Kazakhstan Eyes Prestige in Afghanistan’s Uncertain Future

From development aid to drug trafficking, the Central Asian country wants to up its game in Afghanistan. But it might be biting off more than it can chew.

US President Barack Obama holds a meeting with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev (L) at the US ambassador's residence in The Hague on March 25, 2014 on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Fueled by the fear of religious extremism and drug trafficking spreading due to the drawdown of NATO forces and enticed by potential trade with the Indian subcontinent, the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan aims to punch above its weight and engage more with its unstable neighbor to the south — Afghanistan.

The 13 year U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan has already transformed the political map in Central Asia, allowing the region’s small, isolated countries to leverage their position along NATO’s Northern Distribution Network to cement bilateral ties with the United States, the EU, Russia, and China. Now, with rising fears over Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation — and spillover across the northern border — Kazakhstan is hoping that by integrating itself into Afghanistan’s economy and security, it can raise its standing on the international stage and contain that country’s instability.

“Afghanistan could have been a completely different country than it is today and hopefully Kazakhstan can help change its story,” Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s minister of foreign affairs, told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview. Kazakhstan’s leadership is hoping that the return of a vital trade hub between Central and South Asia via Afghanistan can spark trade and investment in the typically dysfunctional region. One way that the former Soviet country is aiming to do this is through the U.S.- led New Silk Road — an initiative meant to integrate the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan with Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan by liberalizing trade and building infrastructure.

The New Silk Road has already had its fair share of hiccups since the 2011 rollout but the possibility of accessing South Asia’s 1.6 billion consumers is too much for Kazakhstan to pass up. “For us in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan provides a direct route to a huge market and as a landlocked country, it is our closest way to international shipping waters,” Idrissov explained. Kazakhstan has already allocated $2.38 million for social services projects in Afghanistan, sent more than $17 million worth of emergency food assistance, and launched a $50 million project to train Afghan students at Kazakh universities.

But the government’s biggest play is in spearheading a massive railway network to transport manufactured products and natural resources from Central Asia to South Asia. A major opportunity for Kazakhstan, which has the world’s 11th-largest oil reserves, 14th-largest natural gas reserves, and is the globe’s top Uranium producer. It is this massive resource wealth that has allowed Kazakhstan to emerge as Central Asia’s largest economy.

Yet, with Afghanistan’s security situation perilously in flux, massive infrastructure projects still seem far off. “We no longer want Afghanistan to be unproductive, but in order to do so, we must eliminate the threats that are blocking trade to the south,” said Idrissov. In particular, the regime in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana is concerned about how increased drug trafficking and religious extremism could derail the government’s plans to become an economic force in the region — causing it to lose out on both riches and prestige.

Afghanistan produces approximately 90 percent of the world’s opium and 2014 saw the highest level of poppy cultivation on record, according the the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries find themselves as transit hubs on the road north to Russia, the world’s largest individual market for Afghan opiates. According to the UNODC, approximately 20 percent of Afghan opium passes north through Central Asia before reaching Russia, leaving a trail of corruption in the process. Kazakhstan has fared better than its neighbors along Central Asia’s heroin highway in stemming the tide of corruption and has even moved to host the region’s UNODC-funded counternarcotics office, the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Office. But Kazakhstan’s border with Russia — the second-largest land border in the world — still sees plenty of drugs pass through it and cooperation between Central Asian countries remains low as corrupt officials engage in most of the region’s trafficking.

Tajikistan, which directly borders Afghanistan, offers a clear example of the scale of such corruption. Between 2004 and 2009, heroin seizures in the country fell dramatically — from 10,569 pounds to 2,496 pounds — at a time when drug trafficking in Central Asia majorly spiked. In Kyrgyzstan, another transit country in the opium trade, official complicity is endemic. According to a former senior official from Kyrgyzstan’s Drug Control Agency who spoke to FP, at least half of the agency’s staff was either involved in directly trafficking drugs or providing information to traffickers. The country’s police force is also considered a top drug trafficker. “Since 2010, the role of police in the drug trade has grown greater than many organized crime groups,” Kairat Osmonaliev, an organized crime expert in Kyrgyzstan, told FP. “With large scale official involvement, Central Asia’s drug trade isn’t going away anytime soon.”

The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and gains made by the Taliban have also turned heads in Kazakhstan and the region. In late November, a video released by the Islamic State, which has since been removed, showed Kazakh children attending school and participating in military training in Syria. “This is a major culture shock. We thought that Kazakhstan has become immune to these types of things,” Idrissov said.

Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee estimates that 300 Kazakh citizens have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Hundreds have also left their homes in neighboring Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov raised alarm bells and urged Russia to increase its regional presence to help combat the threat of militant Islam. “Various elements among the representatives of the Islamic State are already slipping into Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria. All this requires the adoption of appropriate preventative measures,” Karimov said last week in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital.

“Alarmist rhetoric coming from Central Asian capitals has always been designed to ensure cooperation with big players like the United States, Russia, and China,” Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow, told FP. “Hyping threats is a good way to increase visibility on the international scene and legitimize the government at home.”

With natural resource wealth at its back and a well-balanced diplomacy at its front, Kazakhstan believes its ready to take up a larger role in Afghanistan. But in looking for prestige, Astana’s eyes could be bigger than its stomach.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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