Regional Implications: If and When the US withdraws from Afghanistan
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Issue Courtesy: Aakrosh | Date : 02 Jul , 2012

But in a major country like Russia, where for good reason many consider the United States a real friend, there are some who speak differently. The Atlantic quotes Arkady Dubnov, a Russian journalist and expert on central Asia, saying: “There is a danger, but we also might be exaggerating the danger. What we’re seeing now is PR, preparation for this period [when the U.S. leaves]. This PR is to prepare popular opinion, internal Russian popular opinion, and also Central Asian popular opinion, to accept the inevitability of Russian security measures.” Dubnov does not believe the United States will leave Afghanistan; but neither does he say that such an eventuality would be advantageous for Russia.

In contrast to Russian reactions, the smaller and weaker central Asian nations are less forthcoming in their views about a U.S.-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In a 25 June 2011 Eurasia Net commentary, “Understanding Russia’s Approach on Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Mark N. Katz outlines what the Russians are likely to do vis-à-vis Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the U.S.-NATO troops but also points out that in recent years, Russian thinking has adjusted to the reality that the United States and its allies could not easily contain the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan.

“By 2009, Russian leaders even started to grow concerned that the Obama administration might suddenly withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, thus leaving Russia alone to deal with the threat that a resurgent Taliban would pose to Central Asia and Russia itself,” Katz notes. “Accordingly, Moscow helped the United States put together the Northern Distribution Network, a re-supply route that facilitates the overland transit of non-lethal goods from Europe to Afghanistan.”

In a March 18 interview with TOLO News, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made Moscow’s thinking very clear, insisting that the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan must fulfil the mandate of the United Nations Security Council before being allowed to leave. “We see it from the point of international law. The presence of the international stabilization force in Afghanistan has been mandated by the U.N. Security Council. The mandate is clear. They must fulfill this mandate before they leave, and before they leave, they must report to the Security Council that the mandate has been fulfilled,” Lavrov stated.

“Everyone understands that by the time the international forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Afghan government itself must possess the capabilities to maintain law and order and to be able to address all security problems inside the country,” he added.

In contrast to Russian reactions, the smaller and weaker central Asian nations are less forthcoming in their views about a U.S.-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. In his article in the 17 August 2011 issue of CACI, “U.S. Drawdown in Afghanistan Stirs Reactions,” analyst Stephen Blank notes this: “Central Asian governments, though unwilling to discuss their alarm publicly, clearly fear a Taliban takeover and do not have much confidence in the Karzai regime or the Afghan army to defend Afghanistan. Indeed, many local analysts view a victory or stabilization in Afghanistan as a necessary precondition for the ongoing security of Central Asia. Many of these governments as well as some commentators believe that the indigenous terrorist threats are growing or have been growing since 2008-2009, and view a Taliban victory in Afghanistan as providing the basis for the spiritual and material encouragement of these groups that threaten their own domestic security.”

Like India, China has not been directly affected by what is happening in Afghanistan. China’s problem with terrorists moving into Xinjiang in support of the Uyghur ethnic minority is not considered to be an after-effect of the U.S.-NATO campaign in Afghanistan.

Blank continues: “Fully grasping the neo-imperial motives behind Russian ambitions to create more military bases and postings for its troops there, they are reluctant to give Moscow that access but fear being left with no other choice. This particularly applies to Tajikistan. Moreover, given the importance of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to their economic well-being, they certainly are reluctant to see it fade away. In view of the historic absence of regional integration among these governments, it would also probably be quixotic to expect them to produce a large-scale, coherent military alternative force to replace the U.S.-NATO forces. Thus they fear that they might be abandoned to Moscow, if not Beijing, or left on their own to face what they believe to be a mounting terrorist threat.”

Blank’s observations may suggest that central Asian nations, particularly Tajikistan, have an extreme view about a post-U.S.-NATO Afghanistan. But underlying this view is their concern over how, weak as they are, they will be able to stand up to an unknown adversary who has defied both the United States and NATO, who together deployed 150,000 troops and had an endless supply of arms, weaponry and communication, for 11 years. The thought of facing such an undefeated adversary is surely not a pleasant one for any central Asian nation. What perhaps worries them the most is who they will have to lean on if such an adversary chooses to extend its claws northward.

Worries in Central Asia

Some thinking has begun in central Asia about what to do under those circumstances. On 19 September 2011, Asia-Plus highlighted a report released at a news conference in Dushanbe. Prepared by the Tajik think tank Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), the report pointed out that NATO’s plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan in 2014 may dramatically change the situation in the region.

“Therefore, the countries of the region should have plans of action for the period until and after 2014,” Suhrob Sharipov, the director of CSS, told Asia-Plus. “We must combine our efforts in order to efficiently address the threats,” Sharipov added. Asia-Plus also noted that Sharipov considers that the United States and countries of the European Union (EU) should provide all-round assistance to central Asian countries, providing regional security after withdrawal of the coalition forces from Afghanistan. “They must not do as the Soviet Union did; Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, deteriorated the situation and left the country,” the expert said, noting that Russia, which uses the Okno space surveillance facility in Tajikistan, should also provide assistance.

China is keen to get into Afghanistan in a big way, and that can only happen once the troops leave the scene, handing over power to some Afghan entity.

In this context, it should be noted that Moscow is in the process of beefing up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led political-military bloc consisting of former Soviet states, with the aim of becoming a viable collective security organ. In September 2011, CSTO held military drills with 12,000 soldiers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Asia-Plus reported that the group’s general secretary, Nikolai Bordyuzha, says the drills were aimed at preparing for the 2014 withdrawal. “We are not on the verge of solving the problems in Afghanistan, but on the worsening of them, and quite a qualitatively different situation in the Central Asian region, especially after 2014,” Bordyuzha was quoted. “The prognosis is clear: Afghanistan will remain a base for organizing terrorist and extremist activities, we feel.”

In conclusion, Asia-Plus added: “But it’s not clear how Moscow intends the group to work. While the recent CSTO exercises focused on conventional military threats, Moscow has shown little stomach for military action outside its own borders. Last year, as unrest in CSTO member-state Kyrgyzstan devolved into horrific ethnic pogroms, the CSTO declined to step in. Some top officials have suggested that they should try to combat popular movements like the Arab Spring, even considering such options as shutting down Twitter to forestall popular uprisings in Central Asia. But military intervention, it seems, is not on the table. Other officials say the CSTO should act as a security assistance tool, building up the hapless, often corrupt security forces of Central Asia to be able to manage threats from Afghanistan on their own.”

Late last year, in her article “Uzbekistan Considers the Strategic Implications of NATO’s Drawdown in Afghanistan” (Eurasia Daily Monitor 8, no. 210, 2011), Umida Hashimova said: “The future of the country and its neighbors following the withdrawal by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is unclear, even though the U.S. government pledges its continued support. Anxiety about militancy in the country dominates wider concerns in the region. In the absence of large numbers of U.S. and allied forces, the potential for militant activity to spread beyond Afghanistan affects all neighboring countries. Even if the Afghan security forces are able to control the country, a deterioration of security conditions can be expected to accompany any anticipated withdrawal of US troops.”

To deal with this situation, as Umida Hashimova explains, Uzbekistan is toying around with at least two options. Not part of the CSTO, Uzbekistan has no interest in Moscow’s CSTO-based security plan. In an address to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in December 2010, the then Uzbek foreign minister Vladimir Norov, spelled this out: “Uzbekistan does not consider it possible for itself to participate in the implementation of the programs and projects adopted on a collective or bloc basis.” Alternately, Uzbekistan has promoted the “6+3” initiative, a collective approach to the Afghan problem that the United States and European Union do not favour because it excludes the Afghanistan government itself. Uzbekistan will confine its relations with Afghanistan to the bilateral level, as Norov also stated in the OSCE speech. “Uzbekistan builds and shall build its relations with its close neighbour—Afghanistan—only on a bilateral basis, proceeding from mutual national interests,” Hashimova reported.

Hashimova points out that with little support from the Afghan people, a weak and unpopular central government and little or no foreign ground troops in the country after 2014, a new period of instability will almost certainly become the norm. That is when the U.S. and NATO will need to start increasingly to rely on Afghanistan’s neighbours to contain the threat and Uzbekistan can expect to begin to play a greater role.

 China is keen to strengthen its western provinces and secure its western borders. Beijing has long realised that in order to attain these objectives, it must have a strong, proactive role in Central Asia.

“Therefore, the U.S. may start paying greater attention to sustaining stability and good relations with Uzbekistan, and Tashkent is aware of its growing strategic importance. Uzbekistan does not mind having strong relations with the U.S., as long as Washington desists from trying to impose its own view of Uzbekistan’s internal political dynamics. Uzbekistan will benefit from this partnership in particular, because the U.S. is a strong ally, but it is distant enough not to pose a threat to Uzbekistan’s sovereignty,” Hashimova concluded.

China’s Concerns

Like India, China has not been directly affected by what is happening in Afghanistan. China’s problem with terrorists moving into Xinjiang in support of the Uyghur ethnic minority is not considered to be an after-effect of the U.S.-NATO campaign in Afghanistan. Beijing is fully aware that those terrorists are based in Pakistan and that Pakistani security officials do not necessarily have control over them. As a result, Beijing is not particularly concerned about deterioration in China’s security following the withdrawal of the U.S.-NATO troops from Afghanistan and, for this reason, Chinese think tanks have no qualms about calling for American troops’ withdrawal. China would like to see deployment of an international peacekeeping mission after the U.S. withdrawal, they say. Their argument is that with the aid of international peacekeepers, Afghanistan’s government and its security forces will be able to exercise effective control over domestic unrest and maintain peace and security. China can potentially provide “boots” for a peacekeeping mission (Ibrahim Sajid Malick, “What Is China Doing in Pakistan?” Perspicacity, 27 October 2009).

Not only does Beijing have no qualms about a U.S-NATO withdrawal, China would positively like to see them depart for many reasons. China is keen to get into Afghanistan in a big way, and that can only happen once the troops leave the scene, handing over power to some Afghan entity. China’s developmental requirements make Afghanistan a focus. China’s growing demand for energy and mineral resources, plus its growing dependence on imported petroleum, has made Beijing increasingly concerned about ensuring supplies of reserves and an uninterrupted flow of oil at reasonable prices. The resource-rich central Asian nations, having estimated oil and gas reserves of 23 billion tons and 3,000 billion cubic meters, respectively, have a great deal of geoeconomic significance for China. While Afghanistan has no proven fuel deposits, it provides a convenient transportation route for the exploitation of the energy resources of the central Asian nations.

The geoeconomic significance of Afghanistan for China should not be understated in light of the latter’s serious interest in the Caspian Sea hydrocarbon resources and the growing Sino-Afghan trade, which reached $317 million in 2005–2006. China has also evinced an interest in a pipeline to the Arabian Sea, with a view to importing gas and oil by supertanker from Gwadar Port; but it should be noted that the port project is still severely debilitated by the absence of links to access the hinterland from the port. As another option, China is considering transporting its energy shipments from central Asia and the Middle East via tankers to Gwadar Port and then by pipe or truck to western China via Karakoram Highway (Tariq Mahmud Ashraf, “Afghanistan in Chinese Strategy Toward South and Central Asia,” China Brief 8, no. 10, 2008).

There is no question that stability in Afghanistan is imperative for Pakistan and that such stability may emerge only after the foreign troops leave

China is also concerned about Pakistan, a long-time, all-weather ally. Beijing has noted the deterioration of Pakistan’s security situation during the U.S.-NATO occupation since 2001. Enhanced hostility between Pakistan and U.S.-NATO troops has the potential to further undermine Pakistan’s internal security. Under such circumstances, Beijing fears that the Islamist forces linked to the Uyghur separatists based in Pakistan would garner further strength. Such a development would create serious problems in Sino-Pakistani relations and in China’s efforts to set up the transportation corridor it needs, running through Pakistan to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Arabian Sea. In short, in looking ahead, China finds the stabilisation of Pakistan is important for its own developmental requirements.

Moreover, China is keen to strengthen its western provinces and secure its western borders. Beijing has long realised that in order to attain these objectives, it must have a strong, proactive role in Central Asia. China is now a huge economic power. It has the ability to help the central Asian nations and help itself in the process. It can invest heavily in the mining, energy and transportation sectors. It has the money and the technology to do all that. For instance, China’s investment in developing a technologically advanced, high-speed rail system over the years was aimed at setting up transportation corridors throughout the region.

Chinese leaders have also formed a much closer relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and it is expected that there will be much less rivalry between Russia and China in central Asia in the coming years than during the Cold War. China’s strong presence in Afghanistan is only natural. Since Russia is no longer an impediment to China’s presence in the region, China does not want the United States to play in her backyard for too long. Beijing believes that the withdrawal of U.S.-NATO troops will pave the way for it to go ahead with its future plans for central Asia.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ramtanu Maitra

Ramtanu Maitra, writes for Executive Intelligence Review (EIR), a weekly magazine published from Washington, and Asia Times Online and Nueu Solidaritat, a German weekly published from Wiesbaden.

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One thought on “Regional Implications: If and When the US withdraws from Afghanistan

  1. Geopolitics is intriguing and this issue is so complicated that no single person has the answer. What is clear is that Afghanistan will find it hard to lead a peaceful existence due to its location. I see why Russia wants things sorted as they have grumbling’s on their immediate border from Soviet annexed states.

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