US presence in Central Asia will likely deplete further after the Afghanistan withdrawal with Russia and China waiting to sweep up the remains.
Central Asia, or the fatherland of the Turks, who call the region Turkistan, was paralysed as a result of the brutal political competition, or the ‘Great Game’, in the 19th century between former Russian and British Empires for control over the area.
During the Cold War, much of the region came under the control of communist states of the Soviet Union and China. But Moscow’s disastrous 1979 invasion of Afghanistan paved the way for the penetration of US influence through the anti-Soviet mujahideen movement in the region.
By invading Afghanistan in 2001, Washington increased its influence across the region, which Zbigniew Brzezinski, a top American strategist, described it as the “Eurasian Balkans” due to its ethnically-diverse nature akin to much of Eastern Europe.
But with the recent chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington ceded space to major players like Russia and China, two powerful players in the new Great Game of Central Asia, according to experts.
“The US interest in Central Asia has considerably decreased in recent years for various reasons. Most Americans appear to accept - willingly or unwillingly - that the region is under Russian influence,” says Ikboljon Qoraboyev, associate professor of International Relations at M. Narikbayev KAZGUU University, in Nur-sultan, Kazakhstan.
“The withdrawal might further enhance the declining interest in Central Asia in Washington and American policymakers might conclude that the Russian influence has not diminished despite US efforts,” Qoraboyev, an Uzbek himself, tells TRT World. As a result, the region might be left to complete Russian dominance, according to the professor.
While America’s goals have not changed in the region theoretically, “the US ability to achieve any of those goals to make any progress” in a practical sense has clearly changed for the worse, says Matthew Bryza, former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, a country in close proximity to Central Asia.
“This shameful uncoordinated unplanned US withdrawal from Afghanistan has totally undercut US credibility both within its NATO allies and also with its friends and partners such as states of Central Asia and of course with Afghanistan and its people,” Bryza tells TRT World.
According to the American diplomat, who has worked under several US administrations on how to shape Central Asia policy, the withdrawal “has left a vacuum not only in terms of power in Afghanistan but in perceptions of whether the US can be a reliable partner or not in that part of the world, Central Asia.”
The US withdrawal will allow more competition from China and Russia and they will see the pullout as an opportunity to expand their influences across the region, Bryza says.
“Now that we have abandoned Afghanistan, the US has very few geopolitical or strategic interests in Central Asia except to try to keep the Chinese and the Russians out,” says Edward Erickson, a former US army officer and a retired professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University. As a result, the US will reduce its assistance to those Central Asian states, he adds.
Otabek Omonkulov, a Turkey-based Uzbek expert and an independent academic of international relations, also believes that evolving US policy regarding the region “carries a risk of a total loss of the US influence across Central Asia” as Russia increases its pressure over Uzbekistan and other countries to make them join the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led initiative.
Declining US interest and power
Like Qoraboyev, Omonkulov also thinks that for Washington Central Asia does not carry as much weight as other regions. Omonkulov described the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a “defeat not as a pullout”. Like Vietnam, Americans and its NATO allies were “forced to leave” Afghanistan, according to the analyst.
Omonkulov also establishes connections between the US pullout from Uzbekistan in 2005 and later Kyrgyzstan and the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, part of a pattern, which indicates a declining US interest in Central Asia.
In the past, Washington had kept troops in both Central Asian countries, but under Russian pressure, the US eventually left both states. Now the US literally has no military presence across Central Asia except the Kabul airport, where it seeks to evacuate all of its troops as soon as possible.
According to media reports, during the recent Biden-Putin summit in Geneva, the US president demanded from the Russian president to allow Washington to have troops in some Central Asian states. Putin rejected the offer, the American media reported, but Moscow denies the conversation even took place.
“If the US really pulls out all of its troops from Afghanistan, its military presence will completely end in Central Asia,” Omonkulov tells TRT World. But the US cannot entirely give up the region, which has always been a primary focus of ‘great powers’, the Uzbek academic adds. “If a superpower like the US completely leaves the region, it will definitely have difficulties one way or another as history shows us.”
“We see changes in the US policy toward Central Asia, greater Asia and China. The US assessment, which thought that Russians would choose to expand across Central Asia, was not realised. As a result, American efforts to balance the Russian expansion in Central Asia did not produce concrete results for Washington,” says Bulent Aras, professor of international relations at Qatar University.
Instead, the US and Western bloc has been forced to confront Russia in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea as a result of Moscow’s focus on that particular region and the US has increasingly lost interest in staying in Central Asia. In terms of limiting China, the US chooses to rather face the Asian giant in the South China Sea and other maritime areas than confronting it in Central Asia, Aras tells TRT World.
“It means the US will conduct its Central Asia policy based on bilateral relations,” Aras adds. Omonkulov also believes that a bilateral approach will be the main US approach after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. He mentions C5+1, a political platform, which brings together the US and Central Asian countries as a possible avenue to conduct relations between Washington and Central Asian states.
What was US policy?
Bryza thinks that “the shambolic US withdrawal from Afghanistan” will not change the goals of US policy with regards to Central Asia.
The US Central Asia policy is mainly based on safeguarding the sovereignty of independent states, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which emerged in the region following the collapse of the Soviets in the late 1980s, according to both Qoraboyev and Bryza. By backing those mostly Turkic-dominated states, which were all former Soviet republics, the US aimed to counter both Russian and Chinese influences across the region, experts say.
“Basically, US policy has been to support economic and political stabilisation in the Central Asian republics with a minimal amount of US dollars, as well as to provide some security assistance. This was mainly to ensure regional security for Afghanistan's northern border,” says Erickson.
“Since the September 11 attacks, one of the main aims of the US Central Asia policy was to end the terror threat. But in the process, this aim has gradually lost its meaning as Al Qaeda became a weak force, leaving its place to other terror groups [like Daesh],” says Aras.
In addition to political stability, the US aimed to secure energy lines from gas-rich Central Asia to the Caspian Sea, which can supply countries like Georgia, Turkey and EU states for their oil and gas needs, decreasing their dependence on Russia.
Washington has also encouraged Central Asian states to adopt economic reform and embrace liberal democratic values, Bryza says. The results appear to be “mixed” across the region, the diplomat notes, describing Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as countries doing well.
What are future scenarios?
The Taliban’s rule has triggered a wave of refugees and increased tensions across Central Asia.
“Brzezinski used to talk about Eurasian Balkanisation in the 1980s [in his landmark book The Grand Chessboard]. He saw Central Asia as the center of the Eurasian Balkans. I am not sure whether we are edging on that point or not right now,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia analyst. Balkanisation is a term, referring to ethnic conflict and divisions of states into smaller units of sub-ethnic entities.
“We will see a significant increase in terrorism in the region, which includes Pakistan and maybe China’s Xinjiang region, maybe Europe and maybe the United States,” Bryza assesses possible results of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A lot of things depend on how the Taliban will act in Afghanistan, says Omonkulov. “If the group acts like it did in its first takeover, then, Central Asian states will see the group as a threat to their securities. If Russia and China also increase their pressures over Central Asia, then, those states might need the US help,” the Uzbek analyst views.
Even prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan, Washington had “a vague policy, not being able to institutionalize its power instruments across Central Asia,” Yalinkilicli says. On the other hand, Russia has continued to keep troops across different Central Asia states using the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a political ground to do so, the analyst notes.
Most recently, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have done joint military exercises across Central Asian countries’ border with Afghanistan. Both Russia and China conduct a pro-active foreign policy across the region, seizing both diplomatic and militaristic opportunities emerging from the US withdrawal, Yalinkilicli observes.
Central Asian states are not willing to collaborate with the US until Washington comes up with a consistent foreign policy proposal regarding the region and particularly Afghanistan, according to the Eurasia analyst.