American diplomats are escalating a charm offensive with Central Asian leaders this week as they work to secure a nearby spot to respond to any resurgence of outside militants in Afghanistan after the US military withdraws.
But even as high-level US diplomats head to the region, they are encountering doubts from Afghanistan’s neighbours about any such security partnerships with the US. This is in contrast to 2001, when Central Asian countries made their territory available for US bases, troops and other access when the US hit back for the 9/11 attacks plotted by al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
There is distrust of the US as a reliable long-term partner, after an only partly successful war in Afghanistan and years of widely fluctuating US engagement regionally and globally, say former American diplomats. Russia also says a permanent US military base in its Central Asia sphere of influence would be “unacceptable”.
Meanwhile, the Taliban leadership, more internationally savvy than it was in 2001, has been visiting regional capitals and Moscow in a diplomatic push of its own, offering pledges it will pursue regional security, peace and trade whatever comes of its fight with the Kabul government.
“I personally can see the value of an American base in Central Asia, but I’m not sure the Central Asian states see such value currently,” said John Herbst, who, as US ambassador to Uzbekistan, helped arrange military access in Central Asia in 2001.
“We’ve taken a hit through our failures in Afghanistan in credibility,” said Herbst, after the US neutralised al-Qaida in Afghanistan but struggled in fighting against the fundamentalist Taliban and in trying to strengthen a Kabul-based state. “Is that a mortal hit? Probably not. But it’s still a very powerful factor.”
The former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which neighbour Afghanistan, watched years of fervent democracy-building calls abroad by the US, then watched Barack Obama disengage to an extent, and then Donald Trump almost entirely, says Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a former US international development official in Central Asia, now a researcher on the region at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I think it made the US seem sort of aimless,” Murtazashvili said. “The US hasn’t had a very strong strategy, or a strong presence, in Central Asia for a long time.”
But relations with Central Asia are now a security issue for the Biden administration as it seeks to make sure the fundamentalist Taliban doesn’t again allow foreign Islamist extremists to use Afghanistan as a base to mount attacks on the US or other outside targets.
The state department spokesperson, Ned Price, said on Wednesday that the Central Asian nations “will make sovereign decisions about their level of cooperation with the United States” after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“It’s not only in our interests and, in fact, it is much more and certainly in the immediate interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours that Afghanistan be stable and secure,” Price said.
The Biden administration has given few details of what kind of security access it is seeking in the region, or from which countries. While the US can manage strike and counter-terror capability for Afghanistan from Gulf nations or from US aircraft carriers, closer is much better. That’s especially true for intelligence operations to track developments in Afghanistan. Any such agreement would probably be discreet.
The US is also reportedly looked at neighbouring countries for the temporary relocation of Afghan translators and other US employees.
The Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, confirmed this week that the US was still courting countries in Central Asia. “We are talking about and discussing with countries in the region about the possibilities of being able to use facilities and infrastructure closer to Afghanistan,” he said.
To that end, the Biden administration invited the foreign ministers of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to Washington earlier this month, shining the bright light of US diplomacy on them.
Biden’s homeland security adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, joined by the US-Afghanistan special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, went with other Americans to a conference opening on Thursday in Uzbekistan’s capital, drawing foreign ministers and presidents of almost all the regional countries and powers.
All are countries urgently and directly affected by whether Afghanistan again becomes a refuge for extremism upon the US withdrawal. For landlocked Uzbekistan, hopes of rapidly reaching outside markets hinge on completing a railroad to Pakistan’s seaports – through Afghanistan.
“For us, it is vitally important,” said Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the US, Javlon Vakhabov. Afghanistan’s US-backed government in Kabul has promised its support for the project, and probably more importantly, so have Taliban leaders, in two visits to Uzbekistan.
“We’ve been reassured that these people would not attack or … harm the project,” Vakhabov said.
Uzbek law intended to keep the former Soviet republic from aligning with any bloc now prohibits Uzbekistan from hosting any foreign base or counter-terror effort, he said, while stressing his country’s positive feelings for the US.
The region waits now to see if the Taliban makes good on its pledge to be a good neighbour, despite what may happen among Afghanistan’s rival forces. If not, cooperation with US security aims will probably increase, former diplomats said.
“All the countries in the region have to worry about Taliban intentions. If the Taliban behaves, then great for them,” said Herbst. “If the Taliban doesn’t behave, they need some help – and help from us.”