The Biden administration has announced plans for a new formal relationship with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, the latest signs of geopolitical tug of war in the region in the wake of the U.S. and allied troop pullout from Afghanistan.
The State Department announced the new “Quad” agreement just days after top Russian officials bluntly warned the U.S. military against seeking bases in the former Soviet states in Central Asia as a way to keep tabs on Afghanistan from outside the country.
The agreement also comes as Afghanistan‘s neighbors watch with mounting concern the battlefield victories of Taliban militants and the real prospect that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul may not last long after Western forces depart.
Uzbekistan‘s Karshi-Khanabad Air Base was used by the U.S. military in the early days of the Afghan war, but no U.S. troops have been stationed there since 2005. Uzbek officials said this spring they were not considering allowing a new American military outpost in the country.
The State Department announcement, which gave no details on how the new group would coordinate, focused on the economic potential of the new Quad.
“Recognizing the historic opportunity to open flourishing interregional trade routes, the parties intend to cooperate to expand trade, build transit links, and strengthen business-to-business ties,” the Friday statement said. “The parties agreed to meet in the coming months to determine the modalities of this cooperation with mutual consensus. “
The U.S. is already promoting a second four-party Quad alliance in Asia, linking with Japan, Australia and India in an increasingly formal grouping widely seen as an attempt to contain China.
The State Department announcement came as officials from Russia, China, the U.S. and regional powers were gathering Friday for a contentious summit on the future of the region in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
Russian officials at the meeting again warned against any attempt to establish U.S. military bases in Russia’s Central Asian backyard and said Washington bore much of the blame for the current instability in Afghanistan and the region.
The Tashkent gathering was originally intended to discuss improving regional transportation links but quickly devolved into an exercise in finger-pointing.
“Regrettably, we have witnessed a quick degradation of the situation in Afghanistan in the last few days,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the gathering, according to the Associated Press.
“The crisis in Afghanistan has led to the exacerbation of the terrorist threat and the problem of illegal drug trafficking that has reached an unprecedented scale,” he said. “There are real risks of instability spilling into neighboring countries.”
Despite their proposed participation in the new U.S. quad, the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan aired their bilateral grievances over the deteriorating security situation inside Afghanistan and the growing strength of the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told the Tashkent gathering that Pakistan continued to provide safe harbor for Taliban leaders and fighters as the insurgents escalated their attacks on government forces and provincial capitals. Pakistan in turn said Taliban forces operating in Afghanistan were responsible for a number of terrorist attacks recently inside Pakistan.
A day before the Tashkent meeting, top diplomats from five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan — met with Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a top adviser to President Biden on homeland security.
“We will continue to support negotiations to achieve a political solution that brings Afghans the peace they deserve and to build a strong regional and international support base for Afghanistan‘s future,” Ms. Sherwood-Randall told reporters in Tashkent.