Crisis in Afghanistan Gives New Purpose to CSTO
Sep 16, 2021
Over 1,000 soldiers participated in the Rubezh-2021 joint military exercises of the Collective Forces of Rapid Development of the Central Asian region held by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) hosted in Kyrgyzstan on September 7. The CSTO, composed of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, is a Russian-led security organization bringing together post-Soviet states. The CSTO has increased its activity in Central Asia in recent weeks amidst the complete U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rapid resurgence to power. The absence of the U.S. military in the region has created a demand for an increased Russian military presence in Central Asia and has allowed Russia to serve as the protector of its southern neighbors from the Taliban.
Russia’s Central Military District’s press service announced that Russian, Kazakhstani, and Kyrgyz military units intended to participate in a three-day military exercise to address the situation in Afghanistan. The military exercises are designed to prepare the Central Asian states to appropriately handle an influx of Afghan refugees resettling in the region and defend their borders from a possible Taliban attack.
The Afghanistan-Tajikistan border has been a critical concern for the CSTO. In November 2019, the heads of the CSTO member states met in Bishkek to discuss Taliban activity in northeastern Afghanistan, along the border with Tajikistan. Furthermore, Tajikistan was troubled by reports of Islamic State operatives freely crossing the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. Border security has remained an integral cornerstone of the CSTO and a primary issue of concern for its member states. The Taliban has assured the Central Asian republics and Russia that it will respect state sovereignty and that they pose no threat to their governments. Nevertheless, the Central Asian republics have been wary to accept the Taliban’s commitment and have responded with bolstering border security and heightening military engagement in the region.
During on an online CSTO session on August 25, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev expressed his desire to contain the spread of extremism, stamp out terrorism, and prevent illegal migration. In addition, Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, asserted that Dushanbe would not recognize a Kabul government that was not inclusive of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and women. Tajikistan’s main concern now is stopping illegal migration and terror attacks in its border regions. Similarly, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakhbaev warned other CSTO member states of possible extremist sleeper cells in their countries, although evidence of such sleeper cells has yet to be uncovered.
The CSTO has been criticized for remaining inactive during times when the organization could have become involved. The CSTO was largely absent from last year’s Armenia-Azerbaijan War over the Karabakh region. The decision to use force to protect a CSTO member state must be a unanimous decision, and calls to support Armenia in the war were rejected by the organization. Moreover, the CSTO’s structure prevented it from resolving the border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the Ferghana Valley because the organization is unable to mediate a war between two of its own member states. Member states also rejected Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s calls to use CSTO forces to suppress opposition protesters because they want to prevent the CSTO from becoming an organization that meddles in domestic affairs. The CSTO has been regarded by many as ineffective, with some even speculating on its long-term viability.
However, the rapid resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan gives new purpose to the CSTO. Russia can use the ongoing situation in Afghanistan looming over the Central Asian republics to host coordinated military exercises and increase military information exchange and cooperation. The uncertainty surrounding Afghanistan means Russia can step up as the military safeguard for Central Asia, thus strengthening Moscow’s presence in the region.