With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan nearly complete, diplomacy between Washington and Central Asian capitals has intensified as evidenced by back-to-back meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Tajik and Uzbek counterparts on July 1.
U.S. President Joe Biden set September 11, 2021, as a deadline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the end of the process could come much sooner. According to a CNN report on June 30, citing “multiple US officials,” the end of the U.S. withdrawal is mere days away. The last U.S. troops quietly departed the massive Bagram Air Base on July 2, handing the facility over to Afghan forces.
The United States is expected to leave a sizable military contingent in Afghanistan (estimates range from 640 to 1,000) tasked with protecting the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the Afghan capital’s international airport. Hamid Karzai International Airport is particularly critical as a major point of access to landlocked Afghanistan. While the U.S. has been in talks with Turkey to continue providing security for the airport, it’s unclear that Ankara will get the concessions it wants in order to commit to remaining at the airport, for which it has provided security for several years as part of its NATO contribution.
Another uncertainty is precisely how the United States will provide what Biden called over-the-horizon capabilities to keep tabs on potential threats emanating from Afghanistan and continue to support the Afghan security forces as they face down a reinvigorated Taliban.
In June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities had already beguin to be provided from outside Afghanistan. “ISR is being flown from [Gulf countries]. A lot of our combat aircraft missions are being conducted from platforms in the Gulf. And so we have the capability now to do that.”
The U.S. 5th Fleet is based out of Bahrain. In April, the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group — centered around the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower — entered the area, operating in the Northern Arabian Sea. According to USNI News, USS Eisenhower and its escorts are heading back to the United States. Replacing the group, the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group — with flagship USS Ronald Reagan — arrived in the 5th Fleet’s area of operations late last week to support the drawdown in Afghanistan.
But when considering where U.S. forces could be deployed, many turn their eyes on the map to the countries surrounding Afghanistan. The United States, over the course of its nearly 20-year involvement in Afghanistan, has based forces in Kyrgyzstan (2001-2014) and Uzbekistan (2001-2005), but at present has no such basing arrangements in place in the region.
A range of possibilities exist for military engagement and cooperation between the United States and the countries of Central Asia that would serve Washington’s needs but fall short of opening full-fledged U.S. bases in the region. This could include logistics agreements, such as that which preceded a U.S. Navy aircraft refueling at an Indian base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for the first time in September 2020.
The matter of U.S. bases in Central Asia is particularly sensitive as the countries of the region seek to balance themselves between Russia, China, and the United States. Uzbekistan, in fact, has a law barring foreign bases. At the same time, Moscow, Beijing, and Washington all have an overriding interest in regional stability (or rather an interest in having an ability to keep things from boiling over) which could help chart a path between the extremes of American bases on every corner and not a single U.S. boot on Central Asian soil.
Whatever the discussions currently are, it’s clear they’re happening. As the United States was finalizing its exit from Bagram this week, both the Tajik and the Uzbek foreign ministers were making the rounds in Washington. On July 1, Austin spoke with Afghan Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan Mohammadi and then met in person with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. Meanwhile, Blinken met with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin and then immediately after with Kamilov. On Friday, Austin is scheduled to meet with Muhriddin.
In brief statements to the press before their closed door meetings at the State Department on July 1, Muhriddin referred to Afghanistan as “the most important issue.” Kamilov ahead of his turn with Blinken said, “of course, we will exchange views on the situation in Afghanistan.”
The officials did not take questions.