17.07.2020 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

Withdrawing American Troops from Afghanistan – a New Challenge for the CSTO

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For many years now, there has been talk of pulling American troops out of Afghanistan, where a civil war has been raging for 40 years and substantial amounts of territory are under the control of terrorists. The US is now getting ready to carry out this project. There is one opinion that immediately after American troops leave Afghanistan there will be an explosion of terrorist activity that will be felt by other countries, including Russia and nations in Central Asia.

The most powerful anti-government forces in Afghanistan at present are represented by the Taliban organization (banned in the Russian Federation). The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, but in 2001 it was deposed by international forces headed by the United States, which participated in forming the current Afghan government. Since the invasion in 2001, the Taliban has been waging a guerilla war against the US and its allies for almost 20 years. By 2020, the US had lost thousands of lives and spent about 2 trillion USD, and the Taliban continued to hold large areas of land in Afghanistan, and to take offensive measures. The secret to the Taliban’s success lies not only in its knowledge of the country, but the popularity it enjoys among the local population. Their ideas are completely consistent with the worldview held by many ordinary Afghans, and the Taliban can always count on help from them to replenish its ranks.

Ultimately, the United States, just like other countries, was forced to admit that they are dealing with not just a group of fighters, but with a far-reaching movement and political force, and sat down at the negotiating table. Even just a few years ago the world community, united by the idea of a hardcore fight against international terrorism, could not have expected this; however, US President Donald Trump, after coming to power in 2016, let everyone know right away that he was not a typical politician, and was ready to act contrary to public opinion. One of the main items in his agenda is refusing to have the US waste its resources in endless conflicts overseas, and ending the war in Afghanistan, which at the moment is the longest in America’s history, fits this agenda perfectly.

Even as far back as February 2017, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai proclaimed that the Afghan government is ready to acknowledge the Taliban as a political partner, and permit it to take part in elections. It goes without saying that he would not have been able to make that proclamation without support from, or at the behest of, the United States.

On 29 February 2020 in Doha, the capital of Qatar, a peace agreement was signed between the US and the Taliban. According to the document, if the Taliban cease combat operations against the incumbent Afghan government, then the US and NATO will start pulling troops out of Afghanistan over the course of 14 months. In addition, the US promised to remove the Taliban from its sanctions list in August 2020. The Afghan government also started to establish relations with the Taliban, taking the obligation upon itself to release Taliban prisoners and petition the UN Security Council to remove members of the Taliban from its sanctions list.

However, by 2 March 2020 the Taliban had resumed combat operations. On 4 March, they killed more than 20 Afghan military personnel and police officers, and the Americans carried out an airstrike against the Taliban. Nonetheless, on 9 March the US started to withdraw its troops. In the beginning of April, the Taliban massacred eight civilians and declared that they would continue fighting until the liberation of their comrades that were captured by the Afghan authorities. By the end of June 2020, Kabul released more than 1,000 Taliban members. Nonetheless, by the time the Taliban had killed, according to available data, more than 160 Afghan military personnel. The exact number of victims from among the civilian population is not known, but one video of the Taliban executing a woman accused of adultery has spread all over the world.

The position the Afghan government finds itself in would seem unenviable: despite the fact that the United States has retained the right to equip and train Afghan government troops, it is obvious that if the Afghan military could not cope with the Taliban together with its American counterparts, then it will be even more difficult for them to do it alone. It is hard to believe the Taliban’s promise that it will lay down its arms and, after the withdrawal of American troops, exercise restraint and not completely seize power in the country by force.

Some hold the opinion that even if that occurs nations in Central Asia do not need to fear the Taliban, since their interests have never extended beyond the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, it is commonly known that growth in opportunities often leads to growth in demands. In addition, regardless of whether the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan after the Americans leave or indeed, as promised, peacefully join Afghan political life and begin to seek the death penalty for unfaithful wives by legal means, they will have much more time and energy to destroy rival terrorist groups no matter what. For example, ISIL (a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation) is active in Afghan territory, and the Taliban has hostile relations with them. To save themselves from the Taliban, ISIL members could begin to depart en masse for other countries, including nations in Central Asia.

So, no matter how the story of the US withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan ends, Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have good reason to think about bolstering their level of security. In addition, Russia needs to pay attention to this issue.

In July 2020, Nikolay Patrushev, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, declared that the US needs to decide on its own when, and in what quantities, to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, but that it should not lead to a deterioration of the situation in the region. Patrushev stated that many objectives that the US and NATO had in Afghanistan remain unfulfilled, and the Afghan security services are not coping with maintaining security in their country. In addition, he recalled how Afghanistan is still a huge supplier of opium drugs worldwide (about 80% of the black market in drugs). As Patrushev states, due to all these reasons Afghanistan is a serious source of risks for the Russian Federation and the countries it partners with under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the SCO, which includes four Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan).

The SCO is a multi-faceted organization, and combating terrorism is just one of its objectives. Aware of the threat originating from Afghanistan and the Middle East, the countries of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, together with Armenia and Belarus, also cooperate within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is primarily concerned with security issues. One zone that the CSTO pays particular attention to, and upon which the security of all its participants depends to varying degrees, is the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, across which drug trafficking is done from the Afghan side, and the incursions made by illegal armed groups that occur. It is possible that the zone could soon become even more problematic.

It is tough to say, for now, whether the withdrawal of American troops will decrease the scope of threats that emanate from Afghanistan or, conversely, cause it to increase. However, in May 2020 Stanislav Zas, the Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, announced that in 2021 the armed forces in the organization’s countries intend to hold large-scale training exercises along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. CSTO training exercises are regularly held in that area, so there is nothing new in that. But the fact that the organization is announcing exercises beforehand that will only take place one year from now speaks to the fact that the event is not typical. It is possible that the exercises will be particularly extensive, so that the power held by the CSTO can be showcased as vividly as possible for everyone who might be interested on the other side of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. After all, 2021 is just when those 14 months expire in the course of which the US promised to pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

In any event, it is evident that the situation in Afghanistan will not stabilize anytime soon. It will continue to create risks for neighboring countries for a long time, and demand that they remain especially vigilant.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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