The Regional Effect of the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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The apparent purpose of the United States of America (USA), which interfered in Afghanistan in 2001, was to fight the terrorist organization Al Qaeda and took down Taliban Administration that support Al Qaeda. In this process, the USA entered Central Asia which is considered as Russia’s backyard, by building bases and blocked one of China’s trade routes that open to the West. Moreover, the USA has invaded a country that has borders with Iran and Pakistan. To put it simply, Washington administration has settled in the heart of the north-south and east-west route. In the meantime, while Russia’s weight in international politics has increased since 2010, China has actualized the Belt-Road Project. In this context, an unstable Afghanistan and the American presence in this country have become one of the most substantial problems for Russia and China.

After almost 20 years of conflict period, the Taliban has become the most active armed group in Afghanistan and has controlled more than half of the country. Washington administration, which decided to withdraw military activity from Afghanistan due to both domestic politics and increasing economic costs, accepted that U.S. troops leave Afghanistan until May 1, 2021 as a result of the agreement signed in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on February 29, 2020. However, this date was extended to September 11, 2021.

While the Taliban thought the postponement of the drawing process to a later date as a violation of the agreement, no attacks were occurred against American soldiers, possibly as a result of confidential negotiations. The Taliban, who regards the USA’s decision to withdraw as a victory, increased its attacks to local people bravely. It is understood that the Taliban which continues its attacks to take over the country’s administration, will not consent to the establishment of a shared administration in Afghanistan and will neutralize its opponents. It is obvious that like Taliban, other actors in Afghanistan have also been preparing for the new process. With this fact, it is possible to say that there is a risk of civil war in the country. It can be stated that after the withdrawal of the USA, the current conflicts will become harder and thousands of people will be adversely affected by this situation. There is even the possibility that the administration in the country will be completely taken over by the Taliban. At this point, it is significant why the USA insists on its withdrawal plan.

It is obvious that the decision to withdraw will affect many actors. When viewed from this aspect, the first country that comes to mind is Russia. Russia is trying to increase its influence in the post-Soviet geography within the scope of the “Near Abroad Doctrine”. It is given great importance to Afghanistan by Russia in this strategy which can also be read as the “Going South Policy” through Central Asia. Because there is a possibility that the ongoing violence in Afghanistan will spread to Central Asia and affect Russia. On the other hand, thanks to the stabilized Afghanistan, it may be possible for Russia to go south and reach the Indian Ocean. In this process, Moscow will focus on its relations with Islamabad and New Delhi.

On the other hand, Pakistan, which is limited geographically between Iran and India, feels some discomfort situation because of dependency caused by the economic relations established with China.[1] In this sense, it can be said that the Islamabad administration wants to establish a continuous transportation network with a country like Russia. But an unstable Afghanistan will prevent both going south strategy of Russia and increasing influence zone along with Afghanistan. Therefore, the US may want to break Russia’s goals by destabilizing Afghanistan.

While the US withdraws its troops from the region, it needs a base that it can both withdraws its troops and maintain its presence in the region. Thus, it can be said that Washington is trying to gain influence in Central Asia which it considers region as Russia’s backyard, giving the withdrawal as a reason. Afghanistan’s neighbors are China, Iran, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Because it is obvious that the USA cannot have an idea to demand a base from China, Iran and Turkmenistan. Additively, Pakistan has announced that it will not allow any foreign bases in its territory.[2] For this reason, Tajikistan, which has a border of 1,357 km with Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, which has been followed more liberal policies by opening up world during the period of Şevkat Mirziyoyev, stand out in the eye of USA.

In this respect, it is claimed that one of the reasons behind the visits of Zalmay Halilzad who is the Special Representative of the USA in Afghanistan, to Tashkent and Dushanbe is the base issue. However, it can be said that Tajikistan’s increasing military and political relations with Russia will make this situation obstruct. Moreover, the increasing influence of China on Tajikistan and claiming that it has a military base in this country prevents the USA from reaching its expectations. This situation triggers the USA going to Uzbekistan. Due to the fact that Russia has increased the pressure on Uzbekistan within the framework of its going south policy, the Tashkent administration will approach the US demand reluctantly for a base.[3] Because it is seen that Mirziyoyev has implemented a pragmatic policy based on balance strategy.

In summary, the USA will evaluate various possibilities in relation to deployment of troops in Central Asia during the withdrawal process. It is likely that pressure of Russia and China in the region against Washington’s demand for a base will increase. For this reason, the countries of the region will make moves to balance the great powers and to improve their economic relations with these powers. However, the increasing competition between Moscow, Beijing and Washington may force Central Asian countries to make a geopolitical and economic choice. A possible civil war expecting with the withdrawal of the USA may cause the countries of the region to implement isolationist policies. Because it is known that both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are concerned about the spreading of the violence in Afghanistan to their own lands.

China is the second actor that is affected by USA withdraw. Beijing sees withdraw of American troops opportunity as well as threat. Afghanistan where the republican administration is continues, radical groups are not effective, elections are held after a stable transition government and the violence has come to an end is the ideal scenario for China. But the Afghanistan Civil War which will become more severe with the withdraw process, will mean the continuation of instability in the region for Beijing. Considering all these possibilities, it can be said that the USA is trying to leave behind controlled threat in the region rather than an opportunity in the region. As a matter of fact, the attack on a school in Kabul -the capital of Afghanistan- which caused nearly death of 100 people, is the strongest evidence of the instability in the country; China’s strong reaction to the attack originated from this situation. In the case of a possible civil war, it can be predicted that the USA will support the Kabul administration and the Afghanistan Army. In contrast, actors such as Russia and Iran are likely to support various proxy actors, especially the Taliban. Therefore, it is among the possibilities that proxy war like in Syria will be occurred in Afghanistan. Naturally, this situation will pose an obstacle for China on the east-west route.[4]

In short, the USA is of the opinion that it can limit Russia and China with the least cost through a withdrawal plan that will destabilize Afghanistan. However, for Beijing, one of the most important countries in the region is Pakistan. The possibility of instability and conflicts in Afghanistan spreading to Pakistan means that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will be threatened. In addition, the close relationship that Pakistan has established with China geopolitically pushes India to strengthen its relations with the USA and opens the possibility of a new conflict in Kashmir. In addition to all these, Beijing is worried that the radicalization that will increase in Afghanistan will spread to China.

As a result, it is possible to say that the USA will withdraw from Afghanistan and will try to destabilize the region with a controlled chaos by minimizing its cost in the country through this withdrawal. Because Afghanistan where north-south and east-west routes intersect, is too valuable for USA against Russia and China. Thus, the reason why the USA is trying to establish a base in Central Asian countries is both to put pressure on the Taliban and to manage the civil war in Afghanistan more easily. Moreover, in the event that the Taliban weaken the Afghan forces in the conflicts that will occur, it is also possible for the Kabul administration to invite the USA to Afghanistan again. Thereby, the United States can strongly come back in a situation which it is likely to lose control in Afghanistan.

[1] Saim Saeed, “Pakistan, Çin ile İttifak Olmanın Bedelini Öğreniyor”, Politico, https://www.politico.eu/article/pakistan-learns-cost-of-economic-alliance-with-china/, (Date of Accession: 18.05.2021).

[2] Nitin J Ticku, “Pentagon Afganistan Yakınında ‘Asker ve Malzeme’ İçin Yer Bakarken, Pakistan ABD’ye Askeri Üs Önerecek mi?”, The Eurasian Times, https://eurasiantimes.com/will-pakistan-offer-a-military-base-to-the-us-as-pentagon-looks-to-place-men-material-near-afghanistan/, (Date of Accession:: 18.05.2021).

[3] Catherine Putz, “ABD Afgan Elçisi Özbekistan ve Tacikistan’ı Ziyaret Etti”, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/us-afghan-envoy-visits-uzbekistan-tajikistan/, (Date of Accession: 18.05.2021).

[4] Yun Sun, “Çin, ABD’nin Afganistan’dan Çekilmesini Nasıl Bakıyor?”, War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2021/05/how-china-views-the-u-s-withdrawal-from-afghanistan/, (Date of Accession: 18.05.2021).

Emrah KAYA
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