The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan may produce economic challenges to Central Asia
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Troops from the United States and its allies are scheduled to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11 this year. The United States has been promising the Kabul government continued support in endeavoring to bring stability to Afghanistan, including the Afghan military's efforts to keep Taliban militants, and others, at bay.
There are reports in Western media that Washington is seeking to use bases or facilities in countries that border Afghanistan.
Thus, The Wall Street Journal reported on May 8 that U.S. military planners are looking for options to base forces and equipment in Central Asia and the Middle East after American and allied troops leave Afghanistan in the coming months.
With withdrawal preparations ramping up, U.S. military commanders reportedly want bases for troops, drones, bombers and artillery to shore up the Afghan government, keep the Taliban insurgency in check and monitor other extremists. Options being assessed range from nearby countries to more distant Arab Gulf emirates and Navy ships at sea, U.S. government and military officials said, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal notes that preferable, according to some military and Biden administration officials, would be Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan and would allow for quick access. But Russia’s large military footprint in the region, China’s growing one and tensions between them and Washington reportedly complicate plans for Central Asian bases.
Recall, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, traveled to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in early May and his discussions with high-ranking Uzbek and Tajik officials focused on efforts to broker peace among the Afghan factions before the September 11 withdrawal deadline.
All the Central Asian nations played a role in U.S. operations in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, but the current situation is different compared to how it was 20 years ago. And while there are reasons that some Central Asian nations might wish to renew temporary military cooperation with Washington, there are also reasons why they might want to steer clear of further U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
However one thing is clear for sure that withdrawal of troops of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan will open up a new dimension of regional affairs, and the fear of potential aggravation of the political situation and worsening of security in Afghanistan, as well as the expansion of instability, is a matter of great regional concern.
Some Central Asian experts consider that the power struggle between interest groups and political factions inside the Afghan government, as well the Taliban’s growing power, has the definite potential to change the U.S.-secured power equilibrium in Afghanistan. This, in turn, may give momentum to external players seeking to fill the vacuum in pursuit of their own geopolitical or geoeconomic interests.
According to them, the official withdrawal of U.S. troops is of particular importance for the countries of Central Asia, given their proximity to Afghanistan, and may lead to a number of strategic consequences.
The experts say that it is critically important to analyze the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal for Central Asia through various angles, with the economic angle especially important, noting that the political and economic factors related to the development of regional trade and energy infrastructure are critical. The weakening of the central government and the potential rise to power of representatives of radical groups reportedly could set back Afghanistan’s development by decades and lead to new problems that will be much more difficult for the world community to solve in the future.
For the countries of Central Asia, such a scenario already carries many challenges. The deepening of internal conflict in Afghanistan may lead to a weakening of control over the country’s northern borders. For Tajikistan, this could lead to an unprecedented increase in the flow of contraband and drug trafficking.
It is obvious that the presence of the U.S. military and its allies in Afghanistan played a crucial role in the fight against armed groups.
The economic consequences of the presence of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are reportedly also important. Over the past 18 years, the U.S. and a number of other donors have provided more than US$143 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan.
Foreign investment and financial support reportedly provided Afghanistan with additional opportunities to develop trade and economic relations with external partners, including with the countries of Central Asia.
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has viewed Central Asia through the prism of its military and geopolitical interests in Afghanistan. The experts consider that after the completion of the withdrawal of the U.S. military, the region will eventually be of less interest to Washington. The U.S. will initially continue to provide some financial and advisory support to the Afghan government, and may continue to promote the integration of Afghanistan with Central Asia, but the Central Asian countries themselves should prepare for a long-term decline in U.S. interest in the region as a whole. The share of American investment in the region has never been high, but against the backdrop of the developing economic crisis, any decline in financial flows will be felt.
The deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan could affect the fate of various infrastructure projects, such as the construction of international power lines and new railways and highways, as well as the TAPI gas pipeline, which if completed could change the energy map of all of South Asia. The strengthening of the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan and the possible aggravation of the domestic political crisis will certainly scare off foreign investors and partners.
Thus, for Central Asia, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, apart from triggering new security threats, will lead to economic consequences as well. To date, it is not clear how long, and to what extent, external support for Afghanistan will remain after the completion of the withdrawal. It is also unknown whether any of the external players will be able or willing to fill the resulting security vacuum in the region.