Changing Dynamics in Central Asia and Afghanistan
Gulshan Sachdeva


In recent months, security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and relations between Kabul and Islamabad are tense. Although Afghanistan has signed a peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, the overall peace process with the Taliban is in disarray. Unrest in Kashmir and terrorist attack in Uri have resulted in a new low in relations between India and Pakistan. Following the death of Islam Karimov, there is a leadership change in Uzbekistan. Radical forces are spreading their wings in the region as shown by suicide bombing at the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. Beijing’s engagements through One Belt One Road (OBOR) have raised certain expectations in Islamabad. Kabul is somewhat disappointed as it still not part of the OBOR. The overall OBOR project, particularly China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) however, has raised suspicions in New Delhi.

The Afghanistan-Iran-India trilateral is moving forward with significant outcomes. The Afghanistan-India-US trilateral dialogue has also made some progress and explored ways to coordinate and align Indian and US assistance activities in Afghanistan. The US has also stated a new dialogue with all five Central Asian republics under the C5+1 initiative. In early October, a major international conference on Afghanistan is taking place in Brussels, in which about 70 countries and 30 international organizations are expected to participate. The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process Ministerial is taking place in Amritsar on 4 December. The ongoing Russia-Pakistan military exercise is noted with some unease by few analysts in India. In the midst of these activities, the Afghan President Dr Mohammad Ashraf Ghani visited New Delhi in mid-September. The forthcoming BRICS summit as well as 17th India-Russia summit in Goa will provide another opportunity to discuss Afghanistan and Eurasian integration projects.

Changing Central Asian dynamics

Since the collapse of the Soviet system, the five Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have witnessed limited changes in their economic and political systems. Despite having a very complex legacy (of central planning, dissolution of the USSR, distorted economic structures, ethnic problems), countries in the region have made progress in market reforms with varying degrees. Due to certain specific features (natural resources, strategic location and background of political elite) the region used both standard as well as non-conventional strategies of economic transformation. The Soviet era leaders in more or less non-competitive regimes tried to pursue economic stability while securing their own dominance in the new political system. They also tried to learn a few lessons from the Chinese model of development.

Although the region has been relatively stable in the last few years, there is some uncertainty in Uzbekistan after the death of Islam Karimov. However, If Turkmenistan’s political transition is any guide, where president Saparmurat Niyazov was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov without any change in the political system set by his predecessor, Uzbekistan may continue with Karimov’s legacy of strong secular State with limited political and economic openings. In a separate development, the Chinese embassy in Bishkek was attacked by a suicide bomber. After initial investigations, the Kyrgyz national security committee issued a statement saying "instigators" were "Uighur terrorist groups acting in Syria”. According to various reports, a significant number of militants from Central Asia and Caucasus are already working with the ISIS. Depending on the report, these numbers vary between few hundred and few thousand. In these circumstances, any instability in Tashkent can easily spread into the core of Central Asia- the volatile and most densely populated Fergana Valley, consisting eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan after Karimov

Islam Karimov who ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, first as a communist leader of Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and then as a president of independent republic was criticized by the West for his authoritarian rule and human rights violations. Still, he provided relative stability and economic development to its citizens. He also fought the forces of Islamic fundamentalism decisively. This is not a small achievement for the largest country of more than 30 million in Central Asia with ethnic linkages with neighbouring Afghanistan. Despite international pressure, he went on establishing his own “Uzbek model” of development. This was a combination of strong political authority with limited economic opening. Initially, his policies were ridiculed by western advisers. However, the Uzbek economy has grown more than 8 per cent every year in the last nine years. For some time the model has been under stress due to declining remittances from Russia and reduction in gas and cotton exports. Despite weak external outlook, the economy is still growing at about 7 per cent a year.

Under ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy, Karimov was also able to skillfully maneuver first between Russia and the US and later also with China. Whenever it seemed he was becoming closer to one major country, he cleverly built ties with other powers. Although scholars produced tremendous literature on how major powers are playing a new great game in Central Asia, he was one of those Central Asian leaders who himself mastered this game. At one time he was seen closer to Russia. Uzbekistan joined Moscow led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 1992. This sole post-Soviet collective security arrangement was signed in Tashkent itself. Later, Karimov left the grouping in 1998. He was criticized by all Western organizations for lack of democracy, economic reforms and human rights. Still, when he saw dangers in neighboring Afghanistan, he allowed Americans to use Uzbek air bases. With political changes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, he became suspicious of US designs of spreading colour revolutions in the region. He closed Air base when relations with the US became strained over suppression of armed uprising in Andijan. Uzbekistan restored its membership in the CSTO in 2006 but again suspended its participation in 2012. This was the time when Karimov also allowed Uzbek territory to be used for transit routes under Northern Distribution Network for US led war in Afghanistan. With constantly changing orientation, he may not have been termed a very reliable partner by Russians, Americans or its immediate neigbours. Still, he was able to preserve somewhat independent foreign policy in difficult circumstances.

The interim Uzbek president Mr Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is likely to win presidential election in December will have relatively easier time to continue Karimov’s legacy. Although Russia, US and China will continue to assert their influence on strategically important Uzbekistan, none will like to disturb stability in an already highly unstable neigbourhood. With a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and rise of ISIS in West Asia, a weak Uzbekistan will become another opportunity for radical Islamic forces to spread their influence. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was pushed by Karimov to Afghanistan-Pakistan region has developed links with the Taliban and the ISIS. Although he was criticized for using Islamic threat to suppress political opposition, he never allowed political Islam to prosper and all religious groups were systematically regulated. In his first speech before the Parliament, interim president Mirziyoyev stated that he would continue with the policies of Islam Karimov . He asserted that his country will neither join any military-political alliance nor it allow any military base in its territory. In foreign policy, he prioritized Central Asia, Russia, United States, China, Asia pacific (Japan, South Korea), Europe, India, Pakistan and the Middle East. Although he may continue with these policies, some priorities may change after his formal election in December.

India and the Central Asian region

The geopolitical salience of Central Asia for India was never in doubt. Most Indian policy makers and analysts believe that the region is important because of its strategic location, old cultural and civilizational linkages, energy resources as well as trade and other economic opportunities. Focusing on region’s location, oil and gas reserves and competition for pipeline routes, many analysts advanced the narrative of a New Great Game in the 1990s. Later, the competition for military bases in Central Asia, as well as regime change through color revolutions added a new dimension to this competition. Despite its rhetoric and sometime intentions, India itself was never really part of any competition for influence in the region. Some scholars accused India of indulging in wishful thinking toward the region, rather than develop a coherent strategy. With no direct road transportation access, plus difficult market conditions, the region did not become attractive to Indian private companies. In the 1990s, economic relationships with the region also declined considerably. Politically, Indian officials were more or less comfortable dealing with authoritarian leaders in the region. These leaders were part of the former Soviet elite, with whom India had dealt for decades. They moreover appeared to provide stability and were committed to fight Islamist extremism and terrorism. Unlike the U.S., Europe and many multilateral organizations seeking to spread democracy and market economics in the region, India has been focused primarily on ensuring political stability, since an unstable Central Asia is a serious threat for New Delhi.

India obviously would have welcomed a more democratic Central Asia, but it favored allowing democratization to happen at its own pace. New Delhi also remained convinced that Russia would retain a predominant political and economic influence in the region, and generally pursued cooperation with Moscow in Central Asia. Although many in India still believe in the continuation of Russia’s overwhelming influence in the region, many scholars have also started considering another possibility in which, over time, China would become a dominant player in the region while becoming increasingly friendly to Russia. As China increases its engagement in the region and creates a larger profile through trade, energy deals, military agreements, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and now the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, India is watching carefully. Despite many positive developments and fruitful diplomatic engagements, India is still very cautious in matters relating China. Both New Delhi and Beijing are still very much concerned with basic balance of power considerations, although officially both deny this proposition. Persistent uncertainty in Afghanistan, particularly in the context of difficult India-Pakistan relations, have also added new dimension to India’s approach to Central Asia. While the failure of the international project to stabilize Afghanistan poses common security challenges, any positive outcome will open tremendous economic opportunities to both India and Central Asia. So Chinese and Afghanistan factors have increased strategic significance of Central Asia for India. The US drawdown from Afghanistan has further pushed Indian policy makers to vigorously look for new options.

Developing political, economic, and energy partnerships dominated India’s “extended neighborhood” policy in the post-Soviet period. Today New Delhi’s approach to the region is laid out in the 12 point ‘Connect Central Asia’ initiative, first announced in 2012. This initiative seeks to strengthen India’s political, security, economic, and cultural connections with Central Asia. The aims of this policy are: (1) dealing with the region collectively in a much more pro-active manner; (2) strengthening security and defense dialogues with the region, particularly in the context of U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan and declining interest in Central Asia (3) exploring possibilities for cooperative engagements with Russia, China, and Iran (both bilaterally and collectively) to safeguard and promote Indian interests; and (4) enlarging India’s development cooperation footprint in the region. In the meanwhile, India has signed strategic partnerships with Kazakhstan (2009), Uzbekistan (2011), Afghanistan (2011) and Tajikistan (2012). Apart from long standing ’special and privileged’ partnership with Russia, New Delhi has also elevated its relations with Mongolia to a ‘comprehensive partnership (2015).

The perception of Central Asia’s growing strategic significance for India is reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eight day visit to all five Central Asian States in July 2015. This was the first visit of any Indian prime minister to all the Central Asian countries simultaneously since they became independent in 1991. The visit also provided a new strategic direction to the ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.

Linkages with the SCO and EAEU

India along with Pakistan will also be joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) soon. The confusion and uncertainty created by the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan has pushed India to seek membership in the SCO. There is a possibility that the Chinese leadership may use the SCO to stabilize Afghanistan in the near future. In these circumstances, it would be wise for India to be part of the organization. India, anyway, was always positive about the potential for economic, energy and, transport projects growing out of the SCO.

A joint study group to look into the feasibility of a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has already submitted its report. It is expected that formal negotiations for a trade agreement with the EAEU will start soon. New Delhi’s growing attention to the region is in no small part a response to the changing dynamics of the major powers’ relations with Central Asia. Increased Chinese investment and diplomatic engagement, Russia’s economic downturn and the resulting decline in remittances to Central Asia, and the reduced U.S. military focus on Afghanistan have all pushed India to pay more attention to the region.

Particularly important in this context is the increased involvement of China, a country India still regards as a strategic competitor. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a 10-day visit to four Central Asian countries and signed an estimated $48 billion worth of investment and loan agreements in the areas of energy, trade and infrastructure. This investment is designed to create a platform for China’s ambitious OBOR initiative linking Asia and Africa with Europe through a network of six transportation corridors, a project that could fundamentally reshape the geo-economics and geopolitics of the whole Eurasian region.

Both China and Russia have also made political statements of integrating EAEU and the OBOR. In these circumstances, many in Central Asia may also be looking for an enhanced strategic and economic engagement from India. Deepening ties with New Delhi also fits well with the ‘multi-vector’ foreign policies of most Central Asian states, which are trying to balance their dependence on Russia and China through enhanced engagement with other powers. Moreover, India is seen as a benign power that does not pose any political, economic or strategic threat to the countries in region. In the last 15 years, Central Asia’s trade and investment links with neighboring economic centers have increased significantly. China, Russia, and the European Union (EU) have been main export destinations and sources of imports, FDI and remittances. Now when these economies are either stagnant or slowing down, India could emerge as an attractive market for Central Asia.

India-Afghanistan ties

Afghanistan’s position at the crossroads between different regions cements its importance for India. Although its development activities in Afghanistan have only attracted attention in the last few years, India has been active in the country since the late 1960s. Except for a brief period during the Taliban regime, historically the countries have always enjoyed friendly relations. India therefore has a stake in a stable, independent government in Afghanistan, free from external interference. It has supported the Afghan government politically and economically since 2001 – relations codified in a formal Strategic Partnership in 2011. India’s broad objectives in Afghanistan include orderly security, successful political and economic transition, and ensuring the safety and security of its assets and personnel. Increasing trade, transit, and energy links with Central Asia through Afghanistan are added objectives.

In the post-Taliban period since 2001, India’s economic, political, and strategic linkages with Afghanistan have improved significantly, a result of increasing development assistance, as well as trade and investment cooperation. So far it has provided assistance worth $2 billion, with projects covering the entire country – mainly in the areas of road construction, power transmission lines, hydroelectricity, agriculture, telecommunications, education, health, and capacity building. Every year about 1500 Afghan students come to India on long or short term educational fellowships. In addition, 500 Afghan officials come to India for different training programmes. Additional $1 billion assistance was committed by India during president Ghanis’ recent visit to Delhi.

As Afghanistan ultimately has to stand on its own feet, trade and connectivity issues will prove more important in the long run than unsustainable foreign-funded development projects. In this connection, linkages with the Indian economy, a traditional market for Afghan products is crucial. Even from a very narrow base of $40 million a year in 2001, bilateral trade in 2015-16 was $835 million. Under special trade preferences, Kabul has been able to achieve more than $300 million exports to India. Main import items from Afghanistan are fruits, nuts and asafetida (hing). For many years, India is number one export market for Afghan products. Precisely for this reason, president Ghani is very keen that Pakistan must allow two-way traffic for India-Afghanistan trade. Recently, when Pakistan closed the only land route for Afghan products destined for India, New Delhi helped Afghanistan to airlift fresh fruits to India. This trade is so crucial for Kabul that president Ghani is reported to have even warned Pakistan that if they do not allow Afghan imports and exports to India to cross their territory, Afghan transit route for Pakistan to Central Asia will be closed. Afghanistan-India-Iran agreement on converting Chabahar port into a transit hub will also help Kabul to reduce its dependence on Karachi port.

It is difficult to make an exact impact assessment of Indian development activities. Still, close political ties with Kabul, strong goodwill among Afghan citizens and acceptance of India as an important regional player on Afghan matters indicate that resources have not gone waste. Any positive development on TAPI gas pipeline or proposed investments in the mining sector will further enlarge India’s profile. Similar to others, India also faces serious concerns about sustainability of its development efforts in Afghanistan. Indian policymakers, however, have clearly indicated at every forum that New Delhi has no exit strategy in Afghanistan; on the contrary, it seems likely to increase its involvement. Enhanced Indian role is based on the assessment that despite political, security and economic challenges, government in Kabul is not going to collapse; significant international support to Afghanistan will continue; and there is little scope for any negotiated settlement with Taliban in the near future. With US declining interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia, however, New Delhi is already in the process of working new alignments with Russia, Central Asian republics and Iran.

As immediate Afghan concerns are related to security, India is slowly increasing its defence cooperation. At the moment, about 800 Afghan soldiers are trained at different defence establishments in India every year. These numbers can be increased significantly. Last year, four Mi25 attack helicopters were supplied to Afghanistan. During his recent visit to New Delhi, Afghanistan's army chief Gen Quadam Shah Shahim reported to have asked more military equipment from India. Although no announcement was made during president Ghani’s recent visit to Delhi, more military equipment from India could be in the pipeline.

Despite majority of international forces moving out of Afghanistan, most Western donors have publically committed to reconstruction efforts in the country. Most of their activities in the coming years will concentrate on training and equipping security forces, infrastructure development, social sectors, and capacity building – the precise areas of focus for India. With appropriate framework, India can also work out joint projects with other partners.


New Delhi has long considered Central Asia as part of its extended strategic neighborhood. Building on past linkages and goodwill, India has more recently developed strong political and developmental relations in the region. Expanding Chinese influence and drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan have increased strategic significance of Central Asia for India. Although the region has remained relatively calm in the last ten years, its stability cannot be taken for granted. Due to difficult India-Pakistan relations, Iran will continue to be an important factor in India’s Central Asia/Afghanistan policy. Removal of sanctions against Tehran is helping India to expand its options in the region. In a fast changing geopolitical landscape, New Delhi will be exploring possibilities for cooperative engagements with Russia, Iran and even China. Apart from bilateral engagements, India will also be trying to engage the region through INSTC, SCO and EAEU. Afghanistan provides an important connection for India to Central Asia. Due to its developmental engagement, India’s political, strategic and economic links to Afghanistan has improved significantly in the last fifteen years. Although India will continue to provide developmental and even some defense assistance to Kabul, it is beyond the capacity of New Delhi alone to resolve serious security and development challenges. However, enhanced Indian engagement at this point will be a big boost to policy makers in Kabul. In the prevailing negative western discourse on Afghanistan, Indian experts and think tanks can also help in changing the narrative towards a positive outcome.

(The author is professor at the School of International Studies, JNU. Between 2006 and 2010, he headed ADB and The Asia Foundation projects at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul)

Published Date: 6th October 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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