As U.S. Pulls Out Of Afghanistan, Moscow Eyes Power Vacuum
To succeed in withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan White House will need the active help of the Central Asian countries. However, with these post-Soviet republics in play, Russia wants a say.
MOSCOW — We've just witnessed several days of speculation that the planned Sep. 11 final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan might happen even earlier, after the main Bagram airbase was rapidly emptied. But that speculation was dispelled first by President Joe Biden and then by Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who vowed an "orderly drawdown" over the coming weeks.
In preparation for the end of the operation, Washington has needed to coordinate with the post-Soviet republics that border Afghanistan, namely Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. On July 1, the foreign ministers of these countries, Abdulaziz Kamilov and Sirodjiddin Mukhriddin met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The official reports from these meetings contain lengthy statements about "the importance of bilateral relations' as well as "efforts to achieve sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, Bloomberg and Reuters news agencies have both quoted State Department sources saying that Washington made a very concrete request: the United States asked Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, along with nearby Kazakhstan, to offer haven to some 9,000 Afghans who cooperated with NATO and may now be in danger. It would be a temporary asylum, while these people awaited approval for American visas.
"The security situation in Afghanistan is roughly the same as at the start of the operation in 2001"
"If it is decided to accept a certain number of Afghan citizens, Tajikistan will be the most prepared for this, and discontent will be minimal," - Rustam Azizi, a Tajik political scientist and expert on religious extremism, told Kommersant. "Until now, our country has been a transit point for Afghans. They used to get their documents through the UN Refugee Department and go on their way. And the memory of the civil war is still fresh for us, when our citizens were displaced in the north of Afghanistan and there were many more than 9,000 of them."
"The drawdown process in Afghanistan shows that NATO troops failed to improve the security situation. It is roughly the same as at the start of the operation in 2001," said Stanislav Pritchin, senior research fellow of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies. "It is obvious that the Americans and their allies did not even have such a purpose."
The withdrawal of international coalition troops is accompanied by a powerful offensive by Taliban fighters in the north of the country, which reaches along the border with the post-Soviet Central Asian republics. According to the Afghan TV channel Tolo News, because of the fighting the Friendship bridge was closed between Termez, Uzbekistan and Hairatan, Afghanistan. However, Hairatan itself is still held by government forces.
Soldiers practice an exercise lead by a joint Russian-Tajik force near the border with Afghanistan — Photo: Kalandarov Nozim/TASS/ ZUMA Press
The situation on the border with Tajikistan, which runs through inaccessible mountainous terrain, is even worse. On July 3, another group of Afghan soldiers, the largest thus far — more than 300 men — retreated into Tajik territory after a fight with the Taliban. The State National Security Committee of Tajikistan claims that the border guards control the situation, but the Taliban have managed to capture the border commandant's office in Gorno-Badakhshan, where Tajik and Afghan settlements are separated only by the Panj River.
These developments inevitably attracted the attention of Moscow and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the main post-Soviet military alliance. "The situation is of serious concern," said CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas. "There is a clear understanding of the need to help Tajikistan specifically in ensuring the security of the Tajik-Afghan border."
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, spoke about Afghanistan last Friday, mentioning not the Taliban but another group banned in Russia, the Islamic State (ISIS). He placed some blame on both Afghan officials and the Western pullout. "Given the irresponsible behavior of some officials in Kabul and the hasty withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan without any possibility to report on the fulfillment of any tasks, ISIS is actively mastering the territories, primarily in the north of Afghanistan, right on the borders of the countries that are our allies."
The Afghans were left with their own ambitions to retain power at all costs.
Zamir Kabulov, director of the Second Asia Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, developed this idea in an interview with Sputnik Afghanistan, saying that "at first they (the Afghan authorities) relied on a change of power in the White House and, accordingly, a change in Washington's decision to withdraw troops. When this did not happen, they were left with their own ambitions to retain power at all costs'.
Kabul did not pay attention to these remarks. On the contrary, the Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a statement thanking Moscow for "demonstrating goodwill toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis through constructive peace negotiations."
Another notable development was the recent Moscow meeting between Hamdullah Mokhib, national security advisor to the President of Afghanistan, and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev. The report of the talks was as restrained as possible. It was announced that they "discussed the security situation in Afghanistan against the background of the withdrawal of Western military contingents and the worsening of the military-political situation in the north of the country".
Arkady Dubnov, an expert on Central Asia and Afghanistan, said it was important for Patrushev to understand whether the rule of President Ashraf Ghani is stable. "I do not think that Moscow is ready to assure Ghani of support after the Americans leave, because this would strike at its relations with the Taliban," Dubnov explained. "Here, one has to clearly understand that for the Taliban the figure of Ghani is absolutely unacceptable in any sort of coalition government, and the fact that Ghani himself is trying to stay afloat irritates Moscow."
One insider put it this way: the longer Ghani clings to power, the worse the bloodshed in Afghanistan will be — and the smaller the influence of Moscow on the future power in Kabul.