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As the US announces the withdrawal from Afghanistan, great powers' movements may already be noticed in Central Asia

As the US announces the withdrawal from Afghanistan,
great powers' movements may already be noticed in Central Asia

Vitor Lengruber
Bachelor in International Relations,
Petrópolis Catholic University (UCP), Brazil
Head of the Latin American Studies Working Group,
Volgograd Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation, Russia

On the last 13th of April, the US president Joe Biden made public the country’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11th, 2021. The symbolic deadline was chosen to mark the twenty years of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, which led to the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq[i]. One day after Biden’s statement, the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, supported the American plan and agreed to start the withdrawal of the alliance’s forces from the country[ii]. Later on, Germany and the United Kingdom announced to follow NATO out of Afghanistan[iii].

Although Biden declared that Russia, China, India, and Turkey have responsibilities towards the construction of a stable future for Afghanistan[iv], the chief of the US Central Command, Kenneth McKenzie, stated that the withdrawal of the American troops from the country will not mean the end of Washington’s efforts to ensure its interests in the region, especially due to the ongoing activities of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban[v]. In its turn, Stoltenberg said that NATO will continue to support the Afghan government through economic and diplomatic mechanisms and that the end of NATO’s direct operations in the country will allow the alliance, alongside the US military, to focus on more dangerous threats: China and Russia[vi]. It is worth remembering that this statement came on the occasion of the latest tensions between Moscow and Western capitals over Ukraine[vii].

The Western reluctance in completely leaving Afghanistan’s surroundings is explained by the history of world politics: power does not admit vacuum. If the US does leave Afghanistan, another political actor will surely occupy such geopolitical space, whether it is Russia, Pakistan, India, China or the Taliban itself. That said, this article argues that the great power competition, especially between the US and Russia, aiming to guarantee the most geopolitical influence in Afghanistan and its surroundings as possible will take place in Central Asia; and some events demonstrate that it has already begun. (Although China has a significant presence in the region, it will not be discussed in order to keep the text simpler.)

For example, on 17th March, before the American statement, a trilateral dialogue between the US, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan took place via video conference. The three actors agreed to achieve deeper strategic cooperation in order to promote peace, security, and prosperity in the region[viii]. One month later, Moscow responded by holding an in-person meeting between Russia’s armed forces representative and his Tajik counterpart[ix]. Both agreed to organize four joint military exercises this year[x]. Still in April, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had a telephone conversation with Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, occasion in which they discussed the future developments in Afghanistan and reaffirmed the commitment of strengthening the Russia-Tajik strategic partnership[xi]. One day later, within a conference of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, held talks with Sherali Mirzo, Tajikistan’s Minister of Defense. Shoigu called for joint efforts from Moscow and Dushanbe to tackle possible threats in Afghanistan[xii]. In late April, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, discussed issues over Afghanistan with top representatives of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan[xiii].

In May, Washington also made itself present in Central Asia. On 2nd May, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, went to Tashkent to meet Uzbekistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdulaziz Kamilov[xiv]. Two days later, Khalilzad went to Dushanbe to talk with Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon[xv]. As a response, Putin held another round of conversations with his Tajik and Uzbek counterparts to discuss their strategic partnerships and the future of Afghanistan[xvi]. On 8th May, citing American government and military officials, the Wall Street Journal informed that the American government would be planning to redeploy its forces and equipment from Kabul to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As the media vehicle stated: “Preferable, according to some military and Biden administration officials, would be Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan and would allow for quick access” if needed [xvii]

Although some countries of Central Asia try to conduct their foreign policy autonomously, as Uzbekistan, which suspended its membership of the Russian-led CSTO in 2012 in an attempt to balance Moscow, for historical and geographical reasons Russia is still the dominant player in the region. As in the case of Uzbekistan, nonetheless the withdrawal from the CSTO the country still maintains significant economic and security relations with Russia. Toshkent, for example, is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and has observer status within the Eurasian Economic Union. In the game of coopting Central Asian countries to its sphere of influence between the US and Russia, Moscow is ahead – although the US should not be dismissed. 

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[i] Cronk, T.; News, D. Biden Announces Full U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan by Sept. 11. US Department of Defense, 2021. Available at: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2573268/biden-announces-full-us-troop-withdrawal-from-afghanistan-by-sept-11/. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[ii] Garamone, J.; News, D. Austin Says NATO, U.S. Forces Will Leave Afghanistan, Continue Support to Afghan Forces. US Department of Defense, 2021. Available at: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2572781/austin-says-nato-us-forces-will-leave-afghanistan-continue-support-to-afghan-fo/. Accessed on May 13, 2021.

[iii] Aburakia, M. Germany and UK to Follow US Out of Afghanistan. Deutsche Welle, 2021. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/germany-and-uk-to-follow-us-out-of-afghanistan/a-57194144. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[iv] Hindustan Times. India, Pakistan, China, Russia Have Stake in Afghanistan’s Stable Future: Joe Biden. Hindustan Times, 2021. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/india-pakistan-china-russia-have-stake-in-afghanistan-s-stable-future-joe-biden-101618462688472.html. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[v] Lopez, T.; News, D. U.S. Plans to Keep Threats in Check Even After Afghanistan Withdrawal. US Department of Defense, 2021. Available at: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2579584/us-plans-to-keep-threats-in-check-even-after-afghanistan-withdrawal/. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[vi] Garamone, J.; News, D. Austin Says NATO, U.S. Forces Will Leave Afghanistan, Continue Support to Afghan Forces. US Department of Defense, 2021. Available at: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2572781/austin-says-nato-us-forces-will-leave-afghanistan-continue-support-to-afghan-fo/. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[vii] Gordon, M.; Kantchev, G. Satellite Images Show Russia’s Expanding Ukraine Buildup. The Wall Street Journal, 2021. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/satellite-images-show-russias-expanding-ukraine-buildup-11618917238. Accessed on May 13, 2021.; Bertrand, N.; Seligman, L. U.S. Considers More Weapons Shipments to Ukraine Amid Russian Buildup. Politico, 2021. Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2021/04/21/us-weapons-ukraine-russia-483908. Accessed on May 13, 2021.; Reuters. UK Warships to Sail for Black Sea in May as Ukraine-Russia Tensions Rise – Sunday Times. Reuters, 2021. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/uk-warships-sail-black-sea-may-ukraine-russia-tensions-rise-sunday-times-2021-04-18/. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[viii] US Department of State. Joint Statement on the Occasion of a Trilateral Discussion Among Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the United States. US Department of State, 2021. Available at: https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-the-occasion-of-a-trilateral-discussion-among-afghanistan-tajikistan-and-the-united-states/. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[ix] Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Holds a Meeting With His Counterpart from Tajikistan. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, 2021. Available at: http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12354432@egNews. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[x] Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. In 2021, Within the CSTO, Four Exercises to Be Organized on the Territory of Tajikistan and Russia. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, 2021. Available at: http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12354428@egNews. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[xi] President of Russia. Telephone Conversation with President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon. President of Russia, 2021. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/TJ/events/65431. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[xii] Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. Russian Defence Minister Holds Talks with the Head of the Military Department of Tajikistan. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, 2021. Available at: http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12358360@egNews. Accessed on May 13, 2021. 

[xiii] US Department of State. Secretary Blinken’s Call with Kazakhstan Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tileuberdi. US Department of State, 2021. Available at: https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-kazakhstan-deputy-prime-minister-and-foreign-minister-tileuberdi/. Accessed on May 14, 2021.; US Department of State.  Secretary Blinken’s Call with Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Kamilov. US Department of State, 2021. Available at: https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-uzbekistan-foreign-minister-kamilov/. Accessed on May 14, 2021.; US Department of State. Secretary Blinken’s Meeting with the C5+1. US Department of State, 2021. Available at: https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-meeting-with-the-c51/. Accessed on May 14, 2021. 

[xiv] Twitter. US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad. Twitter, 2021. Available at: https://twitter.com/US4AfghanPeace/status/1388922337014190083. Accessed on May 14, 2021. 

[xv] TOLO News. Tajik President, Khalilzad Discuss Afghan Peace. TOLO News, 2021. Available at: https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-171949. Accessed on May 14, 2021. 

[xvi] President of Russia. Telephone Conversation with President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev. President of Russia, 2021. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/65539. Accessed on 14 May, 2021.; President of Russia. Meeting with President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon. President of Russia, 2021. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/TJ/events/65543. Accessed on May 14, 2021. 

[xvii] The Wall Street Journal. Afghan Pullout Leaves U.S. Looking for Other Places to Station Its Troops. The Wall Street Journal, 2021. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-pullout-leaves-u-s-looking-for-other-places-to-station-its-troops-11620482659. Accessed on May 14, 2021.

 

 

18 мая 2021
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