President Trump’s recent decision to cancel secret negotiations with the Taliban at Camp David, revoking an offer to withdraw U.S. troops, came at the right time from the strategic U.S. perspective. The rise of China and a resurgent Russia have resurrected the era of great power politics — and the heart of Eurasia is its epicenter. Moreover, as tension with Iran grows, U.S. presence in Afghanistan becomes more important than ever.
Central Asia represents a critical quadrant on the great chessboard of Eastern hemisphere, the one that must not be surrendered to America’s rivals who are seeking domination of Eurasia or the Gulf.
The United States has an unfortunate history of premature disengagement from the region, the last withdrawal in 1994, after the Soviet-Afghan War, having created a power vacuum,that lead to the rise of the Taliban.
The Taliban have proven incapable of maintaining peace in Afghanistan. The radical Islamist movement, nurtured by Pakistan’s ISI secret service, continues to subvert law and order in Afghanistan through wonton acts of terrorism. Their recent attacks on U.S. and Afghan government soldiers during peace negotiations demonstrates their eagerness to undermine a ceasefire.
Since their rule of terror, the Taliban have turned Afghanistan into an incubator for terrorism, as Afghanistan served as both a launchpad for al Qaeda and as a command center for the 9/11 attacks. ISIS and al Qaeda still remain a terrorist threat in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and an immediate U.S. disengagement would empower them and would be cast by their propaganda as a great victory.
A premature U.S. departure from Afghanistan would also allow Beijing to move in with its Belt and Road Initiative, granting China de facto economic domination of South and Central Asia through its “debt diplomacy.” China wants to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan — as America loosens its grip on this resource-rich and strategically situated region, China strengthens its own. This would be a blow for U.S. grand strategy of containing the Chinese expansion.
The five Central Asian states are worried about a major shift of the regional power balance. Just last month, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan met with Donald Trump at the U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss strengthening bilateral relations and potential areas of collaboration. Kazakhstan’s new leader stressed the importance of the United States as a critical partner and investor, and reaffirmed the two countries’ lasting strategic partnership, which includes critical security assistance in war-torn Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan and the United States are natural partners, with shared strategic interests across Central Asia and beyond. In an important meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Central Asia’s five foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan last week, Mr. Pompeo called to resist Chinese calls for repatriation of Central Asia’s Uyghurs. In the session, Mr. Pompeo urged his Central Asian partners to be wary of closer ties with China and suggested they reconsider their reliance on Chinese Belt and Road investments.
“The United States too can offer independent experts to review and assess foreign infrastructure investments in your countries if you’re interested in that assistance as well,” said Mr. Pompeo, speaking to his counterparts from Central Asia. However, the United States will need to make firmer investment decisions in the Central Asian countries that have already agreed to billions of dollars of infrastructure investment from Beijing to balance off the Chinese economic power.
The United States cannot afford to lose another Great Game that is playing out in Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s $27 billion investment agreement with China, which covers 55 projects and was signed in early 2018, should send alarm bells ringing through Washington. China is extending its power, not with tanks and soldiers, but with credit lines and loans.
The region’s economic and political reforms — led by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — that have been a boon to foreign investment would certainly be jeopardized by American withdrawal. Lasting U.S. engagement in the region would also guarantee the progress these nations have achieved in the past two decades with U.S. support.
Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy has allowed 700 U.S. businesses to flourish within its borders, and the potential for further investment and trade is even higher. Washington is also well-placed to sign defense pacts with the Central Asian republics to maintain its security interests in Asia.
Indeed, a stable and self-sufficient Afghanistan is essential, and in the future there will be the time for the US to withdraw. And like a strong and independent Iraq, it should provide a bookend for Iran’s expansionist aspirations. However, leaving the region at this crucial juncture could spell the end of the US-led global stability, leaving behind an unstable multipolar world.
• Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center, is the author of “Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis” (Praeger, 1996).
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