In headlines reminiscent of a bygone era, journalists this week reported rapid gains made by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province. This follows grim news that at least 24 Afghan commandos were killed in a battle with Taliban fighters in Faryarb Province. Amid the upsurge in violence and concern that the withdrawal of U.S. forces (scheduled for completion by September 11) will precipitate a Taliban takeover, Washington continues searching for a way to maintain its ability to collect information and project power into Afghanistan—perhaps by establishing a residual presence in neighboring Central Asia.
Ahead of the planned withdrawal, U.S. officials have been quietly engaging their Central Asian counterparts. In early May, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, reportedly visited the region to scope out possibilities for potential deployments after the withdrawal. Meanwhile, media in and around Central Asia have been full of rumors about U.S. plans.
Of course, the idea of a limited U.S. military presence in Central Asia as an adjunct to its strategy for Afghanistan is hardly new. After the first bilateral agreements were negotiated in the fall of 2001, the United States maintained forces at Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, until 2005, and at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, until 2014. The Central Asian states also provided airspace access, use of their roads and railways, and other kinds of support to U.S. and allied forces. As Western involvement in Afghanistan has waned in recent years, so too has reliance on Central Asian airspace, infrastructure, and bases. Central Asia’s diminished importance to the Afghanistan conflict has also coincided with growing attention to the region on the part of its large neighbors Russia and China. Today, with a more contested geopolitical landscape in Eurasia, and with the Biden administration emphasizing democracy and transparency, the re-deployment of U.S. forces to the region would be both difficult and counterproductive.
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Dr. Jeffrey Mankoff is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University.