The US-Central Asia cooperation to form new Afghanistan
The United States’ strategic approach towards cooperation with the Central Asian countries is a combination of two strategic benefits. It means, while Washington is pursuing the grand strategy of connecting Central Asia to South Asia, the option of creating regional instability and increasing the security costs for China, Russia and Iran also remains on the table. In this grand strategy, the Central Asian countries are a partner of the United States and, given the future level of security and political interactions, may even be part of future tools for implementing regional security plans.
By: Omid Rahimi
Following the establishment of the Taliban government as well as formation of a relative bureaucratic and security order in Afghanistan, it seems that the accelerating pace of developments in this country is slowing down and the country is moving towards a stable state (either relative stability or relative instability). This, along with subside of resistance in Panjshir, confirms Afghanistan's entry into a transition era. As the pace of developments slows down, the structures are consolidating and expanding throughout Afghanistan. Unless a significant destabilizing change takes place in the near future, we can expect the beginning of a new Afghanistan. In the new Afghanistan, the balance between foreign actors will be different, and the security order and geopolitical role of the country will be different.
Regardless of how and where this process will be directed as well as what the behavioral components and security outputs of the new Afghanistan will be, we can clearly see both cooperation and competition of the key actors in the process of forming the new situation. In this regard, it seems that the United States has developed new programs for cooperation with the Central Asian countries based on the new situation in Afghanistan, which will be discussed in this article.
Washington’s interests in forming a new Afghanistan
It is very difficult to accurately predict and evaluate the US’s goals and interests in the complex areas such as Afghanistan. However, based on the US's past behavior in Afghanistan, it is unlikely the country has no ambitious program that serve part of Washington’s long-term interests in the region. Given the withdrawal of US troops and reduction of the country’s ground influence in Afghanistan which happened after evacuation of a large number of the US-affiliated Afghan citizens, we can evaluate two main and specific goals of the United States in two general axes.
First, changing the region’s geo-economy in a way that significantly reduces the role of China, Russia and Iran. In such a situation, Implementation of Central and South Asia connection strategy can be Washington’s most significant priority. Given Pakistan's widespread influence in the current developments, it seems that this country will be the US’s main partner in this process, which in fact will execute an important part of this strategic plan. On the other hand, most of the plan’s benefits will go first to Pakistan and then to Central Asia and India. Therefore, the projects that could not be completed previously due to the Taliban incompatibility as well as conflict of interests between the regional and international actors during Ashraf Ghani’s era, can be realized under the shadow of the Taliban's rise to power and the conservative considerations of the peripheral actors for creating stability in Afghanistan. From this perspective, perhaps with the establishment of the Taliban government and recognition of the new Afghan government by the regional actors, the projects such as TAPI, TAP, Casa-1000 and Trans-Afghan can be resumed more quickly.
The second strategic advantage for the United States may be imposing heavy security and economic costs over the peripheral actors of Afghanistan, particularly China, Russia and Iran. In this context, the United States may decide to create heavy costs for the regional actors and create instability in the critical points for all the above-mentioned actors, in order to keep the balance of benefits and costs in Afghanistan still negative. This goal has been partially achieved so far, but with the formation of the authoritarian Taliban government, the establishment of order in most of Afghanistan and, of course, the establishment of close relations between China, Russia and Iran with the central and middle cells of Taliban, the goal will not completely be achieved. Therefore, the most likely pessimistic scenario in such a situation would be the US obstructing of the above-mentioned conditions. The speculations about the United States and Pakistan’s role in stoking internal strife among the Taliban’s ranks could be in line with this scenario.
Thus, the cost of creating a relative stability in Afghanistan will be significantly borne by Iran, Russia and China. This strategy has been previously proposed in 2017 by Barry Buzan, a well-known theorist and director of the security studies program at MIT University. "It's time to make Afghanistan a problem for others," he noted in an interview with the Atlantic. The ultimate and ideal plan for the US in this scenario is to destabilize the critical areas such as Sistan and Baluchestan for Iran, Tajikistan for Russia, and Xinjiang for China.
If we consider the internal developments of Afghanistan from 2014 and 2015 as the starting point for the formation of the new Afghanistan and the current situation, we can consider the same period as the turning point of the cooperation between the United States and Central Asia. The United States began a new round of cooperation with the Central Asian countries in 2015, when the country ended its military presence in Central Asia. Since then, the development of political cooperation within the framework of the 5 + 1 platform (with participation of Afghanistan) was on the agenda, and participation in the strategic infrastructure projects began with a special focus on Afghanistan. The projects such as TAPI, Casa-1000 and TAP are the results of this period. The inauguration of Donald Trump which led to the formation of a new strategy towards Central Asia truly demonstrated the nature of this partnership under the strategy of connecting Central Asia to South Asia.
The second phase of cooperation between the United States and Central Asia dates back to the early 2018, when Washington cut its aid to these projects and the destiny of some of these projects was shrouded in mystery. During this period, the United States began a new partnership with the Central Asian countries in the form of intra-Afghan peace talks. Uzbekistan was the focal point of this round of multilateral cooperation between the United States and Central Asia. However, this process did not last long and, due to the secret agreements reached in Doha between the Taliban and the United States, no tangible results were achieved in intra-Afghan talks. However, a kind of normalization of relations with the Taliban through direct negotiations with this group as well an extra engagement in Afghanistan are the goals that seem to have been achieved by the United States during this period.
The third phase of the US-Central Asia cooperation began after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the order of Joe Biden, which led to the rise of the Taliban. At this time, the Taliban were advancing in Afghanistan, and provinces were falling one after the other. Meanwhile, Ashraf Ghani's government lost its credibility and the Central Asian countries’ relations with their southern neighbor became more ambiguous. This ambiguity pushed the regional countries towards Russia and China in order to be able to respond the security threats from Afghanistan. During this period, the United States introduced a new plan for military deployment in one of Afghanistan's neighboring countries and intensified its political and security pressures over Central Asia.
However, the resistance of Russia and the existing ambiguities regarding the consequences of this deployment, left the plan in abeyance. At the same time, the inconsistencies in US behavior also reinforced the speculation that this process might be a deception plan. During this period, US-Central Asian cooperation at the political and security level remained limited, so that a new level of cooperation would be on the agenda of both sides again during the transition and re-establishment of Afghanistan. This new round of the US-Central Asia cooperation seems to revolve around the formation of a new Afghanistan.
During the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, a new round of 5+1 meetings between the United States and Central Asia was held with participation of foreign ministers of six countries. In an official statement released on September 21, the US State Department described the climate crisis as the main topic of the meeting. Strengthening the ongoing cooperation to address the consequences of climate change in Central Asia as well as the environmental issues such as the catastrophe of the Aral Sea were among the topics outlined in the statement. 11 joint actions and programs have also been specified in the statement.
Meanwhile, Donald Lu, the former US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and the new Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, held meetings with foreign ministers of Central Asia. Although there was no direct reference to the issue of Afghanistan in the official US statements, the country’s issue was repeatedly emphasized in the media and bilateral meetings in the United States. A press release issued by the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs explicitly stated that the main topics of the meeting were the situation in Afghanistan, fight against terrorism and other regional security challenges. The issue of Afghanistan was also one of the main topics of speeches of all Central Asian presidents.
Also in a separate meeting with Donald Lu and Eric Green (Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia at the National Security Council), the Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi discussed the current situation in Afghanistan. During the meeting, an agreement was reached between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Kazakhstan Agency for International Development (KAZAID) over introduction of a joint assistance program in Afghanistan. Tajik Foreign Minister Sirajuddin Mehruddin and Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbayev also held similar meetings in Washington with Green and Lu, with Afghanistan at the center of the talks. Meanwhile, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov met with the USAID Administrator Samantha Power. The main focus of this meeting was also Afghanistan.
In addition to these political consultations that took place in the new context, the main issue that had been previously discussed by the two sides was the issue of asylum seekers. Washington has begun intensive talks with the Central Asian countries since two months ago in a bid to persuade them to accept a number of Afghan refugees. Tajikistan has also set up a large camp in south of Khatlon with the EU support. Also, following the previous agreements, a significant number of refugees are expected to settle in Badakhshan province. These measures have been taken despite the clear opposition of Russia and Vladimir Putin himself. Putin had previously opposed the move, saying that the terrorists may infiltrate into Central Asia among the asylum seekers. However, the settlement of a large number of asylum seekers in Central Asia has now been finalized, and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko, by retreating from previous positions, has not ruled out "the settlement of asylum seekers in Central Asia for humanitarian purposes."
In addition to these cases, we have witnessed some other movements. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Ashgabat, Saeed Bin Othman Ahmed Siwayed, has officially announced his country's support for the TAPI gas pipeline. According to Siwayed, the pipeline will improve the economic and social condition of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, has officially announced that it will soon establish rail and road connection with Afghanistan. Esmatullah Ergashev, the Uzbek president's special envoy to Afghanistan, has formally raised this issue and expressed hope that the Taliban could form an inclusive government. Uzbekistan was also the first country to resume trade relations with Afghanistan by sending trade cargo. Moreover, discussions over the Trans-Afghan Corridor between Uzbekistan and Pakistan have not stopped in recent months.
This issue was also emphasized during Imran Khan's visit to Tashkent as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe. Meanwhile, the most important official measure was the visit of Deputy Chairman of the Kyrgyz Security Council to Kabul and his meeting with the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Taliban government. Kyrgyz security officials, who had previously limited their involvement in Afghanistan, held official meetings with Taliban officials to discuss the bilateral relations.
In a note written in The Diplomat Magazine, Richard Hoagland (former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in State's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and former US Ambassador to Tajikistan and Kazakhstan) and Michael Rips (a senior US military officer, and an expert in strategic studies) reiterated that although the US military presence in Afghanistan has ended, there are still broader strategic needs for US in Central Asia and the Caucasus, such as the geopolitical threats of China and Russia. The authors emphasize that the US foreign policy goals in the region have not changed. The memo also described extremism as an international threat and sees Central Asia’s cooperation with the United States as inevitable to deal with the short-term consequences of the US withdrawal.
This seemingly strategic US approach towards cooperation with the Central Asian countries is a combination of two strategic benefits which mentioned earlier. While the strategy of connecting Central Asia to South Asia is being pursued as a grand strategic plan, the option of creating regional instability and increasing security costs for China, Russia and Iran remains on the table. The Central Asian countries are also considered as partners of the United States in this plan, and given the future level of security and political interactions, they may even be part of future tools for implementing regional security plans.
Omid Rahimi,isa Researcher at the Institute for East Strategic Studies