow this, because the fate of millions of people is at stake, warned Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in a speech delivered on his behalf by Abdulaziz Kamilov, his special envoy.
“The interim government of Afghanistan is taking certain steps in terms of peaceful reconstruction, striving to improve the socio-economic situation and establish friendly relations with neighboring countries and mutually beneficial cooperation with the international community. We must encourage and support these efforts,” he said.
Yet Mirziyoyev reiterated the international community’s conditions for formal diplomatic recognition, namely “to form a broad representation of all sections of Afghan society in the governance of the state, guarantee basic human rights and freedoms , especially women and of all ethnic and religious groups”. By confessional, he meant all the religious communities of the country.
“We call on the current Afghan government to show strong will and take resolute action to prevent and counter terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, by severing ties with all international terrorist organizations.”
But Mirziyoyev challenged the international community to create “real preconditions for Afghanistan to become a peaceful, stable and prosperous land – free from terrorism, wars and narcotics”.
Rina Amiri, the United States Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls and Human Rights, stressed that “security, economic stability and peace cannot be achieved without defending women’s rights, ending abuses against all ethnic and religious communities and foster an inclusive political process. ”
Amiri tweeted from Tashkent that she “denied claims that the Taliban’s regressive policies are based on Afghan culture, saying most Afghans yearn for education, jobs and opportunities for a better future for their sons and daughters”.
She pointed out that while most participants were calling for an inclusive political process, no one was pushing for recognition of the Taliban regime yet.
Frederick Starr, an American expert who attended the conference, said the key issue is not recognition but “trade and economic ties that really test the intentions of the Taliban”.
Uzbekistan has presented several such projects, including a proposed trans-Afghan railway running from Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border through Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul to Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan and a proposed Surkhan-Puli-Khumri power transmission line from Uzbekistan to north-central Afghanistan. He invited businesses and others to participate and invest.
Impressed by these moves but skeptical of the Taliban’s claims, Starr told VOA that much work remains to be done for the Taliban to convince the international community of their sincerity.
“The facts on the ground matter the most and if the Taliban mean what they say, then they should improve the situation step by step,” Starr said.
But ultimately, Starr said he saw no chance for lasting peace in Central Asia unless Afghanistan achieved stability.
Uzbek scholar Sayfiddin Jurayev said he believes “the United States should return what belongs to the Afghan people”, but agrees with Starr that “the Taliban still have to deal with the conditions reiterated during this conference.