Uzbek, Afghan presidents hold security summit

By Maksim Yeniseyev

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (left) shakes hands with Uzbekistani counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent June 24. It was Ghani's first official trip to Uzbekistan. [Karimov press office photo obtained by Maksim Yeniseyev]

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (left) shakes hands with Uzbekistani counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent June 24. It was Ghani's first official trip to Uzbekistan. [Karimov press office photo obtained by Maksim Yeniseyev]

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan is reaching out a helping hand to its war-torn neighbour Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani June 24 made his first official visit to Tashkent, where he conferred on regional security with Uzbekistani counterpart Islam Karimov. Their talks touched on economic ties too.

"Ashraf Ghani's visit will boost co-operation ... to a new level," Karimov said during the presidents' meeting. "Uzbekistan is a supporter of establishing peace in Afghanistan and restoring its economy."

"Afghanistan is interested in the further development of co-operation with Uzbekistan," Ghani said in response.

Two days before the summit, Karimov warned in a speech in Tashkent, "Solving Afghanistan's problems is possible only ... with a broad political dialogue under the aegis of the UN. There is no military solution."

A month of progress

Another significant event in Uzbekistani-Afghan relations took place in Tashkent June 3 when Uzbekistani Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov accepted the credentials of new Afghan Ambassador Sayid Shahobuddin Temuriy.

In an interview published the same day, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča said that only regional economic initiatives -- as opposed to efforts solely within Afghan borders -- could support stability in Afghanistan and defeat the drug trade.

Steady economic assistance

One such initiative is the regular and steadily growing Uzbekistani export of electricity to Afghanistan.

"In 2010, [we began exporting power] to Pul-i-Khumri and Kabul," Muzaffar Mukhitdinov, spokesman for partially state-owned Uzbekenergo, told Caravanserai. "Today Uzbekistani exports of power meet 30% of Afghanistan's needs."

The countries last December agreed to increase those exports by 10%, he added.

"Since the inception of diplomatic relations in 1992, Uzbekistan has kept working on rehabilitating the Afghan economy," Uzbekistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Farida Umarova told Caravanserai. "The best-known projects include building a railway from Termez, Uzbekistan, to Mazar-i-Sharif and 11 bridges on the Mazar-i-Sharif-to-Kabul highway."

"Trade between the countries keeps growing," Umarova said. "We did only $200,000 [587m UZS] in trade in 2007. That figure rose to $600m [1.7 trillion UZS] in 2014."

Uzbekistan has provided help through other economic channels.

For example, it is continuing to bring high-speed internet and its benefits, such as instantaneous links to the outside world, to Afghanistan.

In 2009, a fiber optic cable extending from Uzbekistan gave residents of northern Afghanistan high-speed internet access for the first time.

Another project is under way to bring high-speed internet to Bamiyan and Samangan provinces, the press office of Bamiyan Governor Muhammad Tahir Zuhair said in a May 23 statement.

"Ground was broken for the fiber optic internet cable in Yakavlang District, Bamiyan Province, May 23," Zuhair's press office said in the statement. "The project will be completed in six months."

After completion of that effort, workers intend to bring high-speed internet to Ghor and Daikundi provinces, Zuhair's press office said.

Afghan consumers see benefits too

On June 19, 2015, Afghan businessmen in Mazar-i-Sharif opened their country's first retail store selling household appliances by the Uzbekistani manufacturer Artel, Umarova added.

"Since then, that business has expanded," she said.

Now three retail stores and three showrooms throughout Afghanistan sell Artel merchandise, according to the website of the Afghan distributor.

Another improvement that could strengthen ties would be the launch of nonstop flights between Kabul and Tashkent.

"Many Uzbekistanis fear that if such flights begin, militants or terrorists would swarm into our country," Tashkent resident Sherzod Abdukodyrov told Caravanserai. "But that's just a stereotype ... the vast majority of Afghans want to travel and develop business and cultural ties."

"Terrorists have no way of infiltrating Uzbekistan through the Tashkent airport," he said. "We have very strict security measures [there]."

"Plans to launch a nonstop flight between Kabul and Tashkent were mentioned during a meeting in Tashkent between Shakir Kargar, [Ghani's] envoy for CIS countries, and [Uzbekistani] Foreign Economic Relations, Investments and Trade Minister Elyor Ganiyev on May 7, 2015," Tashkent political scientist Valerii Khan told Caravanserai.

"There hasn't been any progress yet [on inaugurating the flight]," Khan said. "You need not only political will but also a positive economic prognosis ... for the flight. So far, it doesn't look profitable."

Ties dating back centuries

Ethnic ties could help bring the countries together, Tashkent historian Akhmed Ganiyev told Caravanserai.

"For most of the past [except the 20th century] both countries formed a common space," he said. "To this day, northern Afghanistan is predominantly composed of ethnic Uzbeks."

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