Next week, Pakistani leadership, including the Prime Minister, will be in Tashkent for the ‘Silk Route Connect’ conference. This first-of-its-kind conference is an initiative by Uzbekistan that hopes to bring together leadership of Central and South Asian countries to talk trade, investment and regional connectivity. In the run-up to the conference, a Joint Ministerial Commission of Uzbek and Pakistani leadership is expected to convene to discuss bilateral trade and cooperation. After this, Mr. Imran Khan and the Uzbek president, Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, will together inaugurate the ‘Connect’ conference. In themselves, the Joint Commission meeting and the joint inauguration symbolize both the deepening bilateral relationships between Pakistan and Central Asia Republics (CARs), including Uzbekistan, as well as rising influence, importance and prestige of the former amongst the latter. The anticipated events of next week build on a series of diplomatic initiatives that have unfolded recently. In September, 2020, for instance, the Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister for Investment and Foreign Trade, Mr. Sardor Umurzakov, visited Pakistan and met with Special Assistant, Mr. Razak Dawood. In turn, Mr. Dawood reciprocated by visiting Tashkent with an inter-governmental delegation in February, 2021. Next month, the Uzbek Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdulaziz Kamilov arrived in Islamabad and met his Pakistani counterpart, the Prime Minister and the chiefs of Pakistan Army and the ISI at GHQ. The same month, senior officials of the Uzbek Ministry of Transport visited Pakistani seaports at Karachi and Gwadar. This flurry of diplomatic activity was capped, ultimately, with an online summit meeting between leaders of the two countries. While I use it as a point of departure, the Pakistan-Uzbekistan bonhomie does not stand alone. In recent months, diplomatic activity between Pakistan and other CARs, especially Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, has also intensified. A state visit to Pakistan by the Tajik leader, Mr. Emomali Rahmon, earlier in June is, perhaps, the crowning highlight of the same. All of this diplomacy has centered on trade, investment and regional connectivity. The core theme running through all of this has been Pakistan affording the landlocked Central Asia access to the world through its ports. Yet, there are a few important subtexts to the diplomatic blitz that cannot be missed. First, the intense diplomatic activity comes against a backdrop of US pullout from Afghanistan. In this context, it is important to note that hardly any of the proposed projects that seek to link Central and South Asia through trade and investment are new. Almost all of them have their roots in the 1990s and 2000s – or, in the period that began soon after the collapse of the USSR when the CARs gained their independence. At least a few of these projects predate the collapse of the USSR. That is to say, they were around even when the USSR was at the peak of its power. Back then, the same CARs, even as they were Soviet Socialist Republics within the confederation-like USSR, were still interested in affording themselves access to “warm waters” through Pakistan. In any case, the reason why these projects never won themselves mantles of realization was the conflict in Afghanistan, which is the only direct route the CARs have to Pakistan. Therefore, now with the US occupation of Afghanistan coming to an end, efforts are once more afoot to build regional connectivity and spur regional (and global) trade. As a corollary to the above, a second subtext to these developments is the essential prospect of continuing internecine conflict in Afghanistan following US withdrawal. It is interesting that the CARs are moving aggressively on the trade and investment front despite near total global consensus that a “civil war” will soon follow. Here, if Afghanistan plunges into a civil conflict, it goes without saying that aspirations of regional trade would be shot through the back just as happened in the 1990s, when a similar Afghan civil war had erupted after withdrawal of the USSR. Some clues to the rationale behind sustained interest in regional trade may be found in some recent developments in Afghanistan involving the Taliban. In this, one cannot help but note that the Taliban have seized key border crossings between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The battle is reportedly on for the border crossing with Uzbekistan. It would appear, therefore, that the Taliban have seemingly taken on the job of a guarantor, if you will, of transit trade through Afghanistan. Some reports in the media indicate that the Taliban may already have committed to China that its commercial interests in the country would be safeguarded. At the same time, so far, no clear indications have surfaced that point toward any number of CARs getting involved in the Afghan imbroglio. That is to say, it does not appear that CARs have begun backing rival ethnic militias as they did during the 1990s Afghan civil war. What that may suggest is that the CAR governments have accepted the Taliban as the leading protagonist of the post-US Afghan story. This, taken together with the fact that CAR trade parleys are focused on Pakistan – a country with considerable influence over the Taliban and a recently re-defined foreign policy outlook (“from geopolitics to geoeconomics”) – seems to lend credence to the above-suggested proposition. At this point, one may ask whether the CARs no longer fear potential Islamist insurgency to grow in Afghanistan and spread to them from there – as they indeed did during the 1990s. It is unlikely that the CARs hold no such apprehension at the moment. Yet, the two decades-long American tryst with Afghanistan may hold the answer – in two distinct ways. Firstly, American and coalition counter-insurgency activities inside Afghanistan may have decimated most, if not all, of the Islamist militant organizations that the CARs previously viewed as dangerous. A case in point is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an Al Qaeda-affiliated subnational militant group in the region. The IMU was bloodied by the US in the early years of the Afghan War, possibly in return for CARs’ support for the US war effort. It, then, fled to Pakistan, where the Pakistan Army crushed it as part of its own counter-terrorism operations. Secondly, the US, in its February 2020 Doha Deal with the Taliban, traded its Afghan departure for Taliban guarantees to counter such subnational groups that would seek to target the US and its allies (e.g. ISIS). Here, this act can be seen as one that afforded the Taliban considerable legitimacy. In turn, it is quite possible that the CARs are mirroring the US in projecting a Sheriff-like role onto the Taliban. In any case, groups like the IMU, or whatever is left of them, are presently affiliated with ISIS, and are likely to run into trouble with rival Taliban. In such a scenario, it makes sense for the CARs to be courting the Taliban. It wins them transit trade security as well as a powerful regional police force, so to say, to do their policing for them. Be that as it may, regional connectivity and trade are words of the day. Central Asia is looking toward Pakistan to help it open a new chapter in its economic life. The US withdrawal and rise of a more regionally accepted Taliban in Afghanistan has created a destiny-altering opportunity. The present moment in history has afforded Pakistan influence, importance and a level of prestige in Central Asia. Though, for as all moments in time may be fleeting, so will this one be. Therefore, it is upon Pakistan now to leverage its CPEC-mediated infrastructural development and sustained engagement with regional multilateral frameworks, such as Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and Khyber Pass Economic Corridor (KPEC), among others, to meet this moment in history with the dynamism, seriousness and commitment that it deserves. Here, finally, it would be doubly helpful if Pakistan can do so through a dedicated and, carefully evolved, realist, pragmatic, comprehensive, region-wide, region-specific, geo-economic foreign policy that is informed by history, but is not immovably moored in it.