Uzbekistan has emerged as a key interlocutor with the Taliban, engaging with its southern neighbor across a range of issues while insisting that it will not formally recognize the interim government in Afghanistan before the world community.
That nuanced position has allowed it to begin exploring opportunities for economic cooperation with Kabul without alienating the United States and other Western powers that have sought to isolate Afghanistan with asset seizures and other sanctions.
Ismatulla Irgashev, special representative to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, said during an interview in Tashkent that his government is "working closely" with the Taliban. "We have long established solid contacts, talk regularly, [and] discuss cooperation."
Uzbekistan sees the Taliban "as a reality that must be accepted," he explained. Seeking a peaceful and stable neighbor, he added, "We see no other option. We share a border, deep history and culture."
"Imagine what happens if we don't engage. … More conflict, another civil war, more blood, poverty, suffering, threats to the neighbors and the international community."
Reflecting on President Mirziyoyev's description of Afghanistan as an integral part of Central Asia, Irgashev said, "We see a common future with immense common interests, no matter who is in power there."
In the short term, Uzbekistan has become a key hub for the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, earning it the appreciation of donor nations.
"We … very much welcome the strong humanitarian support that you've been providing to the Afghans," said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during talks in March.
Mirziyoyev recently dispatched a delegation to Washington, urging more assistance to Afghanistan. Irgashev claimed Tashkent has persuaded the European Union to return diplomats to Kabul and hopes the U.S. will ultimately take similar steps.
"The Taliban don't want to be isolated," Irgashev said. "They want international recognition."
While urging greater engagement with the Taliban, Irgashev said Tashkent is committed to moving ahead with formal recognition only in concert with the international community.
"We will not recognize them alone," he said. "When it happens, we want a collective voice and stand."
Most world governments cite three conditions for recognition of the Taliban — the formation of an "inclusive" government, protection of the rights of women, and steps to ensure that Afghan territory will not become a base for international terrorists.
The concern about terrorism is one that Uzbekistan and the United States "share very deeply," said U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Daniel Rosenblum. "Terrorist groups operate there. There's some evidence that they've been growing in number and ability to operate since the change of government last summer," he told VOA.
But, he said, Uzbekistan "has been extremely collaborative and communicative about its Afghanistan policy."
Irgashev said he believes it will be difficult for the Taliban to quickly meet the other conditions for recognition.
"For 20 years at least, the Taliban fought the West and its mission. They promised a government based on Taliban principles. How can we expect them to revise their agenda so fast?" he asked.
"But they realize they need to make changes to be accepted internationally. They need time to adjust step-by-step. We've discussed these complexities with Americans and Europeans."
Irgashev pointed out that most members of the interim government in Kabul "have very little, if any, experience with governance or management." In his view, he added, "they also need time to work out internal disagreements."
Arguing for greater engagement with the Taliban in the meantime, Irgashev noted that they are in firm control of Afghanistan, their rule challenged only by minor resistance movements based mainly in the Panjshir Valley.
"The Taliban is an independent military and political force that controls the entire country," Irgashev said, stressing that they are the first government in Kabul in 40 years to rule without direct foreign backing.
Tashkent's thinking is also colored by practical economic concerns, not least the prospect of securing a trade route from landlocked Uzbekistan through Afghanistan to Pakistani seaports on the Indian Ocean.
"We believe the Taliban shares these goals and is committed to work with us on these endeavors," Irgashev said. "There will surely be problems and challenges but we're working on trade, transportation, communication, and other sectors."
He said Taliban leaders understand they must also develop a "workable relationship" with the West in order to improve the living conditions of their people. "Therefore, they are eager to collaborate on infrastructure projects and we are urging our Western partners to seize the moment and help guide them."
This story originated in VOA's Uzbek Service.