Following political consultations held in Kabul May 9 between the foreign ministries of Kazakhstan and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA), Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani is expected to visit in the near future, according to the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
During the talks, the diplomats discussed issues related to state and prospects of development of bilateral relations in political, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation. The parties also reviewed preparation for the seventh meeting of the intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation and organisational issues of Ghani’s visit.
The two countries are actively cooperating in the international arena through the United Nations (UN), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The Afghan side expressed gratitude for educational programmes to train its students in Kazakhstan, as the implementation contributes to the development of human resources in Afghanistan and socio-economic growth of the country, as well as reduction of the spread of terrorist and extremist threats in the region.
The Afghan government also offered thanks for providing regular humanitarian assistance in the form of food and basic necessities, as well as funding the construction and reconstruction of the socially significant infrastructure.
Assistance for Kabul
On average, Kazakhstan has been providing Afghanistan with $5-7 million in annual food assistance. In July 2008, Astana made its most visible one-time installment to Afghanistan of $2.38 million for the construction of a school in Samangan Province and hospital in Bamyan Province and the reconstruction of the Kunduz–Taloqan Road. Two years later, Kazakhstan allocated $50 million in the form of a grant for training 1,000 of Afghan students in Kazakhstan’s colleges and universities.
These investments are not accidental. Kazakhstan is very interested in the peaceful development of the IRA, for if the military confrontation were to continue in the country, it could lead to serious problems in the entire region. Experts believe Afghan issues discourage potential financiers from investing in Central Asia and after the withdrawal of coalition forces, these trends are likely to worsen.
Ensuring security in Afghanistan remains a problem for Astana. In January 2014, Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrissov noted in a speech that Kazakhstan cannot consider itself safe from the influence of the Afghan factor.
“We used to believe that Kazakhstan was immune from any expressions of extremism. Due to our history, mentality and geographic characteristics, the problem seemed distant. We were very far from fundamentalism, thinking that this is not about us. However, it was a mistake and miscalculation. Now, time has shown the opposite and we are not able to say for sure that we continue to remain invulnerable,” he said.
According to experts, peaceful and progressive development of Afghanistan seems a difficult and sublime goal in the foreseeable future. Therefore, they believe it is necessary to analyze all the possible risks of political and economic cooperation with the IRA.
War Hinders Reforms
Ghani holds quite a dynamic foreign policy, as evidenced by informal talks with the Taliban representatives in Qatar, noted Daniyar Kosnazarov, head of Central Asia and Caspian region studies at the Department of Geopolitics and Regional Studies of the Library of the First President of Kazakhstan. The Afghan head of state pays special attention to relations with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China apart from traditional partners such as the United States and India.
“He seeks as efficiently as possible to hold political talks with the Taliban members, because without stoppage of the war, Kabul will not be able to do the reforms that Ghani and (Afghan Chief Executive) Abdullah Abdullah are planning to implement,” said Kosnazarov.
Scholar at the Eurasian Research Institute Rasul Arin emphasised the structure of trade relations is an interesting point in the bilateral relations of Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. Due to the raw materials orientation of the Kazakh economy, Afghanistan supplies Kazakhstan with mostly non-primary, processed products, while Kazakhstan exports raw products to Afghanistan. A positive trade balance favours Kazakhstan, which, by various estimates, is about 90-99 percent.
Kazakhstan has developed its own manufacturing industry. In 2014, the country also approved a law creating the national agency of official development and technical assistance, which will be responsible for contributing to the restoration of peace in Afghanistan and all related projects. According to experts, even before this organisation is established, the Kazakh government has allocated about $100 million for foreign assistance; half of this money was used for training Afghan students in Kazakh universities.
Expert of the Centre for Geopolitical Studies Berlek-Unity Dmitry Mikhailichenko noted that Kazakhstan is making a significant contribution to resolving the Afghan problem, which has been repeatedly noted by Kabul. The Akorda presidential residence is able to rationally and constructively allocate its resources, including diplomatic ones, whereas the image and authority of Kazakhstan in Eurasia is high. Inlight of the continuing decline of US military presence in Afghanistan, an increase of SCO presence is expected.
“The SCO member countries have an identical position on Afghanistan. Talks about full membership of Afghanistan in the organisation are increasing in Kabul. If that happens, there will be both a great challenge and an opportunity for the organisation. In the current configuration, Kazakhstan goes for large-scale trade and economic cooperation with Afghanistan; this format contributes to the stabilisation in the troubled country. Though energy projects look promising by themselves, the possibility of stabilisation of the situation in the country is still limited, therefore Afghanistan’s turn to the SCO member states is inevitable,” said Mikhailichenko.
Avoiding Mistakes of the 1990s
Political scientist Sultanbek Sultangaliyev believes Kazakh support will allow Afghanistan to expand and strengthen its international contacts and further affect leading regional powers in settling its internal problems. They are not far off, because after the U.S. troop departure, the situation of the 1990s following the withdrawal of the Soviet army troops and the fall of the Mohammad Najibullah regime may be repeated.
Although the political situation in the country has changed, danger remains for the current Afghan government. At the moment, separatist moods among the Pashtun population are gaining strength, the leaders of which are dreaming of a Greater Pashtunistan. At the same time, the Taliban movement is experiencing internal contradictions associated with the desire of its leaders to come to a peaceful compromise with the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the possibility of destabilisation in the country remains extremely high, which is the most significant obstacle for attracting foreign investment, said Sultangaliyev.
“Taking into account all those active geo-economic processes primarily related to China’s economic diplomacy, we see that the region has a great potential for development. However, security concerns undermine the existing potential. Therefore, Ghani and Nazarbayev have issues to discuss. Some of the things are better to hear from the Afghan President. Ghani is also interested in material and political support for the country,” said Kosnazarov.
The author is an observer regularly writing for Liter daily newspaper. This opinion was first published in Liter on May 14 and is reprinted here with permission.