The US military pullout from Afghanistan is proceeding apace with the September 11 deadline starting to loom. Washington has said that even without boots on the ground, it is determined to keep supporting the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban, but this is unlikely to be achievable without the establishment of US military bases in Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. And the US military command’s preferred option reportedly would be Central Asia.
However, to convince any of the five Central Asian ‘Stans’ that the financial and political benefits of allowing the establishment of a US military base would outweigh the inevitable losses that the host countries would sustain as a result of Moscow and Beijing’s displeasure won’t be easy.
It would, as Temur Umarov—an expert on China and Central Asia, and a consultant at Carnegie Moscow Center—writes, be a real challenge because in the past decade, people in Central Asia have conclusively stopped believing that the US is prepared to act as a counterbalance to Russia and China in the region.
In a commentary, Umarov assesses that there are three Central Asia states—Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—that could, at a push, realistically offer the Joe Biden administration territory on which to set down a base. But he eventually concludes: “In none of the three countries in Central Asia where the United States could in theory open a military base do the potential advantages for the host country outweigh the risks. In all likelihood, none of them will agree to house a base. This reflects both the United States’ declining role in the region, and the intensifying rivalry between the global powers. It appears that Washington will have to look for other solutions, such as moving some of its troops to the Middle East and using an aircraft carrier for patrols.”
Prior to coming to that conclusion, Umarov looks in detail at what responses Biden—who promised there will be no US troops left in Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this year—might get from the Central Asian nations should his officials push the idea of locating troops within their borders.
US troops were based in the region from 2001 to 2014, but since then US relationships with Central Asia’s two main external partners—Russia and China—have sharply deteriorated, and Moscow and Beijing, says the analyst, will clearly not welcome a US return to Central Asia.
Even with boots on the ground, accessing much of Afghanistan is a formidable task (Image: US Army, Public Domain).
Looking at the US search for allies, Umarov observes: “There was a time when the young, newly independent countries of Central Asia put a high value on any U.S. attention, and when the United States was actively promoting the principles of democracy and a market economy in the region. Now Afghanistan is one of the few issues upon which Washington still cooperates with the Central Asian nations.
Afghanistan borders Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (Image: Sommerkom, CC-BY-SA 3.0).
“Afghanistan borders six other nations, none of which currently house any U.S. bases or can be described as close U.S. allies: Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Iran and China can be ruled out straight away [as potential places for US bases], and Pakistan is too dependent on China now to embark on such a step. It’s unlikely that Turkmenistan has any intention of departing from its isolationist course, and nor does Kazakhstan fit the bill, not just because of its distance from Afghanistan, but also because of its close ties to Russia.
“That only leaves two options: Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Leaks in U.S. media suggest that the Pentagon is indeed eyeing those two countries as potential candidates for new bases. Although it has not been mentioned in U.S. publications, another potential candidate is Kyrgyzstan, given its proximity to Afghanistan.”
CSTO member Tajikistan
At first glance, says Umarov, it’s hard to imagine US troops in Tajikistan: it is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that already hosts a Russian military base on its territory. Yet this hasn’t stopped President Emomali Rahmon from allowing China to build a border post on the border with Afghanistan, and—according to rumours—letting India take over the Farkhor air base, he adds.
“The Tajik economy, however, depends heavily on remittances from Tajik nationals working in Russia (22 percent of GDP in 2020, and usually over 30 percent before the pandemic), and Chinese loans (52 percent of all external borrowing and more than 20 percent of GDP),” says Umarov. “In addition, of all the countries in Central Asia, Tajikistan has the frostiest relations with the United States: Rahmon is the only regional leader who has never made an official visit to the United States.
“Tajikistan does, however, have some experience of military cooperation with the Americans. After 9/11, U.S. air force planes were given permission to refuel at the Ayni air base near the capital Dushanbe. Today, Tajik special forces undergo training in the United States, and border guards study at centers built using U.S. funding.”
In spring 2021, notes Umarov, Washington embarked on a path of rapprochement with Dushanbe on Afghanistan. In March, online trilateral talks were held among Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the United States. Then, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held an online meeting with his Central Asian counterparts in the C5+1 format, focusing on Afghanistan. And at the start of May, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, visited Tajikistan.
“The U.S. interest in Tajikistan has not gone unnoticed in Moscow,” says Umarov. “At the end of April, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone to Rahmon, and discussed strengthening bilateral relations. This was followed by three CSTO events in Dushanbe, which led to agreements on creating a unified regional air defence system for the two countries and strengthening parts of the Tajik-Afghan border, and a promise to restart regular flights between Moscow and Dushanbe. In addition, Rahmon was the only foreign leader invited to the Victory Day parade on May 9 in Moscow.
“Right now—with Rahmon preparing to hand over power to his son, the economy in crisis following the pandemic, and concerns over Afghanistan’s future after the US withdrawal—the Tajik regime is in desperate need of Russian support.”
Heavily dependent Kyrgyzstan
Like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on China and Russia. Remittances from migrant workers in Russia provide around a third of GDP, and Kyrgyzstan’s debt to China is bigger than a quarter of GDP. Kyrgyzstan is also part of the CSTO—and a member of the Eurasian Economic Union—and is home to a Russian military base, observes Umarov.
The Carnegie consultant advises: “For a long time, Kyrgyzstan was considered the main U.S. ally in the region, and an oasis of democracy in Central Asia. The U.S. base there lasted longer than all the others in the region: from 2001 to 2014, despite two revolutions and repeated attempts by Moscow to get it closed. It was only in 2013 that President Almazbek Atambayev revoked the agreement with Washington on the leasing of the transit center at Manas airport.
“Since then, relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States have not improved. In 2015, Atambayev ended a cooperation agreement with the United States after Washington conferred its Human Rights Defender Award on the Kyrgyz activist Azimjon Askarov (he died last year in a Kyrgyz jail).
“It’s difficult for the United States to build a long-term relationship with Kyrgyzstan, since the constant warring of the country’s political elites leads to unpredictable consequences and even coups d’état. This instability would also make it hard for Washington to guarantee the security of its troops if it were able to open a base there.”
Far less dependent Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is far less dependent on Russia and China than its neighbours, is not currently part of the CSTO, and does not have any foreign military bases on its territory, says the analyst. Moreover, since Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, relations with Russia have become noticeably warmer, albeit as part of a broader trend of improving external ties.
It was in 2001 that then president Islam Karimov leased the Karshi-Khanabad air base to the Americans. But in May 2005, after Washington issued a strong condemnation of the brutal suppression of protests in Andijan in which hundreds of Uzbeks were killed, Tashkent demanded the withdrawal of US troops. From 2013 to 2016, however, Tashkent was home to the office of the Nato liaison officer in Central Asia.
“Since Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, military ties between Uzbekistan and the United States have been rekindled,” says Umarov.
In 2018, the Uzbek leader visited Washington, where he signed the first ever military cooperation plan with the US. Since then, the number of joint military exercises has increased, and Uzbek officers now have the chance to train in the US and Nato countries.
“In 2018,” says Umarov, “Uzbekistan initiated a new format for ending the conflict in Afghanistan: a conference in Tashkent of over twenty countries and organizations. Uzbekistan is preparing to host a similar event this year. Washington encourages Uzbekistan’s active position on Afghanistan, and in May 2020, Washington, Tashkent, and Kabul held their first trilateral dialogue.
“But the issue of hosting U.S. troops in Uzbekistan will inevitably be met with resistance from Moscow and Beijing, and it’s doubtful that Tashkent is prepared to pay that price. Moscow is already vocal in its criticism of many of Tashkent’s initiatives, believing that Washington is behind them and that their ultimate aim is to weaken Central Asia’s links with Russia. There is also likely to be major resistance from Uzbek society, given the outrage elicited by recent rumors of a Russian military base opening in the country: a U.S. base would be even less popular.”
Finally, Umarov concludes that if a US military base did eventually open in Central Asia, it would not change the balance of power on the ground. “There are no interests that require Washington to have a long-term policy on the region. Moscow and Beijing, on the other hand, have no choice but to closely follow regional developments, since their own security depends on them,” he adds.
“Furthermore, says Umarov, “China is not just an important economic partner now, but is actively moving to institutionalize its relations with the Central Asian states. May 11 saw the second C+C5 meeting among the foreign ministers of China plus the Central Asian nations take place in Xi’an. The Chinese foreign minister, speaking on behalf of all of the countries, warned Washington of the need for the ‘responsible and orderly withdrawal of foreign troops’ from Afghanistan.
“Chinese criticism of the United States for interfering in other countries’ internal affairs is likely to become routine now, as it already is from Russia. At the end of April, for example, Beijing accused Washington of interfering in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic affairs by financing local NGOs and media.”
China and Russia are also apprehensive of increased US activity in the region because they are convinced that a US base there would be used against them, Umarov adds. “Beijing,” he says, “believes that Washington plans to destabilize the situation in Xinjiang, while Moscow suspects that the United States will keep sowing chaos around Russia’s borders. Russia and China will continue to fight against the U.S. presence—and will do so together and more actively than before.”
Temur Umarov published his analysis as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the US Embassy to Russia. His opinions, findings, and conclusions are given as “those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia”.