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NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan: What it means for the Central Asian neighbourhood

NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave its Central Asian neighbours with a number of challenges. Central Asian states are likely to address these issues with the help of Russia and China, who are eager to advance their status and role in the region.

June 22, 2021 - Yegor Vasylyev - All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?Analysis

US Marines patrol Kajaki in Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom Photo: GoodAndy45 / Shutterstock

NATO in Afghanistan: Leaving to Stay?

On May 1st the 7000-strong NATO mission in Afghanistan formally started to leave the country. According to Germany’s defence minister, the country’s 1,300 troops will leave Afghanistan by July. The 3500-strong US contingent is now expected to be out by the middle of the same month, far ahead of the deadline specified earlier.

Leaving Afghanistan poses a challenge for NATO’s position and influence in the region and worldwide. Many questions are now being asked about the operation’s end, most notably what next? Where will the current uncertainty lead? How will the situation affect Afghanistan’s neighbours?

NATO insists that it will remain committed to Afghanistan and there is no doubt about that. However, Russian experts are also convinced that the US will maintain its presence in other ways. Alexander Knyazev, an expert on Central Asia and the Middle East, predicts that in reality the US will simply begin to focus on helping the 25,000 predominantly Pashtun (Tajik experts believe NATO favours Pashtuns in Afghanistan) personnel that work for private military companies.

Political confrontation remains in the country and the military conflict is likely to resume. It would be a gross exaggeration to state that all 450,000 Afghan state military and security personnel are unprepared and will not fight a resurgent Taliban. As a result, any confrontation will be fierce. Despite this, the country does not have a leader who is recognised by at least 20 per cent of the population. It seems that it might well be wishful thinking to believe that Afghanistan will become the unofficial heart of Asia through regional connectivity.

Some 150 years ago, the five Central Asian post-Soviet states and Afghanistan were all part of one cultural sphere. The countries remain intertwined in a historical, cultural, religious and ethnic sense. All three neighbouring Central Asian states – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – were active in promoting dialogue on Afghanistan though they lacked the geopolitical influence to make any real inroads. Recently, Ashgabat and Tashkent have been involved in negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul.

Nevertheless, the US, Russia and China are all wary of potential destabilisation in Central Asia. Seemingly never ending prophecies about the countries’ collapse under the pressures of radical Islam and ethnic tension are unlikely to materialise. However, the NATO withdrawal will create various challenges for the Central Asian countries.

These challenges include continuing to guarantee stability, countering radical Islam and militants, fighting drug-trafficking, and finding a way to balance the interests and engagement of global powers. Moreover, the Taliban are blocking large economic projects, such as the TAPI pipeline and a railway going from Uzbekistan to the Indian Ocean. If the situation deteriorates, the Central Asian countries will naturally lose part of their Afghan market.

Central Asia is also increasingly attracting the attention of the security services of Pakistan, India and Iran. All of these states are eager to influence the region according to their interests and sometimes even enter into confrontation over the area. This is clear in the case of India and Pakistan.

Relocating the troops to new bases

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that the US, upon leaving Afghanistan, is seeking opportunities to reposition some of its troops in new bases in Central Asia in order to deter the Taliban. This would likely involve Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The search for new bases brings back memories of a time when relations with the Central Asian states were far closer to what the US defence and foreign policy elite would like to see.

Following the events of 9/11, the US reached out to the Central Asian countries and asked them to help in their military campaign against the Taliban. Whilst Turkmenistan remained neutral and even held talks with the Taliban, other Central Asian countries were eager to give the US a hand. During the troublesome 1990s, Russia was weak on the global and regional stage and the US appeared to be quite helpful. Moreover, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were almost directly involved in the Afghan conflict, as they supported various groups based along ethnic lines.

Bases and airfields in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were all used by NATO forces. However, a crackdown on protests in Uzbekistan, a growth in support for pro-Russian politicians in Kyrgyzstan and increasing authoritarianism in Tajikistan all led to these bases being closed by 2015.

Nowadays, defence cooperation between the West (mostly the US) and Central Asia is ongoing but by no means intense. For example, Tajik security servicemen are being trained in the US. Much like China, the US also funds the construction of border service training centres in Tajikistan.

The Russians moved quickly following news of America’s plans. Vladimir Putin assured President Rakhmon during a phone call that he would focus on “strengthening Russian-Tajik relations”. Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu also reached an agreement on creating a joint regional air defence system. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation’s committee of security councils’ secretaries also adopted a programme focused on strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border. In short, sources in both countries confirm that a new American base is simply not an option for the Tajik ruler, who is getting ready for his son to take over.

Uzbekistan, whose relations with Russia for the first time since independence are on a steady, dynamic path, has been clear in its rejection of any new US base. According to the country’s defence ministry, Uzbekistan’s security doctrine bans foreign military bases on its territory.

The threat of radical Islam

Authoritarian, reclusive Turkmenistan maintains good, calm relations with the Taliban. However, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both states with citizens who went to fight for Islamic State, are wary of the rising threats.

Afghan security forces are already fighting Uzbek nationals in the Jowzjan, Faryab and Badghis provinces bordering Turkmenistan. Ethnic Uzbeks are also involved in the Jundallah terrorist group. Tajik and Uzbek nationals are also members of ISKP (Islamic State – Khorasan Province), a regional branch of Islamic State.

Recently, Tajik General Rajabali Rahmonali said that there were some 16,700 militants in the border area. He also said that 6,370 of these militants could be described as foreign mercenaries. This group has set up 36 camps focused on terrorist and military training.

However, the situation in other radical Islam groups involving Uzbeks is different. Uzbek expert Victor Mikhaylov has stated that there are now only 160 militants involved in the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (formerly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), whilst only 50 others are involved with the radical Islamic Jihad group. Their leaders have largely switched to business and criminal activities, whilst the Uzbek community in Saudi Arabia that funds these organisations is experiencing financial difficulties.

Liberalisation in Uzbekistan faced specific problems that led to the proliferation of radical Islam, especially among the youth. Moreover, about 8000 Uzbek citizens were recruited by terrorists in Russia, Ukraine, Sweden and Norway.

Overall, however, the Central Asian countries have effectively dealt with the threat of radical Islam with the help of their partners. According to one Chinese researcher, the Kazakh government has managed to neutralize more than 23 terrorist/extremist groups. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan has detained approximately 520 radicals, Tajikistan has detained more than 13,000, and Uzbekistan has detained 18,000.In Turkmenistan, approximately 360 citizens have taken part in the Syrian Civil War and Iraq War. This poses little to no risk to either the regime or the situation in the country.

Compared to the mid-1990s, when the Taliban posed a direct threat, inter-state security cooperation, qualification of border service units and security services are on a different level. The region’s countries are developing their cooperation with Russia, China and the US in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating once NATO forces leave Afghanistan. It is likely that radical Islamists will attempt to increase their activities in the border regions when this happens.

It is clear that neither the Taliban nor any other radical group will be able to simply storm into Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan or possibly instigate revolts and civil wars.

Drug-trafficking – business as always

Afghanistan is the world’s leading supplier of opium, heroine and morphine. Despite this, the country has enjoyed record success in its new approach to the fight against drugs. Around8000 special operations have taken place and 65 tonnes of drugs have been confiscated by the government. Of course, the situation is still not fully under control, as some 900 tonnes of heroine are still produced annually in Afghanistan. According to the UNDP, there was a 37 per cent or 61,000 hectare increase in opium poppy cultivation in 2020.

Security service figures from the region say that it is not a problem for drug-lords to produce drugs in Afghanistan. . Instead, they argue that traffic is more problematic for them, as this involves competition between the cartels and complications on the borders. Nevertheless, the ‘Northern Route’, which goes mainly through the still porous 1300 kilometre border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, is the easiest way for Afghan drugs to get into Russia and Eastern Europe. About 30 per cent of Afghan heroine is estimated to be smuggled through this route.

Through Tajikistan the drugs are smuggled to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Following this, some will go on to Kazakhstan and then through five main smuggling routes to Russia.

There is a drug-terrorist nexus involving the cartels and these are mainly of Tajik-Afghan origin. Moreover, in all five Central Asian republics strategic partnerships have been formed between drug traffickers and state actors around the exploitation of drug rents. After the consolidation of drug-trafficking organisations, stable transnational ties have been formed between the traffickers and the diaspora. This ultimately helps to create closed informal international organisations. For example, the Khujand clan in Tajikistan traditionally occupy elite positions in society and is also in charge of the drug business.

NATO’s activities related to tackling drug-trafficking should not be overestimated. Experts agree that there has been no considerable change in levels of drug smuggling as a result of NATO actions. It seems that the situation will remain as murky as always after the troops leave. The industry will continue to involve a nexus of corrupt officials, ethnic criminal clans and terrorist commanders. The production of drugs will continue to thrive alongside, with some precautions, drug-trafficking.

Global powers in the region

The multipolar world is taking on new forms in Afghanistan. Both Russia and the US in order to avoid nuclear conflict are busy building on what American officials call strategic stability or a ‘strategic equation’ in the words of Sergey Ryabkov. Meanwhile, America’s main rival China continues to court Russia in an attempt to create an informal anti-American and anti-NATO semi-military alliance.

Whilst the US asserts that it does not see the world through spheres of influence, the worldview of Russian decision-makers believes unequivocally that Central Asia belongs to its sphere. At the same time, the region remains a priority for China.

A new Chinese order (Pax Sinica) in Central Asia has long been discussed by experts. China is the second largest trading partner for the region after Russia. Whilst Beijing has provided massive investment (as early as 2013 China agreed with Central Asian states infrastructure deals worth 50 billion US dollars) and new pipelines, it has not lived up to its promises made as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. This is most clearly seen with regard to railway freight. Moreover, the countries’ governments and populations are concerned about possible debt burdens and overall Chinese influence. Due to this, China has recently changed its strategy by shifting to manufacturing.

Russia remains vigilant as it is being pushed out of the regional economy. Many experts believe that the current state of affairs is no longer built on Sino-Russian cooperation.US elites are increasingly cautious about pushing Russia into China’s embrace. Indeed, at the moment the countries are following different strategies according their own resources. In international affairs, however, they often speak with one voice.

The region’s economic ties with Russia remain rather strong, although some analysts believe that they are weakening in the face of Chinese expansion. The elites see Russia favourably and overall dependency remains high. Remittances from their citizens working in Russia, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, constitute a significant share of the countries’ GDP.

Russia pays a lot of attention to the region in military terms. The country remains the main external security partner for Central Asia, with military facilities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Moscow also controls 52 per cent of the regional arms market. In 2017, having held their first joint military exercise in 12 years, Russia revived its security ties with Uzbekistan. Recently, Moscow’s Defence Minister Shoygu presented a new strategic partnership programme between Russia and Uzbekistan that will run until 2025.

China pursues a strategy of fighting against the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism. The country has helped fund the Tajik Border Service and built border points and a training centre on the Afghan border. China’s main aim with these developments is to cut off the movement of radical Islamic militants from Afghanistan. Overall, Beijing sees Central Asia as the main barrier to preventing instability originating from Afghanistan. The importance and number of military drills and joint exercises has been growing steadily as a result.

NATO was eager to work with Russia in Central Asia before tensions appeared over the Ukrainian conflict. Now the parties are once again competitors. Whilst Russia and China continue to dominate the region and Western values not quite shared by the Central Asian states, there are few opportunities for the West to increase its influence.

China and Russia currently strive for decisive influence over Central Asia. As a result, it would take a lot of diplomatic effort and new initiatives for the US to return to the region. There is no sign of this at the moment.

Central Asian countries are not buying Joe Biden’s understanding of the world as a competition between democracy and authoritarianism. They are eager, however, with some precaution, to get involved with the top dogs in the region, that is Russia and China.

The countries remain preoccupied with searching for a strategy to preserve their independence. This was recently spurred on by a more regional outlook that was promoted by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. At the same time, the states are increasingly realising how vulnerable they are to foreign influence.

For Central Asia, NATO simply means the USA and they will not take the American option over the multi-vector policy currently available. The Central Asian states have great potential but they still face issues of ethnic tension and radical Islam. Competition for power remains rife as each of the former Soviet Central Asian states continues to try and find a place for itself in global geopolitics.

With NATO leaving Afghanistan, these challenges will become even more acute. The countries will preserve their statehood but there is no clear solution in sight for long term stability. Simultaneously, global rivalry in the region will be ever more evident. Russia and China will dominate this competition and it will be increasingly difficult for them to harmonise their interests. However, the stability of the region and its borders will clearly become a common interest.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst and political consultant specialising in politics and governance of post-Soviet states. He is the Board Chair at ‘The New Bridge’ Analytical Centre. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics, where he was a British Chevening Scholar, following five years with the Ukrainian civil service.

This article is part of a special project titled “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank” funded by NATO Public Diplomacy.

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