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At the Heart of Asia

Interview - September 30, 2014

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, HE Dr. Abdulghafour Arezou, discusses the region’s history, culture and contemporary geopolitical dynamics.

You are a recognized expert on the region, its history and culture. What can you tell us about your career achievements prior to your appointment as Ambassador? 

I have written over 40 books, 30 of which have been published. These were written on subjects largely concerning humanitarian studies: philosophy, politics, history, literature and others. Some of my books are: “the National Identity of Afghanistan”, “Afghanistan and the World Community”, “Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy on the eve of 21st century”, “a Glance at Occidental Literature”.

Right now, I’m working on a book entitled, “The Doctrine of Foreign Policy and Strategic Policies.” I am also a poet, I have published four books of my poetry.

In addition to this I have also published several works in mysticism and religious studies. I have written several papers on the subject. When the former president of Iran, Mr. Khatami, presented his idea of the “Dialogue of Civilizations”, I wrote a different thesis, which was about balancing national interests with the civilizational interests, because we have a shared civilization.

In my article I asked Mr. Khatami “What civilizations are you talking about specifically?” There is certainly a civilization that can be entitled “Islamic”, but within that, there are several other civilizations. This includes that of the Egyptians, or the one we had here in this region. We can also speak of a regional civilization which at first was “Ariana” and then “Greater Khorasan”.

I have also my own thesis of combating the extremism which is “Mystical Insight is the best option to battle the extremist thoughts like of Al-Qaeda and Taliban”.
Also I have had multiple trips to several countries including France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Holland. I have been invited by Princeton University and Zurich University to speak on various subjects.

What are the historical origins of the shared linguistic and cultural heritage of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and how does this influences contemporary relations?

Historically, Afghanistan has had three names: Ariana, Khorasan and Afghanistan. Ariana encompassed what has today broken into 14 separate countries. Of these fourteen, ten of them are members of the Economic Cooperation Organization: Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan…––all of these countries have a shared cultural past.

In the era of Ariana we had two large civilizations: the civilization of the Kushans and the Greco-Bactrian. In opposition to the ideas of Samuel Huntington, who claims that world civilizations are clash, it is important to note that the civilizations of the East and the civilizations of the West first met and interconnected in historical Afghanistan. This manifested as the Greco-Bactrian civilization. The civilization of the Greeks, the Zoroastrians and the Buddhists all came together and interacted for the first time in what is now Afghanistan.

In the meanwhile, we had an artistic School, entitled “Greco-Bactrian” which was reached all the way to Japan, China and other countries. After the era of the Sasanians, the area defined as Ariana became gradually known as Iran. Not to forget that the present day Iran is part of the Historical Iran (Ariana). The first king of Iran was Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi; his capital was Ghazna, which is now a major city in Afghanistan. Last year, Ghazna was selected as the capital of the Islamic countries for this same reason.

In the Islamic era, the name of our civilizational geography was “Greater Khorasan”, which consisted of four federations: Herat, Balkh, Merv and Nishapur. Balkh and Herat are now presently part of the political geography of Afghanistan. Merv was occupied and invaded by the Russians in 1885, during which 15,000 Afghans are killed during that campaign. Nishapur is now a part of Iran.

The countries of Central Asia were apart of Greater Khorasan. The present day Tajikistan was a part of the federation of Balkh.

Rudaki, the father of the culture of Tajikistan, lived for four years in Herat and Badghis. Therefore, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have a very long shared history. Afghanistan is the center of the civilization of this region. All the languages of ECO member countries are spoken in Afghanistan, and this shows that Afghanistan was truly a focal point of civilization. No other country in the region has such a diverse ethnic make-up, and this is a very important point.

Now, if we want to speak particularly of the relationship between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, we can with confidence say that we share much the same language, culture, history and religion. Without doubt, this long term relationship has impacted the current state of affairs between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Afghanistan and Tajikistan share a border of more than 1300km, much of which is determined by the course of the Amu Darya River. Only 70km of the border is traversable by land, and most of it is mountainous terrain.

How would you describe the location of these two countries in terms of geopolitical significance?

Afghanistan is where the Middle East ends, and where the Far East begins. It’s a connecting point or a bridge between Central Asia and South Asia. This is the political geography of Afghanistan.

Occasionally in history, writers have described Afghanistan as part of the Middle East, or as part of Central or South Asia. But Afghanistan is not a part of any of these regions. For this reason, Afghanistan has been known by many names throughout history: “The Heart of Asia.”, “a key through which to unlock the continent of Asia.”

What does this mean for economic cooperation between your country and Tajikistan?

This touches on another important point, regionally speaking. This is that the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan is one of friendship. Tajikistan and Afghanistan have no problematic issues, and Afghanistan was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Tajikistan.

In the era of the former Soviet Union, we had a consulate in Tajikistan. Upon the independence of Tajikistan in 1992, the consulate of Afghanistan became an embassy.

Surplus energy that Tajikistan produces is largely transmitted through Afghanistan. I'd like to point out at this moment that the railway lines of all the countries of the region are interconnected in Afghanistan.

The Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) project, the gas-pipeline project of Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India through Afghanistan is also in our national interests. Therefore, in our foreign policy, economic cooperation is one of our utmost priorities. We are trying to create a united region by supporting economic growth in the entire region. This is the core of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. We of course know that to achieve these goals we have a long way to go, but we have few other options.

How important is the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in contributing to the goal of establishing stability and promoting economic growth in Afghanistan?

Allow me to briefly preface my answer to this question. You are probably aware that in the era of the presence of the East India Company, the Tsar was also present in this region. During that time, the British and Russians agreed on positioning Afghanistan as a buffer zone between their empires.

This paradigm was repeated time and time again throughout the modern history of Afghanistan: the former president of Afghanistan, Daoud Khan, once said that, “I am lighting a US cigarette with a Russian lighter.”

But this buffer policy isolated Afghanistan very much. One can look even further back in history, and see that Afghanistan was rarely given a chance to develop independently: Chengiz Khan, Alexander the Great and the British all passed through Afghanistan on their way to India and Baghdad. In the 19th century, we were forced to fight for our independence from the British. In the 20th century, we fought for 14 years with the USSR. Now, it’s been more than 10 years that we’ve been fighting international terrorism and drug cartels.

These are the cruel realities of the region. After the collapse of the USSR, Afghanistan was again forced to fight the Taliban. The people of Afghanistan fought for 6 years and 65 days against the Taliban. Fortunately, we had the support of the international community on our side. It was at that time, in post-9/11 era, that the international community really came together to support Afghanistan and its people.

Outside of the NATO region, Afghanistan is one the alliance’s most important partners. We’ve signed a strategic partnership agreement with the USA, and both candidates of the presidential elections have said that we are ready to sign “The Bilateral Security Agreement” with the USA.

You know that Afghanistan is an observer member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. We will have to wait until the new government of Afghanistan decides what its policy will be towards the SCO.

The American poet Robert Frost once said that, "Good fences make good neighbors.". Is this the case for Central Asia?

The countries of Central Asia have a number of conflicts concerning land, water and some ethnic problems as well. All of the countries in the region have ethnic names: I know that many countries of the world have similar names, such as Germany and France, but many of these other countries have passed through numerous historical and developmental periods.

In the countries of Central Asia, the problems of pre-modern countries are abundant. These characteristics prevent the countries from solving their problems. This is largely in part due to the arbitrary division of land in the Stalinist era. They inherited many of these problems from Stalin.

Therefore, we should see, step by step, how the Central Asian countries can interact with each other, and solve their issues. The developing relationship of the Central Asian countries with China is another important issue. The conflict concerning water rights between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is one of the most important problems. The question is whether the issue is headed towards a peaceful and productive resolution or not. We will have to wait to find out.

Something I'd like to ask you about is the TAPI pipeline, as well as other regional infrastructure / energy projects that involve the transit of materials through Afghanistan. How much do you believe these projects will be able to influence stability in the wider region when they are completed?

The interaction of shared national interests between neighboring countries is a great element, as it impels them to work together to bring security and stability to the region.

Fighting religious extremism, terrorism and the formation of drug cartels is of interest to every country in the region. For example, if Pakistan doesn’t achieve energy security within the next ten years, Pakistan will be on the verge of a very serious and grave crisis. For this reason, Pakistan is impelled to fight terrorism and drug cartels.

The enemies of Afghanistan––the extremists, the drug mafia––are mainly located in South Asia. Many of these criminals try to get to Central Asia via Afghanistan. There are two important conclusions we can make from this: 1. Stability and security will come to the region when and only when Pakistan will be fully committed to the fight against terrorism and extremism within its own borders. 2. The second point is that only the integration of national interests of the countries in the region can lay down the foundation for battling terrorism, extremism and drug cartels.

The Taliban and other extremists are like tools in the hands of international terrorism. Terrorism and drug cartels are two sides of one coin; the results of the activities of international terrorism and drug trafficking create a black market in the region. And as long as the black market exists in the region, we cannot speak of the development of human rights, nor democracy. These are important points.

For these reasons, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have a very sincere relationship and dedication to cooperation in these affairs. In fact, this is the foundation of foreign policy between the two countries.

What should the world know about the future hopes of the Afghan people?

The people of Afghanistan want one thing –– peace and stability. They want democracy. They want good relationships with neighboring countries, with the world.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan has been invaded time and time again throughout history. In this new era, however, the international community has shown solidarity with the Afghan people, and we have faith that they will not abandon us.

Families of 46 countries of the world have lost their loved ones in Afghanistan. They accompanied the Afghan people in the struggle against terrorism, and lost their lives in the process. We appreciate this solidarity and sacrifice.

However, I would also like to express my optimism for the future of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not a poor country in view of its natural resources. Based on careful studies, the amount of lithium in Afghanistan is equal to the value of all the oil in the Middle East. We have numerous minerals and natural resources ripe for exploitation. We have a wealth of oil and gas deposits. Once Afghanistan achieves stability and peace, it will once again be a highly active participant in the world market.

The last point is that if Afghanistan does not achieve stability, security and peace, there will not be peace in the region as a whole. The stability of Central Asia is highly dependent on the security of Afghanistan. This is our message to the world.