The U.S. may need the help of an old foe in extricating itself from America’s longest war: Vladimir Putin.
The Biden administration has in recent weeks quietly engaged Central Asian governments in the hope of using one or more of the countries as bases after the withdrawal is complete. The U.S. has two main requests: a staging post for keeping an eye on terrorist activity in Afghanistan, and temporarily hosting thousands of Afghans seeking visas.
But Moscow could use its significant economic and military influence in the region to jam up those plans, U.S. officials and experts say.
The dual questions of how to continue fighting terrorists and safeguard Afghans who worked with American forces after the U.S. withdrawal became more urgent on Friday, as the last U.S. troops left Bagram air base, the largest military base in Afghanistan and the hub of the U.S. war there for nearly two decades. As of Tuesday, the U.S. military had completed 90 percent of the withdrawal, according to U.S. Central Command.
The proposal was on the agenda on Thursday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met at the State Department with his counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the two most likely of the six Central Asian countries U.S. military planners are eying for the scheme, according to a congressional source. Both border Afghanistan and would allow for quicker access to the country than existing U.S. bases in the Middle East and aircraft carriers hundreds of miles away in the Persian Gulf.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also met with the Tajik foreign minister on Friday; Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, traveled to those countries in May. Readouts from Blinken’s Friday meetings did not mention the proposal, but noted that the officials agreed ending the Afghanistan conflict would benefit the region.
This would not be the first time the United States has stationed troops in Central Asia to support the Afghan war. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. military used two bases, one each in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for Afghanistan operations. Both bases were later shut down amid unrest and pressure by the Kremlin, which has increasingly viewed the U.S. presence in the region with suspicion.
But the prospect of such an agreement with one of the Central Asian states now is unlikely given the sour state of the relationship between Washington and Moscow, which is at one of its lowest points since the Cold War. Many of these countries are dependent on Russia — and to some extent China — for exports as well as military equipment and training. The former Soviet republic states need tacit approval from Moscow to base U.S. troops on their soil, experts say.
“Russia sees the Central Asian States region as its area of influence — and it doesn’t welcome others, particularly the United States, in those areas,” said retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded forces in Afghanistan under former President Barack Obama.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said even without a presence in Central Asia, the U.S. has an over-the-horizon capability to assist the Afghan military, referring to the bases and U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf.
“There’s not a scrap of earth we can’t hit if we don’t want to,” he said.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
The Central Asian nations’ relationship with Russia makes asking them to play host to thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who helped U.S. forces during the war a tough sell. Russia does not require visas for any of the three countries being looked at for the effort — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan — so Moscow would have to add border controls for security, said Temur Umarov, a research consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Further, the deteriorating economic situation and latest wave of the pandemic means that the countries are unlikely to agree to accept additional migrants.
The discussions, though, are an “encouraging development,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret who is one of a number of lawmakers pressing Biden to evacuate the Afghan interpreters.
“I’m pleased the Biden administration is exploring all options,” Waltz told POLITICO, adding that sending the refugees to Guam is another option. “Time is running out with the Taliban on the march.”
When it comes to basing U.S. troops, Russia will not take kindly to the idea. Take Tajikistan, one of five countries that share a border with Afghanistan. While Dushanbe has a history of working with the United States, including permitting U.S. military planes to refuel at the country’s airports after the 9/11 attacks, relations with Washington today are frosty, Umarov said. President Emomali Rahmon, a controversial figure who has been in power since the early 1990s, has not visited the United States since 2002.
Meanwhile, the Tajik economy is heavily dependent on Russia and China. Remittances from Tajik nationals working in Russia made up more than 20 percent of GDP in 2020; Chinese loans constitute more than 20 percent of GDP and more than half of all external borrowing.
On the military front, Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of selected former Soviet states, and already hosts a Russian military base on its territory. China, too, is building a post on the border with Afghanistan.
Russia and China today have every reason to block a move to position U.S forces in Tajikistan, or any other Central Asian country, Umarov said. Twenty years ago after the 9/11 attacks, Moscow and Beijing shared many of Washington’s concerns about terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. But now that threat has ebbed, and the competition between the three powers has only intensified. Russia, in particular, sees U.S. efforts in Afghanistan as yet another way to erode Moscow’s influence, he said.
“There is an understanding between Moscow and Beijing on this question,” Umarov said. “Central Asia will not risk its long-term relations with Russia and China for helping the United States.”
While both Russia and China see risk to regional stability from the U.S. and NATO withdrawal, they also see “opportunities to capitalize on a security vacuum and to position themselves as regional power brokers,” wrote Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow at National Defense University, and Cyrus Newlin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent commentary for War on the Rocks.
Among the remaining Afghan neighbors — China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — the options for a U.S. force presence is limited. China and Iran are nonstarters; Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, last week closed the door in no uncertain terms on the possibility of basing U.S. troops in the country.
Meanwhile, the isolationist Turkmenistan, which Umarov described as the “North Korea of Central Asia,” has shown no interest in cooperating with the United States on the Afghanistan conflict. Further, it is even more economically dependent on Beijing than its neighbors, selling more than 80 percent of its total exports to China and sharing a gas pipeline with the country.
Uzbekistan is the most promising of the countries that share a border with Afghanistan, experts say. Tashkent is far less dependent on Russia and China economically than the other nations, is not a part of the CSTO, and does not host any foreign military bases. Meanwhile, the president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has rekindled ties with the United States, and even visited Washington recently.
Uzbekistan also has a history of housing U.S. troops. From 2001 to 2005, then-president Islam Karimov leased the Karshi-Khanabad air base to the Americans, and from 2013 to 2016, Tashkent was home to the NATO liaison officer in Central Asia.
But the prospect of hosting U.S. troops in Uzbekistan after the withdrawal will likely be met with heavy resistance from both Moscow and Beijing, as well as from Uzbek society, which views any intervention in the Afghanistan conflict negatively, Umarov said.
Any U.S. basing agreement would require a change in Uzbek law. According to current statute, Uzbekistan cannot host any foreign military base on its territory, he said.
Uzbekistan understands from watching decades of failed U.S. and Soviet attempts to solve the Afghanistan problem that “there is no military solution to the Afghanistan crisis,” Umarov said.
Even if Uzbekistan were to agree to host U.S. troops, the government would likely place limits on how Washington can use the base, for instance restricting operations to unarmed aircraft, Petraeus said. Another issue would be the additional expense for Washington of building up the necessary infrastructure, he added.
The Biden administration could look farther afield, for instance at Kyrgyzstan, which does not share a border with Afghanistan but has a history of hosting U.S. troops. However, like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers in Russia and in debt to China, Umarov said. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is also part of the CSTO and maintains a Russian military base on its soil.
The U.S. did post forces at the Manas transit center after 9/11, but Kyrgyzstan closed the base in 2014 — around the same time Russia invaded Crimea and tensions with the west soared — due to pressure from Moscow.
The bigger problem for Washington, Umarov said, is the country’s political turmoil. Kyrgyzstan has seen three revolutions in the past 15 years. If the unpredictability continues, the Pentagon may not be able to guarantee the security of U.S. troops on the country’s soil.
Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is an even less palatable option. The country is sandwiched between Russia and China, and is one of Moscow’s closest allies and one of Beijing’s top economic partners in the region. Meanwhile, its distance from Afghanistan — the two countries do not share a border — makes it a less than ideal location to base U.S. troops traveling in and out.
To some extent, Washington may be able to leverage sanctions relief and international recognition in exchange for a deal, for instance helping Uzbekistan achieve its goal of becoming a part of the World Trade Organization.
But overall, the only way for the Biden administration to seal a deal to base U.S. troops in one of the Central Asian states is to prove to them that “the financial and political benefits of this cooperation will outweigh the inevitable losses that the central Asian countries would inevitably sustain as a result of Russia and Beijing’s disapproval,” Umarov said.
“Central Asia cannot be called a priority of U.S. foreign policy,” he continued. “Right now, central Asia understands that the U.S. is not ready to act as a counterbalance to Russia and China in the region, but it needs central Asia for short term interests.”
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