As the final pullout of US forces from Afghanistan approaches, uncertainties and security risks will shape the future of the country and its neighborhood. Leaving behind a small contingent of American and coalition troops for training and other non-combat missions, the Euro-Atlantic community challenges the stability of the country that will rest entirely on the Afghan National Security Forces’ shoulders. Given the geostrategic position of Afghanistan, there will certainly be a ripple effect on the broader region in post-2014 period. The immediate neighbors, such as Iran and Pakistan, will be affected the most, but to a lesser degree, third-tier countries such as ones in the South Caucasus will also feel the consequences.
A glance at a map reveals that energy and security are among the main factors that have brought about essential attention to Afghanistan. It is a “barrel” of energy resources in the sense that it is surrounded by energy-rich countries. Although the country has no hydrocarbon wealth of its own, its location in the energy rich region is vital both for affecting energy projects’ security and also, as a landlocked country linking Europe to Asia, potentially serving as a transfer hub for resources flowing through the region. The New Silk Road project advocated by the United States, the Istanbul Process endorsed by the “Heart of Asia” group and other similar projects all aim to capitalize on the trade potential of Afghanistan in connecting the European and Asian markets. The consensual understanding is that there cannot be a stable Afghanistan without a stable and prosperous region. Much still remains to be accomplished (especially in developing infrastructure) before any tangible results can be achieved. Should these projects succeed though, they could not only be economically beneficial for the parties involved, but also bring greater political stability to Afghanistan and the region overall. The country today still serves as a node of threat distribution in the world, including terrorism, drugs, and trafficking. The 2014 pullout will increase the risk of those challenges and bring about greater instability to Eurasia, what Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute called a “Post-2014 Afghan Storm”.
Due to its strategic significance, Afghanistan has served as a platform for a greater US presence in the region to not only eradicate the extremist elements that are a threat to the US national security, but also to integrate Afghanistan and other regional states in the US-driven agenda. This on its part was an attempt in trying to limit China and Russia’s roles in the Middle East.
In retrospect, activities in the past decade have not fully achieved the results that the US was hoping for. Regardless of how many soldiers remain after the 2014 pullout (if at all) and what the essence of the support mission will be, the US reputation as an active global actor will decrease throughout the world, exerting political pressures on Western-oriented movements.
This is a logical continuation of Obama’s policy in the Eurasian territory, which started with the end of the Bush plan for establishment of a radar system in the Czech Republic and a missile defense complex in Poland—tools for enveloping the European nations in a protective “raincoat”. Prior to the ratification of the new START Treaty, Obama decreased deployed strategic warheads by cutting off the number of interceptors in Alaska and California, serving as the main defense of the United States from long-range ballistic missiles.
Additionally, with the impending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, US foreign policy is becoming more Asia-Pacific oriented and given the fact of that EU could not become a key player in the region because of the ongoing fiscal and other crises, Russia will have a bigger influence in this region in the post-2014 era. Propelled by developments with the Customs Union, Eurasian Economic Union, and CSTO (unified air defense system), Russia will try to increase its influence by economic, military and other means.
However, Russia worries about the US pullout, since the instability in Afghanistan will affect its own southern borders. Despite the historical distrust towards the United States, Russia saw the US presence in Afghanistan as a multidimensional political interest, i.e. Russia was able to keep the terrorist threats away from Central Asia and its borders.
The withdrawal will bring about an active, asymmetric and scattered terroristic threat. Historical experience suggests that armed conflicts could break out in a struggle for power in Kabul, mainly by Taliban fighters, which will lead to another civil war in Afghanistan. The aging leadership in Central Asia has no modern mechanisms of preventing and managing the potential chaos, and there still is not a clear understanding as to how Russia will handle the situation.
CSTO’s replacement of NATO’s position is questionable. CSTO would be unable to provide troops at levels anywhere near the coalition’s. Additionally, CSTO lacks coherence and capacity to deal with such a huge issue. Its role could be one of support and/or limited combat, similar to what Armenian soldiers are currently doing. Armenia is the only CSTO member state that provides troops for the ISAF, so there is little institutional memory within CSTO to take over the role of NATO in Afghanistan. Stemming from the basis of Armenian experience, Major General Hayk Kotanjian of Armenia has suggested building an effective ground for launching NATO-CSTO cooperation mechanisms focused on dispelling uncertainties associated with the upcoming pullout from Afghanistan, but this issue is still to be clarified in the future.
There may be indirect effects on the CSTO-NATO relationship, too. NATO influence in the area has increased since it entered Afghanistan. Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan all have approved Individual Partnership Action Plans with NATO. The three South Caucasus republics also provide varying number of troops for ISAF, and Azerbaijan and Georgia are part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which allows for the transportation of over 40 percent of the essential goods to the military on the ground. Most of these countries have cooperation with NATO mainly through the prism of Afghanistan operation, so the pullout will effectively limit the NATO presence in these countries. Additionally, by providing troops for the NATO operation, these countries were trying to balance their relationships with Russia (CSTO) and China (SCO). The pullout will take away a source of that balance, leaving most of them more dependent on Russia and/or China, and providing a window for Russia’s Eurasian integration efforts.
Although the 2014 pullout from Afghanistan will not completely disengage the US and the West from the region, there will be a noticeable cutback of activities; the US will likely aim to redefine its influence in the region, shifting toward soft power. This may include support of domestic political developments beneficial for the US, like the color revolutions.
But the political-military vacuum will have to be filled with the regional players. CSTO will have a limited role (if any) in Afghanistan. The success of the New Silk Road and similar U.S.-backed economic projects will be in question. Russia and other regional players will have to mitigate the risks of the probable power-struggle in Afghanistan. With a prognosis of the intensification of violence in Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal period, the new players may carry out their geopolitical ambitions more liberally than in the past decade.
Dr. Vahan Dilanyan serves as the Chairman of the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC), a think-tank based in Yerevan. Armen Sahakyan is the Executive Director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis (ERA) Institute Washington, D.C. branch as well as an Analyst of Eurasian Affairs at PDRC.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Khustup. CC BY-SA 3.0.