Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, has set the record straight about a US military presence in Central Asia. Photo: AFP / Alexei Danichev / Sputnik

Moscow has categorically stated that it will not accept a US military presence in the Central Asian region. This reiteration has come at the level of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who told TASS that Afghanistan had been discussed at a meeting with Victoria Nuland, the visiting US Undersecretary of State, in Moscow on Tuesday. 

Ryabkov added: “We emphasized the unacceptability of a US military presence in Central Asian countries in any form whatever.”  

Prima facie, Ryabkov has squashed the disinformation media campaign by Washington that at the Russia-US summit in Geneva in June, President Vladimir Putin had offered to President Joe Biden that the Pentagon could use Russian bases in the Central Asian region for conducting future (“out-of-the-horizon”) operations in Afghanistan. 

The Wall Street Journal had earlier referred to its sources that Russia and the US had allegedly discussed the possibility of the US military using Russian bases in Central Asia at the level of General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with General Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of General Staff, at a meeting in Helsinki on September 24 “at the request of  President Biden’s National Security Council staff.” 

Washington’s ploy appeared to have been to create misconceptions among the Central Asian states regarding Russia’s intentions. To be sure, just before the Helsinki meeting of the two generals, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also took a meeting of the so-called C5+1 Ministerial on September 22 to discuss “coordination on Afghanistan” with his Central Asian counterparts. 

As a follow-up, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman appeared in the steppes just 10 days later to meet with the leadership in Tashkent, presumably to fathom whether Uzbekistan might be open to the Pentagon having some basing facilities in that country. Apparently, she drew a blank. 

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman came away empty-handed. Photo: AFP / Andrew Harnik

Ryabkov underscored that there is no scope at all for the US to have a military presence “in any form whatever” in the Central Asian steppes. 

Conceivably, Ryabkov voiced a consensus opinion among regional states, including China and Iran. 

From such a perspective, a regional consensus is steadily evolving in regard to the Afghan situation. Tehran disclosed this week that it will soon be hosting the second foreign-minister-level meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors and has sought an enlargement of the format as a special case to include Russia as well.

That is to say, the format will now comprise Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Russia. (India stands excluded.) 

Ryabkov’s remark comes after a meeting between Taliban officials and a US delegation led by the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in Doha last weekend where the Taliban ruled out any form of unilateral military operations by the US on Afghan soil under whatever pretext. 

Meanwhile, Pakistan has also categorically refused to facilitate any US operations directed against Afghanistan. Although India is increasingly acting as a junior partner of the US on regional security issues, it is unlikely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will want to provoke the Taliban government, either. 

That is to say, the Pentagon’s much-touted plan for staging “out-of-horizon” operations in Afghanistan turns out to be a pipe dream. Apart from outer space, perhaps, such operations will have to be staged from the Pentagon bases in West Asia, and their efficacy is in serious doubt. 

Ryabkov’s remark testifies to extreme wariness in Moscow about the US military or intelligence presence in or around Central Asia where Russia has profound security concerns. Given the United States’ clandestine links with ISIS and its history of using terror groups as geopolitical tools, Russia has to be extra-cautious. 

Tajikistan and the Russian troops conduct a joint military drill near the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border on November 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Russian Defence Ministry / Anadolu Agency

So too will China and Iran. The Central Asian states are also mindful of the US strategy to incite color revolutions to bring about “regime change” in the ex-Soviet republics. The US-government-funded media organs are waging a sustained information war to discredit the Central Asian leaderships.

Broadly, a schism is appearing in the international community as regards the way forward in Afghanistan. The regional states refuse to follow Washington’s lead. India is probably the solitary exception, but here too, New Delhi’s animus against Pakistan and China could be the real leitmotif. 

Significantly, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not participate in the Group of Twenty extraordinary leaders’ meeting on Afghanistan on Tuesday under Italy’s presidency. The Italian initiative had aimed at mobilizing support for the US leadership.

The unspoken core issue is of course the international recognition of the Taliban government. The US expects that no country should recognize the Taliban government until Washington is ready. 

The document summarizing the outcome of the G20 meeting deftly sidesteps the issue of recognition. Instead, it de facto gives a green light for a comprehensive engagement with the Taliban government. 

The summary states: “Solutions must be identified to guarantee the provision of basic services – in particular in education and health – that go beyond delivering emergency aid, provided those services are open to all. The functioning of the payment system and the overall financial stability should also be addressed.

“G20 countries will cooperate with the international organizations, international financial institutions, including multilateral development banks and humanitarian actors in this field.

“G20 countries invite the World Bank to explore possible ways to redirect support to international agencies with a presence in the country for humanitarian efforts.” 

The big question is about the diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government by the regional states. Pakistan is keen that the regional states should evolve a collective decision.

Indeed, the deputy minister of information and culture in the Taliban government, Zabihullah Mujahid, told TASS on Monday: “We are negotiating with Russia, mainly on the recognition of our government and the resumption of the work of the embassies. Resolving these issues will pave the way for further cooperation.” 

We may expect some regional initiative before long on recognition. The criterion for recognition is usually a government’s effective control of the entire country. 

After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, when the victorious mujahideen warlords grabbed power in Kabul in April 1992, no one from the West or East demanded that Burhanuddin Rabbani form an “inclusive government” or accommodate Afghan women. Even countries like India do not necessarily have “inclusive government.” 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.