On December 4, Kazakhstan’s parliament and the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies held a joint conference on the future of Central Asia–Afghanistan relations. This conference was attended by representatives of Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, including diplomats, researchers and political experts, as well as the deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament. As the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is preparing to leave Afghanistan by 2014, the security situation in this country continues to represent a serious challenge to its neighbors, while the problem of drug trafficking, which originates on Afghan soil, is unanimously understood as a transcontinental threat impacting both Russia and Europe (Bnews.kz, December 4).
In his opening speech, Nurlan Nigmatulin, who currently serves as the speaker of Kazakhstan’s lower chamber of parliament, reminded his audience of the support his country has been providing to the Afghan government since Astana’s 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At that time, President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced the launch of an educational program under which over a thousand Afghan students would be trained in Kazakhstani universities by 2018. Earlier, Kazakhstani authorities disbursed $2.3 million worth of financial assistance for the construction and renovation of civilian facilities. Thus, Astana sponsored several assistance projects in Samangan and Bamyan provinces and invested in the reconstruction of a highway linking Kunduz and Taloqan in northern Afghanistan. In early 2011, when then Prime Minister Karim Massimov declared another ban on exports of Kazakhstan’s locally produced fuels, Afghan President Hamid Karzai succeeded in securing the supply of more than 90,000 tons of Kazakhstani-made diesel for its economy (I-news.kz, December 4; Zakon.kz, December 30, 2011; Tengrinews.kz, December 29, 2011).
On December 6, at the annual OSCE ministerial held this year in Dublin, Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov—recently promoted from the position of Kazakhstan’s ambassador in Washington—once again spoke about the need to boost financial aid to Afghan authorities. He also confirmed his country’s commitment to the principles of the Istanbul Initiative first launched in November 2011 by the so-called “Heart of Asia” group. This group is comprised of 14 countries, including all the five Central Asian republics, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan itself. Concurrently, the United States, Canada, the European Union, the United Nations, Japan and seven European countries enjoy the status of observers. The purpose of the first Istanbul gathering was to pave the way for a sustainable process of reconstruction and reconciliation in Afghanistan through the support of its nation-building efforts in view of ISAF’s upcoming departure (Newskaz.ru, December 6; Afghanistan.ru, November 3, 2011).
In June 2012, a second meeting of the “Heart of Asia” countries was organized in Kabul. The outcome of the meeting was the establishment of a new institutional framework composed of seven working groups covering such issues as trade and economic cooperation, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, joint anti-terrorist and anti-narcotics operations, etc. The conference also highlighted Afghanistan’s gradual rapprochement with Central Asia’s regional blocs, namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russian-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The latest SCO summit hosted by China in early June, days before the launch of the “Heart of Asia” follow-up event, already conferred observer status on Afghanistan, while Turkey became a partner for dialogue, joining Belarus and Sri Lanka. In its turn, the CSTO unveiled plans to tighten cooperation between member states, basing them on highly negative forecasts with regard to the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan and its impact on regional security in post-Soviet Central Asia (Tengrinews.kz, November 9; Novaya Gazeta, June 15).
Despite Kazakhstan’s efforts to promote regional cooperation in order to decrease Central Asia’s vulnerability to security threats from neighboring Afghanistan, it still remains a marginal player as compared to Russia and China. Between 2002 and 2005, the Russian Federation provided over $200 million worth of technical and military assistance to the Afghan armed forces. In May 2011, Russia’s state-owned company Rosoboronexport concluded a supply contract with the US Department of Defense, which provided for the purchase of 21 Mi-17 helicopters and their subsequent transfer to Afghanistan’s army. This agreement was further complemented in order to account for the Pentagon’s desire to order ten more helicopters and maintenance services from the Russian side. According to US estimates, the total value of the contract and its annex might amount to $900 million (Vzglyad, December 3; Novaya Gazeta, June 15).
As for Beijing, its strategic interests in Afghanistan are increasingly linked with Chinese companies’ willingness to protect their growing business cooperation with Kabul, especially in the energy sector. In late December, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industry signed a deal on the exploration and production of prospective oil reserves in the country’s northern provinces together with an Afghanistan-based partner, the Watan Group. In June 2012, during President Karzai’s visit to Beijing, the two countries released a strategic partnership declaration, with China promising to allocate $23.8 million worth of budgetary assistance to the Afghan government by the end of the year. In September 2012, Beijing and Kabul officially finalized these negotiations, when China’s top security official Zhou Yongkang visited the Afghan capital to hold talks on both economic and security issues. Earlier in 2009, the Chinese Government provided $180 million worth of aid to Afghanistan and wrote off all of its outstanding debts (Afghanistan.ru, September 27; RIA Novosti, March 27, 2009).
With the date of NATO’s departure drawing closer, Central Asian republics have become more active in engaging their external partners, both bilaterally and multilaterally, in coordinated talks about the further stabilization of Afghanistan’s domestic situation. However, since the regional security landscape is largely undermined by unresolved disputes between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the current efficacy of comprehensive cooperation at the regional level remains subject to debate. Moreover, the scarce progress achieved on the Afghan issue during and after Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 has shown the limits of Astana’s multilateral diplomacy. Therefore, the future of Central Asia’s stability after the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is due to stay in Russian and Chinese hands.