16th August 2021
On August 13, Taliban had taken control of the provincial capital city of Kandahar, the second largest city of Afghanistan and the twelfth provincial capital under its control of the 34 capitals. On the same day, Qatar hosted the Russian led Troika Plus talks in Doha, which comprises of Russia, the United States, China, and Pakistan and representatives from Taliban and the Afghan government attended this meeting.
The manner in which the extra-regional actors engage with the Afghan government, the Taliban, and regional stakeholders would be crucial for two reasons, first, to assess any change in their policy towards the region and second, to monitor which extra-regional actor finds itself in suitable position to mediate and determine the trajectory of the ongoing quagmire. The article attempts to analyse the partnerships or possible coalitions the US and Russia are trying to foster with the regional stakeholders involved in Afghanistan’s security scenario.
For the US, the decision to execute the process of withdrawal has proved consequential for the regional security environment of South and Central Asia. However, the announcement of a possibility of a quadrilateral diplomatic platform raised certain questions regarding how the US would engage with Afghanistan post-withdrawal of troops. The four countries that ‘agreed on principle’ to form such a platform were the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.
This ‘Quad Regional Support’ focuses on ‘enhancing regional connectivity and ‘intending to cooperate to expand trade, build transit links, and strengthen business-to-business ties.’ For the US, such a forum could pave the way for further cooperation with Uzbekistan, which had leased Karshi-Khanabad Air Base to US forces in 2001. Following the criticism from Washington on the events that took place in the city of Andijon in 2005, the relationship between the US and Uzbekistan witnessed certain disarray and the US troops left the Khanabad base by end of 2005.
Uzbekistan shares a 144-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Development projects like the 75 km railroad from Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif in 2011 and the subsequent trade relationship between the two countries proved beneficial for Afghanistan. Through the Tashkent Declaration and International Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan, Uzbekistan proved its strategic position in the Afghan peace process. However, following the policy of ‘non-interference in internal matters,’ the Uzbek Government repatriated 53 Afghan border guards on July 24, after an attempt was made by the Afghan guards to enter Uzbekistan.
Although Uzbekistan holds a central position as a neighbour in the Afghan peace process, the repatriation indicated that Afghan citizens could not get refuge by crossing the border. This could be a possible outcome between the understanding that took place between the Taliban and Uzbekistan. Moreover, the Uzbek Foreign Minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov in an interview with Dennis Woolie (from This is America TV) mentioned that ‘Uzbekistan was the first country to establish direct contact with the Taliban.’ However, citing its military doctrine, Uzbekistan has denied any further possibility of a foreign military base on Uzbek soil.
Until now, the US Air Force operating from the Central Command in Qatar have conducted air strikes against Taliban in Jowzan and in Helmand using B-52 bombers and AC-10 Spectre gunships. Moreover the recent case of F-16s flying over Kabul on August 8, were also operated in similar manner from the Central Command. If the decision to carry out airstrikes and drone strikes against the Taliban were to be executed post-August 31, then the US forces would require an Air Force base to conduct reconnaissance missions, intelligence gathering, and logistics support from Afghan forces and the host country forces.
Hence for the US, creating a platform that can uphold the strategic role of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan, could prove beneficial for the former to bolster its presence in Central Asia. In this Quadrilateral platform, the position of Pakistan seems to be under grey zone. While Pakistan has much greater access and potential to trade with Afghanistan and has greater intelligence and channels of communication with the Taliban, the statements made by its leaders on US withdrawal as well as the Sino-Pak alliance creates a complex conundrum in the region.
However, would the Afghan government adhere to a cooperation with Pakistan is doubtful due to four reasons. First, due to the recent ‘Sanction Pakistan’ campaign, which gained momentum within the public opinion of Afghanistan. Second, the Taliban has operated its council safely from Pakistan i.e. ‘Quetta Shura’, and third, Prime Minister Imran Khan referring to Taliban as ‘normal citizens’ in context of explaining that Pakistan does not provide any sanctuaries or safe havens to Taliban. Fourth, due to the close links between Inter-Services Intelligence and Haqqani Network.
Russia on other hand has been observed to follow a twin-track diplomacy in Afghanistan. The first leg aims to bolster diplomatic negotiations through platforms like ‘Troika plus’ and the second leg involves military diplomacy by conducting military exercises and war games with countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the first week of August, near the Afghan border. Unlike the US, Russia enjoys the presence of two military bases in Central Asia, first the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan and second, the Russian Air Force Base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. However, reports were suggesting that Russia could allow these bases to be used by the US military. With Uzbekistan citing its military doctrine and denying the possibility of a US military base, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the only two viable countries left. To let the US deploy military base, both these nations would require consent from the Collective Security Treaty Organization nations.
For Russia, a challenge to its interests in Afghanistan might appear from China. Although the interests of Moscow and Beijing seem to coincide, it is uncertain to what extent would the former let China influence and increase its presence in Afghanistan. For China, the understanding with Taliban could be pointed towards ensuring the economic interests of Beijing not be threatened by affiliates of the Taliban and groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and East Turkestan Islamist Movement not be fostered or encouraged by the Taliban.
For Afghanistan’s neighbour like Iran, the quagmire comes with a much more complex situation. Since extra-regional actors like Russia and the US are engaging in Afghanistan, a dilemma for Iran arises whether it would align with any grouping to ensure peace and stability on its Eastern Border, with Zaranj, provincial capital of Nimruz been captured by the Taliban. The overt role taken by Turkey of securing the Hamid Karzai International Airport post the complete withdrawal of the US would ensure a certain military presence of Turkish security forces in Afghanistan. There has been certain ambiguity over why did Turkey take up such a role with a recent history of disarray between Ankara and Washington. Despite these differences, Turkey, the current Afghan government, and the US had certain converging interest, which was to prevent the fall of Kabul. Moreover, protection of this airport could ensure safe international access to Kabul, which is a paramount interest of Afghan government as well.
Amidst these complexities, the US and Russia are being observed to foster certain groupings or partnerships with regional actors. For the US, such coalitions are necessary to execute over the horizon strategy and help Afghan National Security Forces to counter the offensive by the Taliban. For Russia, countering the Taliban is a necessity along with ensuring its role in the untapped energy and mineral resources of Afghanistan. However, the success of any groupings would depend upon which grouping could navigate the rapid shift of power in Kabul, and help shape the future of Afghanistan.
*The Author is a Post Graduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.
Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author.