With the United States and NATO forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerating and due to be completed by September 11th at the latest, the nations of Central Asia face many troubling questions. Factionalism within the Afghan Government and the increasing strength of the Taliban threatens to upset the fragile regional balance, whilst external players continue to jockey for geopolitical and economic influence. On April 23rd, the long-delayed Virtual C5+1 summit chaired by U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, “agreed to the continued development of security cooperation between the United States and the countries of Central Asia as a means of promoting stability and regional security and countering cross-border threats emanating from Afghanistan;” but the question is, what does this mean in practice?
At the height of its campaign, 100,000 U.S. troops and 120,000 private contractors were stationed in Afghanistan, the cost of the military presence estimated to be around $1 trillion. Over the course of its 20-year presence, the U.S. and international organizations such as the World Bank and the Investment Recovery Fund also poured $143 billion into reconstruction efforts, capital which stifled militant groups’ efforts to recruit by creating opportunities on the ground. With the withdrawal of these forces, however, the nations of Central Asia need to be prepared for a decline in U.S. interest in the region, and to face whatever steps into the void they leave behind.
Over two decades, U.S. and NATO troops curbed the influence of the Taliban and the ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province), but a weakening of the central government in Afghanistan could easily see this reversed. As a major source of foreign fighters for the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Central Asia faces the security and humanitarian challenge of repatriating these combatants and their families. In Kazakhstan, the authorities launched a campaign the U.S. has long been calling for, repatriating over 700 of its citizens – mostly women and children – through ‘Operation Zhusan.’ It is hoped this program could serve as a roadmap for other nations in the region.
Relations between the U.S. and Kazakhstan have been amicable since the denuclearization process which followed the collapse of the USSR. The U.S. actively supports the Kazakh peacekeeping brigade, KAZBAT, and pre-pandemic, joint military exercises took place annually under the moniker, “Steppe Eagle.” Kazakhstan has participated in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and helped finance Afghan security forces and train engineering and medical students, including women. Economically, in 2019 trade between the U.S. and Kazakhstan totaled $2 billion, which compares favorably with the U.S.’s second-largest trading partner in the region, Uzbekistan, at just $540 million.
In regional terms, in 2019 Kazakh exports to Afghanistan totaled $400 million, but should the security situation deteriorate this would affect trade routes already under stress because of the pandemic. Infrastructure undertakings such as the TAPI gas pipeline, international power lines, railways, and highways could also be impacted, whilst a paucity of foreign investment could see the re-emergence of familiar regional problems.
Any escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan would undoubtedly lead to the weakening of the country’s already porous borders. Beginning in the Kyrgyz second city of Osh, the Pamir Highway runs the length of Tajikistan and down through Uzbekistan before terminating in Afghanistan. Ninety tonnes of heroin are trafficked through Tajikistan each year along the so-called ‘Heroin Highway,’ much of it passing through the poverty-stricken, self-governing Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), where sporadic fighting breaks out between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
With the most remittance-based economy in the world, pre-pandemic 47% of Tajikistan’s GDP was sent in by the 800,000 Tajiks working abroad, largely in Russia. Whilst many of these ex-pats live in dormitory blocks overseen by gangmasters, others, as Dr. Alexander Kupatadze of King’s College, London observed, are “heavily involved” in smuggling. “According to Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency officials, the leader of the Tajik diaspora has been laundering money by purchasing real estate and restaurants in Egypt and Dubai, as well as investing in agriculture in Austria,” Dr. Kupatadze told me.
In July 2012, fighting broke out in the GBAO capital of Khorog after the regional security chief was dragged from his limousine and stabbed to death, a conflict that left over a hundred dead. Many Tajiks believe the government’s interest in regaining control in Gorno-Badakhshan is about taking charge of smuggling routes. On the outskirts of Khorog, mansions litter the hillsides, offering easy access to the Afghan border. The proliferation of expensive cars belonging to ‘New Tajiks’ in one of the poorest countries in the world has led to a local saying; it is no longer, “How much did it cost?” but “How many kilos did it cost?”
Since the mid-nineties, Tajikistan has become known as a “narco-state.” In 1997, researchers estimated that half of 18-24-year-olds were employed in the drug trade. In 2000, the Tajik Ambassador to Kazakhstan was arrested in Almaty with 86 kilos of heroin in his car, and the following year, when the Deputy Minister of the Interior was murdered, the prosecution in the case argued he’d been assassinated for refusing to pay for a shipment of 50 kilos.
The year Tajikistan took over policing of its border with Afghanistan from the Russians, seizures of heroin halved. Piqued by the critical international response, President Rahmon leveled counter-allegations of Russian complicity in the drugs trade. “Why do you think generals lined up in Moscow all the way across Red Square and paid enormous bribes to be assigned here?” he complained to U.S. officials. “Just so they could do their patriotic duty?”
Of course, the status quo in Tajikistan served the international community, which needed stable flight paths for the “war on terror.” Given ethnic and kinship ties, the 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan would be difficult to police even if the will was there, but it should be noted that this porous border presents an enormous opportunity for militant groups. In July 2019, for example, eleven Taliban commanders were released from a high-security prison near the Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, including a regional leader arrested whilst shipping a ton of opium. With 84% of global opium production emanating out of Afghanistan, the drugs trade is estimated to be worth $416 million a year to the Taliban, the groups’ highest source of income.
Drawing on the lessons learned from President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, which led to the rise of the Islamic State, in May, The Wall Street Journal cited unnamed U.S. officials’ preference to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. Given the pressures brought upon the Central Asian Republics by Russia and China, however, such a move would be problematic, to say the least. A prior example of how such an approach proved to be a poisoned challis and why the nations of Central Asia might want to think twice before agreeing to such an arrangement is the U.S. airbase at Manas, which served as a cash cow for the Kyrgyz elites for over a decade.
When the logistical hub to support the war in Afghanistan first opened in 2001, the public response in Kyrgyzstan was initially positive. Home to an array of aircraft and some 3,000 U.S. personnel at its peak, 2002 proved to be the honeymoon year, servicemen and their local girlfriends shopping in the capital amidst a climate of great local expectation.
“I think it’s fair to say there will be a long-term presence here well beyond the end of hostilities,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Billy Montgomery commented.
Concluding that its post-9/11 stance had been too conciliatory and the old enemy planned to stay in its backyard, the Russians retaliated by opening their own Kant (Sugar) Air Base, twenty kilometers east of Bishkek.
“Our base is here forever,” General Mikhailov, the head of the Russian Air Force stated; and rent-free at that.
Within a relatively short space of time, it became clear that the supposed benefits of the U.S. garrison would never materialize. With fuel companies owned by oligarchs and all food and water flown in, only contractors willing to grease palms could get work. A trough for the President’s cronies, Manas quickly became a symbol of nepotism. The public mood had already soured long before U.S. Private Zachary Hatfield escaped punishment for shooting dead an ethnic Russian delivery driver in 2006, an incident which was never satisfactorily explained.
Whilst publically politicking that Manas should close, Russia continued to amass huge profits from its contracts to supply the base. Returning from Moscow in 2009 with a financial aid package worth over $2 billion, Kyrgyz President Bakiyev further muddied the waters by serving an eviction notice on the Americans. Thinking he could play the two superpowers against each other whilst also courting China, Bakiyev had overplayed his hand. That his son, Maxim, later arrested in Britain, had embezzled $300 million of Russian aid didn’t help matters.
On April 7th, 2010, the Bakiyev house of cards came crashing down. With demonstrators storming the White House in Bishkek, police academy cadets called in to put down the uprising received conflicting orders and dithered, some changing into civilian clothes and deserting. Bakiyev and his entourage fled post-haste, eventually finding a safe haven in the dictators’ club of Belarus. For the second time in five years, protestors turned revolutionaries took selfies with the President’s personal effects before rampaging through the capital on a looting spree.
When the base at Manas formally closed in February 2014, Kyrgyzstan had to do without $350 million a year in contracts, airport fees, and fuel purchases paid for through shady offshore companies on behalf of the US Department of Defense. In addition, the authorities in Bishkek lost $60 million in rent that Washington had paid annually.
Whilst Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are part of the CSTO mutual defense pact with Russia, Uzbekistan, the most likely destination for any redeployment, is not. Any move by President Mirziyoyev, however, would decimate the goodwill accumulated with Russia and China since he took office in 2016, and lead to the ire of Uzbekistan’s neighbors.
A region always caught between ‘Great Powers,’ Central Asia finds itself in a familiarly convoluted and precarious position. Much of the future of the region will depend on the level of U.S. engagement following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, whilst Russia and China will continue to grapple for influence. Whether the U.S. attempts to redeploy or not, the volatile nations of Central Asia currently have much to consider.