Why are Central Asian Republics wooing Pakistan?
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Associate , VIF

The emerging regional security threats post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to an active engagement between Pakistan and Central Asian republics (CARs). The US and NATO forces were scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, but the military mission will be ending by 31 August 2021, earlier than the given time.1 Since the Intra-Afghan talks are nowhere near to an agreeable solution and the Taliban continues its violence against Afghan people and armed forces, Afghanistan’s future is again on the brink. Central Asian countries-Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, share a direct border with Afghanistan and therefore, they are prone to spill over from Afghanistan. Pakistan shares similar concerns.

It is against this background; the Central Asian countries have been pursuing relations with Pakistan following consistent high-level visits and discussions on multiple issues of bilateral concerns, including trade, economy, defence, and security. However, there is a contradiction between the desire for trade and connectivity and Pakistan’s policy of supporting the Taliban’s victory by force of arms. To realise the potential for economic cooperation, a peaceful Afghanistan is an essential precondition. But, this is undermined by the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains.

Evaluating Pakistan-CARs Cooperation in Trade and Connectivity

Central Asia and Pakistan’s Energy Security

Pakistan’s trade with Central Asian countries is less than one billion USD.2 Post-US withdrawal, Pakistan hopes for a stable Afghanistan and an increase in trade and economic cooperation with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Central Asian countries are rich in energy resources. Therefore, the region is crucial for power-hungry Pakistan to obtain cheap electricity. In return, the Central Asian countries would get access to Pakistani markets for their high-quality cotton and agricultural products.

Two energy projects between Pakistan and Central Asia are in the pipeline. Launched in 2016, the CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia power project) project is expected to export the surplus hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This project is expected to be operational by 2024.3 However, the progress has been slow, and the viability of this project depends on the situation in Afghanistan. TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan and India gas pipeline) is facing trouble due to the uncertain situation in the Af-Pak region.

Trans Afghanistan Railways: High Hopes, Low Expectations

Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country. Since 2017, the new regime in Tashkent has emphasised on diversification of trade and connectivity projects. Uzbekistan’s active role in the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan is often overlooked. The Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif rail line is crucial in reinvigorating connectivity between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. This railway line was built with financial support (165 Million USD) from Asian Development Bank (ADB) and became operational in 2011.4 Now Uzbekistan desires to extend this rail line to Kabul and further to Peshawar in Pakistan.5 To construct this railroad, Uzbekistan and Pakistan have approached multiple financial institutions, including China sponsored Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB).6 ADB has shown interest in providing partial financial support to this project. 7

The new railway is projected to reduce the movement of commodities from Central Asia to Pakistan from 30 and 15 days, and transport costs will be lowered by 30 percent and 35 percent.8 Another important factor is the reduction of transport costs. As per the estimates, transporting a container from Tashkent to the port of Karachi will cost around 1,400-1600 USD, which is about half as cheap as transportation from Tashkent to the Iranian port – Bandar Abbas.9 These are some of the factors which Uzbekistan and Pakistan are flagging to expedite the work on the Trans-Afghan railroad. This rail line, if materialized, will also connect with the 112 km Atamyrat, Turkmenistan-Akina-Andkhoy cross-border line, linking Turkmenistan with Peshawar. Turkmenistan has also been actively engaged in talks with the Taliban to ensure its security and economic interests in Afghanistan.10

Since coming into power, Uzbek President Shawkat Mirziyoyev has initiated the country’s economic and political transformation for a better regional and international outreach. The Uzbek government is working hard to ensure the Trans Afghan Rail Project is realized and does not become a mere diplomatic tactic. Uzbekistan’s keen interest in getting access to Pakistani ports has led most senior leadership in Tashkent to explore avenues of cooperation with Pakistani leaders. Islamabad also seems enthusiastic to bring Central Asian republics within its geostrategic gambit by providing access to its seaports. However, this is only possible if the situation in Afghanistan does not turn into a civil war. It is also interesting to see how Pakistan pursues its relations with the Taliban post-US withdrawal. In order to get away with its geographical handicap of being landlocked, access to the ports of Karachi and Qasim in the Arabian Sea would validate Uzbek President Mirziyoyev’s efforts of economic transformation of the country.

Uzbek-Pak Transit Trade Agreement (TTA)

Uzbekistan and Pakistan are also ready to sign a Transit Trade Agreement (TTA). On July 15, 2021, Pakistani PM Imran Khan is visiting Tashkent to participate in a high-level conference on ‘Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities.11 During his visit, both countries will sign the TTA, allowing the flow of the commodities from both sides freely. Uzbekistan had a similar arrangement in place with Afghanistan, whereas Islamabad and Kabul also had a working transit Trade deal.12 There is a convergence of interests towards bridging the gap of connectivity between Pakistan and Uzbekistan; however, as already mentioned, a stable Afghanistan is a necessity to realize their goals.

The Security Factor

Taliban has taken control of the main Afghan border crossing with Tajikistan, Shir Khan Bandar, in June 2021. This posed a direct threat to Tajikistan’s security. Although the Taliban has been asserting to the neighbouring countries that they would not allow extremist forces to operate from Afghanistan, the desperation to control the county with brutality and violence goes against the Taliban’s claims. Security threats are the major concern for the Central Asian countries sharing a border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan can secure their border to a certain extent; however, Tajikistan, with a 1,357 km long and porous border with Afghanistan, is vulnerable to the threats arising from ongoing clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces.

Considering the severity of the situation, the Tajik President ordered deployment of an additional 20,000 military personnel to bolster the security of the border with Afghanistan.13 He also telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin and his colleagues from other Central Asian republics Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, about the situation in Afghanistan.14 According to the reports, Putin stated that Moscow is ready, both bilaterally and through CSTO, to provide Tajikistan with military assistance.15

Russia and the Role of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)

Russia is the security provider of Central Asia, mainly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tajikistan is a member of Russia led CSTO. It is a military alliance founded in 2002, but the organization had its origin in the 1992 Collective Security Treaty signed between Armenia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.16 The current members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

Tajikistan is hosting more than 6,000 troops of the Russian Ground Forces’ 201st military base. With the rising Taliban insurgencies in north Afghanistan, defeated Afghan soldiers have crossed the border to take shelter in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.17 Uzbekistan border troops barred them and asked them to return to Afghanistan while Tajik authorities allowed them to cross and stay in Tajikistan.18 In response to this, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that if required, Moscow will use the capabilities of the Russian military base on the border of Tajikistan with Afghanistan to prevent any aggressive encroachments against Tajikistan.19

Ramifications of Tajik-Pak Defence Cooperation

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon paid a two-day visit to Pakistan on 2-3 June 2021, where he signed a defence agreement with Islamabad.20 According to this agreement, Pakistan would sell domestically manufactured arms to Dushanbe.21 Islamabad is trying to sell weapons to Tajikistan as part of its plan to expand its influence in Central Asia. Its venturing into selling arms in the Russian backyard may raise eyebrows in Moscow. Also, being a remittance dependent economy, Tajikistan lacks adequate funds; it will be interesting to see how Dushanbe pays for the arms purchase from Pakistan.

China’s increasing role in the security settings of Central Asian countries has already been posing challenges to Russia’s role as a security provider in Central Asia.22 There have been reports about China having a military outpost in Tajikistan, few kilometres away from the Tajik-Afghan border.23 Beijing and Dushanbe also had multiple joint military drills in the Pamir region, latest in July 2019. 24 There is a possibility of Beijing helping Pakistan to achieve a strategic position in Central Asia which will be a threat to other stakeholders such as Russia and India.

The Taliban advances in the north indicate that their offensive to control Afghanistan will gain momentum once the US fully withdraws its forces. Having witnessed past Pakistan-Taliban bonhomie, the Central Asian countries consider that having a close relationship with Pakistan would be strategically useful to accomplish their own regional agendas. The US withdrawal provides a geopolitical win to Russia and China, as they never wanted the US to stay in their vicinity. On the other hand, they have to deal with the security concerns arising from the Taliban rising. Consequently, Both Moscow and Beijing have been strategically involved in talks with the Taliban to ensure that their activities do not affect Central Asia and the Xinjiang region.

Implications for India

Challenges to Chabahar and INSTC

Pakistan has always been in this false impression that India’s Central Asia policy aims to encircle Pakistan. Since 2015, with PM Modi’s visit to five Central Asian republics, India’s imprint in Central Asia has increased. Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan, have agreed to join the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and Chabahar Port in Iran. However, there is a lack of efficiency on India’s part while promoting its connectivity projects despite existing infrastructure to facilitate trade and business. If Tashkent gets access to the Pakistani ports through the Trans-Afghan railway, it will be a setback for India’s Afghanistan and Central Asia policy. This rail line is also significant for China’s ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This can be considered as northern exposure to CPEC. India has serious objections to CPEC as it violates its territorial sovereignty. In order to encounter any efforts to harm its interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia, New Delhi needs to expedite the progress of INSTC and Chabahar.

Tajik-Pak Defence Deal: What India needs to do?

Tajikistan-Pakistan defence deal should also be taken into reflection by policymakers in India. Tajikistan’s Ayni Airbase, which was renovated with the help of India, is of strategic importance to New Delhi. India’s military presence at this Airbase would give an edge to India over Pakistan’s agendas. Also, it will help to keep a close eye on the developments in Afghanistan. India should put some serious efforts to persuade Moscow in getting access to this Airbase. Furthermore, New Delhi’s cooperation with Iran and Russia to protect its interests in Afghanistan is an absolute necessity.

Turkey-Pakistan alliance in Afghanistan

Another implication for India would be an active engagement of Turkey in the Post US withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan. Turkey’s role as a regional player in Central Asia has become more significant, especially after the victory of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey played a fundamental role in this conflict. Pakistan and Turkey may now have a mutual vision for Central Asia where Turkey would assist Pakistan in Central Asia while Islamabad would facilitate Turkey’s endeavours in Afghanistan. Turkey’s increasing role in Afghanistan would also be a setback for India’s efforts in the region. Turkey-Pakistan conformity in Afghanistan could have severe implications for India’s investments in the country.

Endnotes
  1. “Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan” Speeches And Remarks, White House Press Briefing, July 08, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/
  2. Kamran Haider, “Pakistan Seeks More Trade With Central Asia in Diversity Push”, Bloomberg, May 9, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-09/pakistan-seeks-more-trade-with-central-asia-in-diversity push#:~:text=It%20plans%20to%20grow%20trade,and%20China%2C%E2%80%9D%20said%20Dawood.
  3. “The USAID CASA-1000 activity”, USAID Brief, https://www.usaid.gov/central-asia-regional/fact-sheets/secretariat-casa-1000-power-transmission
  4. “Afghanistan: Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif Railway Project” Report, Asian Development Bank, https://www.adb.org/projects/42533-022/main#project-pds
  5. Zaki Shaikh, “Analysis - Uzbekistan keen to build rail link between Central, South Asia Proposed rail link via Afghanistan offers huge economic benefits, likely to stabilize region more than any political deal”, May 23, 2021. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/analysis-uzbekistan-keen-to-build-rail-link-between-central-south-asia/2251693
  6. Djoomart Otorbaev, “Central Asia’s Afghan Route to Prosperity”, Project Syndicate, April 13, 2021. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/central-asia-afghanistan-transport-energy-opportunity-by-djoomart-otorbaev-2021-04
  7. “Uzbekistan says World Bank ready to support trans-Afghan railway construction”, Xinhuanet, May 19, 2021. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/asiapacific/2021-05/19/c_139954379.htm
  8. Djoomart Otorbaev, “Central Asia’s Afghan Route to Prosperity”, Project Syndicate, April 13, 2021. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/central-asia-afghanistan-transport-energy-opportunity-by-djoomart-otorbaev-2021-04
  9. Akromjon Nematov, “Uzbekistan’s Strategy for Building Greater Trans-regional Connectivity” Diplomat Magazine, June 30, 2021. https://diplomatmagazine.eu/2021/06/30/uzbekistans-strategy-for-building-greater-trans-regional-connectivity/
  10. “Turkmenistan, Taliban hold talks over energy, infrastructure projects”, Energy World ,the Economic Times, February 7, 2021. https://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/oil-and-gas/turkmenistan-taliban-hold-talks-over-energy-infrastructure-projects/80730062
  11. “Pakistan, Uzbekistan set to sign TTA on 15th”, The News, July 8, 2021. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/861201-pakistan-uzbekistan-set-to-sign-tta-on-15th
  12. “Pakistan and Uzbekistan are about to conclude a trade agreement”, July 12, 2021. https://www.skymarketing.com.pk/news/pakistan-and-uzbekistan-are-about-to-conclude-a-trade-agreement/
  13. “Tajikistan calls up reservists to bolster border as Afghan troops flee Taliban”, The Reuters, July 6 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/hundreds-afghan-security-personnel-flee-into-tajikistan-taliban-advances-2021-07-05/
  14. “Tajikistan Reinforces Border As Afghan Forces Collapse Under Taliban Offensive”, RFE/RL, July 5 2021. https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-afghanistan-reinforcements-taliban/31342303.html
  15. “Russia vows support for Tajikistan in case of attack from Afghan border”, TASS, Russian News Agency, July 6 2021. https://tass.com/politics/1311807
  16. “From the Treaty to the Organization”, Collective Security Treaty Organization, from 2002-21. Report. https://en.odkb-csto.org/25years/
  17. Umida Hashimova, “Retreating Afghan Forces Cross Into Central Asia”, The Diplomat, July 06, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/retreating-afghan-forces-cross-into-central-asia/
  18. Ibid.
  19. “Russia Says Ready to Activate Tajik Military Base Amid U.S. Pullout, Taliban Advance in Afghanistan”, The Moscow Times, July 7, 2021. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/07/07/russia-says-ready-to-activate-tajik-military-base-amid-us-pullout-taliban-advance-in-afghanistan-a74450
  20. “Tajik president to pay a two-day visit to Pakistan”, Asia Plus, June 2, 2021. https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/politics/20210602/tajik-president-to-pay-a-two-day-visit-to-pakistan
  21. Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Tajikistan to buy weapons from Pakistan”, The Dawn, June 3, 2021. https://www.dawn.com/news/1627157
  22. Kazantsev A, Medvedeva S, Safranchuk I. “Between Russia and China: Central Asia in Greater Eurasia”, Journal of Eurasian Studies. 2021;12(1):57-71. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1879366521998242
  23. Garry Shih, “In Central Asia’s forbidding highlands, a quiet newcomer: Chinese troops”, January 18 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-central-asias-forbidding-highlands-a-quiet-newcomer-chinese-troops/2019/02/18/78d4a8d0-1e62-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html
  24. “Tajikistan, China to hold another joint military drill in Pamirs”, Eurasianet, July 9, 2019. https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-china-to-hold-another-joint-military-drill-in-pamirs

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