The twin questions of how to continue fighting terrorists and protecting the Afghans who worked with US forces after the US withdrawal became more urgent on Friday, as the last US troops left Bagram Air Base, the world’s largest military base. of Afghanistan and the hub of the American war. there for almost two decades. As of Tuesday, the US military had completed 90% of the withdrawal, according to the US Central Command.
The proposal was on the agenda Thursday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met at the State Department with his counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the two most likely countries of the six Central Asian countries that US military planners are considering for the project, according to a congressional source. Both border Afghanistan and would allow faster access to the country than existing US bases in the Middle East and aircraft carriers hundreds of miles away in the Persian Gulf.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also met with Tajik Foreign Minister on Friday; Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States’ special representative for Afghanistan, visited those countries in May. Readings from Blinken’s Friday meetings did not mention the proposal, but noted that officials agreed that an end to the conflict in Afghanistan would benefit the region.
It wouldn’t be the first time the United States has stationed troops in Central Asia to support the war in Afghanistan. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US military used two bases, one in Uzbekistan and one in Kyrgyzstan, for operations in Afghanistan. Both bases were subsequently closed amid unrest and pressure from the Kremlin, which increasingly views the US presence in the region with suspicion.
But the prospect of such a deal with one of the Central Asian states is now unlikely given the sour state of relations between Washington and Moscow, which are at one of their lowest since the Cold War. Many of these countries depend on Russia – and to some extent on China – for exports as well as for military equipment and training. Former Soviet republics need Moscow’s tacit approval to base US troops on their soil, experts say.
“Russia regards the Central Asian States region as its area of influence – and it does not welcome others, especially the United States, to these regions,” the army general told the retired David Petraeus, who commanded the forces in Afghanistan under former President Barack Obama. .
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that even without a presence in Central Asia, the United States has a capability on the horizon to assist the Afghan army, referring to the bases and ships of the United States Navy in the Gulf.
“There isn’t a piece of land that we can’t touch if we don’t want to,” he said.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
The Central Asian nations’ relationship with Russia makes it difficult for the sale to ask them to host thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who assisted American forces during the war. Russia does not need a visa for any of the three countries examined for the effort – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – so Moscow should add border controls for security, said Temur Umarov, research consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Moreover, the deteriorating economic situation and the latest wave of the pandemic mean that countries are unlikely to agree to accept additional migrants.
The talks, however, are an “encouraging development,” said Representative Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), A former Green Beret who is among a number of lawmakers urging Biden to evacuate Afghan interpreters.
“I am happy that the Biden administration is exploring all options,” Waltz told POLITICO, adding that sending refugees to Guam was another option. “Time is running out with the Taliban on the march.”
When it comes to basing American troops, Russia will not accept this idea. Take Tajikistan, one of the five countries that share a border with Afghanistan. While Dushanbe is used to working with the United States, including allowing US military planes to refuel at airports across the country after the September 11 attacks, relations with Washington are now frosty, Umarov said. . President Emomali Rahmon, a controversial figure in power since the early 1990s, has not visited the United States since 2002.
Meanwhile, the Tajik economy is heavily dependent on Russia and China. Remittances from Tajik nationals working in Russia accounted for over 20% of GDP in 2020; Chinese loans represent more than 20% of GDP and more than half of all foreign borrowing.
On the military front, Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of some states of the former Soviet Union, and already hosts a Russian military base on its territory. China, too, is building a border post with Afghanistan.
Russia and China now have every reason to block a move to position US forces in Tajikistan, or any other country in Central Asia, Umarov said. Twenty years after the September 11 attacks, Moscow and Beijing shared many of Washington’s concerns about terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. But now that threat has faded and competition between the three powers has only intensified. Russia, in particular, sees US efforts in Afghanistan as another way to erode Moscow’s influence, he said.
“There is an agreement between Moscow and Beijing on this issue,” Umarov said. “Central Asia will not risk its long-term relations with Russia and China to help the United States.”
While Russia and China see a risk to regional stability from the withdrawal of the United States and NATO, they also see “opportunities to take advantage of a security vacuum and to position themselves as intermediaries in the regional power, ”wrote Jeffrey Mankoff, researcher at the University of National Defense, and Cyrus Newlin, researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent commentary for the war on the rocks.
Among the remaining Afghan neighbors – China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – options for a US force presence are limited. China and Iran are not up for it; Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, last week close the door in clear terms on the possibility of basing US troops in the country.
Meanwhile, isolationist Turkmenistan, which Umarov described as the “North Korea of Central Asia,” has shown no interest in cooperating with the United States on the conflict in Afghanistan. In addition, it is even more economically dependent on Beijing than its neighbors, selling over 80% of its total exports to China and sharing a gas pipeline with the country.
Uzbekistan is the most promising of the countries that share a border with Afghanistan, experts say. Tashkent is much less dependent on Russia and China than other countries economically, is not part of the CSTO, and does not host any foreign military base. Meanwhile, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has reconnected with the United States and even recently visited Washington.
Uzbekistan is also used to harboring American troops. From 2001 to 2005, then-president Islam Karimov leased the Karshi-Khanabad air base to the Americans, and from 2013 to 2016, Tashkent housed the NATO liaison officer in Central Asia.
But the prospect of welcoming US troops to Uzbekistan after the withdrawal is likely to meet strong resistance from Moscow and Beijing, as well as from Uzbek society, which views any intervention in the Afghan conflict negatively, Umarov said.
Any basic deal in the United States would require a change in Uzbek law. Under the current status, Uzbekistan cannot host any foreign military base on its territory, he said.
Uzbekistan understands, observing decades of failed US and Soviet attempts to resolve the Afghan problem, that “there is no military solution to the Afghan crisis,” Umarov said.
Even if Uzbekistan agreed to host US troops, the government would likely impose limits on how Washington can use the base, for example by restricting operations to unarmed planes, Petraeus said. Another problem would be the additional expense for Washington to build the necessary infrastructure, he added.
The Biden administration could look further, for example in Kyrgyzstan, which does not share a border with Afghanistan but is used to hosting American troops. However, like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers in Russia and indebted to China, Umarov said. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is also part of the CSTO and maintains a Russian military base on its soil.
The United States sent forces to the Manas transit center after 9/11, but Kyrgyzstan closed the base in 2014 – around the same time as Russia invaded Crimea and tensions with the West were mounting. arrow – due to pressure from Moscow.
The biggest problem for Washington, Umarov said, is the country’s political turmoil. Kyrgyzstan has experienced three revolutions in the past 15 years. If the unpredictability persists, the Pentagon may not be able to guarantee the safety of US troops on the country’s soil.
Kazakhstan, on the other hand, is an even less acceptable option. The country is sandwiched between Russia and China and is one of Moscow’s closest allies and one of Beijing’s main economic partners. In the region. Meanwhile, its distance from Afghanistan – the two countries do not share a border – makes it a less than ideal place to base US troops entering and leaving.
To some extent, Washington may be able to benefit from sanctions relief and international recognition in return for a deal, for example by helping Uzbekistan achieve its goal of becoming a member of the Organization. world trade.
But overall, the only way for the Biden administration to strike a deal to base US troops in one of the Central Asian states is to prove to them that “the financial and political benefits of this cooperation will outweigh” on the inevitable losses that Central Asian countries will suffer. would inevitably hold up due to disapproval from Russia and Beijing, ”Umarov said.
“Central Asia cannot be called a priority for American foreign policy,” he continued. “At the moment, Central Asia understands that the United States is not prepared to counterbalance Russia and China in the region, but it needs Central Asia for short-term interests.”