Geopolitics

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.

High ranking members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)
Kirill Krivosheev

MOSCOWWe'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.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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