On May 1, 2021, the United States began formally withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. With the new Biden administration, the U.S. and NATO military presence on Afghan soil will come to an end by September 11 as it opens up a new dimension of regional affairs.
The fear of potential aggravation of the political situation and worsening of security in Afghanistan, as well as the expansion of instability, is a matter of great regional concern. The power struggle between interest groups and political factions inside the Afghan government, as well the Taliban’s growing power, has the definite potential to change the U.S.-secured power equilibrium in Afghanistan. This, in turn, may give momentum to external players seeking to fill the vacuum in pursuit of their own geopolitical or geoeconomic interests.
The official withdrawal of U.S. troops is of particular importance for the countries of Central Asia, given their proximity to Afghanistan, and may lead to a number of strategic consequences. In this context, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting on April 23 with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan under the C5+1 framework was an attempt to ensure U.S. commitments to the region and signal to other regional actors that Afghanistan is still on the radar of Biden’s foreign policy. Consequently, the early May visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, to Tashkent, Kabul, and Dushanbe dovetailed with new discussions about possibly basing U.S. troops in Central Asia. All these factors may suggest the shaping of a new narrative for U.S. policy toward the region.
However, it is critically important to analyze the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal for Central Asia through various angles, with the economic angle especially important.
First, although we are talking about issues of ensuring regional security, the political and economic factors related to the development of regional trade and energy infrastructure are critical. The weakening of the central government and the potential rise to power of representatives of radical groups could set back Afghanistan’s development by decades and lead to new problems that will be much more difficult for the world community to solve in the future.
For the countries of Central Asia, such a scenario already carries many challenges. The deepening of internal conflict in Afghanistan may lead to a weakening of control over the country’s northern borders. For Tajikistan, this could lead to an unprecedented increase in the flow of contraband and drug trafficking. Turkmenistan may have to provide additional protection for important infrastructure facilities, such as mineral deposits and international gas pipelines, which are of strategic importance not only for the region, but also for major external partners, primarily China and Russia, as well as South Asian countries.
It is obvious that the presence of the U.S. military and its allies in Afghanistan played a crucial role in the fight against armed groups. At the peak of the Afghan campaign in 2011, more than 98,000 American troops and about 41,000 coalition troops were deployed in the country. More than 300,000 representatives of the defense forces and the Interior Ministry of Afghanistan supported them. In addition, during the same period, about 120,000 private contractors worked in Afghanistan, of which almost 23,000 were employees of U.S. private military contractors (PMCs), as well as PMCs cooperating with the U.S. Department of Defense. According to various sources, the total cost of the military campaign alone ranged from $750 billion to $1 trillion, excluding reconstruction programs.
These forces undoubtedly prevented strengthening of a number of extremist groups, two of which pose a particular threat to regional and international security: the Taliban, and in more recent years, the regional Islamic State branch, often known as ISKP (Islamic State- Khorasan Province).
Equally important are the economic consequences of the presence of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Over the past 18 years, the U.S. and a number of other donors have provided more than $143 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. The allocated funds were supplied to finance the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan army, the Interior Ministry, and the state national security services. In addition, significant amounts were allocated by major international organizations such as the World Bank (about $6 billion in soft loans over 19 years). Investments in the IRA Recovery Fund amounted to more than $13 billion. External investments had a significant impact on Afghanistan’s GDP, which, as of 2019, was about $19.29 billion.
It is clear that international financial and humanitarian support is as important to Kabul as military support. It was a vital factor for economic growth and social stability. The development of the economy made it possible to create additional jobs and gave the population the opportunity to receive a high-quality education. This, in turn, has a complex influence, and arguably limited the replenishment of the ranks of the militants with new members by providing alternate economic and social pathways.
Foreign investment and financial support provided Afghanistan with additional opportunities to develop trade and economic relations with external partners, including with the countries of Central Asia. For example, for Kazakhstan, Afghanistan is an important trading partner and a major importer of Kazakhstan’s agricultural products and petroleum products. In 2019, the trade turnover between the two countries amounted to more than $401 million. Should the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate, countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan risk losing an important market for their products.
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has viewed Central Asia through the prism of its military and geopolitical interests in Afghanistan. After the completion of the withdrawal of the U.S. military, the region will eventually be of less interest to Washington. The U.S. will initially continue to provide some financial and advisory support to the Afghan government, and may continue to promote the integration of Afghanistan with Central Asia, but the Central Asian countries themselves should prepare for a long-term decline in U.S. interest in the region as a whole. The share of American investment in the region has never been high, but against the backdrop of the developing economic crisis, any decline in financial flows will be felt.
In this context it is not entirely correct to take into account only the current level of trade and economic relations between the countries of the region and Afghanistan. Global trends such as protectionism and deglobalization, which are being exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, must also be taken into account. It is strategically important for the Central Asian states that do not have direct access to the sea to organize trade routes connecting Central and South Asia, and open direct access to the markets of Pakistan, India, and the Middle East.
The deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan could affect the fate of various infrastructure projects, such as the construction of international power lines and new railways and highways, as well as the TAPI gas pipeline, which if completed could change the energy map of all of South Asia. The strengthening of the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan and the possible aggravation of the domestic political crisis will certainly scare off foreign investors and partners.
Thus, for Central Asia, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, apart from triggering new security threats, will lead to economic consequences as well. To date, it is not clear how long, and to what extent, external support for Afghanistan will remain after the completion of the withdrawal. It is also unknown whether any of the external players will be able or willing to fill the resulting security vacuum in the region. After all, this is not just about material support for the central Afghan government, but about ensuring the security of infrastructure projects in the country’s regions, as well as control over borders and illegal trade flows.