By Nina Bachkatov
Both presidents Biden and Putin wanted to meet ‘face to face’, for their own national and geopolitical reasons. The Geneva summit can only offer a mix of “though messages” and basic discussion on matters of “mutual interests”. Among them, Afghanistan, a theme largely absent in European media coverage. Biden wants to fulfil his electoral promises to withdraw from Afghanistan and Putin is seriously concerned about stability on its southern borders.
Afghanistan has been an unexpected field of cooperation between Moscow and Washington. On 11 September, president Putin was the first leader to offer his cooperation with Washington to fight international terrorism. When the American-led international coalition intervened in Afghanistan, its operations were facilitated by Moscow’s green light to the opening of American bases in Central Asia, and later the permission to use Russian airspace en route to Afganistan, a serious logistic help.
Today, Biden wants to fulfill his electoral promises to that there will be no U.S. troops left in Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But he is faced with the classical problems of withdrawing: to guarantee the security of the departing troops (when the USSR left Afghanistan, it had a deal with the forces of Commandant Masoud not to attack their last convoys); and to make sure that local authorities would be able to defend themselves alone and prevent chaos descending on the country. Lately, the Taliban have been rolling over large part of Afghanistan and the Americans believe that, if the Taliban (an organisation banned in Russia) attack their troops, the withdrawal may be delayed.
Hence the idea, floated in an early May article of the Wall Street Journal, that the US will keep bases in the vicinity of Afghanistan, from which it can project forces to protect the security of the personal left to continue training the Afghan army and to support government under deadly Taliban attack. The nightmare of the Biden administration is a remake in Kabul of the fall of Saigon, and the terrible pictures of civilians attempting to climb the last helicopters leaving the besieged capital.
That being said, the problem is about location. Afghanistan shares its borders with six nations, none of them considered an American ally. Iran is excluded from the list. In Pakistan, the idea of a US presence is extremely divisive. This leaves the five countries of Central Asia, which is the U.S. military command’s preferred option because they know the region where they had troops based from 2001 to 2014. Their eyes are on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with Kyrgyzstan a third option. The Biden administration and part of the state department are more circumspect, with a clearer picture of the huge geopolitical changes that had affected the region in 20 years.
For people of Central Asia, the war in Afghanistan has never been a foreign war. Ethnic groups were spread across borders, family and clan links kept intact for the best and for the worst, opposition armed militants were taking refuge in Afghanistan after attacks, the porous borders facilitated traffics of arms and drugs. Twenty years ago, those countries were easily convinced to accept those American bases, because it was not done against Russia, and because they were sure that Western forces will win, secure regional security and save them of waves of refugees their economic situation and clans equilibrium cannot sustain in case of Taliban’s victory.
The failure of the West has increased their double dependency: first, from Russia for security, even among those who are not members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and because of the dependency of national budgets from remittances send back by nationals working in Russia; secondly, from China who took the role of the most generous regional investor. Central Asia countries have also been shocked by reports of the cavalier way Americans have been treating Afghanistan president and other dignitaries, their readiness to change gear for their own political reason without paying attention to the consequences on people they pretended to defend. In other words, the West’s reliability is out of proportion with the conditions it put on any partnership.
For all those reasons, the main issue in Central Asia is not any more that of the early independence days – when they were trying to find a way to stay equidistant from China and Russia, the two huge neighbours, by diversifying foreign relations, including with the West. The last thing they want is to be pressured into an anti-Russian or an anti-Chinese front by a far distant West. They remember that the presence of foreign troops had translated in higher activities of NGOs, interferences in their social and political lives. Leaders and elites see those as the vanguard of new Maidan; ordinary people as a source of new troubles and misery. It did not help that NATO introduced China in talks about its members’ security, and that the EU is adopting a more critical approach of China.
All this context explains why Biden might be using the summit to test Putin’s level of openness before to take his final decision about bases around Afghanistan. While Putin will test president Biden’s readiness for bargain. From a safe distance from Geneva, China will enjoy its favorite position – on the balcony.