After two-decades long bloody war, the United States has realized finally that there is no military solution to the Afghan mess, and today the Biden administration is engaged in extensive discussions with partners in Central Asia and beyond the region on future policy in Afghanistan — This is the juice squeezed out of the materials of press-briefing with the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, held on 13 June 2021 at the US Embassy in Nur Sultan.
The full transcript of the press-conference can be found here:
Summarizing the questions asked by the Kazakh media and Khalilzad’s answers, we can identify the following likely guidelines to manage the development of relations between the United States and Central Asia on the Afghan track in the near future:
Reducing the risks of expanding drug trafficking, weapons and the influx of extremists into Central Asia
According to Khalilzad, there are two ways to minimize the above-mentioned challenges after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
First, it is necessary to have a strong government inside Afghanistan, which could prevent the threat of drug trafficking and the influx of extremist flows into Central Asia. And to do this, it is necessary to reach a consensus between the government in Kabul and the Taliban, who would join in fight back against ISIL.
Secondly, it is an adjustment, as President Biden said, of the US counter-terrorism capabilities.
When asked what measures the United States will take to prevent extremism, Khalilzad gave a very vague answer: “as a hedge, as insurance, given uncertainty, that we need to, the United States but also in cooperation with others including Kazakhstan, increased cooperation. We need to be prepared to take the steps necessary now so that we are in a position should what you judge or what you speculated, what if there is more problems or increased problems of the kind that you mentioned, that we are in a position together to deter, prevent and deal with.”
US military bases in Central Asia
Khalilzad was asked twice about the deployment of an American military contingent in one of the Central Asian countries. And he evaded a direct answer. But the following quotation hints that a military presence is possible, while the status and scope of such a stationing is still unclear:
“President Biden has spoken about adjusting our counterterrorism capabilities so that we have a presence and capability in the region to respond to the challenge that you described should it happen. And we also are looking for cooperation with the neighbors of Afghanistan, particularly Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, to take measures together to be able to respond first to preclude and deter, but if that doesn’t work to be able to deal with them in a timely manner.”
“There is nothing at this point to announce but I have to say that our discussions and negotiations are progressing”, he said.
Protecting U.S. national interests in Central Asia
Why do Americans need a presence in Central Asia? It is necessary to pay attention to the first key phrase stated by the American diplomat (obviously, in order of priority) — “We are determined as the United States to have the capabilities in place in the region to be able to protect our national security…”
Such items as ‘the common interest which is countering terrorism and economic progress, regional cooperation and stability’ tag along. The last ones are not new areas; all of this is being worked out within the C5+1 platform.
Political settlement in Afghanistan
The red line in Khalilzad’s interview was the idea that the United States is a strong supporter of a political solution to the situation in Afghanistan — “We have also mentioned that we don’t believe that it’s a military solution […]. So surprisingly perhaps to some, there is broad consensus that includes not only the United States and Central Asia but also includes the United States and Russia and China for the necessity, for the need, for the imperative of a political settlement in Afghanistan. Not a military solution because we don’t believe that there is a military solution. Any effort that the military solution will only produce a long war while the people of Afghanistan are very tired of war, they yearn for peace, and a war in Afghanistan, continuing long war, would be a threat to regional security, will generate more terrorism, so it’s in our common interest to work together, including with Russia and China but also of course with Central Asia to encourage, to press, to incentivize the two parties in Afghanistan to negotiate and come to an agreement as soon as possible.”
Khalilzad: “American forces are leaving but America is not leaving”
As Khalilzad noted, the NATO Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan is coming to an end. Further, the Afghan forces will be provided with financial support and assistance in developing sustainment.
In addition, the United States will take steps to ensure the protection of diplomatic buildings, embassies, and airport.
Somewhat evasive answers of Khalilzad, a senior American diplomat involved in the thick of the Afghan affairs, coupled with the recent news, signalize that Washington and NATO are frantically searching shoulders to shift the Afghan burden after the withdrawal.
Reuters, citing unnamed Western senior security officials, reported that NATO has approached Qatar to provide a training base for Afghan special forces.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO leaders have yet to agree on the management of the international airport in Kabul (by the way, this is an important infrastructure facility for communication between Afghanistan and the outside world). And probably, the key role will be assigned to Turkey to maintain security of the airport during the NATO mission.
General Frank McKenzie, the commander of the US Central Command, said in an interview with Voice of America that the United States does not plan to support the Afghan forces with air strikes after the withdrawal of troops is completed, and counter-terrorism strikes will be launched only if discovered plans for an attack on US territory or on the territory of allies. The General’s comments come at odds with a New York Times early report, that the Pentagon is considering authorization to provide air support to Afghan security forces if Kabul or another major city is threatened by the Taliban attack. /// nCa, 16 June 2021