United States Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul over the weekend in an attempt to work out a deal on keeping American and allied forces in the country after next year. Kerry worked out a preliminary deal – known as the Bilateral Security Agreement – with Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai that would allow a training force (likely of 5,000 to 10,000 foreign troops) in the country after the current combat mission (totaling about 87,000 troops) ends next year. While the implications for the U.S.-Afghanistan security relationship are obvious, whether the two sides can reach a final agreement also will have a large effect on the U.S.’s military relationships with Afghanistan’s neighbors to the north, the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics.
Since the U.S. military operation began in Afghanistan in 2001, the Central Asian states have been key partners of the U.S., and the American military relationship with those countries has been inextricably linked with the U.S.’s mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. has operated two air bases in Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, both to support the mission in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has set up land logistics routes in Central Asia, known as the Northern Distribution Network, to deliver supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. And the U.S. has supplied military aid to the countries of the region in a pattern which strongly suggests that it is a de facto payment for access to Afghanistan.
Removing Afghanistan from the equation would likely mean that the U.S.’s interest in Central Asia will sharply drop, wrote Dmitry Gorenburg, a political scientist at Harvard who studies post-Soviet militaries:
The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.
The U.S. was already kicked out of its base in Uzbekistan in 2005, and Kyrgyzstan has told the U.S. it will have to leave that base in July, 2014, which the U.S. appears resigned to accept. And whether the residual force in Afghanistan is 10,000 or zero, it will be an order of magnitude smaller than the current force, meaning that logistical concerns will not be nearly as large a factor, regardless of how the negotiations with Kabul turn out.
So the biggest wild card with respect to the U.S.-Central Asia security relationship will be the U.S. support for the militaries of the region. The stated reason for that support is to help the countries of the region deal with security threats emanating from Afghanistan. While the greater, unstated motivation has been ensuring access to Afghanistan, helping these countries protect themselves is nevertheless at least part of the equation. And in the case that the U.S. and Afghanistan would fail to come to an agreement (as happened in Iraq), the Central Asian states could rise in importance. The U.S. may want to have a small combat presence, perhaps of special forces units, or may want to step up its support of the local security forces. But the Central Asian governments could also come under the pressure of Russia – which has its own post-2014 security agenda – and resist U.S. attempts at greater cooperation.
While earlier this month U.S. officials were dropping hints that they were willing to walk away from negotiations with Karzai, Kerry’s trip has revived the prospects that the two sides will, in the end, reach a deal. The final sticking point is the U.S.’s demand for immunity for its troops from prosecution in Afghan courts. Karzai said that was not something he could decide on his own, but would have to put it to the Afghan people, for which he is convening a “loya jirga,” a meeting of the country’s key elites. According to the New York Times, the decision is still up to Karzai: “the sense among Afghan and American officials was that the views of the loya jirga would reflect whatever Mr. Karzai wanted, and that he would not go to the trouble of organizing it only to see the pact with the United States rejected,” but added that it could provide Karzai with a pretext to scuttle the deal if he ultimately decides that it is not in his interest. A detailed analysis of the issue at Afghanistan Analysts Network agrees: “[S]uch jirgas give respectability to sensitive decisions taken by the government while the hand-picked nature of the delegates pretty well ensures ‘the people’ take the right decisions.”
No doubt the negotiations are being watched closely from Tashkent, Dushanbe, and Ashgabat.