In 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up, 15 countries emerged from the wreckage. Amid a series of global crises that preoccupied Washington in the 1990s, from Rwanda to the Balkans, the newly independent states of Central Asia have never been at the top of the list of U.S. foreign policy concerns and continued to be widely viewed in the broader context of relations with the United States. Russia.
That all changed when the United States entered the war in Afghanistan in 2001. Central Asia became an important pillar of the military and logistical networks put in place to support the war and of American efforts to cauterize transnational terrorist networks.
“If we looked at Central Asia through a Russian prism in the 1990s, it really becomes an Afghan prism in the 2000s,” said Brianne Todd, assistant professor at the Center for Middle East and Eastern Strategic Studies. ‘South Asia at the University of National Defense.
Now, as the United States ends operations in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, Central Asia is well positioned to play a key role in the Biden administration’s efforts to contain the fallout from the withdrawal, as the Taliban rushed northward to Afghanistan, achieving unprecedented territorial gains and seizing two-thirds of the country’s long and porous border with Tajikistan to the north.
The Biden administration is leading a diplomatic charm offensive in Central Asia and would have in talks with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on the temporary reception of Afghan refugees who have worked with the US government and who could now face reprisals such as the rampaging of the Taliban. Importantly, the administration is also seeking to re-establish a military footprint in the region to support the Afghan government’s efforts to keep the militant group at bay.
While President Joe Biden has placed great power competition, human rights and democracy at the top of his foreign policy agenda – goals with a lot of mileage in the region – it’s unclear what prism will shape the US policy there as the war in Afghanistan begins. slip into Washington’s rearview mirror.
The foreign ministers of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were in Washington this month for a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. On Wednesday, the White House announced that the President’s Assistant for Homeland Security Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, alongside Zalmay Khalilzad, the US-Afghan relations contact person, will lead a US delegation to Uzbekistan for a conference on regional connectivity.
The delegation is due to meet with regional leaders to “discuss how to promote peace, security and development in Afghanistan, and advance shared regional security interests, including counterterrorism cooperation,” the spokesperson said. of the National Security Council, Emily Horne, in a statement. declaration. On Friday, the State Department announced the creation of a new diplomatic forum comprising Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States to support peace efforts and regional connectivity.
Central Asia is wary, as the Taliban have become a slightly different beast. The Taliban have historically recruited from the Pashtuns of Afghanistan in the south and east of the country. But in recent years, the militant group has intensified efforts to attract members of Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Turkmens and Uzbeks to the north of the country, which may have helped pave the way for their surprising territorial gains in the latter region. month. This has fueled fears of a spread of radical Islamist ideology.
“The Taliban had developed these shadow governments in a whole bunch of areas, so they just walked in and said, ‘We’re taking this area,'” said Suzanne Levi-Sanchez, assistant professor in national security affairs at the US Naval War College. “The Central Asian states are to some extent worried about a Taliban overflowing, but they are also afraid that their citizens are overflowing in Afghanistan, so this is a two-way street. “
Before being overthrown by US intervention in 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan under a strict interpretation of Islamic law, and the group’s advances will be viewed with extreme caution by governments in the north that have long been hostile to it. militant Islam. At the same time, Central Asian countries are also aware of the need to work with the Taliban and seek assurances that the group will not aim beyond Afghanistan.
“There is this understanding that the Taliban are winning and are here to stay,” said Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asia program at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. . Taliban delegations have already made two trips to Turkmenistan this year, and during a visit in February Turkmen officials reportedly obtained assurances from the militant group that it would not target the country’s infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. Central Asian states “can work with the Taliban, but it would be better if they didn’t become that example [for local Islamist groups]”said Kassenova.
Security cooperation has long been the primary focus of the United States in its engagements in the region, and in many ways it will remain the primary focus. “Those goals really haven’t changed,” said Brig. General Duke Pirak, outgoing deputy director for strategy, plans and policy at US Central Command. “These efforts were really focused on territorial integrity, border security, sovereignty, those kinds of issues. And these are all things that are really important for stability in any environment, but obviously more and more important after the Afghan demotion. “
In late 2001, the United States established air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support the war in Afghanistan, but at the time, Washington’s relations with Russia and China were drastically different. “At the time, you had a rather quiet China and a somewhat favorable Russia,” said George Krol, former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was eager to join the United States in the fight against terrorism and did not object to the United States seeking to establish bases in Central Asia, a region that the Kremlin and now sees as its backyard.
Washington now faces a radically different geopolitical landscape in the region, and experts are skeptical of the ability of the United States to establish a base in the region to counter the fallout from the end of the war in Afghanistan.
“I don’t see any of these countries doing it because they know the pressure they would be under from Russia and China,” Krol said. The United States’ role in the region is more likely to be limited to continued security cooperation, arms sales, and humanitarian aid. Russia has not mince words about its attitude towards a permanent US military presence in the region. In an interview with a Russian newspaper earlier this week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia had strongly warned the United States and Central Asian countries against establishing any permanent US military presence in the region.
Tajikistan is home to Russia’s largest foreign military base, near the Afghan border, and Moscow was to build its military capabilities in the region in recent years. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged that Russia would “do everything to prevent any aggressive action against our allies” in the region, and Tajikistan asked for support from the Treaty Organization’s military bloc. collective security led by Russia to answer any security questions. challenges emanating from Afghanistan.
Russia has a very real interest in ensuring that the Taliban and other extremist groups do not spill over into the region. With the exception of Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries in the world, Russia has a visa-free travel regime with states in Central Asia. “They don’t want to see things come out of Afghanistan that cross Central Asia, which is essentially the soft underbelly of the Russian Federation,” said Krol, the former ambassador.
To further complicate matters, China has also quietly established a military outpost in eastern Tajikistan, near the confluence of the Afghan and Chinese borders, as Beijing seeks to prevent instability from seeping into its northern region. Xinjiang, where more than a million Uyghur Muslims have been detained under the pretext of an anti-terrorism campaign. The United States has called the crackdown genocide.
By dint of geography, Central Asia was for centuries the place of competition between the great powers. While the prospects for a new US base are slim, more Washington’s involvement in the region would likely be welcome, as countries there have been careful to balance Russia and China.
“There’s a reason they want another party here, but they don’t have much hope that we will have a long lifespan,” said Paul Stronski, senior researcher for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International. Peace.