As the U.S. prepares to leave Afghanistan, is it Kazakhstan’s time to shine?
The greater Central Asia region is preparing for the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September. While Washington’s “forever war” is coming to an end, regional governments are concerned about a potential spillover of the violence that is (once again) brewing in Afghanistan. One of those nations, Kazakhstan, has several initiatives, including promoting the education of Afghan women and defense cooperation with Afghan forces, to help Afghanistan with the rough times ahead.
Washington and Nur-Sultan discussed the future of Afghanistan in mid-June, when President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met in the Kazakh capital. During a June 13 press conference Khalilzad vowed that Washington and Nur-Sultan would continue working “together to promote peace, a specialty of Kazakhstan, and at the same time to work together to provide for better economic future and to help the people of Afghanistan.”
Khalilzad was asked about ongoing speculation regarding potential U.S. military bases in Central Asia, which could conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. (Such bases are not without precedent). He did not directly deny it as an option, though he clarified that “I am not here to announce anything or to say we have reached [a] particular agreement with [a] particular country on particular military steps at this time.” The two governments discussed “peace efforts, economic development efforts, humanitarian efforts and security needs … to help Afghan security forces maintain and sustain themselves and also to respond to potential terrorist threats together,” he added. In any case, it is unlikely that Nur-Sultan would agree to host a U.S. military facility on a permanent basis, give its close relations with both Moscow and Beijing.
Apart from working with Washington, Nur-Sultan is carrying out its own initiatives vis-à-vis Afghanistan. One noteworthy cause is the education of Afghan women. Thanks to a 2 million euro program launched in 2019 by the European Union, United Nations Development Program, and Kazakhstan, some 50 Afghan women are studying in Kazakh (and Uzbek) universities. The first group of 20 is scheduled to graduate this summer. This number includes 10 women who are currently studying at AlmaU language school; afterward “they will continue their education at the Kazakh-British Technical University (KBTU) and study technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs in mining,” according to Kazakh authorities. Many other Afghan nationals have also moved to Kazakhstan to pursue studies.
As for the defense sector, a cooperation agreement between the two governments was signed this month between Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib and Kazakh Defense Minister Nurlan Yermekbayev in Nur-Sultan. The document will pave “the way for military-to-military mutual support across various domains,” according to a June 18 statement by Afghanistan’s Office of the National Security Council (NSC), and involves the possibility of “joint exercises, military medicine cooperation, equipment modernization, logistical and technical support, battle training and military intelligence collaboration between the two nations,” reports the news and analysis company Janes.
The significance of this defense agreement should not be exaggerated. While Kazakh troops currently participate in U.N. peace operations, most notably in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and previously participated in Tajikistan during the 1990s civil war and in Iraq in non-combat operations, it is highly unlikely that Nur-Sultan would authorize troops to be deployed to a high-risk conflict area like Afghanistan and to participate in combat operations. Training and equipping Afghan troops is a more likely scenario.
Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have forged close ties since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the rise of a somewhat democratic government in Kabul. Prior to the signing of the aforementioned defense cooperation agreement, in February Tokayev and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had a telephone conversation. The chat addressed issues like “the Afghan peace process [and] regional issues. Both sides also discussed [the] immediate solution to the problem of Afghan students in Kazakhstan,” according to the Afghan government. It is unclear what exactly is the problem Kabul refers to; it may have to do with payments of their tuition, or issues with the studies themselves.
For the past two decades, much has been discussed about the role of Central Asian nations in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Now, with U.S. military presence coming to an end, but with the Taliban gaining once again territory, regional initiatives will become even more important to support the Afghan government and the improvements achieved since the war began. Without a doubt, Kazakhstan and other regional states cannot replace the U.S. in Afghanistan, particularly in military affairs. However, any support for Afghanistan, the government, and the general population alike – like Afghan women studying in Kazakh universities – is significant.