In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, 15 countries emerged from the rubble. Amid a series of global crises that preoccupied Washington in the 1990s, from Rwanda to the Balkans, the newly independent states of Central Asia were never high on the list of US foreign policy concerns and continued to be viewed largely in the broader context of US relations Russia.
That changed when the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001. Central Asia became a major pillar of the military and logistical networks built in support of the war and US efforts to cauterize transnational terrorist networks.
"If we looked at Central Asia through a Russian prism in the 1990s, it will become an Afghan prism in the 2000s," said Brianne Todd, assistant professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.
Now that the United States ceases operations in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, Central Asia is in a position to play a key role in the Biden government's efforts to contain the aftermath of the withdrawal as the Taliban make a hasty journey through the north Afghanistan, making unprecedented territorial gains, conquering about two-thirds of the country's long and permeable border with Tajikistan in the north.
The Biden government is waging a diplomatic charm offensive in Central Asia and is allegedly in talks with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan about the temporary admission of Afghan refugees who have worked with the US government and who may now face reprisals in the wake of the Taliban rampage. It is also crucial that the government seek to re-establish a military footprint in the region in support of the Afghan government's efforts to keep the militant group in check.
While President Joe Biden has put competition between the great powers, human rights and democracy high on his foreign policy agenda – goals with great success in the region – it is unclear what prism will shape US policy there at the start of the war in Afghanistan in Washington Sliding rearview mirror.
The Foreign Ministers of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were in Washington this month for a meeting with Foreign Minister Antony Blinken. On Wednesday, the White House announced that the President's Assistant Homeland Security Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, along with Zalmay Khalilzad, the contact person for US-Afghan relations, would lead a US delegation in Uzbekistan to a conference on regional connectivity.
The delegation will meet with regional leaders to "discuss how to promote peace, security and development in Afghanistan and advance common regional security interests, including counter-terrorism cooperation," said National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne in a statement. On Friday, the State Department announced the establishment of a new diplomatic forum comprising Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States to support peace efforts and regional connectivity.
Central Asia is suspicious because the Taliban have become a slightly different beast. The Taliban have historically attracted recruits from the ethnic Pashtuns of Afghanistan in the south and east of the country. But in recent years the militant group has stepped up Efforts to attract members of other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including Tajiks, Turkmens and Uzbeks in the north of the country, which may have helped pave the way for their surprising territorial gains in the region in recent months. This has fueled fears that radical Islamist ideology would spread.
"The Taliban had developed these shadow governments in a number of areas, so they just went in and said, 'We're taking this area.'" said Suzanne Levi-Sanchez, assistant professor of national security at the US Naval War College. "The Central Asian states are to some extent concerned about the Taliban encroachment, but they are also afraid that their citizens will spill over into Afghanistan, so it is a one-way street."
Before the Taliban was overthrown by US intervention in 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan under a strict interpretation of Islamic law, and the group’s progress will be viewed with extreme caution by governments in the north that have long been hostile to militant Islam. At the same time, the Central Asian countries are also aware of the need to work with the Taliban and are asking for assurances that the group will not look beyond Afghanistan.
"There's this understanding that the Taliban will win and stay," said Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asia program at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Taliban delegations have already made two trips to Turkmenistan this year, and during a visit in February, Turkmen officials reportedly received assurances from the militant group that they would not target the country's infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. Central Asian states "can work with the Taliban, but it would be better if they did not become that example [for local Islamist groups]," said Kassenova.
Security cooperation has long been the primary focus of the United States in its engagements in the region, and it will remain the primary objective in many ways. "Those goals really haven't changed," said Brig. Gen. Duke Pirak, outgoing assistant director of strategy, plans and policies at the U.S. Central Command. “These efforts really focused on territorial integrity, border security, sovereignty, and those kinds of issues. And these are all things that are really important for stability in any environment, but obviously become more and more important after the regression in Afghanistan. "
In late 2001, the United States set up air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support the war in Afghanistan, but at the time Washington’s relations with Russia and China were radically different. "Back then you had a rather calm China and a somewhat supportive Russia," said George Krol, a former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was eager to work with the United States in counterterrorism and did not stand in the way of the United States establishing bases in Central Asia, a region that was and is considering the Kremlin at the time now as his backyard.
Washington is now facing a dramatically different geopolitical landscape in the region, and experts are skeptical that the United States can build a base in the region to counter the aftermath of the end of the war in Afghanistan.
"I cannot imagine any of these countries doing this because they know the pressure they would come under from Russia and China," said Krol. The US role in the region will tend to be limited to continued security cooperation, arms sales and humanitarian aid. Russia has not minced its stance on a permanent US military presence in the region. In an interview with a Russian magazine earlier this week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia had strongly warned the United States and the Central Asian states against establishing a permanent US military presence in the region.
Tajikistan is home to Russia's largest foreign military base near the Afghan border, and Moscow was build up his military capabilities in the region in recent years. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised that Russia "will do everything it can to prevent aggressive action against our allies in the region," and Tajikistan has asked for support from the Russian-led military bloc of the Collective Security Treaty Organization to open any security to respond to challenges from Afghanistan.
Russia has a very real interest in preventing the Taliban and other extremist groups from encroaching on the region. With the exception of Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries in the world, Russia has a visa-free travel regime with the Central Asian states. "They don't want things to come from Afghanistan that go to Central Asia, which is basically the soft underworld of the Russian Federation," said Krol, the former ambassador.
The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that China has been quietly establishing a military outpost in eastern Tajikistan, near the confluence of the Afghan and Chinese borders, as Beijing tries to prevent instability from seeping into its Xinjiang region, home to over a million Uighurs Muslims imprisoned were the pretext of an anti-terrorist campaign. The United States called the raid genocide.
Because of its geography, Central Asia has been the place of competition between the great powers for centuries. While the prospect of a new U.S. base is slim, Washington's increased involvement in the region would likely be welcomed as countries there have been careful to maintain a balance between Russia and China.
"There's a reason they want another party here, but they don't have high hopes that we will last long," said Paul Stronski, Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.