Russia’s foreign minister has asked Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan not to host U.S. or NATO forces, following recent reports in American media that Washington continues to put out feelers to establish some sort of military presence in the region.
“We again call upon the countries neighboring Afghanistan not to allow a military presence on their territories by U.S. or NATO forces, who plan to redeploy there following their departure from Afghanistan,” Sergey Lavrov said on October 27.
His remarks were addressed to all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, which include the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as China, Iran and Pakistan.
Of all these, Uzbekistan has been held up as the most likely contender to accept some sort of U.S. military presence, even as Tashkent consistently denies it is on the agenda.
Lavrov made his statement two weeks after U.S. media reported that Pentagon officials were part of a U.S. delegation that paid a visit to Uzbekistan during which military cooperation was discussed.
“Top of the agenda will be the possibility of housing ‘over the horizon’ counterterrorism forces, an arrangement that would allow the U.S. military to more easily surveil and strike targets in Afghanistan,” the Politico website reported on October 13, citing “a defense official and a congressional official briefed on the trip.”
“I’m concerned about the notion that the U.S. can keep eyes and ears inside Afghanistan now that we’re outside,” Politico quoted August Pfluger, a House Foreign Affairs Committee member from Texas who was part of the delegation, as saying.
“Having a friend in the region in geographic proximity to that potential terrorist safe haven is important tactically and strategically.”
Tashkent immediately denied reports of ongoing talks about hosting a U.S. military or counterterrorism presence, which have periodically surfaced in the U.S. media since April, months before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August.
The matter “is not being discussed,” Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov told reporters flatly on October 14.
A foreign policy doctrine adopted in 2012 prohibits Uzbekistan from hosting foreign troops and bases. A military doctrine that came into force in 2018 reinforced that rule. (With Russia's blessing, the U.S. used the Karshi-Khanabad Airbase in southern Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2005 for missions in Afghanistan. Tashkent evicted the Americans after Washington criticized the 2005 massacre in Andijan.)
It is not in Tashkent’s interest to allow Washington to use its territory for military purposes, suggested Kamoliddin Rabimov, a France-based Uzbekistani analyst.
“To preserve its neutrality and geopolitical independence, official Tashkent should not let itself get dragged into the Afghan conflict, and does not wish to start a new geopolitical experiment for the sake of Washington’s interests, since this would simultaneously complicate relations with Russia, China and the new regime in Kabul,” he told Eurasianet.
Komilov has also ruled out Uzbekistan re-joining the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a regional security bloc that Tashkent quit in 2012 – as a result of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
“At least at this moment we do not see a need to restore Uzbekistan’s membership in the CSTO,” Kamilov said on October 22.
“But in parallel, active cooperation is in progress with the Russian Federation and with neighboring states to some degree on security matters.”
Tashkent’s stance on relations with the Taliban government is similar to that of Moscow. Both favor engagement, but stop short of formal recognition.
This month alone, officials from Uzbekistan have held two meetings with Afghan government representatives. Komilov visited Kabul on October 7, and days later Taliban officials visited Termez in southern Uzbekistan, a border town which is a staging post for the dispatch of international humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan also held military drills with Russian forces near the border with Afghanistan in August, days before Kabul fell to the Taliban.
This article has been republished with permission from Eurasianet.