The Advance of Russian Troops in Central Asia Spells Bad News for the United States
Aug 3, 2021
The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan amidst a hasty U.S. troop withdrawal has many Central Asian countries concerned that unrest in Afghanistan could spill across their borders. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors have already begun to feel the impacts of the violence. Over 1,600 Afghan soldiers fled into neighboring Tajikistan after advances from the Taliban intensified in the Badakhshan and Takhar border provinces. Similarly, Uzbekistan forced dozens of fleeing Afghan soldiers to return to Afghanistan after the Taliban took over a key border crossing post. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has also appealed to Tajikistan to facilitate the passage of roughly 1,000 ethnic Kyrgyz from Afghanistan as a preemptive measure during the worsening situation.
The Central Asian republics have ramped up their border security efforts and welcomed international support to prevent violence from disseminating across their borders. As a result, Moscow has increased its military presence in the region, a facet that could complicate U.S. efforts to remain engaged militarily in the region after its troop withdrawal.
The Tajik-Afghan border was delineated between the Russian Empire and the United Kingdom in the 19th century, mainly along the Panj River. While officially delineated, the border remains extremely porous, serving as a breeding ground for illegal opium traffickers, religious extremists, and ethnic conflict. Tajikistan has grown increasingly concerned that its unprotected border with Afghanistan could foster instability in Dushanbe. On July 5, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon ordered 20,000 military reservists to bolster border security with Afghanistan after more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled into Tajikistan to escape the Taliban. The Taliban currently controls 70 percent of the Tajik-Afghan border.
Tajikistan is also home to Russia’s largest foreign base. Russia’s 201st Military Base in Tajikistan hosts 7,000 Russian troops who were once responsible for patrolling the Afghan-Tajik border before that responsibility was transferred to the Tajik forces in 2005. In 2013, Tajikistan extended Russia’s military presence in the country until 2042.
The Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan’s frontier border provinces has enabled Moscow to heighten its military presence in Central Asia. On July 7, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko told reporters that Russia is fully equipped to assist Tajikistan in bolstering its border security with Afghanistan. Furthermore, Russia announced that it would hold joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan August 5-10 at Tajikistan’s Harb-Maidon military field. Russia also plans to hold military exercises with Uzbekistan in Termez, near the Afghan border, July 30-August 10.
The United States has struggled to sustain a sufficient military presence in Central Asia and remains dependent on the good will of the Central Asian governments. Although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that he had met with Kazakhstani, Uzbek, and Tajik authorities on April 22 to discuss the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan, it is unclear if they will be open to hosting U.S. military bases again. In 2001, former Uzbek president Islam Karimov provided the United States the Karshi-Khanabad air base to carry out operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan was also a part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that was a supply line for U.S. and NATO troops fighting the Taliban. The NDN also encompassed Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Russia, and Tajikistan. However, political disagreements prompted Uzbekistan to nullify the agreement and ban foreign bases within the country. Tajikistan is also an unlikely candidate because it is a member of the Russian-led security alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and already hosts both a Russian military base and a Chinese border post on its border with Afghanistan.
Russia has ramped up its military engagement in the Central Asian republics by hosting joint military drills and providing logistical support for countries to bolster their borders with Afghanistan. The United States is looking for partners in Central Asia to support its continuing military interests in Afghanistan to quell Taliban advances. However, the Russian military presence in the region could curb U.S. efforts to do so. The United States should devise procedures, such as intelligence sharing or joint military drills, or convince Central Asian governments to allow the United States to station a limited number of troops in the region to retain support in Central Asia. While it is unrealistic to assume that Russia will not have a military presence in Central Asia, the United States could partake in joint U.S.-Russian efforts to stabilize the region. The United States should not bow out of the region but instead work with existing actors to serve U.S.-Central Asian interests.
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