WASHINGTON, DC - Monday, April 30, 2012 -
In October 2001, “Operation Enduring Freedom” was launched in Afghanistan as a U.S. retaliation act against Al-Qaida and the Taliban for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then, this primary goal of the mission has transformed from sole retaliation to nation- and state- building in this war-torn country.
A third aspect of the overall Afghan campaign has recently gained increased interest, namely the role of regional countries in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and regional security problems that will emerge after the withdrawal of international forces from this country by 2014.
BACKGROUND: The overall military operation in Afghanistan has since 2001 passed through at least three stages: the U.S.-led operation of 2001-2003; the NATO ISAF operation of 2003-2009; and the ongoing withdrawal process starting in 2009. These three stages reflect three basic objectives which have evolved out of the initial ultimate goal throughout these stages: 1) a counter-terrorist operation; 2) peace-building and state-building; 3) the “localization” of the overall Afghan question. The latter objective is expected to be achieved by 2014.
However, this localization process creates a most controversial and challenging situation in and around Afghanistan, since it implies transferring the responsibility for peace, stability, security, and reconstruction from international forces to Afghans. At the same time, the localization process also envisions a more active role of neighboring countries, especially Central Asian ones, in both Afghanistan’s reconstruction and maintaining regional security.
At first glance, such an exit strategy seems prudent and justified given the increasing reluctance of Western states to protract the military campaign and the local population’s allegedly growing sentiments against foreigners. However, a number of questions arise in relation to this strategy.
For example, will Central Asian countries feel more comfortable (that is, secure) vis-à-vis their southern neighbor and become more engaged with it after the drawdown of international forces? And is Afghanistan itself ready for the post-U.S. (or post-ISAF) self-rule? Because the overall international presence/campaign in Afghanistan has not been maintained without a certain ultimate goal (the elimination of global terrorism), the question arises as to whether that goal was really achieved.
The very first goal of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) – overthrowing the Taliban and eliminating the Al-Qaida leader bin Laden – can be considered a full success. However, in terms of the objectives of the “Global war on terror,” which was proclaimed together with OEF in the aftermath of September 11th, the Afghan campaign can be considered only a relative, even a modest success.
As for the second stage objective – peace- and state-building – it can be considered a modest success as well, given the weakness of the central government outside Kabul and its vulnerability to corruption. Moreover, one fundamental aspect of this issue remains incomplete, namely nation-building. While state-building can to a certain extent be imposed, and this was done in Afghanistan with the assistance of international coalition forces, nation-building cannot. The latter can to some extent be concomitant to the former but this is not yet a fact in Afghanistan.
Therefore, the third stage – localization – can be expected to imply problems for countries neighboring Afghanistan. Against the background of pessimistic apprehensions and strategic uncertainty related to the “magic date of 2014,” Central Asian countries are facing a twofold challenge: to further pursue national interests and to recall regional perspectives.
IMPLICATIONS: In January this year, Uzbek President Islam Karimov stated that “the announced withdrawal of American and ISAF forces from Afghanistan by 2014 can increase the threat of spillover of terrorist and extremist activity, tension and confrontation in this vast region and lead to the emergence here of a permanent source of instability.”
This reflects serious concerns on part of the Uzbek leadership regarding the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan. It has to be stressed that until the drawdown started, Central Asians have overall maintained a low profile on Afghan affairs and were relatively comfortable with this status quo. Today, they begin adapting to new circumstances.
Meanwhile, one after another European Minister of Defense nowadays visits Uzbekistan to discuss the withdrawal process. It is noticeable that since late February, the defense ministers of Poland, Latvia, the United Kingdom, and Germany have already visited Tashkent. They discussed issues ranging from the state of bilateral relations of their respective countries with Uzbekistan as well as regional security in Central Asia, to the situation in Afghanistan and bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, with President Karimov.
The central issue discussed during the meetings was no doubt the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Since the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) has begun to operate, it is expected that from now on military representatives and other officials from EU countries and the U.S. will frequently visit Uzbekistan to coordinate the withdrawal of their troops via the NDN.
The pre-2014 political atmosphere in Central Asia with respect to Afghanistan is now obviously pervaded with observations and evaluations of the transportation campaign. But the post-2014 political environment is now high on the agenda of national and multilateral preparations in the region vis-à-vis Afghanistan. In the course of drawing down on its military presence, U.S. forces will according to agreements leave some equipment and techniques in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, a decision which is supposed to be a part of such preparations.
By-and-large, the concept of localization/regionalization of peace-building and reconstruction in Afghanistan is a division bell for Central Asians. It is believed that after 2014, the regional states will stand face to face with Afghanistan and will have to rebuild relationships with it on the bilateral and multilateral levels by using all political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and historical assets they possess.
In particular, the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization], CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization], CAREC [Central Asia Regional Cooperation] and other regional structures will have a new carte blanche in terms of serving the security and economic needs of the Central Asian countries.
Just like the regional states, these regional organizations have kept a low profile and even accused NATO of reluctance to cooperate on Afghan affairs. Soon they will be given a new opportunity to demonstrate to what extent they are capable of managing regional security issues including possible new challenges from Afghanistan.
CONCLUSIONS: New cooperative security arrangements will be tested in 2014 in Central Asia, not only vis-à-vis Afghanistan but in general. After the international coalition completes its mission in Afghanistan, it will be time for the Central Asian states to replace it with their own regional coalition that will, among other things, deal with would-be challenges from Afghanistan.
On the other hand, although the international military presence can be ended or brought down to a minimum, the international non-military and assistance presence, consisting of foundations, firms, companies, trainers, teachers, etc, will undoubtedly be sustained and may even increase.
Will this foreign presence be acknowledged and appreciated by those in Afghanistan who, like the Taliban, today remain antagonistic to any form of such presence? The coalition forces may withdraw but the actuality of objectives of the first two stages mentioned above, especially the struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan, most likely will remain. In these circumstances, Central Asians can no longer keep a low profile.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov, PhD in Political Science, Director, Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni”, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
(This article was first published in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (www.cacianalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.)