US military presence in Central Asia unlikely amid Taliban rise

The US had boots on the ground in Central Asia when it entered Afghanistan in 2001, but regional dynamics have shifted.

A fence at the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border in Ayritom [File: Abror Kurbonmuratov/Reuters]

The United States is unlikely to gain a military foothold in the Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan, as those governments and neighbouring powers Russia and China prepare for the reality of Taliban rule, according to analysts.

The US had established temporary bases in Uzbekistan, which closed in 2005, and Kyrgyzstan, which closed in 2014, when foreign troops initially invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled 5 years of Taliban rule, aided in part by the buy-in from Russia and China in support of the US and NATO mission.

Twenty years later, both Russia and China have diverged from US strategy towards Afghanistan, forging ahead with an approach that does not include having a US presence in their back yard, Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a Central Asia expert at the University of Pittsburg, told Al Jazeera.

“You could say Russia allowed the US to host military bases in Central Asia,” Murtazashvili said. “As the war went on, Russia and China got frustrated that this effort to fight terrorism was not necessarily working.”

As the region prepared for the US withdrawal, Moscow has continued to boost its significant military and economic influence over the former Soviet countries – notably, landlocked Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which along with Turkmenistan, directly border Afghanistan.

Most recently, on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told an online meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, that it was vital to avoid spillover of “radical Islam” from Afghanistan. The grouping agreed to coordinate joint action on Afghanistan.

Beijing, meanwhile, has fostered financial influence over Central Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative and hefty lending, which has left countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan deeply indebted. China has long feared instability from Afghanistan and Central Asia would spill into its restive northwestern region.

The influence from both Russia and Beijing was on full display as the Taliban swept Afghanistan in early August, with Russia hosting large-scale military exercises along the border of Afghanistan with the Uzbek and Tajik militaries and China holding joint “anti-terrorism” exercise with Tajikistan, where observers say Beijing maintains a military base.

‘Regional’ strategy

For its part, the US, fearing the rise of groups like al-Qaeda, because of which it invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has been reworking its counterterrorism operations for its complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31.

Defence officials have warned that while it maintains so-called “over-the-horizon” capabilities, they come with limitations. Following the Taliban’s lightning-fast offensive, the US has not announced any new security agreements with Afghanistan’s neighbours.

“The current options are from the [Persian] Gulf states, and those are very long flights to Afghanistan, so it’s not a particularly quick way to carry out counterterrorism strikes,” William Courtney, the former US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, told Al Jazeera.

“It can be done, but it can be done more effectively from Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan,” added Courtney, currently an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation global think-tank.

Messaging from Russia and China, meanwhile, has increasingly stressed a desire to deal with security issues stemming from Afghanistan “regionally”, predominantly through the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a grouping founded in 2001 by the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Niva Yau, a Bishkek-based fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told Al Jazeera.

“What that means is that [their approach] does not include the involvement of the US or other foreign intervention,” she said.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had rebuffed the prospect of a US military presence along the northern border of Afghanistan during a summit in Geneva with US President Joe Biden in June.

“We do not see how any form of US military presence in Central Asia might enhance the security of the countries involved and/or of their neighbors. It would definitely NOT be in the interests of Russia,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabko told the newspaper.

“This position has not changed against the backdrop of what is transpiring in Afghanistan these days.”

‘Shift in tone’

And while a US presence may be appealing to some Central Asian governments – even beyond the obstacles posed by Moscow and Beijing – they must balance that desire with the new reality in the region.

While many Central Asian governments have for decades pursued policies that sought to secularise their governments amid fears of radicalisation, spawned, in part, by the presence of the Taliban, recent years have seen signs of softening towards the group, according to Yau.

“For many years, Central Asian leaders were very anti-Taliban because they were afraid of radical Islam,” she said.

“We can make a generalisation that there has been a shift in tone in Central Asia towards the Taliban – minus, Tajikistan.”

Turkmenistan, long the most amenable to the Taliban of the Central Asian states, has sought to strengthen ties with the group in preparation for the US withdrawal.

More surprising has been Uzbekistan’s moves to bolster relations with the Taliban, hosting delegations from the group and offering to host peace talks in recent years.

“They have really engaged with the Taliban and, I think we can say, quite wisely hedged their bets that regardless of who is in power in Kabul, they’ll have good relationships with those people,” University of Pittsburgh’s Murtazashvili said.

Tajikistan, meanwhile, has remained a staunch opponent of the Taliban, continuing to support the Northern Alliance – a beleaguered array of anti-Taliban groups instrumental in toppling the group in 2001. Tajiks make up the second-largest minority in Afghanistan.

The shift comes as Moscow and Beijing have expressed more openness to cooperating with a Taliban government than their Western counterparts, as they appear to pursue what Murtazashvili described as a “stability at all costs” strategy.

“Russia thinks that maybe the Taliban can provide this, and then the Taliban can continue [to] go after these groups like ISIS,” she said. “That’s what Russia’s really concerned about.”

At the same time, the Taliban has sought, to a certain extent, to “play nice” with many of its northern neighbours, former US ambassador Courtney said, making Central Asian governments more averse to inflaming the relations.

“Unless the Taliban develop antagonistic relations with countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,” he said, “those governments will be less than likely to host any US capacity to conduct counterterrorism.”

Source: Al Jazeera