Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 211

In a statement published yesterday, Russia’s Security Council’s Secretary Sergei Ivanov used drastic language to reject any talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities. Ivanov, moreover, called for imposing “severe sanctions on those who assist the Taliban financially and militarily or who enter into any contacts with the Taliban.” The first part of the warning is directed at Pakistan and perhaps at Arab Gulf circles. The second part aims to intimidate Central Asian countries which have entered into political contacts with the Taliban authorities and hope to open economic relations with them.

Ivanov’s statement represents the first threat, publicly uttered, of Russian sanctions on CIS member countries whose foreign policy diverges from Russia’s (Itar-Tass, Komsomolskaya pravda, November 9). The Kremlin may well be calculating that Washington would condone such threats on Central Asian countries as long as the issue at stake is Afghanistan. Four Central Asian countries–all but Tajikistan–are the potential targets of Ivanov’s warning.

In the recent past, Kyrgyzstan has had exploratory diplomatic contacts with the Taliban with Moscow’s approval. During the recent presidential election campaign, Kyrgyz officials indicated a willingness to go on with those contacts and help mediate a political settlement in Afghanistan, apparently assuming continued Russian approval. That approval has now been publicly withdrawn.

Turkmenistan has for the last two years maintained political contacts with the Taliban, and has called for postconflict economic relations with the Taliban authorities and their backer Pakistan. Of greater immediate importance are Uzbekistan’s steps in recent months to develop regular political contacts with the Taliban authorities and to discuss the reopening of cross-border trade. Uzbekistan, like Turkmenistan, acts in concert with Pakistan in these efforts. A series of bilateral meetings between Presidents Islam Karimov and Saparmurat Niazov and their Pakistani counterpart, General Pervez Musharraf, have produced the basis of a political consensus among the three countries. Since September, an informal Uzbek-Turkmen-Pakistani diplomatic front has begun to emerge with regard to the Afghan problem.

That front may now extend to Kazakhstan–unless warnings like Ivanov’s succeed in arresting this development. His statement probably represents the Kremlin’s instant reaction to the Kazakh-Pakistani consensus which emerged during Musharraf’s November 6-7 visit to Kazakhstan. In his concluding statement, President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced Kazakhstan’s readiness to meet for talks with all Afghan groups, specifically including the Taliban. Nazarbaev’s officials were more outspoken. Foreign Affairs Minister Yerlan Idrisov illustrated the distance between Astana’s Moscow’s positions by stating: “We do not suffer from an allergy toward any [Afghan] group. Our approach calls for setting up a government in Afghanistan to take full responsibility for reconstruction, internal peace and the full integration of Afghanistan into the international economic and political system.”

Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev put even greater distance between Astana and Moscow. “In no way should the Taliban be made into an object of ostracism,” he declared in concluding the talks with the Pakistani delegation. Tokaev, a former foreign minister, recounted the fact that he had conducted talks with Taliban leaders in March 1999 in Islamabad on President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s instructions. Updating Kazakhstan’s position, Tokaev stated that “Kazakhstan regards the Taliban as a predominant political and military force in Afghanistan.”

Tokaev’s assessment has a direct bearing on Kazakhstan’s potential role as a mediator among Afghan groups. It suggests that Kazakhstan might urge the anti-Taliban “northern Afghan alliance” to accept Taliban predominance in any coalition government which might emerge from inter-Afghan negotiations. And it further suggests that Kazakhstan would like to move toward establishing economic relations directly with the Taliban authorities, without awaiting results from the inter-Afghan talks, and bypassing the increasingly irrelevant “northern alliance.”

As far as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are concerned, the relevance of the “northern alliance” is essentially that of a spoiler of potential trade and transit agreements with the Taliban authorities and an obstacle to the postconflict reconstruction of Afghanistan. By the same token, Moscow and Tehran are content to see the transit projects thwarted through continuing hostilities, fueled by Russian and Iranian arms and funds.

Kazakhstan, along with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is keen to open southbound export routes across Afghanistan, so as to avoid dependence on Russian and Iranian routes. That consideration explains Idrisov’s concurrence with his Pakistani counterpart Abdul Sattar’s statement that Afghanistan represents a natural “bridge” between Central Asia and the open seas, but the bridge has been turned into a “barrier” by the war and will remain a barrier as long as that war continues.

At this stage no Central Asian country is prepared to follow Pakistan’s example in recognizing the Taliban authorities officially and opening diplomatic relations with them. The contacts will remain informal and will be pursued in part through Pakistan. It is in that country that the Uzbek ambassador, for example, is holding regular meetings with the official Afghan ambassador representing the Taliban authorities. The main goal of those meetings is a general accommodation which would require the Taliban to (1) guarantee the security of their side of the borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, (2) deny any support or haven to Islamist opposition groups from Central Asia and (3) curb the narcotics business. In return, Central Asian governments are prepared to reopen borders for trade and keen to negotiate transit arrangements via Afghanistan to the outside world. Tashkent, Ashgabat and now Astana assign top priority to ending the turmoil in northern Afghanistan, seeing the country reunified under a common authority, and inducing the Taliban to behave like a responsible national government within a regional economic and political framework (Habar, Turkmen International Press Service, Itar-Tass, November 6-8; see the Monitor, September 8, 26, October 13, 30-31, November 9).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at pubs@jamestown.org, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions