Central Asia, the power-contest

When the United States led the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, it planned to extend its power from Afghanistan to the wider region. Today, the actions of leading states - Russia, Pakistan, and China among them - are contributing to a very different outcome.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 October 2012

The debate over the future of Afghanistan and the security of the wider region is sharpening. The shape of that future will ito a great degree reflect the strategic decisions and judgments made by the United States and its allies over the past decade, including recent years.

In 2009, Barack Obama decided on a strategy that combined a "surge" of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan with an intention of negotiating with the Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs) from a position of strength. This would ensure that when Nato forces left by the planned withdrawal date of 2014, the Taliban and other AOGs would have very little influence in Afghanistan's future governance (see "Afghanistan, the new endgame", 16 March 2012).

Even after withdrawal, some United States forces would stay in the country (probably fewer than 5,000) and some bases would remain (especially at Kandahar and Bagram). The latter would be the centres for drone and special-forces operations assumed to be still needed to curb any radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or at least those with a transnational dimension (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge" [23 June 2011]; "The drone-war blowback" [29 September 2011]; and "America's new wars, and militarised diplomacy" [31 May 2012]).

It is important to note that the entire strategy was predicated on the idea that the Taliban could be rendered weak by the increased American military power represented by the surge. But as some analysts argued at the time, the surge could could just as easily have the effect of increasing as of subduing resistance to the occupation (see "Afghanistan: the point of decision", 27 August 2009). This has indeed been a major consequence - though the argument has often been dismissed by Nato representatives, sometimes to an almost farcical degree. In the wake of both major attacks and the increase of "green-on-blue" killings (that is, Afghan police or military targeting their western allies), the absurd claim has often been made that these are desperate measures by a Taliban in retreat (see Antonio Giustozzi, "The Taliban and Afghanistan's war", 4 September 2012)

Now, at last, there are signs of a more realistic view. Nato's secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has candidly admitted that the green-on-blue killings had sapped morale, and conceded that the withdrawal of troops might be accelerated. Moreover, reports from Washington make it abundantly clear that the policy is to withdraw with speed and leave the Afghans themselves to sort out a compromise (see Matthew Rosenberg & Rod Nordland, "U.S. Abandoning Hopes for Taliban Peace Deal", New York Times, 2 October 2012).

But with the 2014 timetable established, the Taliban merely have to wait out the next two years. The Obama administration's officials accept this flaw, but say that a firm timetable is the only way to persuade the Afghan government to get serious about handling things on its own. This may be a fair point in principle; but in practice Afghanistan's high levels of corruption and bribery mean that many officials will use the next two years to accumulate more wealth to secure a move to Dubai when things fall apart.

The reality is that after 2014, the Taliban and other AOGs will - unless there is a bitter civil war - have a serious role in the country, even if they fall short of regaining complete control. In turn, this raises the much bigger question of where post-2014 Afghanistan fits into the security power-balance of the wider region (see "Afghanistan: the regional complex", 6 October 2011).

The states in question

The great dream of the George W Bush administration after the destruction of the Taliban regime in 2001 was to create a pro-western Afghanistan with development funding from the Europeans but also a substantial and long-term US/Nato military presence. If this could be combined with the establishment of many basing and logistic links with the central-Asian republics, then the "new American century" (Asia branch) would for years to come exert huge influence in countering Russian and Chinese power.

The reality has turned out to be very different - though that doesn't mean the United States is giving up on the region. China is showing its hand through the planning of major mining projects in Afghanistan, and of new port facilities on the Arabian Sea coast of Pakistan. Russia, too, is making some interesting moves. Moscow is well aware of Pakistan's enduring relationship with China, and that its own influence with India (very strong in Soviet days) is declining as New Delhi - perceiving that the United States might make a better ally against China - shifts modestly towards Washington (see "America, India, Pakistan, China: the next power-game", 7 June 2012).

Russia is intent on addressing these trends by countering US and Chinese influence in central Asia, especially among those post-Soviet republics that Russia considers to be its backyard. There are two aspects to this. The first is that Russia is putting far more effort into improving relations with Pakistan, especially with its military. This week sees two notable encounters: an unscheduled diplomatic trip by foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to Islamabad, which is partly to compensate Pakistan for the postponement of an intended visit by Vladimir Putin, and Moscow's hosting of Pakistan's armed-forces chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.

The latter is much the more important. Kayani is (at least for now) the most powerful figure in Pakistan, and the discussions - reflecting Moscow's desire to increase its influence in Afghanistan - are sure to be serious (see MK Bhadrakumar, "Moscow beckons Pakistan's Kiani", Asia Times, 2 October 2012). The potential for Pakistan to to exert greater power in Afghanistan under a post-2014 settlement that includes the Taliban (and where India's influence would be sharply reduced) is bound to be on the agenda (see Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure", 11 July 2008).

The post-2014 pattern

The second aspect to Russia's strategic response is both significant and little-noticed: namely, that Russia is upgrading the Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan to enable it to accommodate long-range bombers, including the Tu-160 Blackjack (see Nicholas de Larrinaga, "Russia extending Kant airbase to operate strategic bombers", Jane's Defence Weekly, 3 October 2012).

There is something almost cold war-ish about this. Kant is 20 kilometres east of Bishkek, while the US is still ensconced at the Manas airbase the same 20-kms' distance north of the city. It is relevant, though, that the Pentagon has a right to stay in Manas only until 2014 - a date coinciding with the pullout of most troops from Afghanistan - and the signs are that the lease will not be renewed (see Fred Weir, "Russia bolsters influence in Kyrgyzstan as US nears airbase exit", Christian Science Monitor, 20 September 2012) 

The Russian-Kyrgyz agreement over Kant is very different. The respective presidents Vladimir Putin and Aimazbek Atambayev decided at a meeting near Bishkek on 20 September 2012 that a sizeable proportion of Kyrgyz debt (amounting to $500 million) will be written off in return for an extension of the lease for two decades through to 2032. Jane's Defence Weekly says that Russia may also base the intermediate-range Tu22M Backfire bomber in Kant - and maybe even the older, long-range Tu-95 Bear.

These, however,are Soviet-era aircraft and Russia is struggling to upgrade them and even to keep some of them airworthy. Russian may separately be modernising transit airfields for the Tu-160 in Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific coast and Vorkuta in its far north-west; but this is little more than part of a longer-term ambition to redevelop the airforce as and when resources permit.

The decision to base strategic bombers in Kyrgyzstan is essentially symbolic, yet symbolism is important in the central-Asian dimension of the "new great game". At the root of these overall shifts is that Nato's failure in Afghanistan will leave the west in a far weaker position in the region than had been expected. The Russians may welcome this, even while fearing that even a partial security vacuum could quickly be filled by greater Chinese influence (see Andrew Small, "China's Afghan moment", Foreign Policy, 3 October 2012)

The latest Moscow-Islamabad summit meetings are to a different degree important. But Russia's twenty-year lease on the Kant airbase is even more so: for it indicates that Moscow's ambitions extend to reclaiming at least some of the control of central Asia it exercised in the good old days of Soviet hegemony. Alongside the active pursuit of core interests by China and Pakistan, among other states, by 2014-15 the region is going to look very different than Washington envisaged when in late 2001 it ousted the Taliban from Kabul.

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