The problems in Afghanistan have obviously dominated the approach to security in Central Asia over the past 40 years since the Saur Revolution. This is why the entire context and results of the June 2021 summits of the G7, NATO, US-EU and US-Russia came down to a number of strategically important issues on the global agenda in which Afghanistan occupied a key role, writes Ulugbek Khasanov, Head of Regional Security & Conflicts Study Lab., University of World Economics & Diplomacy, Uzbekistan.
Every regional international political system has a certain combination of common systemically important factors that distinguish it from others and determine its qualitative properties.
In forming a foundation for international security, modern Eurasia plays a balancing role in in global processes, being dependent on stability in its strategic regions and Central Asia is recognized to be one of them. Occupying a special place in the heart of Eurasia, Russia has always had ties through common history, culture and values with the southern republics of the former Soviet Union. It has considered these ties in shaping its own national interests. At the same time, it has always had to remember that various parts of the post-Soviet space border on various Eurasian regions that are hardly comparable to each other in many respects (Europe, Iran, South Asia and China, to name a few). Versions of geopolitical influence vary from potentially positive to sharply negative (Afghanistan).
While analysing the features of Central Asian security in the system of Eurasian relations, it would be logical to consider the situation in the vast space of the former unitary state, notably, the long-term existence of the Central Asian republics as parts of the USSR as well as the fact that the first years of independence led to an awareness of the need to maintain certain former union links, the breaking of which could easily result in huge political losses. From the beginning, pro-Russian attitudes grew in the political circles and various strata in many new states of the region’s big social medium.
The attitude towards the Islamic alternative varied a lot in the five states with a prevailing Muslim population. The leaders of the Central Asian republics showed restraint towards this alternative primarily for fear of bursts of radical extremism and due to other factors. Some forces inside Russia itself played a noticeable role in Central Asia’s alienation from Russia in certain cases in the early 1990s. They tried to persuade Russian leaders to withdraw from Central Asia and Transcaucasia as soon as possible, referring to the economic inexpediency of Russia’s continued investment in the economies of these countries. They claimed that Russia’s departure from the region would help them “forget” the Afghan syndrome sooner and ensure the security of its southern borders. They even suggested creating buffer states in central Asia to defend the south of Russia. In any case, these political scientists created an image of the Central Asian republics and South Caucasus as generally “burdensome” for Russia and its people in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Under these conditions, the politicians failed to understand the interdependence and inter-determination of security in the vast space of Eurasia.
From the start, the main military-strategic goal came down to preserving and developing the military potential of the CIS countries, and, in the case of Russia, its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile defense system at the present time. This dominant idea has acquired special significance due to the emergence of new military-strategic doctrines and approaches in the United States and China, NATO’s expansion, and the de facto uncontrollable dissemination of WMDs. A negative role in this respect has been played by Russia’s potential loss of geostrategic positions along its western and southern borders as well as of a significant part of its defensive infrastructure for which it had been fighting and which it had been creating for more than one century.
The conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and in general, the Middle East gave a full picture of the interconnection of cross-border security threats. Moreover, they became a cradle for modern international terrorist “cooperation” operating under the flags of various destructive forces and trends . As Russian political scientist, Fyodor Lukyanov, noted, and with good reason: “…international terrorism is not a common or natural occurrence but cover for packing various processes, the result of imbalances in socio-economic development, or an ideological vacuum that emerged after the failure of a previous ideological model or a new upsurge of nationalism in the Third World, which aggravates separatist trends,” when “…disconnected movements in different parts of the world learn from the experience of their “colleagues”.
In the contradictory and changing conditions of the late 1990s, security interests prompted the Central Asian countries to cooperate with Russia. Thus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed a treaty, in Tashkent in April 2000, on cooperation in countering terrorism, political and religious extremism, transnational organised crime and other threats to stability and security. In August 2000, the presidents of the Central Asian states adopted a joint statement on closer cooperation in fighting international terrorists.
This issue was extremely urgent for the overwhelming majority of post-Soviet states, including Russia, and was aggravated by the geographical scatter of conflict-prone hotbeds. Sometimes Russia tried to reconcile the differences between warring parties without preference for either side and found itself in a difficult situation when one party was dissatisfied. Apparently, this limited Russia’s opportunities to maneuver in political and other relations with the CIS countries and often made Russia’s national interests dependent on the preferences of conflicting parties or the personal ambitions of different politicians .
For all the recent vicissitudes and distinctions in interstate relations in Greater Eurasia, it is important for all these states, especially for a major region like Central Asia and its geopolitical interests, to strengthen economic, military and political ties with the CIS countries. There have been obvious differences in the approaches to the development of relations in the commonwealth as a whole. Thus, the leaders of Kazakhstan favoured closer integration in Eurasia, whereas Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan preferred to develop bilateral relations with Russia and in the CIS.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Primakov Readings, Director of the Institute for Strategic and Inter-regional Studies at the Presidential Institute, Eldor Aripov noted: “In the past five years the Central Asian countries have ‘matured.’ They have increased their sovereignty and felt the need to protect regional interests while leaving behind ‘former fears.’” This was confirmed by a report of the State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Statistics of socio-economic development in the country in the first quarter of this year: “…the share of foreign trade increased by 4.8 percent over the same period of 2020; from 2019 it went up by 6.5 percent, and in January-March 20-21 it was 40.3 percent.” At the initiative of the head of state, Tashkent plans to host a high-level international conference “Central and South Asia: Regional Interconnection. Challenges and Opportunities.” The participants intend to discuss ways to build up confidence measures, peace and stability as well as prospects for expanding economic partnership.
In general, the entire range of relations in the early stages of independence was bound to influence the fluctuation in the positions of the leaders in some Central Asian countries, even more so since Western politicians promised regional leaders their support in ensuring regional security during their regular visits to the region in those years. Indeed, the region received a strong ally represented by the troops of the international coalition in countering the comprehensive threat from Afghanistan. In the short-term perspective, the actions of the coalition produced a positive effect by removing a major threat to security in the region. Assistance for the international coalition by certain Central Asian countries stabilised the situation in Afghanistan and created a potential opportunity for a fundamentally different level of relations with the West.
Against this backdrop, Russia took the justified position of abstaining from pressuring its Central Asian partners as regards the deployment of coalition troops on their territory. This could have meant that during the coalition’s counterterrorist operation Russia did not consider the European and American troops in the region a threat to its national security. Russia couldn’t find an instantly justifiable argument for objecting to the Central Asian countries’ support under those circumstances of that time.
All this is to illustrate the idea that the problems in Afghanistan have obviously dominated the approach to security in Central Asia over the past 40 years since the Saur Revolution. This is why the entire context and results of the June 2021 summits of the G7, NATO, US-EU and US-Russia came down to a number of strategically important issues on the global agenda in which Afghanistan occupied a key role. The US President even urged his Russian counterpart to help ensure security in Afghanistan, showing “how we can each contribute to the shared effort of preventing a resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan.”
The difficulty of the situation mentioned by the US President stems from the signing of a contradictory deal between the Afghan Government and the Taliban in Doha in February 2020 with the mediation of the Trump administration. It was supposed to lead to a permanent ceasefire and further cuts in US troops from 13,000 to 8,600 by the middle of July 2020. Under the same agreements, the Taliban assumed responsibility for preventing terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for attacking the United States or its allies and agreed to hold peace talks with the central government in Kabul.
By the middle of this April, Joseph Biden announced complete withdrawal of the coalition troops from May 1 to September 11 as the end of a 20 year military presence in Afghanistan. This was confirmed during recent meetings with a high-profile Afghan delegation at the summit level in Washington. Describing the current situation, some Western analysts expressed apprehensions that a scenario similar to the situation in late 1980s could repeat itself. This is based on the premise that the 1988 Geneva agreements between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR and the US provided for the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Afghanistan by February 1989 but did not address the domestic issues of political settlement in Afghanistan, which subsequently led to chaos and civil war in the country. The past is a warning against reaching a hasty conclusion.
Despite serious measures to strengthen their southern borders, the Central Asian countries hope for an optimistic outcome in settling the Afghan crisis that has already ruled out the alternative of a military solution. Expressing the position of one of the region’s leading countries, Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulazis Kamilov emphasised the importance of “…Afghanistan being an integral part of Central Asia. It is one and a single region. It is necessary to adopt a common, consistent regional and international approach to a peace process in Afghanistan. This is why we support the negotiating formats in Doha, Turkey and other places… and believe that this problem must be resolved via a compromise between the current government and the military opposition that includes the Taliban and other groups.”
That said, one thing is clear: these priority problems will determine the foundation of regional security and, on a broader plain, the efforts to preserve stability in one of the world’s strategically important regions by such countries as Russia, the United States, China, the key Central Asian states and others in the face of formidable challenges and the changing agenda of global politics.