Uzbekistan is active in connecting Central Asia and South Asia through Afghanistan

Jalil Afridi

WASHINGTON DC: During the exclusive interview to The Frontier Post, the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to U.S. and Canada H.E. Javlon Vakhabov confirmed the strong interest of Uzbekistan in further development of regional economic integration including its railroad connection up-to Peshawar through Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan. It is noted that Uzbekistan is taking an active part in constructing the railroad system in neighboring Afghanistan and is going to co-finance this project.

Recently, Tashkent has been a facilitator of the regional dynamics of partnership with its ‘Neighbors First Policy’ announced by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. On the day of the interview, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan Mohammad Atmar was arriving at Uzbek capital with his delegation of representatives from the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Central Bank and the Administration of his President.

Ambassador Vakhabov pointed to extensive agenda of Minister Atmar’s visit and underscored the importance of such regular discussions on issues of trade, economics, investment, transport and logistics between the two countries, as well as prospects for the implementation of joint projects in the fields of energy, construction of railways and infrastructure development in Afghanistan.

It is important, said the chief of Uzbek mission in the U.S. that more connected the region is considering Afghanistan as an integral part, more developed the trade routes between Central Asia and South Asia, including Pakistan. A railway project linking Mazar-e-Sharif with seaports in Pakistan could become part of the Eurasian concept of connectivity, which is now supported by the European Union. The opening of this route will provide the shortest access of the Central Asian states to the Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi and will facilitate the transit of goods further to India and Bangladesh. The ambassador added that once Uzbekistan is connected to Peshawar and Gwadar, thousands of people will benefit from it in the shape of jobs, trading, commuting and education.

Moreover, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan H.E. Abdulaziz Kamilov also underscored the strategic importance of South Asia and named Pakistan as one of the key regional actors and partners of Uzbekistan both at the bilateral and multilateral levels, noted Ambassador Vakhabov. Indeed, relations between Uzbekistan and Pakistan have advanced significantly. In 2017-2019, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev held four meetings with the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan within the framework of multilateral forums, where important agreements were reached in the areas of economy, investment, politics and security.

Returning to the involvement of Uzbekistan in supporting the sustainable growth of neighboring Afghanistan, Ambassador noted deep satisfaction of Uzbek Government with the steadfast consolidation of late of the Uzbek-Afghan relations built on robust bonds of friendship and traditional good-neighborliness, common history, traditions and customs.

It is important that both Presidents Mirziyoyev and Ghani attach specific significance on intensifying the efforts designed to promote priority infrastructure and investment projects towards Afghanistan’s sustainable development and its active engagement in regional economic processes. Active involvement of international financial institutions and donor nations in the creation of a modern trade and logistics infrastructure in the border areas, implementation of major projects concerning the construction of power line Surkhan – Pul-e-Khumri that can be a part of CASA-1000 supplying energy from Central Asia to Pakistan, as well as efficient transport corridors in Afghanistan is only welcomed, stressed Uzbek diplomat in D.C.

Regarding the recent peace talks, Ambassador stressed, over the decades Uzbekistan has been trying to promote peace in Afghanistan being at the forefront with several initiatives, including establishment in 1997 of the Contact Group “6+2”, that was later transformed to “6+3” format with participation of the six neighboring countries to Afghanistan, plus the United States, the Russian Federation and NATO, all aimed at peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict.

However, new momentum in this process has been gained after High-level International conference on Afghanistan which took place on the initiative of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in March 2018 in Tashkent. The presidents of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, representatives of all permanent members of the UN Security Council, all countries of the broader Asia and international organizations participated at the event.

According to Mr. Vakhabov, it was not a one-time event – it became a breakthrough in the quest for ways of the Afghan settlement. Tashkent Declaration adopted at the Conference became a certain “peace program” for Afghanistan, with the set of principles for peace and reconciliation, countering terrorism and economic reconstruction – all recognized by the international community. It was at the Tashkent Conference where international community became united with cornerstone approach – to promote direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions.

In order to implement the Tashkent Declaration, in close coordination with Kabul, Uzbekistan held several rounds of negotiations with the leaders of the main Afghan internal political forces, as well as Taliban representatives in order to better understand their position and seek compromise. Moreover, we have maintained continues dialogue with the United States, Russian Federation, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and other countries of the region, as well as with key states of the Muslim world on the issue of Afghan settlement.

“Peaceful settlement of the Afghan crisis is among top priorities and Uzbekistan was not only invited to witness the Peace Deal in Doha only, but we are there to make an input into this peace deal to take place and we want to play every valuable role possible in this regard”, Uzbek Ambassador said.

Promoting the Afghanistan peace process and supporting the goal of a durable political settlement was also a part of the agenda of inaugural U.S. – Afghanistan – Uzbekistan Trilateral Meeting co-chaired by Under Secretary David Hale, Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Mohammed Haneef Atmar, and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov on May 27 that led to establishing Working Groups on Economy, Security and Political Cooperation.

In order to achieve sustainable and long-term peace in Afghanistan, we deem it necessary to hold on to key principles of political settlement, above all, abstention from violence, comprehensive ceasefire, readiness to dialogue and compromises, highlighted Uzbek diplomat.

As President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has underscored “secure Afghanistan means secure Uzbekistan, prosperous and stable South and Central Asia,” and we remain committed to do our utmost in order to ensure the success of peace talks in Afghanistan, we are standing ready to provide a platform for direct inclusive negotiations.

Along with the peace process, we understand the significance of investing into economic sustainability, social stability of Afghanistan and educating young generation of Afghans.

“We stopped looking at Afghanistan as a source of problems and realizing that the country presents a unique opportunity for Central Asia to have the shortest access to seaports and energy markets in South Asia”, said Ambassador. Uzbekistan Government would like to see Afghanistan as well integrated into Central Asian economic process and we cannot stress enough how it is important – Afghanistan is already a top 10 trading partner of Uzbekistan with trade turnover amounted to $618 mln. in 2019 (almost 30% increase compared with 2016). And given the increased challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining uninterrupted supply of food commodities and essential medicine has become crucial as never before.

During the visit of Ambassador Khalilzad and DFC CEO Adam Boehler to Uzbekistan on late June we’ve explored opportunities for DFCs engagement in number of Uzbekistan infrastructure projects contributing to expansion of economic relations and connectivity between Afghanistan and Central Asia. I would like to particularly welcome the DFC’s willingness to support establishing the Regional Investment Fund with all Central Asian countries, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India aimed at improving infrastructure development and regional connectivity.

(1) One of the most important projects is the construction of a railway from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul, that could subsequently be extended eastwards to Pakistani city of Peshawar, with further access to the ports of Gwadar and Karachi.

Once the railway is completed it will be connected to the existing railway infrastructure that links Central Asia with Afghanistan providing the region shortest access to the ports of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, and expanding trade with India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe. The project will create thousands of new jobs for Afghan citizens, providing transit revenues and increased trade turnover.

(2) In order to facilitate trade and transit of goods in 2016 we established logistic center «Termez-cargo» with cargo servicing capacity of 70 containers per day, that provides a complex of transport and logistics services for customs clearance, cargo handling, terminal warehousing, intermodal transportation to and from Afghanistan.

During the Trilateral Meeting on May we also agreed to promote trade through the development of the Free Economic Zone at the Termez border crossing.

(3) For over 15 years, Uzbekistan has been a reliable partner of Kabul in the field of electricity supply. Compared with 2002, the volume of electricity supplies to Afghanistan increased by 30 times. Effective from January, 2018, Uzbekistan reduced the price of electricity supplied to Afghanistan by 45% (to 5 cents per kilowatt).

Uzbekistan has also started the construction of 500 kilowatt “Surkhon–Puli Humri” power transmission line in Afghanistan. After its completion Uzbekistan will be able to increase the electricity supply to Afghanistan by 70 percent – up to 6 billion kilowatt-hour per year. The implementation of this project will provide opportunities to increase the production capacity, and create new jobs in Afghanistan. Moreover, it can become an integral part of the CASA-1000 project, connecting Kabul to the unified energy system of Central Asia.

(4) Another vital project is the use of the potential of the Educational Center in Termez to train Afghan specialists. Currently the Center is successfully operating with 130 Afghan students training them based on skill-oriented programs. In the future, we are planning to increase the number of students up to 250.

Joint efforts to implement these and other infrastructure projects, facilitating cross-border trade and agriculture for greater food security, cooperation in the field of health and pharmaceutical supplies to address the challenges of COVID-19, as well as support of women’s economic empowerment within W-GDP initiative were discussed during U.S. – Afghanistan – Uzbekistan Trilateral Economic Working group meeting and we look forward to practical implementation of defined Roadmap.

Chief of Uzbek Mission to the U.S. made a clear that “without peace in Afghanistan, we will never reach prosperity in the region. The prospects of sustainable development in Central Asia are inextricably linked with the achievement of peace in neighboring Afghanistan. The biggest solution is the comprehensive support in terms of Afghanistan’s integration into regional economic processes. Uzbekistan has been and will continue to support the peace process, actively engage in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, facilitate the development of transport and energy infrastructure, and train the people to the best of our knowledge”.

With regard to relations between Uzbekistan and the United States, Mr. Javlon Vakhabov said that the U.S. is among key allies who has stood by his country since its independence 29 years ago.

“America was the first western country our President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited in 2018 after he took oath”. Highlighting the cooperation between the two countries in fields of trade, technology and education, the Ambassador stressed on a new dynamism in relations with the U.S in all dimensions.

Moreover, he informed that The Peace Corps voluntarily work in Uzbekistan by the U.S. government is going to resume its operation and volunteers of the US Peace Corps may be teaching English in hundreds in schools in Uzbekistan, Mr. Javlon Vakhabov stated.

On a question regarding the relations with Tehran, Ambassador noted that Iran remains as one of the important trading partners. Due to the imposed restrictions and sanctions, Uzbekistan is facing difficulties to export and import as result of which the trade turnover in 2018 decreased by 25% in comparison to 2016. Also, the possibility of buying cheap Iranian oil is out of the agenda. “Therefore, we are looking to diversify the trade routes and looking towards Gwa-dar Port of Pakistan that may be overloaded with trades from Central Asia”, Mr. Vakhabov asserted.

While commenting on the recent deal between UAE and Israel, H.E. Javlon Vakhabov said that a historical city of Bukhara with its three thousand years of heritage has been home to Bukharian Jews who have been living in the city of Bukhara for thousands of years. “We not only have an official relationship with Israel but our president who believes in unlocking Uzbekistan and building close ties with every country has recently appointed the first female ambassador, career diplomat, of Uzbekistan to Israel, Ms. Feruza Makhmudova”, the ambassador informed. Besides that, as the chief of Uzbek mission pointed, Uzbekistan has introduced non-visa regime to citizens of Israel. He also said that although Uzbekistan is a Muslim country with over 95% Muslim population but it believes in secular ideologies and is open and tolerant to people of all faiths and religions.

About the relations of Uzbekistan towards Russia, the Ambassador said that “Russia is our strategic partner and we share a common history and culture”. He also added that a significant portion of remittances coming towards Uzbekistan is from those almost 2 million expatriates who are either working in Russia, doing trade with Russia or studying there. It is pertinent to mention here that an amount of approximate three billion dollars remittances are coming to Uzbekistan.

Commenting on the booming auto industry of Uzbekistan, Mr. Vakhabov said that GM Motors is already making vehicles in Uzbekistan, German giant Volkswagen recently started making ambulances and different commercial vehicles, whereas China is building a vehicle plant at the moment with the focus on electrical vehicles.

Also, one of the new areas might be integration of the Islamic banking, said Ambassador. Considering that Uzbekistan has not experienced his type of banking, the country is working together with Islamic Development Bank and other leading experts on the creation of the legislative framework for the implementation of the infrastructure of Islamic banking and finance in Uzbekistan, which should attract another billions of investments to the domestic economy, noted Mr. Vakhabov.

This correspondent contacted Mr. Sadiq Khan, the honorable Special Representative of Pakistan to Afghanistan to get his view about the railroad project of Uzbekistan to Peshawar city of Pakistan; Mr Sadiq Khan stated that this project was out of his preview and that he had heard about this plan of Uzbekistan but was not aware of the details.