Fears for Central Asian security in wake of US exit
The US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will have a profound impact on the broader region in ways that are still unknown. Afghanistan is at the heart of the Eurasian landmass — an area of the world where many geopolitical challenges converge. Most notably, this region is the site for big power competition between countries like the US, Russia, China and India. On the one hand this is a region with great economic potential, but on the other it is a part of the world plagued by corruption and extremism.
While there has been a lot of analysis on what the US troop withdrawal means for Afghanistan, it is also worth examining how the situation could impact its neighboring countries too.
Russia is watching events closely. Ever since Russian diplomat, soldier and spy Yan Vitkevich first strolled into Kabul in 1837 — an event that lit the fuse for Britain’s first war with Afghanistan — Moscow has tried to maintain some level of influence in the country. In the 19th century, the main objective was halting the expansion of the British Empire. Today, Russia is concerned that extremism and terrorism will spill over into the Central Asian republics and then onto Russia.
Therefore, expect Russia to pursue a policy that beefs up the security of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, all of which border Afghanistan and have close ties to Moscow. Russia already maintains a military base in Tajikistan and it was announced this week that Moscow will soon be holding a joint military exercise with both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But even with Russia’s security concerns, it also takes pleasure in watching the US struggling in Afghanistan. No doubt policymakers in Moscow are scrambling to develop a strategy that undermines America’s interest in the region, while also helping maintain some degree of stability in Central Asia. This will prove to be a difficult balance to strike.
Iran has cordial relations with Kabul, while simultaneously maintaining a complicated relationship with the Taliban. In the 1990s, Iran was at odds with the Taliban for their role in the persecution and massacre of members of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara population. Even in the days following 9/11, members of Iran’s Quds Force and US Special Forces worked together indirectly to oust the Taliban from the western city of Herat. However, in the past 15 years, Iran has used the fighting in Afghanistan to undermine the US and has even armed the Taliban on occasion. Iran will pursue a policy of pragmatism to ensure its interests in western Afghanistan are met.
To Afghanistan’s north, the five countries of Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) will be watching the security situation closely and nervously. This region has many economic, cultural and linguistic similarities with northern Afghanistan. In recent years, most of Central Asia’s focus with Afghanistan has been on economics and trade. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan play an important transit role for Afghanistan to connect to global markets.
It is in the interest of every regional country that Afghanistan remains stable and becomes prosperous.
A few Central Asian republics have even hosted US, German and French airbases in support of NATO military operations in Afghanistan. The Central Asian states will want to continue their economic and trade engagement with Afghanistan, while taking prudent measures to beef up border security with the country. Also, expect China, Russia and the US to compete for influence among the Central Asian republics.
For India, stability and security in Afghanistan is an extension of its contentious relationship with Pakistan. Many in Islamabad view southern Afghanistan as part of Pakistan’s “strategic depth” in the event of a major conflict with India. Recognizing the importance Afghanistan places on Pakistan, New Delhi has fostered very close relationships with Kabul over the years.
India has consistently been one of Afghanistan’s largest international donors. It has invested in major infrastructure projects across the country, including the construction of more than 10,000 km of roads. Often the consequence (intended or not) of Indian-financed and constructed transport routes in Afghanistan has been the diversion of regional trade away from Pakistan. For example, India has invested in Iran’s Chabahar Port on the Indian Ocean. It is hoped this port will be connected by a rail link to Herat, also paid for by India. Chabahar is the direct competitor of the Chinese-financed port in Gwadar, Pakistan, which is located a mere 90 km away. India will want to protect its investments and influence in Afghanistan and could play an even bigger role in the country if a vacuum is created by America’s withdrawal.
China also has its eyes on the situation in Afghanistan. Beijing knows that the deteriorating security situation could impact stability in the region, including sections of its Belt and Road Initiative. In recent years, Chinese companies have entertained the possibility of tapping into Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. However, the security situation has prevented China from doing this in any meaningful way.
It has established a small military base just across from the Afghan border in Tajikistan to keep an eye on the situation. Beijing has also reportedly funded the construction of an Afghan military base in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, where the two countries share a short 76 km border. However, for the most part, China has decided not to get too involved in the country. But as the US withdraws, Beijing’s approach could change.
It is in the interest of every regional country that Afghanistan remains stable and becomes prosperous. However, for the likes of Russia, Iran and China, the temptation to encourage, or at least gloat over, America’s problems in Afghanistan might be too tempting. Tempting as it might be to root for America’s failure, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing need to decide if they want the US to fail more than they want stability and security in the region. Now would be the time for all countries in the region to come together for Afghanistan’s benefit — but will they?
The Afghans and the international community will likely get the answer to this question, for better or worse, in the coming months.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey