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Monday, June 17, 2024

Ukraine crisis fuses Central Asia and Afghan neighborhood

Jan Achakzai, a geopolitical analyst laments how we need to understand what happened in Ukraine to make sense of what is going on in the area. The Russian strategic goal behind its large deployment on Ukraine's borders was to overthrow Kyiv's government and seize the country. When word of the plan leaked, the US gathered its forces and chose the theaters of Central Asia and Afghanistan, adopting the hybrid war dynamic.

A negative geopolitical pattern is emerging behind troubles brewing across Central Asia and the neighborhood of Afghanistan including Iran, Pakistan, and China. The main players are America and Russia while at the heart of this chessboard game is the Ukraine crisis.

To make sense of what is going on in the region, we need to understand what happened in Ukraine. The Russian strategic aim behind its massive deployment on the borders of Ukraine was a regime change in Kyiv and subsequent annexation of the country. This plan leaked and the US mustered its counter moves and selected the theater of Central Asia and Afghanistan, employing the dynamic of hybrid war.

Read more: US, Russia open high-stakes talks on Ukraine

Understanding the Ukraine crises

There are five countries around Afghanistan that Washington has in varying degrees deteriorated its bilateral relations, ie, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia–as resident power in Central Asia. The US has deep experience in regime change in Central Asia in the past using NGOs to support proxy groups and back their kinetic actions.

This time also Tajikistan was chosen and its anti-government forces were targeted. The proxy forces were mainly drawn from secular and religious militants comprising a  mix of Turkestani militants–who were under the protection of the Taliban–and the Taliban group relocated to the border region. The secular anti-Pro-Moscow government also joined forces.

The likely implosion of Tajikistan serves another purpose: Its security is intertwined with Afghanistan and the security of Afghanistan’s neighbors directly affects their stability. Some proxy Afghan Taliban groups were additionally used against Iran and Pakistan by engaging in border skirmishes and provoking actions after removing fences on the Pakistani border, respectively. The same will likely be repeated with China as anti-Chinese militants are drafted and deployed along the Afghan border with Beijing. China is likely to publicly react to such events which are about to unfold on its border, with deep anxiety for its security in Xinjiang province. These proxy battles, however, sent shock waves across Moscow, Tehran, Islamabad, and now Beijing that another theater was unfolding right on their doorsteps.

To off-balance Moscow in Eastern Europe, for behavioral reversal in Ukraine in particular, one added distraction–larger in scale though–was created for Russia in Kazakhstan. The usual suspect was NED (National Endowment for Democracy) and its funding for proxies who went kinetic, leveraging inflation and local issues. The money trail is established as many Central Asia watchers believe that the NED is a front for the CIA though the US has never acknowledged so did the CIA due to blowback risk. While the template was successfully experienced in Ukraine in 2014, it is being repeated in Kazakhstan. The NED has also sponsored PR campaigns and anti-govt bodies in Pakistan investing around $4.5 million in 2020 alone.

Read more: No threat from Ukraine: Blinken accuses Russia of ‘false narrative’

This latest mayhem in Central Asia distracted Russia from Ukraine and delayed the annexation plan till Moscow stabilized its sphere of influence. However, whether it would have deterrent value in Ukraine, is not clear yet.

Still, a far crisis in Eastern Europe has found strong traction in Central and West Asia implicating Russia, to a lesser extent Iran, Pakistan, and China, besides, the main theater–Central Asia.

The stakes for the region are high and so is for Pakistan

This brings us back to the US hybrid strategy (meant for deterrence and behavioral change of the countries): the group(s) drafted in ranks of Afghan Taliban have irked the regional countries backing the Taliban, to the glee of Washington. Now going forward, the Afghan Taliban will be viewed with deep suspicion from Moscow, Beijing to Islamabad and Tehran as they have so far refused to neutralize the potential and actual proxy groups focused on Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Here is what Pakistan can do to stabilize Afghanistan and calm nerves in the region in a bid to ameliorate the challenging situation. First thing first, Islamabad has no substantive leverage on the Taliban. However, it can be enhanced by taking these three steps, ie, a: nearly recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government of Afghanistan; b: send out doctors and engineers to take over collapsed hospitals left by western NGOs; c: train Taliban’s intelligence outfit drawing from regime’s disbanded NDS members.

This strategy will provide the Afghan Taliban enough incentive to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of a new round of insurgency and deny sanctuary for militants focused on neighboring countries’ stability. Of Course, this is some type of pushback as far as Pakistan is concerned.

Paranoid Moscow and the region will connect dots when they witness US overt support for NGOs and would assume covert help for toppling govt and destabilizing other countries perceived to be hostile or less friendly towards the US. And its resolve will likely get stronger in impending talks with the US on the Ukraine crisis.

Read more: Is Kazakhstan Russia’s next Ukraine?

Given zero blowback of overt use of proxy NGOs as a front and through them kinetic operations, the US is well poised to put in place some deterrent value for reversals on some issues. Such as Russian pullback from Ukraine, halting Chinese BRI and CPEC in its tracks, and Iran’s belligerence.

In a nutshell, this is a boundary-less geopolitical contest involving, in large part, the interstate rivalry between China-US, Russia-US, Pakistan-US, Iran-US, manifested in proxy warfare in gray zones and non-viable states and regions of Central Asia and West Asia. A push back in varying degrees from all these countries is imminent–welcome to a new cold war.


Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai. 

The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy.