Report

Central Asia Braces for Fallout of U.S. Pullout From Afghanistan

Since the war began, America has had one lens for Central Asia. What happens now?

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon (center) visits Tajikistan’s troops in Khatlon Region near the border with Afghanistan on July 16. Nakib Murodzoda/Tajikistan Presidential Press Office/TASS

Leaving Afghanistan

In 1991, when the Soviet Union shattered, 15 countries emerged from the wreckage. Amid a slew of global crises that preoccupied Washington in 1990s, from Rwanda to the Balkans, the newly independent states of Central Asia never rose high up the list of U.S. foreign-policy concerns and continued to be largely viewed through the wider context of relations with Russia.

That all changed when the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001. Central Asia became an important pillar in the military and logistical networks set up to support the war and to U.S. efforts to cauterize transnational terrorist networks. 

“If we were looking at Central Asia through a Russia prism in the 1990s, it very much becomes an Afghanistan prism in the 2000s,” said Brianne Todd, assistant professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union shattered, 15 countries emerged from the wreckage. Amid a slew of global crises that preoccupied Washington in 1990s, from Rwanda to the Balkans, the newly independent states of Central Asia never rose high up the list of U.S. foreign-policy concerns and continued to be largely viewed through the wider context of relations with Russia.

That all changed when the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001. Central Asia became an important pillar in the military and logistical networks set up to support the war and to U.S. efforts to cauterize transnational terrorist networks. 

“If we were looking at Central Asia through a Russia prism in the 1990s, it very much becomes an Afghanistan prism in the 2000s,” said Brianne Todd, assistant professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

Now, as the United States winds down operations in Afghanistan after almost 20 years of war, Central Asia is positioned to play a key role in the Biden administration’s efforts to contain the fallout of the withdrawal, as the Taliban have beat a hasty path through northern Afghanistan, making unprecedented territorial gains and seizing some two-thirds of the country’s porous and lengthy border with Tajikistan to the north. 

The Biden administration is waging a diplomatic charm offensive in Central Asia and is reportedly in talks with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan about temporarily taking in Afghan refugees who worked with the U.S. government and may now face reprisals as the Taliban rampage. Crucially, the administration is also seeking to reestablish 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 put great-power competition, human rights, and democracy at the top of his foreign-policy agenda—objectives with plenty of mileage in the region—it’s unclear what prism will shape U.S. policy there as the war in Afghanistan begins to slide 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 assistant to the president for homeland security, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, alongside Zalmay Khalilzad, the point person for U.S.-Afghan relations, will lead a U.S. delegation to Uzbekistan for a conference on regional connectivity. 

The delegation is set 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,” said National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne in a statement. On Friday, the State Department announced the creation of a new diplomatic forum including Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States to support peace efforts and regional connectivity.

Central Asia is wary, because the Taliban have become a slightly different beast. The Taliban have historically drawn recruits from Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtuns in the country’s south and east. But in recent years, the militant group has stepped up efforts to draw in members of Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups including Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks in the country’s north, which may have helped pave the way for their startling territorial gains in the region in recent months. This has stoked fears of a spread of radical Islamist ideology.

“The Taliban had been developing these shadow governments in a whole bunch of areas, so they just went in and said, ‘We’re taking this area,’” said Suzanne Levi-Sanchez, an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. “The Central Asian states are concerned about a Taliban spillover to some extent, but they’re also scared of their citizens spilling over into Afghanistan, so it’s a two-way street.”

Before being toppled by the U.S. intervention in 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan under a strict interpretation of Islamic law, and advances by the group will be viewed with extreme caution by governments to the north that have long been hostile to militant Islam. At the same time, Central Asian countries are also aware of the need to work with the Taliban and are seeking assurance that the group will not set its sights beyond Afghanistan. 

“There is this understanding that the Taliban is winning and is there to stay,” said Nargis Kassenova, director of the Program on Central Asia at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Taliban delegations have already made two trips to Turkmenistan this year, and in a visit in February, Turkmen officials reportedly secured 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 this example [for local Islamist groups],” Kassenova said. 

Security cooperation has long been the primary focus of the United States in its engagements in the region, and in many ways this will remain the primary objective. “Those goals really haven’t changed,” said Brig. Gen. Duke Pirak, outgoing deputy director for strategy, plans, and policy at U.S. Central Command. “Those efforts were really focused on territorial integrity, border security, sovereignty, those types of issues. And those are all things that are really important for stability in any environment but are obviously ever more important following the Afghan retrograde.”

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 relationship with Russia and China was radically different. “At the time you had a rather quiescent China and a somewhat supportive Russia,” said George Krol, a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was eager to partner with the United States on counterterrorism efforts and did not stand in the way as the United States sought to establish bases in Central Asia, a region the Kremlin then and now considers to be its backyard. 

Washington now faces a dramatically different geopolitical landscape in the region, and experts are skeptical that the United States will be able to establish a base in the region to counter whatever the fallout is of the end of the Afghan War.

“I cannot see any of these countries doing so, because they know the pressure they would come under from Russia and China,” Krol said. The U.S. role in the region is more likely to be confined to continued security cooperation, arms sales, and humanitarian assistance. Russia has not minced words about its attitude toward a permanent U.S. military presence in the region. In an interview with a Russian journal earlier this week, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia has strongly warned the United States and Central Asian nations against establishing any permanent U.S. military presence in the region.

Tajikistan is home to Russia’s largest foreign military base, close to the Afghan border, and Moscow has been building up its military capabilities in the region in recent years. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov vowed that Russia would “do everything to prevent any aggressive moves against our allies” in the region, and Tajikistan has asked for support from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc to respond to any security challenges emanating from Afghanistan. 

Russia has a very real interest in ensuring that the Taliban and other extremist groups don’t spill over into the region. With the exception of Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most closed countries, Russia has a visa-free travel regime with the Central Asian states. “They don’t want to see things coming up out of Afghanistan that would cross into Central Asia, which is basically the soft underbelly of the Russian Federation,” said Krol, the former ambassador.  

Further complicating the situation, China has also quietly established a military outpost in eastern Tajikistan, close to the confluence of the Afghan and Chinese borders, as Beijing seeks to prevent instability seeping into its Xinjiang region, where over a million Uighur Muslims have been detained on the pretense of a counterterrorism campaign. The United States has characterized the crackdown as a genocide. 

By dint of geography, Central Asia has for centuries been the locus of great-power competition. While prospects for a new U.S. base are slim, increased involvement in the region by Washington would likely be welcomed, as countries there have been careful to balance between Russia and China. 

“There’s a reason why they want another party here, but they don’t have high hopes that we have long staying power,” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow on the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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