Central Asia Can Help Joe Biden Salvage Afghanistan

Central Asia Can Help Joe Biden Salvage Afghanistan

Closer U.S. relations with Central Asia will not only help the United States achieve its original objectives in Afghanistan but act as an investment that will pay dividends to U.S. foreign policy interests in the far future.


America’s twenty-year adventure in Afghanistan is over. What began as a justifiable mission to root out Al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks ended as a spectacular failure in externally imposed nation-building. Top leadership failure, policy myopia, textbook mission creep, systemic Afghan government corruption, inadequate Afghan National Army (ANA) training strategies, and weak U.S. public support contributed to this inevitable outcome. More than $2 trillion and 100,000 lives later, Afghanistan is once again fertile ground for violent extremism. But it does not have to be.

While many asserted that a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would trigger a dangerous power vacuum—beckoning the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China to fill the void—few could have predicted the speed and ferocity of this implosion. The implications are far-reaching and potentially disastrous, but core U.S. interests can still be met with a forward-looking approach to regional players.


Enter the nations of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. These dynamic countries—which represent the gateway between Asian and European markets—have a vested interest in Afghanistan’s stability and are undertaking promising reforms, from civil society to economic liberalization. Unfortunately, this critical region remains under the shadow of Chinese and Russian geopolitical interests, hidden from most Western officials.

In 2019, the Trump administration unveiled “The New US Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Promoting Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity.” The document promised to “update America’s approach and vision” to the heart of Eurasia, citing special attention to U.S. peace efforts in Afghanistan, building counterterror capacity, guaranteeing sovereignty, and fostering pro-democracy and pro-market reform. Despite the name, the 2019-2025 strategy was hardly “new,” but rather a self-admitted continuation of the core principles laid out in President Barack Obama’s 2015 “Enduring Vision For Central Asia.” Even amidst heavy-handed statements by Russian officials questioning some of the independent states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, U.S. policymakers have chronically overlooked the value of building close partnerships with these countries. Afghanistan is a case-in-point.

For the past two decades, Central Asia’s governments have been openly supportive of the U.S. security role in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan offered bases of operations for the United States in the early phases of the war, while Kazakhstan played a significant role in the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) train and equip program (it was also the first in the region to permit transits across its airspace for U.S cargo planes). Even Russia saw value in America’s stabilizing presence, supporting ISAF activities through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and a logistics hub in Ulyanovsk, until closing the supply route in 2015.

With America’s self-inflicted rout, its allies in the region are rightfully anxious over the crisis in Afghanistan. The nations of Central Asia consider the Taliban a terrorist organization and share a concern of violent extremism crossing their borders. The burgeoning refugee crisis is not lost on Central Asia’s leaders. Indeed, Afghanistan was the focus of the July regional connectivity conference hosted in Tashkent.

With the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan, critical trade infrastructure is now at risk, putting billions of dollars of investments on the line. In the absence of viable alternatives, these post-Soviet countries may be forced to pivot back to Moscow for security guarantees. Russia’s joint-military exercises along the Tajik-Afghan border are a crystal clear example of the Kremlin capitalizing on America’s retreat.

To safeguard America’s primary mission in Afghanistan—preventing the proliferation of terrorist groups which could one day conduct another September 11—the Biden administration must (re)prioritize engagement with this increasingly strategic part of the world. But it must do so with the understanding that partnerships in Central Asia extend beyond singular U.S. policy objectives.

Since their independence from Soviet rule thirty years ago, the leaders of Central Asia have adopted “multi-vector” foreign policies out of necessity—balancing their relationships between China, Russia, and United States. Perhaps no country exemplifies the success of this policy more than Kazakhstan, the region’s largest economic and military power. America’s history of bilateral relations with Kazakhstan, and Nur-Sultan’s leadership role in the region, make it a clear choice for enhanced engagement as a means to defend and enhance U.S. strategic interests.

In a June meeting with U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made clear his country’s positive relationship with the United States: “This year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of our Independence. During this period, we managed to build a friendly relationship and mutually beneficial cooperation. The U.S. is a reliable partner for Kazakhstan. We actively collaborate in various fields, including security, trade, and economics.”

Kazakhstan’s economic trajectory bodes well for a lasting bilateral relationship. The country is home to 75 percent of Central Asia’s foreign direct investment (FDI) flows and is fast becoming a hub for regional financing. Nur-Sultan is committed to accelerating private sector growth, as evidenced by the creation of its Astana International Financial Center (AIFC) and pro-market reforms under Tokayev. Through the Astana International Finance Center (AIFC) and homegrown stock exchange AIX, Kazakhstan is emerging as a Eurasian economic engine in its own right, guided by English law, and with commercial dispute resolution conducted by top British lawyers. U.S.-Kazakh trade, which reached $2.0 billion in 2020, is poised to skyrocket if the right policies are implemented, including increased military sales for counterterror operations (the sale of three Scorpion reconnaissance aircraft is a good start).

The United States should not expect Kazakhstan to abandon its deft multi-vector policy with China and Russia, but should instead lean into the benefits of heightened economic and military cooperation with a majority Muslim secular country that prioritizes counterterrorism and regional integration. Closer U.S. relations with Central Asia will not only help the United States achieve its original objectives in Afghanistan but act as an investment that will pay dividends to U.S. foreign policy interests in the far future.

James Grant is a research fellow with the D.C.-based International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC) where he manages their Energy, Growth, and Security (EGS) program.

Image: Reuters.