After more than 19 years of its failed war against the Taliban, the Americans’ rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan is looking a lot like the situation in Saigon in 1975, following the US defeat in the Vietnam war. In addition to the departure of US troops, Washington is also saying there’s a possibility that it will be forced to evacuate its diplomatic staff from the country in the event of an escalation of anti-American aggression on the part of the Taliban (banned in Russia), and, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, as it’s already drawing contingency plans to do this.
As the Pakistani newspaper The Nation, points out, the Afghan national army, armed and ‘trained’ by the US, is abandoning its military hardware and weaponry to the Taliban at an alarming rate, with whole battalions retreating without putting up a fight in anticipation of the impending collapse of the government as US and NATO forces continue to withdraw their forces from the country. In the announcement on the withdrawal of troops, issued in April, Joe Biden, while recognizing that he is powerless to control the situation that has been caused by the US’s failed policies in Afghanistan, called on Russia, China, India and Pakistan to “step up” and do more to “support Afghanistan.”
General Austin S. Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has criticized Joe Biden’s policies in relation to the country and has admitted that the Taliban is launching increasingly large-scale operations throughout the country and may make an attempt to seize power despite its peace talks with the US. Speaking in Bagram air base in an interview with the US broadcaster ABC, Miller described the security situation in Afghanistan as unsatisfactory. He repeated his previous statement that he does not believe that any party is able to win in the country through military means. However, he added that things are getting dangerous, and “we are seeing the beginning of a situation which will not be good for Afghanistan”, with all the conditions for a revolution that may provoke a new wave of bloodletting in the unending Afghan conflict.
Following such a critical appraisal of the US administration’s policies, it is unsurprising that on July 3 Lloyd Austin, US Minister of Defense, clearly acting on instructions from the White House, announced General Miller’s removal from his post as leader of the mission in Afghanistan, and his replacement with General Frank McKenzie, head of the United States Central Command.
Meanwhile, on July 2 the last US and allied troops left Bagram, their key base located 60 km north-west of Kabul, and following its closure only about a thousand US troops remain posted in the country, tasked with guarding Kabul airport and the US Embassy. And according to the Associated Press their number may soon fall to about 650 (however, Washington has said nothing about the size of the US and NATO private military companies remaining in Afghanistan).
As the US and NATO troops depart, the Taliban (banned in Russia) forces have been scaling up their attacks and are clearly on the advance, gaining new territory day by day. Fearful of violence from the Taliban over the last few days soldiers from the government army have fled from their attacks and, on a number of occasions have been forced to seek safety across the border in neighboring Central Asia. For example, on June 22 more than 130 Afghan soldiers crossed over to Tajikistan following a battle against the Taliban, on June 23 more than 50 Afghan border guards and resistance fighters crossed over to Uzbekistan, while on July 5 more than a thousand soldiers from the government army crossed over to Tajikistan in search of refuge.
These border crossings and military activity by the Taliban in the country’s northern provinces have raised concerns in Central Asia, Russia and China. Among other leaders, Emomali Rahmon, president of Tajikistan, is currently involved in negotiations on this issue with Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, his counterparts in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. And on July 2 the heads of Afghanistan’s and Tajikistan’s Interior Ministries, Mirwais Nab and Muzaffar Huseinzod, met in Tashkent to discuss the situation in the north of Afghanistan.
In view of the current situation, the urgent evacuation of Afghan citizens who have been working with the US during its mission in Afghanistan was the subject of particularly heated discussion. According to Washington, they number approximately 18,000. Recently the US President Joe Biden emphasized that they would not be left behind. “They will be welcome here just like anyone else who risked their lives to help us,” he said during a visit to Washington by an Afghan delegation headed by President Ashraf Ghani. It is proposed that the Afghan interpreters and other staff be given Special Immigration Visas that would allow them to claim asylum status in the US. The US Congress has capped the total number of SIVs for refugees and migrants at 26,000, but in June Anthony Blinken requested that an additional 8,000 SIVs be approved for the Afghan staff. According to Bloomberg some 9,000 persons have already submitted applications for SIVs.
In response to the problems posed by the current situation, the USA recently contacted the leaders of three Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, asking them to commit to providing a temporary refuge to some 9,000 Afghan citizens who had assisted the US in the fight against the Taliban. As reported by Bloomberg Washington is hoping that these agreements will form part of a broader deal to establish further cooperation between the US and the Central Asian nations, which will cover issues relating to the regulation of the situation in Afghanistan.
The proposed agreement is clearly part of the US’s Plan B, which will allow it to retain a military presence in the region despite the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The participants in the negotiations emphasize that the category of “Afghans who helped the US” is not restricted to technical staff in military bases, as might be assumed, but also includes members of independent local militias (or “Arbaki”) opposing the Taliban who were trained and armed by the US. They included fighters from local groups not reporting to the government and former militants from the Taliban and DAESH (both organizations are banned in Russia).
Washington has clearly learned from Turkey’s experience in Syria, and intends in the future to rely on these “new forces” in the region, which will form the core of an independent “Arbaki” militia force in the north of Afghanistan that will not owe allegiance to the government in Kabul, no longer supported by most Afghans. This new force will also serve to put pressure on the Taliban or other regional players should other countries such as China, Pakistan or China send troops to Afghanistan.
Naturally, these “new forces” would need bases in Central Asia, and while apparently trying to organize “refugee camps” the true goal of the US is to establish three military bases in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The US also wants to ensure that it has access to these facilities in order to provide humanitarian support, or so it claims – in reality it is likely that they will be used to coordinate the operations of the new Anti-Taliban League. These “camps” are also intended to serve as electronic intelligence centers, officially for the purpose of monitoring the situation in Afghanistan, but which could also be used to spy on Russia and China.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have already informed Washington that they refuse to host US military bases, but the new “agreements” being promoted by the US still provide for the creation of bases, although under a different name.
Moscow and Beijing have rejected such proposals by Washington, and their opposition is quite natural as allowing the US to establish de-facto military bases and providing it with intelligence capabilities in Central Asia would be a serious breach of their obligations as members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
The current situation is also complicated by the fact that the Central Asian nations have traditionally, and not without reason, feared incursions into their territory by militants and terrorist organizations from Afghanistan, or from the Middle East via Afghanistan. This includes not only the Taliban, but also Central Asians who have joined various terrorist or extremist organizations, including anti-Taliban groups.
The USA hopes to take advantage of the visit to Washington by Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Uzbekistan Foreign Minister, and Sirojiddin Muhriddin, his Tajik counterpart, to get the agreement signed. According to Bloomberg, Washington is insisting that those nations allow it to carry out intelligence operations from their territory – thus in effect using them as points of influence in the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
To reassure Russia, China and the Central Asian nations themselves, the White House has stated that while applications for resettlement to the USA are being considered, other options for temporary asylum in third countries are also being considered. The locations proposed include the Pacific island of Guam. However, Washington has said nothing to the Central Asian nations or to anyone else about what will happen to those Afghans who are refused SIVs to stay in the US – by which time many Afghans will already be living in the so-called “refugee camps”.
The Central Asian nations, as well as Russia and China have expressed concern about the situation in Afghanistan. China has a 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan, and in May Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, warned that the US’s “hasty withdrawal” from the war that is pulling Afghanistan apart will “severely affect the peace process” and “have a negative impact on regional stability”. On July 2 Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister reiterated his concern about the situation in Afghanistan, warning that DAESH (banned in Russia) jihadists were clearly gathering in the north of Afghanistan, and adding that Moscow would discuss this situation with its allies in the CSTO.
The rapid deterioration of the security situation has raised fears that the US is trying to get Russia, China and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, among others, mired in a long-drawn out conflict in Afghanistan.
Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.