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US creates Afghan transit route with counter-narrative in Central Asia

The US President Donald Trump made a significant diplomatic breakthrough in the Afghan war by getting Kazakhstan President Nurusultan Nazarbayev to commit at their meeting in the White House on January 16 to pledge “to deepen bilateral defense and security relationships… (and) to conclude several agreements that enhance cooperation, interoperability, access, and logistical routes in support of regional security.” Nazarbayev has guaranteed the “continuous logistical support and access” to Afghanistan and to contribute in other ways to the US-led strategy to stabilize that country. These contributions include Kazakh:

  • affirmation that “only” an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process will bring stability and security to Afghanistan;
  • will ingness to support “fair burden sharing” in tune with its past financial contributions to Afghan security forces;
  • “commitment of additional support to address security challenges in Afghanistan”;
  • offer to extend a program to train Afghan civilian and security personnel in Kazakhstan; and,
  • participation in Afghan transportation infrastructure development projects.

In sum, Kazakhstan has stepped forward to support Trump’s Afghan strategy, which aims at outright military victory. It’s a resounding diplomatic triumph for Trump. Trump may have put Pakistan on notice that he is risk the transit routes and air corridor through Pakistan, which has been Islamabad’s trump card all along, if push comes to shove. Trump lavishly praised Nazarbayev in his media remarks (here and here.) Moscow may not like Kazakhstan identifying with and providing a vital underpinning for Trump’s Afghan strategy. But Nazarbayev is shrewdly balancing the Kazakh national interests.

He endorsed Trump’s proposal to expand the C5+1 format (at foreign minister level) with the inclusion of Afghanistan. The C5+1 has been Washington’s brainchild, an exclusive regional forum with Central Asian states. Through Afghanistan’s inclusion, US aims to create “strategic depth” for the effective execution of the war. The Trump administration is preparing to challenge Russia’s traditional influence and China’s cascading influence in the region. Given Kazakhstan’s geography (straddling the “strategic underbelly” of both Russia and China) Nazarbayev must be conscious that he holds a strong hand. He said with candor and great self-confidence,

          I’m also here representing Central Asia, in the format of five Central Asian countries… Central Asia became into the focus of big global players, because we are bordering Russia on one side; on the other side, we have China; to the south, we have an Islamic world. But we want also the United States to be present there… And we would appreciate this new format of collaboration (C5+1).

          Kazakhstan very steadfastly supported the fight of the United States against terrorism, and now we continue to collaborate closely in Afghanistan with your country. While the American troops are in Afghanistan, I think it’s the mission of the whole world to make sure that Afghanistan is stabilized, and it’s also a mission for us, as a neighboring country to see that peace prevails in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, he also made an unwarranted reference to US-Russia tensions: “Kazakhstan, being a neighbor of Russia physically, of course, is following very closely the dynamics between the U.S. and Russian relations, which suddenly plunged into the abyss.” The old warhorse hinted subtly that Kazakh-US ties could be sequestered from the New Cold War.

The media statement mentioned Syria but pointedly ignored the Astana process (involving Russia, Turkey and Iran). Instead, it flagged the UN-led Geneva peace process. Which is ditto the US stance. However, what may upset Moscow is that Nazarbayev and Trump agreed to “consult on sanctions issues to avoid any unintended consequences for Kazakhstan’s economy.”

In effect, Nazarbayev conceded Washington’s prerogative to apply the litmus test to Kazakhstan’s new projects with Russia. This is the first time that Washington is openly inserting itself into the relationships between Russia and any of the Central Asian states. The message will resonate in the steppes. Again, US and Kazakhstan plan to strengthen cooperation in the “use of space technologies”. The point is, while Russia may use the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome till the lease period expires in another 10 years, the looming American presence will cast a shadow. The on-going construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur Oblast in the Russian Far East gains urgency.

Baikonur is best known as the launch site of space missions since 1955, but a secret site there was also known to have been used to test liquid-fueled ballistic missiles. Both Russia and China will be watching closely the activities under the rubric of US-Kazakh cooperation in space technologies.

Trump is smitten by Kazakhstan with its potential to be the Kuwait of the steppes. He smells immense business possibilities to further “America First”. Trump repeatedly reminded Nazarbayev that “fair and reciprocal  such an important word, reciprocal trade benefits both of our countries.” Business deals worth $7 billion were concluded involving companies such as Boeing and General Electric.

All in all, the US has made a dramatic re-entry into the great game by enhancing the Pentagon’s capacity to fight the Afghan war, while from a long term perspective, also positioning itself to compete with Russia and China for regional influence. The American analysts have propagated that the US and China have common interests in rolling back Russian influence in Central Asia. But Moscow and Beijing could see through the ploy to create misunderstanding between them. The emergent geopolitical reality won’t leave Russia and China in any doubt, either.

Two main arteries of the Silk Road heading for the west are destined to run through Kazakhstan. So far, Beijing it had a free hand to advance the Belt and Road Initiative. But the US is sure to create a counter-narrative. The proposed “C5+1+Afghanistan” is the harbinger of new tidings. Trump and Nazarbayev agreed to “pursue initiatives fostering greater political and economic cooperation in the region.”



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