Will US troops redeploy to Central Asia after withdrawing from Afghanistan?
The Wall Street Journal cited unnamed United States (US) officials over the weekend to report that some of them would prefer to redeploy their country’s troops from Afghanistan to some of the neighbouring Central Asian Republics (CARs) such as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan following America’s planned withdrawal from the war-torn country by September 11th. They problem, however, is that they’re also aware that Russian and Chinese influence there might work to counteract such a scenario. This makes that outcome unlikely, but it nevertheless can’t be discounted because there’s a certain logic inherent to it which might prove to be attractive for some of the concerned countries.
The US-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) recently published a piece that comprehensively covered the history of US troops in Central Asia. Titled “Will Central Asia Host US Military Forces Again?”, it should be reviewed by all readers with an interest in this topic. To sum it up, America’s former post-9/11 military presence in those states ended as a result of either domestic crises or speculated foreign (Russian) pressure. There remain lingering concerns of a legitimate nature that hosting US troops might also result in more American meddling in those countries. Even so, if the host state believed that it could contain such threats, then it might be inclined to consider hosting those forces once again for larger strategic reasons.
To explain, one of the top trends of the 21st century thus far is a desire for countries – especially smaller- and medium-sized ones – to improve their sovereignty through so-called “balancing” acts between Great Powers. In the Central Asian context, this has seen the pertinent countries practice this policy with respect to Russia and China. Turkey is also making inroads in this region as well, which creates a new opportunity for some of those states to recalibrate their “balancing” acts, especially with a view towards using the newfound Turkish element as leverage for negotiating better deals from Russia and China. Turkey isn’t hostile towards either of those two, so they’d be less likely to regard the CARs’ outreaches to Ankara as being against their interests.
The same can’t be said for the US, however, since it’s openly declared its intention to jointly “contain” Russia and China. Not only that, but there’s also a credible fear that America might revert to its failed Brzezinski-esque strategy of “dividing and ruling” the region through the external exploitation of pre-existing identity conflicts (Hybrid War) and subsequent weaponisation of these catalysed processes in order to provoke “Balkanisation”. Although the US’ official policy is to gently advance its regional interests through “economic diplomacy” (perhaps by utilising N-CPEC+ to expand its influence in the CARs with time), Washington would arguably have much more strategic flexibility to reconsider the “Balkanization” scenario if it has boots on the ground there.
These observations suggest that it would be counterproductive for the CARs to once again host US troops, especially because such a decision would risk unbalancing their carefully calibrated “balancing” acts between regional Great Powers. All concerned countries would regard it as an implicitly hostile move intended to offset the emerging Eurasian Century scenario that’s largely dependent on the successful completion of the Golden Ring concept, which refers to the consolidation of all multipolar forces in the Eurasian Heartland (with a special focus on the CARs) in order to push back against American influence in the supercontinent. Even so, if that unlikely scenario comes to pass, then there would be several possible reasons for it.
Whichever country breaks ranks with the rest would be doing so as part of a risky gamble to boost their own influence. They’d be charting a long-term strategic trajectory intended to interfere with everyone else’s plans, thereby possibly making them the regional kingmaker for the indefinite future provided that they can maintain this very complicated geopolitical policy. Smaller countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would have difficulty doing this, hence why Uzbekistan is likely the only one which might even consider it. Moreover, the first two mentioned states are part of the CSTO mutual defence pact with Russia, which might object to their hosting of US bases, while Uzbekistan isn’t part of that alliance despite recently repairing its relations with Russia.
Considering that Uzbekistan is the only one of the five CARs that would probably host US troops if that scenario does indeed come to pass, then it would be a major power move predicated on its desire for regional leadership. Uzbekistan is engaged in a “friendly competition” with Kazakhstan all throughout Central Asia. Tashkent has more people and therefore greater economic potential in the real sense, while Nur-Sultan (the recently renamed capital of Kazakhstan which used to be called Astana) is much wealthier due to its energy reserves and therefore more capable of creatively wielding its desired regional influence. In addition, Uzbekistan has a history of disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which Kazakhstan importantly lacks.
Although Uzbekistan has since patched up practically all of the problems that it had with its neighbours under President Mirziryoyev who succeeded long-serving former President Karimov in 2016, those two smaller countries might still suspect it of secretly aspiring for regional hegemony in ways that might eventually manifest themselves aggressively. That’s not to say that such intentions veritably exist, but just that the perception might still linger in the minds of many in those countries who still remember those tense times from half a decade ago and earlier. Confirmation of such might be evidenced by Uzbekistan deciding to host US troops as part of a larger regional power play riskily aimed at maximally enhancing its “balancing” act between Great Powers.
That still seems to be unlikely for the earlier mentioned reasons, and even less likely would be if Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan do this instead of Uzbekistan, though that very improbable scenario might only happen if Russia approved of the US’ possible military presence there. The only reason why that might happen would be if Moscow believed that this presence was manageable and would actually somehow improve Afghanistan’s post-war stability in the sense of surgical strikes against ISIS-K for example. Still, it doesn’t seem realistic that Russia would agree to that, but stranger things have of course happened in the past though the likelihood of that particular scenario transpiring is still extremely low.
To sum it all up, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that US troops will redeploy to Central Asia after withdrawing from Afghanistan. Such a development would be evidence of a major power play by Uzbekistan if Tashkent were to agree to that but would risk suddenly reshaping Russia and China’s generally positive post-Karimov perceptions of the centrally located country. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would probably be under immense Russian pressure not to agree to host US troops unless Moscow reconsiders its stance about their true purpose and sees them as a factor promoting post-war stability in Afghanistan instead of instability in Central Asia. All these scenarios presently seem to be very unlikely, but the situation should continue to be monitored.