The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
The stunning Taliban victory in Afghanistan has unleashed a wave of anger at U.S. President Joe Biden. Critics accuse his administration not only of mismanaging the troop withdrawal and damaging Washington’s global credibility but also of doing something else: leaving a regional vacuum in Central Asia that China and Russia will enthusiastically fill. One news report observed that “America’s chief adversaries veritably crowed . . . following the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.”
What critics miss, however, is that Central Asia is no longer the anarchic place it was 20 years ago, when the Taliban ruled in international isolation. Today, there is a regional order that can accommodate Washington’s absence. The United States’ invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 spurred profound shifts in Central Asia’s political dynamics. Afghanistan’s neighbors learned to navigate the often contradictory demands of the United States and its liberal international order while also abetting the Chinese and Russian backlash against the enduring U.S. military presence. As a result, Central Asia today is a multipolar space where different countries exert influence through new organizations, norms, and networks that overlap with and compete against those of the United States and its allies.
Far from a political vacuum, there is a patchwork of structures that Central Asian actors are increasingly convinced they should use to govern their region. Within this new order, moreover, there are still levers that U.S. policymakers can wield to advance a more modest and focused agenda. The United States is no longer in direct local competition with China and Russia, and there is little chance that U.S. troops will be returning to the region in large numbers any time soon. Still, Washington can offer alternative forms of engagement—namely, regarding economic development, anticorruption assistance, and public health aid—with the confidence that it remains an important, although no longer indispensable, player.
Immediately after 9/11, the United States secured military basing, overflight, and logistics deals across Central Asia to support its campaign in Afghanistan. But these new partnerships—especially major installations in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—raised concerns over how U.S. support might affect these countries’ internal politics. Uzbekistan’s autocratic president, Islam Karimov, saw his new partnership with the United States as an opportunity to legitimize his domestic campaign against Islamist militants. The U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan offered similar international legitimacy to President Askar Akayev, whose cronyism was steadily diminishing his reputation as the region’s lone reformer.
U.S. support also meant a sustained flow of foreign aid to many small states. The goal was to strengthen local counterterrorism programs, counternarcotics efforts, and border security—all efforts designed to help the U.S.-led war effort and offer a tacit quid pro quo for base access. But partnership with the United States and other NATO allies also worked in the opposite direction, allowing Central Asian countries to practice their signature so-called multivector foreign policies, where each sought to carefully balance relations among the United States, China, and Russia by invoking the potential influence of rival powers to sustain external support.
Central Asia is no longer the anarchic place it was 20 years ago.
China and Russia, for their part, quickly accepted the sudden entry of the United States into greater Central Asia, although they had their own reasons for doing so. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call President George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks—offering Russian support for the campaign in Afghanistan. At a meeting with Bush in Texas in November 2001, Putin affirmed that he was not concerned about the United States using its new military presence to seek additional geopolitical influence. At the time, the Russian president viewed partnering with the United States as an opportunity to establish Moscow as an important global player and regional interlocutor. China also opportunistically accepted the U.S. military presence, using it to recast Uyghur groups in Xinjiang as al Qaeda affiliates and therefore as legitimate targets of the war on terrorism. U.S. officials complied—agreeing to Beijing’s request that they place the East Turkestan Islamic Movement on the State Department’s terrorism blacklist and allowing Chinese interrogators access to Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
In a matter of months, military intervention had seemingly remade greater Central Asia. In one stroke, Washington had routed the Taliban, expanded its own regional presence, and forged a series of new security partnerships. Central Asian states were supporting the international coalition in Afghanistan, clamping down on Islamist militants, enacting political and economic reforms, and allowing civil society groups that publicly championed human rights and opposed corruption to operate in their territory. From an American perspective, the future looked bright.
This optimistic take on the United States’ role in Central Asia was relatively short-lived, however. The U.S. intervention marked the apex of Washington’s influence in Eurasia. Almost immediately after the Taliban were toppled, U.S. officials began to confront the inherent contradictions of their broader regional presence. The imperative to maintain security partnerships with Central Asian governments quickly clashed with the desire to promote basic political rights and better governance. The United States’ enduring military presence also spurred China and Russia to develop their own rival institutions, norms, and practices, including security organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Although U.S. officials had hoped that security cooperation would encourage their Central Asian hosts to reform, the opposite happened. In Uzbekistan, Karimov intensified his authoritarian rule, extending his presidential term and clamping down on all domestic political opposition. Soon it became public that Uzbek intelligence services had collaborated with U.S. agencies on a series of “extraordinary renditions”—the abduction and interrogation of terrorism suspects—raising questions about whether security cooperation with Washington was encouraging, rather than discouraging, repression.
New regional tensions also damaged U.S.–Central Asian relations—the result of the “color revolutions” in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005), when a series of corrupt governments collapsed following protests against rigged elections. Fearing a local redux, Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005. Bilateral relations between Tashkent and Washington quickly deteriorated as U.S. officials condemned the operation and called for an international investigation. The Uzbek government, for its part, curtailed base-related activities and kicked out Western nongovernmental organizations. With the United States unwilling to offer more direct benefits, Uzbekistan activated the base’s termination clause in late July, and U.S. forces departed within a few months. In 2006, Tashkent joined the Russian-led CSTO, solidifying its divorce from Washington.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials also dealt with a series of political headaches that threw into question the status of the U.S. base at Manas—the staging facility for nearly all U.S. military personnel moving in and out of Afghanistan. After a 2005 revolution removed Akayev, the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, grew increasingly repressive and corrupt—profiting from the sale of state-controlled assets and actively enabling money laundering. For Bakiyev and his cronies, Manas and its associated contracts were largely an opportunity to extract private profit. Even so, U.S. officials were forced to publicly back the regime as an important partner in Afghanistan.
There are still levers that U.S. policymakers can wield to advance a more modest and focused agenda in Afghanistan.
In an attempt to diminish U.S. influence in Central Asia, China and Russia took advantage of the tensions between Washington and the regional governments to develop their own institutions in the area. Russia expanded the activities of the CSTO, established a new base close to the U.S. facility at Manas, and reached an agreement with Tajikistan to station more than 5,000 troops in that country’s territory. The SCO—founded in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—grew increasingly anti-American. The organization developed several regional initiatives, including biennial military exercises and its own counterterrorism center in Tashkent.
As U.S.-Russian relations deteriorated, the Kremlin boldly tried to bribe Bakiyev with a $2 billion emergency finance and investment package in the hopes that the Kyrgyz president would close the U.S. base at Manas. When, at a joint press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009, Bakiyev announced plans to shutter the facility, U.S. officials rushed to save it—eventually agreeing to nearly quadruple the rent to $63 million per year and rename the base the “Manas Transit Center” to de-emphasize its military role. Moscow did not take kindly to Bakiyev’s double-cross and welcomed his overthrow the following year.
U.S.-led efforts to spur regional economic development by connecting Afghanistan to Central Asia and South Asia also provoked a backlash. Such lofty ambitions only accelerated Chinese- and Russian-backed counterprojects that were more tangible and better funded. It was no coincidence that when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, he did so at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. As part of the BRI, China continues to invest billions of dollars in new pipelines, roads, and railways to connect Central Asia with western China. Russia, for its part, accelerated its own regional economic initiative, the Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow also used the immigration status of millions of Central Asian migrant workers in Russia as a source of leverage over regional governments.
By the mid-2010s, war and international intervention had upended Central Asia’s political order. Governments and publics had grown deeply skeptical of U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw most American forces from Afghanistan contrasted sharply with China’s and Russia’s intensifying engagement. The last U.S. troops departed Manas in 2014, leaving Moscow as Kyrgyzstan’s primary patron. Central Asia’s geopolitical orientation was rapidly aligning with the illiberal principles of the SCO, which sought to combat “extremism, terrorism, and separatism” and elevate the principle of noninterference above all else.
With the United States out of Afghanistan, the Central Asian states that once hosted U.S. military facilities are stronger than they were two decades ago and no more democratic. The Taliban takeover has reinforced autocratic tendencies in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as rulers tighten their borders to Afghan refugees and mobilize their militaries for possible border conflicts. Compared with 20 years ago, however, Central Asian states and their new backers are more pragmatic about their relationship with the Taliban. Regional leaders now seem genuinely committed to tackling Afghanistan’s security and economic challenges.
China and Russia view the U.S. withdrawal as a blow to Washington’s global leadership, and both have stepped up their security activities during the recent crisis. In Moscow’s third regional operation since July, Russian troops conducted joint exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces in early August near the Tajik-Afghan border, and Chinese troops held counterterrorism exercises in Tajikistan just days later.
Washington can still remain an important part of Afghanistan’s and Central Asia’s future.
Indeed, Beijing and Moscow are now coordinating their Afghanistan policies. Both have negotiated with the Taliban, which now appear to welcome a measure of external engagement as the group seeks to secure international recognition. After hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled into Tajikistan in early July, members of a Taliban delegation visited Moscow to reassure Russian officials that they would respect international borders and guarantee the security of diplomatic officials and missions in Afghanistan. A few days later, Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan called on the Afghan government to actively negotiate with the Taliban.
In parallel, the Taliban announced that they would welcome Chinese investment and reconstruction efforts in exchange for supporting Beijing’s crackdown on Xinjiang border areas and Uyghur groups. China and Russia can also now use the prospect of international recognition of the Taliban—and removal from the UN-sanctioned terrorist list—as leverage to extract guarantees for their regional agendas. Afghanistan now offers Xi and Putin another arena in which to broaden their strategic partnership and pursue a joint program of overlapping economic and security initiatives.
Washington’s withdrawal and failure to build a legitimate Afghan state will inevitably fuel the narrative of U.S. decline and great-power competition. The countries that now retain embassies in Kabul, including China, Iran, and Russia, are among the United States’ greatest adversaries. These states, however, must now confront the practical challenges of providing security guarantees, developing economic networks, and pushing for a durable political transition. The United States will therefore still wield important international leverage, including controlling access to the dollars required to avoid a prolonged bank run and sorely needed external financing from the International Monetary Fund. U.S. officials, for instance, can push for international donors to condition aid and reconstruction funding on an inclusive political transition and basic human rights benchmarks.
The absence of U.S. troops and a friendly government in Afghanistan also opens up the possibility of new regional diplomatic partnerships and agendas. U.S. officials could make Afghanistan’s security one of a bundle of issues in future bilateral negotiations with Pakistan and use the topic to broaden the agenda of Washington’s regular C5+1 dialogue with Central Asian states. U.S. policymakers can also drop their long-running reluctance to engage with the CSTO and the SCO on the grounds that they are mere “talk shops” and begin regularly consulting with these groups on security and humanitarian issues.
Although U.S. troops may be leaving, Washington can still remain an important part of Afghanistan’s and Central Asia’s future. Freed from the political sensitivities of dealing with a client government, U.S. policymakers might finally be able to deal with the region in a more evenhanded fashion, including by aggressively pursuing an anticorruption agenda focused on former senior Afghan officials who embezzled foreign funds. The era of U.S. military intervention in Central Asia may be over, but that does not mean that Washington’s influence must disappear, as well.