For 20 years, the United States and its Western allies played the major role in shaping Afghanistan’s future. But with the Taliban takeover nearly one year ago, regional powers, like Uzbekistan, are increasingly driving international engagement while Washington and the West hold out for Taliban concessions.
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 of the governments, especially those from Central Asia, were clearly pushing toward an eventual normalization of relations with the new powers in Kabul.
“This event matters for everyone who has interest in Afghanistan,” said Najibullah Sharifi, an Uzbek observer from Afghanistan’s Takhar province. “Let’s see what developments it leads to.”
At perhaps the largest multilateral event with Taliban participation since the group seized power last August, officials from Kabul seemed emboldened and assertive. Central Asian diplomats told VOA that the Taliban came well prepared and confident, something reporters covering the event noticed as well.
Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told the conference that Taliban-led Afghanistan is open for business.
“Before we came to power, everyone used to call to end violence in Afghanistan. Look, we are discussing reconstruction of our country and developing its economy,” he said.
But Muttaqi said the Taliban’s ambitions extend to their former antagonists. He urged the West, especially Washington, to establish direct ties.
Yet Muttaqi wants something from Washington too: Afghan assets once held by the former regime that were frozen when the Taliban took power.
“We want investment,” he said.
The United Nations, the European Union, the U.S. and other Western officials interacted with the Taliban, which is not unprecedented since Washington negotiated with them in Doha, Qatar, for years. They also reiterated demands with the U.S. delegation, led by Thomas West, the Biden administration’s special representative for Afghanistan, seeking Taliban concessions.
In an interview with UzReport TV, a VOA affiliate in Uzbekistan, West said, “The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is among the highest priorities that drive American decision-making.”
“We have spent nearly a billion dollars in humanitarian aid since August,” he added, saying that the U.S. is not blocking any aid or business from assisting the Afghan people.
Emphasizing that America remains the largest donor for Afghanistan, West pointed to four sectors that Washington specifically backs – agriculture, health, livelihoods and education. He said the international community prevented starvation in Afghanistan last winter. “But there are still too many Afghans suffering today.”
Non-Western players are setting few, if any, conditions on their own engagement, and they are criticizing Washington. Russia’s representative, Zamir Kabulov, blamed the U.S and its allies for the dire conditions in Afghanistan. Washington supported “the corrupt puppet government in Kabul for 20 years,” he said, accusing the U.S. of pursuing punitive policies now.
Members of some Central Asian research groups suspect that at least 20 militant groups still have roots or bases in Afghanistan, an accusation the Taliban vehemently deny.
Observers in Tashkent told VOA that delegations were diverse and at times quite critical of each other in their statements, but all credited the host, Uzbekistan, for urging the world to engage with Afghanistan’s challenges.
"The international isolation of Afghanistan shall inevitably lead to further deterioration of the humanitarian situation. It is important not to allow this, since the fate of millions” is at stake, warned Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in an address delivered on his behalf by Abdulaziz Kamilov, his special envoy.
“The interim government of Afghanistan takes certain steps in terms of peaceful reconstruction, strives to improve the socioeconomic situation and establish friendly relations with neighboring countries and mutually beneficial cooperation with an international community. We must foster and endorse these efforts,” he said.
Still, Mirziyoyev reiterated the international community’s conditions for formal diplomatic recognition, namely “forming a broad representation of all layers of the Afghan society in state governance, ensuring basic human rights and freedoms, especially of women and all ethnic and confessional groups.” By confessional, he was referring to all religious communities in the country.
“We call on the current government of Afghanistan to show firm will and take resolute measures to prevent and counter terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, breaking up ties with all international terrorist organizations.”
But Mirziyoyev challenged the international community to create “real prerequisites for Afghanistan to become a peaceful, stable and prosperous land – free from terrorism, wars and narcotics.”
Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls and human rights, underlined that “security, economic stability and peace cannot be achieved without upholding the rights of women, ending abuses against all ethnic and religious communities and fostering an inclusive political process.”
Amiri tweeted from Tashkent that she “countered claims that the Taliban’s regressive policies are based on Afghan culture, arguing that most Afghans aspire for education, work and opportunities for a better future for their sons and daughters.”
She highlighted that while most attendees called for an inclusive political process, no one pushed for recognition of the Taliban’s regime now.
Frederick Starr, an American expert who attended the conference, said the key issue is not recognition but "trade and economic ties that actually test Taliban intentions."
Uzbekistan showcased several such projects, including a proposed trans-Afghan railway running from Termez at the Uzbek-Afghan border through Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul to Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan and a planned Surkhan- Puli-Khumri power transmission line running from Uzbekistan to north-central Afghanistan. He invited businesses and others to participate and invest.
Impressed with these initiatives yet skeptical of the Taliban’s claims, Starr said that much work lies ahead for the Taliban to convince the international community of their sincerity.
“Facts on the ground matter most and if the Taliban means what it says, then it should improve the situation step-by-step,” Starr said.
But ultimately, Starr said he sees no chance of lasting peace in Central Asia if Afghanistan cannot achieve stability.
Uzbek scholar Sayfiddin Jurayev said he thinks “the U.S. should return what belongs to the Afghan people” but agrees with Starr that “the Taliban still must face up to the conditions reiterated in this conference.”