Why Afghanistan Has Pledged Support for Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh

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As the long-standing Nagorno Karabakh conflict has again erupted into war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Afghanistan has officially announced its support for Azerbaijan. Ravaged by an unending war itself for decades, Kabul’s response to the irredentist claims of another nation has proven unexpected and surprising for Afghan citizens.

The armed conflict re-ignited on 27 September when Azerbaijani and Armenian forces clashed after the cessation of armed hostilities in 1994 over control over Nagorno Karabakh. The region is officially part of Muslim Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians, supported by neighboring Christian Armenia.

A day after hostilities erupted, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an official press release affirmed that the contested region is “internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.” While calling for a ceasefire, the government lodged its support for Azerbaijan, demanding an end of “Armenian occupation.”

This announcement has revived Afghanistan’s historical engagement with Azerbaijan.

As a post-Soviet Islamic country ravaged by a civil war in the 1990s, Afghanistan, in an unprecedented move, sent hundreds of armed mercenaries to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan against Armenia in 1993. Between 1,000 and 1,500 Afghan forces from the Iran-supported Wahdat party — allied with then-prime minister Gulbadin Hikmatyar — were deployed to Azerbaijan for an unspecified amount of cash.

Although the Azerbaijani government refuted reports of this, evidence obtained by The Christian Monitor verified the presence of Afghan mercenaries in the war. This deployment added the prospect of further internationalization of the conflict and lent it a more religious dimension, pitting Muslims and Christians. Armenia objected to the presence of Afghan fighters in the war.

Armenia has once again lodged a protest against Afghanistan’s position in the conflict. In response to the recent statement by Afghanistan, the Armenian National Assembly formally asked for Afghanistan’s membership in the Collective Security Organization to be revoked.

Afghanistan-Azerbaijan Economic Relationship

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have had forces in Afghanistan; they each took part in NATO-led combat operations in the country. However, Azerbaijan has seemingly gained Afghanistan’s trust. A great deal of this trust is pragmatic, as Afghanistan attempts to diversify its trade routes by replacing Pakistani ports.

The amiability between these two Central Asian countries can best be explained through this economic lens. President Ashraf Ghani’s foreign policy is largely economic, with a focus on states in its near region. Afghanistan perceives Azerbaijan as a gatekeeper for access to Central Asian and European markets.

A 2017 ceremony of signing Azerbaijan-Afghanistan documents with participation of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
A 2017 ceremony of signing Azerbaijan-Afghanistan documents with participation of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Photo: president.az/cc4.0

Both countries can provide one another markets for their products. Oil-rich Azerbaijan uses Afghanistan land routes for access to other countries in Central Asia, while Afghanistan depends heavily on Azerbaijan’s transit position for access to Turkey and European markets. Trade between Afghanistan and Azerbaijan rose 37 percent throughout 2018 and 46 percent in the first quarter of 2019.

A crucial long-term initiative that has strengthened relations between the two countries is the Lapis-lazuli route, a trade corridor beginning in Afghanistan which winds through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, connecting to European trade routes.

Afghanistan’s recent declaration of support for Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia reflects its desire to strengthen ties with countries which will help it increase its trade with global markets. Afghanistan sees Azerbaijan as instrumental in this strategy, which is the primary reason it has declared its support for Azerbaijan over Armenia in their recent re-engagement in conflict over the Nagorno Karabakh region.

Headshot of Ahmadullah AzadaniAhmadullah Azadani is the president of the Political Science Club at the American University of Afghanistan.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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