Persistent feuding between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has troubling implications for the future of Afghanistan.
Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been frosty for most of the post- Soviet era, but they have taken a particularly nasty turn lately. Uzbek leaders are now maintaining an economic blockade on Tajikistan, halting rail traffic and interrupting electricity supplies. The font of discord appears to be Tajikistan’s efforts to build the Rogun hydropower plant. Uzbek authorities fear Rogun would diminish the amount of water available for their country’s all important cotton sector, as well as weaken Tashkent’s political leverage in Central Asia.
The three most influential powers operating in Central Asia – the United States, China and Russia -- are all keenly interested in easing Tajik-Uzbek tension. But they appear to have few instruments at their disposal to compel Tashkent to ease up on Dushanbe.
From the US perspective, a continuation of the Tajik-Uzbek Cold War would significantly increase the degree of difficulty of keeping Afghanistan stable after the withdrawal of American and NATO troops, now scheduled for completion in 2014. Washington's post-withdrawal stabilization strategy for Afghanistan appears to rely heavily on regional economic development schemes, especially an initiative known as the New Silk Road.The Tajik-Uzbek spat acts like sand in the Silk Road’s engine. As it is, the project has a lot of problems, suffering from a lack of political will and financial backing. The ongoing inability of states in the region to work together would ensure that the New Silk Road is dead on arrival.
Tajik-Uzbek feuding could also hamper two other US-supported initiatives to help stabilize Afghanistan: one is the establishment of a regional electricity market via the construction of power transmission lines connecting Central and South Asia; the other is a long-planned pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to South Asia, dubbed TAPI.
As disruptive as it is for US plans, the Tajik-Uzbek feud is even more vexing for Russia, creating a major security gap that could be exploited by narcotics traffickers and Islamic militants. Regional experts are bracing for a rise in Islamic militant activity in Afghanistan and Central Asia after the 2014 foreign troop pullout. Speaking at a May 21 news conference in Baku, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary-general of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), suggested that a deterioration of the regional security situation is almost inevitable. “We should be ready to neutralize the additional problems which may arise," the Trend news agency quoted Bordyuzha as saying.
The problem is that if two CSTO-member frontline states – Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are, in effect, fighting each other, a collective effort to contain drug trafficking and Islamic militancy seems to stand little chance of success.
The threat posed by Islamic militants to the regimes of Imomali Rahmon in Tajikistan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan would seem to dictate that Dushanbe and Tashkent, as well as all the other Central Asian states, unite in the face of a common enemy. But the Tajik and Uzbek leaderships seem incapable of listening to reason. They are, in effect, acting against their own best national interests.
Uzbekistan, in particular, seems impervious to outside influence. In late April, for example, Uzbek leaders reportedly brushed off an attempt by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to kick-start negotiations between Dushanbe and Tashkent. Now, some Russian political scientists expect Tashkent to turn the screws tighter on Dushanbe by closing Tajikistan’s road access to the outside world. Some even suggest that Uzbekistan’s Karimov is trying to drive Rahmon from power by precipitating an economic crisis that reignites civil strife in Tajikistan.
When it comes to China, Uzbekistan’s importance as a cog in Beijing’s energy strategy in Central Asia is growing. Thus, Chinese officials cannot be thrilled to see Tashkent embroiled in a regional disturbance.
To keep the Chinese economy going, Beijing needs to dramatically increase the amount of energy it imports from Central Asia and elsewhere. In 2010, China overall consumed an estimated 130 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas. The country’s projected need in 2020 could be well beyond double that amount. Since 2009, Uzbekistan has been a transit nation for Turkmen gas exports to China. But now Tashkent is getting directly into the act. Under a deal announced in late April, Uzbekistan will ship up to 4 bcm of gas to China in 2012. The amount could climb to 10 bcm in 2013. Chinese officials are now considering plans to more than double the existing capacity of the Turkmen-China pipeline by 2025. Instability in Uzbekistan could potentially disrupt all these pipeline plans.
The Tajik-Uzbek feud can be seen as an important test case for Central Asia. It would be a hopeful sign for the region, if regional powers can help Dushanbe and Tashkent put their problems behind them. Conversely, the lack of resolution would provide Islamic militants much desired breathing room, a prospect that no one in Washington, Moscow or Beijing can relish.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed in this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.