An assessment of Azerbaijani-Afghan relations

1. Dear Said Sabir Ibrahimi, how do you assess Azerbaijani-Afghan relations and what are the prospects for their development?

Afghanistan and Azerbaijan have amicable relations. While the two countries do not share a physical border, they share cultural and economic ties that go far back in the history. Afghanistan has suffered from a chronic conflict, a tumultuous period of time of four decades. Since 2001, with the new era of democracy in country, the Afghan government started to open or reopen its diplomatic and economic relations with many countries. In late 2012, Afghanistan opened its embassy in Baku.  Unfortunately, the act wasn’t reciprocated by Azerbaijan, and, presently, Azerbaijan does not have an embassy in Kabul. Afghans who need to get an Azeri visa, they must go to another Central Asian country or Pakistan. It is hoped that Baku opens an embassy in Kabul in the near future.

The Afghan leaders realize that cooperation on common interests, such as security, economic growth, among the neighboring states is the key to establishing stability in Afghanistan and the region. Former President Hamid Karzai and current President Ashraf Ghani have reached out to Central Asian governments, including Azerbaijan. In December 2014, President Ghani visited Baku and met with his counter-part, President Ilham Aliyev, to discuss areas of cooperation. The two countries have been collaborating on a number of areas such as transnational security issues as in tackling organized crimes and counter-narcotics. Currently, Azerbaijan has stationed some 90 peacekeepers in Afghanistan who  are participating in the NATO's “Resolute Support” mission by training the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANSDF). On the economic side, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan have been discussing economic collaboration in areas of transit, energy and other economic exchanges. Afghanistan can provide the land access to South Asia for Azerbaijani exports and imports; similarly, Azerbaijan can provide Afghanistan railroad access to Turkey, Georgia, and Europe.

2. Are you satisfied with the current level of economic relations? What is the volume of bilateral trade, and what steps are being taken to increase it?

The trade volume between the two countries is estimated at $176 million dollars per annum (2015), which is not that significant but it is good enough. It is hoped that with several regional economic programs the trade volume between the two countries would grow. Bilateral and multilateral projects such as Lapis Lazuli Route, Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) and China's One Belt Initiative (if Afghanistan is connected to it) could help both countries to improve connectivity and stimulate their economies. All of this depends on the stability of the region, especially the stability of Afghanistan and its ability to be part in these giant economic projects. 

On the other hand, it looks like Afghanistan has not been treated as an integral part of Central Asia. Today the relations between most of the Central Asian countries are generally good; it is not the European Union, but the flow of goods, services and people between Central Asian countries are relatively open. Afghanistan is not part of the Central Asian union, and it is harder for Afghans to travel to Central Asia or do business .  Having said that, some of the reservations and concerns of Central Asian countries about Afghanistan are understandable. For reasons that Afghanistan is not part of the Commonwealth of Independent States, in addition to the internal instability of the country which has given rise to a fear of infiltration of extremist elements into Central Asia. In my opinion, the Central Asian countries, including Azerbaijan, would need to figure out how to integrate Afghanistan more in the Central Asian community, and the Afghans would need to provide guarantees that extremist elements will not become a source of worry for Central Asia.

There is an incentive for cooperation for everyone in the region: through Afghanistan, Azerbaijan will gain access to South Asia; Pakistan is in dire need of energy, which Central Asia can provide;  India wants to improve its relations with Central Asia, which Afghanistan can facilitate. It is evident that there is an abundance of somewhat untapped regional potential. Azerbaijan can use its political leverage in the region to help stabilize Afghanistan in order to bring this potential to fruition.

3. The largest and most painful problem of Azerbaijan - Nagorno-Karabakh and is adjacent 7 regions, unfortunately occupied by the Armenian army. What is the official position of Afghanistan on this issue, and who supported the Afghan society in Karabakh issue?

I think that this is a question that you should ask the Afghan authorities, but I will say this: Afghanistan has been battling with its own colonial demarcation problems for over fifty years, including currently fighting an active insurgency war across the country, a war that is somewhat fueled by those same territorial disputes. The dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan over Durand Line is a prominent one, followed by water claim disputes with Iran. In return, these disputes and geopolitical ambitions of the players have turned Afghanistan into a battleground for proxy wars, and often some of the hostile neighbors treated Afghanistan as their backyard.

Afghans can testify to the fact that decades of war did not achieve anything desirable for Afghanistan. The conflict led to the destruction of the country, created millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed, and a society with high levels of illiteracy, poverty and malnutrition.

4. Armenia still does not perform well-known resolutions of the UN Security Council, one of which is the unconditional release of Azerbaijani lands. What do you think, how to make Armenia to heed the calls of the international community?

There has to be a diplomatic solution to deal with Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Members of Security Council and emerging powers are in a better position to mediate a possible solution between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Afghanistan, too, as a member of the international community, can play a role in creating an international consensus, initiating confidence-building measures, and finding a viable solution to the Karabakh territorial dispute. Only a constructive dialogue and a principled negotiation would help the situation between the two countries (Azerbaijan and Armenia). 

5. Do you think that in the case of a major war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which side to support Afghanistan?

I do not think Afghanistan would want to or should take sides in Nargorno-Karabakh dispute. Afghanistan has good relations with Azerbaijan, but at same time, it has to pursue a policy of neutrality. Afghanistan cannot afford to take sides, given that the country is facing its own challenges with insecurity and a struggling economy. To note that Armenia has also assisted Afghanistan in the post-2001 reconstruction efforts, including providing some 100 peacekeepers as part of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) mission under the United Nations whose mandate ended in 2014.

This article was orginally published by Azeri Today on September 7, 2016

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Sep 07, 2016
Said Sabir Ibrahimi
South Asia, Afghanistan