24.05.2021
Worn Cliché Turning into Reality: What’s Next After US/NATO Leaving Afghanistan
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Piotr Dutkiewicz

Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute of European and Russian Studies at Carleton University, Canada

The United States has started to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences for the region will be painful. The plan is for US forces to leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 — a symbolic date marking the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that brought American troops to Afghanistan. For the Afghan government, neighboring states, and their key allies like Russia and China it means more trouble.

In previous years, many experts pointed to the threat of war spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia[1]. Some called those warnings a “worn cliche”[2]. They were wrong.

With the US and another 7000-strong contingent of NATO troops withdrawing, the possibility of multiple uprisings in the region and increased terrorist activities becomes a realistic scenario. If that happens, the regional security and domestic politics in Central Asia will be deeply shaken.

Why that might be the case? How can Central Asian states respond? What can Russia and China do?

First off, we need to seriously consider the possibility that after US/NATO withdrawal, the Afghan state may collapse under Taliban pressure. Military assets left behind may fall into the hands of the Taliban or other radical groups, as it was the case in Iraq. This could lead to a civil war that could further divide the country. This opinion is shared by top US military commanders. For instance, Kenneth McKenzie, the general in charge of Central Command, has expressed concern about the “ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they’re on now.”[3] Similar conclusions were reached by a recent US Intelligence Report, which claimed that “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support”[4]. The Afghan Study Group report issued recently by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) warns that “the risks of state failure and renewed conflict are extremely high.[5]

It’s also the case that the US/NATO presence in Afghanistan – from Central Asia states security perspective – made those countries more secured since 2001[6] . Until now, Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan were in many respects security free riders, protected, for instance, from the spread of radical militants. For almost twenty years, the US – and the Afghan military – have been a de facto security force for the entire region. The US providing intelligence, air power, securing borders, eliminating militant’s leadership, among other actions, has left the region’s governments unprepared for the threat they may soon face.

Central Asian States, to use a perhaps odd metaphor, resemble an ostrich egg with a very hard shell outside and soft yoke inside. The appearance of a strong leadership and security goes hand in hand with institutional and military weakness.

Growing social inequalities and feeble economic performance translate into minimal social support for those in power. Many will agree with Ivan Safranchuk’s assessment that “they [Central Asian states – mine] still hardly have a clue or even properly reflect on a few security-related dilemmas, which shape their economic and foreign policies.”[7] In short, most Central Asian regimes may be quite vulnerable to increased internal dissent supported from the territory of Afghanistan. So far, the limited scale of dissent has permitted them to put opponents in jail (Kazakhstan has listed more than 23 terrorist/extremist groups, Kyrgyzstan has detained approximately 520 radicals, while Tajikistan has detained more than 13,000, and Uzbekistan has detained 18,000) [8]. The tactics of exclusive domestic repression may prove insufficient after US/NATO withdrawal. Many militant groups (such as Jamaat Ansarullah, the Islamic Jihad Union, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and an Islamic State of Khorasan/ISK), all of which could threaten Central Asian stability, are simply waiting for foreign forces to leave to re-supply, re-group and re-launch new war. According to Russian Ambassador to Tajikistan Igor Lyakin-Frolov, (ISK), a branch of the terrorist Islamic State has about 3000 fighters in the Northern Afghanistan (Afghan government sources — however — estimate it as at least three times that number)[9]. Without external support, any spillover effect from renewed conflict in Afghanistan may trigger a new round of regional instability. Russia and China are concerned and watching. At stake is the safety of their major regional projects in Eurasia – BRI and EAEU.

For Russia, stability and smooth cooperation with Central Asia is the third chance (after the failure of western and CIC integrational projects) to show the attractiveness of cooperation with Russia within her traditional area of influence.

The stakes are high as the Eurasian project will either reinvent Russia as a moderator in the emerging continental system, or solidify her status as an important but lonely regional power.

The US withdrawal will undoubtedly push Russia to provide more security for her allies (in particular Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), not only to assist them but also to show to other regional players including China that Russia can be an effective regional security provider. That might be one of few strong cards in Russia’s hand, but it will also saddle Russia with the problem of Afghanistan-based militants for the foreseeable future. Seem that Russian military planners and decision makers are already acting[10]. “[In this context,] defense cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan is becoming increasingly important,” Ambassador   Igor Lyakin-Frolov   noted, stressing the importance of the 201st Russian military base, which serves as a reliable guarantor of security and stability both in Tajikistan and in the region[11]. Lyakin-Frolov also said that the Tajik armed forces received modern weapons and military equipment from Russia as part of their modernization, which also involved military training at the Russian Defense Ministry’s universities and at the 201st base.” In short. By end of September a rotten egg of Afghan based militants will be firmly placed on Russian security menu.

China, meanwhile, is worried that her favorite, grand, massively expensive and complex BRI project may be jeopardized by a few thousand militants. Beijing views militant activity in Central Asian countries with alarm. As Sergey Sukhankin has pointed out “ Beijing has already sought multiple means to address this threat. Between 2015 – 2020, China made significant investments in security in Central Asia, expanding to 18 percent its share of the region’s arms deliveries. The PRC has also strengthened security coordination with Central Asian countries through events such as the “Cooperation-2019” […] anti-terrorism exercise, which was held in August 2019 between Chinese and Tajik forces. The PRC is also considering new measures for the protection of Chinese BRI investments in Asia, to include the greater use of private security companies (PSCs) such as the Frontier Services Group (FSG)”[12] . That is on top of China building eleven military border posts on the Tajik – Afghan border[13]. For China such investments will not only provide additional security but more control over Tajikistan’s politics and resources, which Russia, in turn, may not appreciate.

There is every reason to believe that if US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan stays on schedule, the region will again see more turbulence. This might happen as soon as the end of the year. Stabilizing the region will require coordinated planning and action by Central Asian states with Russia and China. This will require Russia and China going outside their comfort zone to coordinate arms sales, construct infrastructure, and coordinate training and planning. It will also require more robust securitization of regional institutions and organizations (for instance BRI and EAEU). Regional actors need to start working on cooperation and coordination now because it is what’s best for the region’s future. There is no time to waste.

Private Military and Security Companies
Maria A. Nebolsina
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References

[1] Eurasia on the Edge Managing Complexity, Piotr Dutkiewicz, Richard Sakwa, and Fyodor Lukyanov, eds. Lexington Books, 2018

[2] Catherine Putz, US Afghan Envoy Visits Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/us-afghan-envoy-visits-uzbekistan-tajikistan/  accessed 14 May 2021.

[3] Al Jazeera, US general ‘concerned’ about Afghan troops after US withdrawal.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/22/us-general-concerned-over-afghan-troops-ability-to-hold-ground

[4] U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/americas/us-intelligence-report-says-afghan-peace-deal-unlikely/2209182

[5]Afghan Study Group Report, April 2021,  https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/afghanistan_study_group_final_report_a_pathway_for_peace_in_afghanistan.pdf,

[6] U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, EXPLORING THREE STRATEGIES FOR AFGHANISTAN, 2009,  https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-111shrg55538/html/CHRG-111shrg55538.htm

[7] Safranchuk, Ivan. Central Asian Regimes Stability and Reform, in Eurasia on the Edge Managing Complexity Edited by Piotr Dutkiewicz, Richard Sakwa, and Fyodor Lukyanov, Published by Lexington Books, 2018, p.181.

[8] Sergey Sukhankin, The Security Component of the BRI in Central Asia, Part One: Chinese and Regional Perspectives on Security in Central Asia, Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 12

https://jamestown.org/program/the-security-component-of-the-bri-in-central-asia-part-one-chinese-and-regional-perspectives-on-security-in-central-asia/

[9] Bruce Pannier, Will Central Asia Host U.S. Military Forces Once Again?

https://www.rferl.org/a/u-s-military-bases-in-central-asia-part-two-/31219781.html, accessed 14 May 2021.

[10] As for Kyrgyzstan “Russia will deploy air defence systems at its military base in Kyrgyzstan and will develop infrastructure for unmanned aerial vehicles there,” Deputy Minister of Defence Nikolay Pankow informed on February 11, 2020 while speaking in the Duma. The amendments to the agreement between Russia and Kyrgyzstan on the military base   will allow for the establishment of a drone unit at the Kant military base.

https://www.dailyexcelsior.com/russia-helps-tajikistan-in-responding-to-security-threats-posed-by-afghanistan-ambassador/.

[11] “[In this context,] defense cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan is becoming increasingly important,” Ambassador   Igor Lyakin-Frolov   noted, stressing the importance of the 201st Russian military base, which serves as a reliable guarantor of security and stability both in Tajikistan and in the region. Lyakin-Frolov also said that the Tajik armed forces received modern weapons and military equipment from Russia as part of their modernization, which also involved military training at the Russian Defense Ministry’s universities and at the 201st base.

[12] Sergey Sukhankin, The Security Component of the BRI in Central Asia, Part One: Chinese and Regional Perspectives on Security in Central Asia,Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 12

https://jamestown.org/program/the-security-component-of-the-bri-in-central-asia-part-one-chinese-and-regional-perspectives-on-security-in-central-asia/

[13] https://thediplomat.com/2016/09/china-in-central-asia-building-border-posts-in-tajikistan/

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