As winter grips Central Asia, the Uzbek government is calling on the international community to help neighboring Afghanistan.
"To prevent a humanitarian crisis there, not words but concrete steps are necessary to assist the Afghan people," Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said Tuesday in Tashkent.
Uzbekistan is keeping its infrastructure open for international partners and foreign countries to deliver aid to Afghanistan. Specifically, the administration of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev permits U.N. agencies and humanitarian groups to use its territory, airports and railways and, most important, its Friendship Bridge that spans the Amu Darya River that marks the Uzbek-Afghan border. It connects Termez in the Surkhandarya region with Hairatan in Afghanistan's Balkh province.
"We want a peaceful Afghanistan, politically stable and economically prosperous," Tura Bobolov, Surkhandarya regional governor, told VOA. "I have traveled there eight times recently. I see a desperate country in need of order and leadership. It needs our assistance."
At roughly 150 kilometers, Uzbekistan's border with Afghanistan is its shortest but perhaps its most strategic one. Termez was a military hub during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. And during the two decades of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, this area was used to supply nonmilitary goods to the international coalition forces. From 2001 to 2005, Uzbekistan also hosted an American air base in Karshi-Khanabad, Kashkadarya, an adjacent region.
Termez International Airport, empty nowadays except for Uzbek civilian planes, was leased for more than a decade by the German air force for NATO operations in Afghanistan.
'Endless economic opportunities'
Tashkent has been treating the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan as a reliable partner, arguing that neighboring states must work with each other no matter who is in power and focus on mutual interests.
"We see endless economic opportunities in and via Afghanistan," Bobolov said, adding that he is in regular touch with the new authorities there. "We want access to world markets through South Asia, and they want our goods and services. Despite deep security concerns, we see great potential for trade and economic growth."
Bobolov said that Termez, Surkhandarya's administrative center and a city of nearly 150,000, is emerging as a logistical hub. He said it could process 17,000 tons of goods at the same time.
VOA toured Termez Cargo Center, which is about a kilometer from the Afghan border. Occupying more than 40 hectares, it has about 120 people working 24/7.
Surkhandarya's Customs Office, part of the Uzbek State Customs Committee, has dozens of officers inspecting goods coming from or going to South Asia via the Termez-Hairatan crossing.
"Our mission is to receive, store and then ship all goods in transit," said Okhunjon Hayitov, cargo center manager. "We have four massive storage facilities, equipped with high-tech refrigerators. We ensure the quality of products, whether they are for this market or going out, south or north."
The center is also responsible for storing cargo — from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program and other organizations — meant for the Afghan people. The assistance arrives at Termez International Airport and then is stored before being shipped to various parts of Afghanistan by truck or rail.
According to the Customs Office, aid clearance is an expedited process, but shipments to Afghanistan ultimately depend on the Afghans.
Termez Cargo Center deals with at least 50 trucks daily, each carrying 25 tons of goods on average.
"Our job is to inspect that 750 tons of products, mostly vegetables now, especially potatoes, since it's the season for them. We are getting loads of that from Pakistan, going north," said Senior Inspector Isfandiyor Madiyev.
Madiyev said that so far in 2021, the cargo center has imported 142,000 tons of goods and has exported 135,000 tons, a considerable difference from last year.
"Last year we exported 197,000 tons of goods from this cargo center while importing about 50,000 tons," he said. "We exported less this year. Perhaps there is less need for our products or fewer opportunities to buy."
Afghan people focus of policy
Like other leading Uzbek officials, Bobolov, the border region's governor, also stresses that the country's Afghan policy is not about the Taliban but the people of Afghanistan.
"We have a deep interest in long-lasting peace there. I assure you, and you can tour the region as much as you want to see how peaceful it is here in Surkhandarya," Bobolov said.
"The people of Termez and communities beyond this city are not concerned about security here. We have been living with an unstable Afghanistan next door for decades. There are 17 neighborhoods along the Afghan border. I visit them often. They live with their day-to-day worries, and these don't necessarily include Afghanistan."
Bobolov said he and other leaders understand the critical need for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
Regional diplomacy and building strong ties with neighbors have been the Mirziyoyev administration's foreign policy priority.
Uzbekistan's trade within Central Asia, including Afghanistan, rose from nearly $2.7 billion in 2016 to $5.2 billion this year. Almost one-fifth of this commerce has been with Afghanistan.
In the Angor district of Surkhandarya, businesses are expanding by building logistical centers for Uzbek and regional partners who want to sell construction materials and other industrial goods near the border.
Bahriddin Qurbonov, manager of Angor Index LLC, said a new complex would open in 2022.
"You know why we like working with Afghans? Their work is of really good quality, whether in construction or anything manufactured here or there," Qurbonov said. "This commercial hub, put together partly by Afghan contractors, will be a trading place for everyone in the region, including Afghanistan. That's what we want, and the Uzbek government has wholeheartedly endorsed it by providing us the space and whatever necessary to get started as soon as possible."
Uzbek businesses are eager to connect with South Asia, forge enterprises and work on major development projects like this, Qurbonov added, though keeping in mind that security remains the most critical factor. While Uzbekistan has not given up its ambition to get access to seaports in Pakistan and beyond, the authorities in Termez and in Tashkent continue to urge the world to work with them to do whatever possible to ease the worsening situation in Afghanistan.
This story originated in VOA's Uzbek Service.