Central Asia on the Front Lines

By James Durso

The U.S. retreat from Afghanistan puts Central Asia on the front lines against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Central Asian republics – old cultures but young countries – are still competing the process of state formation started thirty years ago with the fall of the Soviet Union, so this is a challenging time to be on the doorstep of a threatening Afghanistan.

Central Asia aided the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during the war in Afghanistan by providing access to airfields (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan), allowing aircraft overflights,  and facilitating the resupply of NATO via the Northern Distribution Network (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan).

Among the states on Afghanistan’s border, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan previously met Taliban delegations, recognizing the movement would be a force regardless of the final outcome in Afghanistan. This was in line with Turkmenistan’s principle of “positive neutrality” and, despite its aversion to Islamists, the government hosted a Taliban delegation in July. Uzbekistan hosted a Taliban delegation in 2018 and encouraged peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government, continuing the country’s pragmatic approach to Afghanistan. (The former president, Islam Karimov, said “Tashkent is ready to recognize any government in Afghanistan, even if it is the Taliban government. It doesn’t matter whether we like that government or not.”) Tajikistan will likely continue its policy of opposition to the Taliban and has said it will not recognize a Taliban government that does not include all the country’s ethnic groups.

These differences may make it hard to forge a common regional approach to Afghanistan that must also include Kazakhstan, the largest economy and Uzbekistan’s rival for regional leadership, and Kyrgyzstan. Complicating that process is that Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led security alliance.

The rapid collapse of the U.S. client government in Kabul caught the local capitals – and Washington – by surprise. They had earlier told the U.S. they would not welcome thousands of Afghan refugees, likely because they remember it took Washington up to eight years to find new homes for Uighur detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp after they were declared “No longer enemy combatants.” Regardless, refugees have fled to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan which are accepting them only if they promptly continue onwards to places of permanent resettlement.

The Central Asian capitals want a prompt resolution of the refugee situation and the recognition of a government in Kabul so they can focus on the regional connectivity projects they need to grow and diversify their economies.

They will look over their shoulder at Moscow and Beijing, but their policy priority will be the economy, which may give less weight to what Washington and Brussels want, especially as Washington vacated the area so fast it left several planeloads of its citizens stranded in Afghanistan. Though the long-term consideration is economic, in the near term the Central Asians will have to shape the security environment as a prelude to future economic growth.

Washington ‘s distance from the region, which previously allowed the U.S. to be the regional balancer as it had no local territorial aspirations, will now work against it as it has nothing at risk – unlike neighboring Russia, as Moscow will remind local capitals.

The readiness of the U.S. to walk away from an investment of $2.3 trillion and over 2,300 deaths – unimaginable sums – will cause a loss of confidence in U.S. assurances of fidelity as its local investment relatively negligible.

Instead, Russia’s menacing embrace of the locals will be rebranded to “standing shoulder to shoulder against instability and extremism” (don’t call it a “buffer zone!”), and an opportunity to draw all five countries into the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Afghan Refugees are the First Order of Business

The Central Asian states don’t want them and made that clear to Washington; they’re America’s problem. The best Washington can hope for is they will allow the refugees to rapidly transit their territory enroute Europe or the U.S. (Though Kazakhstan is considering welcoming ethnic Kazahs from Afghanistan to the country.)

Their concerns are rooted in a need to establish cordial relations with the Taliban in order to pursue regional economic projects; keep terrorist sleepers out of the refugee flow through their territory; ensure refugees don’t cause local instability which will cause more illegal immigration to Russia and possibly endanger their visa-free regime with Moscow; and ensure they don’t host members or resupply links of an Afghan resistance which will draw Taliban cross-border reprisals.

If the Taliban consolidates power it will seek to sideline its foe, ISIS-K (Islamic State in Khorasan Province), which will see an uptick in local violence, or an ISIS-K retreat into Central Asia or Pakistan. In response, ISIS-K may summon its Central Asian members who fought in Syria and Iraq and want to being the fight home. And groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has carried out attacks in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, will feel emboldened to operate freely.

The local security response included refusing the U.S. basing rights for its “over the horizon” strikes and reconnaissance,  reinforcing the borders with Afghanistan, and military maneuvers with Russian units – though U.S. projects to upgrade border security will be welcome. In June, Russia rejected U.S. troops in the region, but offered to host U.S. units at its bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Russia bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not the only remaining foreign bases in the region. Tajikistan obviously believes in being a friend to all as it hosts military bases of Russia, China, and India. Iran and Tajikistan have discussed joint measures against “against terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking and organized crime,” and they recently announced a military cooperation agreement. Tajikistan is also a member of the Moscow-lead CSTO.

The five Central Asian leaders made remarks on 1 September, Knowledge Day, the start of the school year. Regarding Afghanistan, they spoke of the need for “peace and stability” and secure borders.

A week later, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Wang emphasized the need for cooperation regarding the pandemic, borders, refugees, humanitarian aid, anti-terrorism, and counternarcotics operations. Wang also welcomed the Taliban’s “positive statements” but stressed the Taliban must turn their words into deeds.

Central Asian countries may hang back, let China take the lead creating a regional approach to Kabul, perhaps through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and spend their energies shoring up their borders, and dealing with the economy, the pandemic, and refugees. After all, China will likely want to exploit the Afghan rare earth deposits, bring the country into the Belt & Road Initiative, use Afghanistan as an unobstructed surface path to Iran, and maybe realize that dream of an oil pipeline from Iran to China as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, so Beijing can do most of the heavy lifting for now.

India and Russia have decided to work together to erect a firewall to protect Central Asia from the “spill-over of Islamic radicalization and jihad from Taliban-ruled Kabul.” This bilateral initiative may dilute a role for the SCO, but could be an opportunity for the “Big 3” in the region if Moscow and Delhi invite in Beijing, which may weaken China’s support for the goals in Afghanistan of Pakistan, its “all weather friend.”

India will welcome the opportunity to reaffirm its longtime relationship with Russia at a time when relations with Washington are rocky over the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, and to solidify relations with Central Asia by offering opportunities for investments, and technical cooperation and education, something Pakistan cannot match.

On the Economic Front

After an expression of interest from the Taliban, Turkmenistan will want to complete the  Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) power line; to connect Afghanistan to Turkmenistan by railway; and to finish the moribund Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline to access South Asian markets, which may be possible with Pakistan’s support. Completing TAPI in the uncertain political and security environment of Afghanistan at the same time it looks to privatize state-owned Turkmengaz will test the dexterity of the Turkmen leadership (and the patience of their partners in TAPI).

Uzbekistan, which recently hosted a conference on connecting Central Asia and South Asia, has prioritized transport through Pakistan to the ports of Gwadar and Karachi over routes through Iran, but that direct route relies on stability in Afghanistan. Despite the recent, public bonhomie between the leaders of Pakistan and Uzbekistan, Tashkent must be wary of Islamabad’s impulses to  weaponize transport links from Central Asia against India to bolster its policy of “strategic depth” which will surely disrupt a mooted Indian-Uzbek bilateral investment treaty.

All the same, Tashkent should ensure Plan B – a land corridor south to Iran’s ports of Chabahar (on the Gulf of Oman) and Bandar Abbas (on the Persian Gulf), and access to Iran’s large market which relies on food imports.

Tajikistan has been less conciliatory toward the Taliban and its licit trade is a negligible $70 million per year, though one-third of the Tajik economy comes from narcotics trafficking. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon may be positioning himself as the protector if Afghanistan’s Tajiks – one-third of the population – and by calling for an inclusive Afghan government. If the Taliban again crack down on poppy production, they can strike an economic blow against the Rahmon government, but the Taliban decision to stop or allow poppy production may rest on its ability to access foreign aid funds or Afghanistan’s money in foreign banks.

There have been some flickers of a resumption of trade between Afghanistan and the neighbors: two trainloads of cargo from Uzbekistan arrived in Afghanistan,  Iran resumed shipments of petrol and gas oil at the Taliban’s request, and the Kabul airport is back in operation. But it’s still early days and the Taliban will have to prove to be a reliable trade partner that respects international business practices if it wants to earn its way out of economic stagnation.

The U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan will see several other changes in its wake.

The region will see expanded roles for security and political groups led by Moscow (CSTO and EEU) and Beijing (SCO and maybe the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). Afghanistan and its neighbors are SCO members, but there is no representation by the U.S. or any Western European ally, which will suit Beijing just fine as it can emphasize “local solutions to local problems” instead of schemes by far-away “meddlers” looking “to stir up trouble.”

In Central Asia, the region’s population views Russia and China more positively than America so leaders may have leeway for closer relations with Moscow and Beijing so long as they appear to be maintaining sovereignty and independence, and growing the economy.

Local views of the U.S. will change. Everyone will be perfectly polite with U.S. envoys even as they think You did this, but local leaders will adopt a wait-and-see approach to Washington.

If the U.S. wants to motivate action it may have to make a cash money vote – up-front and in full, do a free trade deal, or make a public declaration in support of a local political claim – basically something that can’t be walked back on a whim.

The locals have seen that, despite spending $2 trillion dollars, that troops may be withdrawn, logistics support can be denied, and political will can evaporate literally overnight once the U.S. leaders are gripped by an arbitrary deadline.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.