The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan will have significant repercussions for the region as a whole, so this move must be done carefully and in consultation with other regional players.

Photo source: Reuters

For Western powers in Afghanistan, 2014 will be a turning point. After 13 years of fighting the war on terror in the country, the United States and its NATO allies will considerably cut down their military presence.

Troop numbers reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011 and stood at around 100,000 in February. At present, the shape and structure of the military presence that will remain in 2014 is still unknown, but the vacuum left by the withdrawal will pose a challenge to the security environment in both Afghanistan and the surrounding region, including the three neighboring Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Afghanistan’s very weak state institutions and the prospect of political chaos post-2014 represent a major security threat, Washington’s oft-repeated remarks celebrating the successes of President Hamid Karzai's government notwithstanding

Apart from the Afghan factor, the Central Asian countries are confronted with a broad spectrum of political and security challenges, many of which derive from their dysfunctional power structures.

Political power in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan is so highly personalized that any dramatic shift at the top could unleash serious internal turmoil. Additionally, all three countries are almost certain to soon face leadership changes: Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, recently celebrated his 75th birthday; President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev is only a few years younger at 73; and even though the president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, is 60, he has been in power since November 1994.

In contrast, Kyrgyzstan’s political woes are reflected in its lack of effective government, particularly a considerable power vacuum and significant regional divisions between the north and the south.

Throughout the region, Central Asia’s authoritarian model of government has all but eliminated any meaningful secular opposition. As a result, citizens protesting against the government are classified as radical Islamists even when they are secular, because this serves the governments’ political agendas.

These facts present two unattractive options for the region’s political future: If the existing status quo is reinforced, political and economic stagnation will be prolonged. Alternatively, the accelerated breakdown of the current structures may increase the risk of a collapse in the regional security architecture.

The United States and NATO should keep these possibilities in mind when considering the reconfiguration of their forces in Afghanistan. Washington should understand that the reduction of its military and security presence must not become synonymous with a hasty retreat. Additionally, cooperation with the other stakeholders in the region, notably Russia, must figure prominently in the larger regional geopolitical agenda.

Unlike the South Caucasus or Ukraine, neither Russia nor the United States view Central Asia as an area of bilateral competition. Moreover, since 2001 the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan has brought Russian and American interests in the region closer together. Despite numerous disputes over other issues during this period, Moscow and Washington have maintained a consensus on Afghanistan and shown a readiness to cooperate in Central Asia.

Nevertheless, American and Russian interests in Central Asia remain asymmetrical. To Moscow, these countries, which are part of the territory of the former Soviet Union, are part of Russia’s sphere of influence. However, it is important to note here that Russia’s interests in the region are due to its importance for Russia’s security and economic development, rather than driven by the political trauma caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union or any desire to reestablish a Russian “empire.”

Additionally, Russia’s long struggles with Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus and now in the Volga Region make it particularly attuned to the threat of the collapse of regional security in Central Asia. Just one factor is Russia’s extremely porous 4,660-mile-long border with Kazakhstan.

There are also personal and family ties. Kazakhstan has a large ethnic Russian community while Russia has numerous communities of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. For example, in July 2012 the total population in Kazakhstan was estimated at 16.97 million, of which 3.69 million, or 21.8 percent of the population, was ethnically Russian.

It should be no surprise that the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are Russia’s most reliable partners in the post-Soviet space, both in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), as well as obvious targets for a proposed Eurasian Union. 

In contrast, the United States is physically removed from the region. For Washington, Central Asia does not pose any potential security threat to American soil. There are no ethnic diaspora communities there with links to the United States.

This leaves the United States with much more room to maneuver. The main U.S. concern is Afghanistan; Central Asia as a whole is a secondary, if not tertiary zone of interest, one often considered in the context of more important strategic goals and geopolitical issues, such as Iran, China or Pakistan-India relations. 

While recognizing the more-or-less positive impact of the U.S.-NATO military presence in Afghanistan, Russia remains deeply concerned about the deployment of American military bases or troops on the territory of Central Asia proper. This concern is not based on anti-Americanism or any other psychological fears or phobias, but on Russia’s pragmatic concerns that a stronger American military presence in Central Asia would mean less engagement with Russia, both in assistance and mediation.

Another factor in U.S.-Russian relations vis-a-vis Central Asia is China. Like Moscow, Beijing prefers the status quo. It fears an accelerated or forced democratization of the region and the growth of the U.S. military presence. China and Russia are engaged jointly in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Beijing also has a particular concern about the threat of radical Islam and nationalism in the region, given the majority Muslim population in Xinjiang  the vast eastern province that borders Kazahstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

At the same time, however, China is very effective at promoting its economic interests in the region, absent any altruistic motives  an arena in which Moscow is a competitor. It should also be pointed out that the China factor weakens any direct U.S.-Russian competition, since it represents a third key player in the region  especially in the economic sphere.

A regional zero sum game is not a positive dynamic for Central Asia. Hopefully, the major players in the region have reached this conclusion. And even as the United States and NATO prepare to withdraw, their governments must also take a warning from the experience of Central Asia in the 1990s: The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan did not bring about a geopolitical victory for the West.

Additionally, the destabilization of the country following the Soviet withdrawal contributed to the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan. Therefore, it would be naive for Russia to rejoice over any perceived American failure in Afghanistan. Such a state of affairs is fraught with dangerous consequences for both Russia and Central Asia. The new regional agenda must focus on multilateral cooperation as the best guarantee of stability and security.