Afghanistan is in turmoil. In the dead of night on July 2, the last U.S. combat forces quietly left Bagram Airbase. U.S. forces are expected to fully exit Afghanistan by August 31. Meanwhile, the Taliban have steadily gained ground in the country.
After seizing control of border districts and some crossing points, and encircling major cities, the militants are now in the midst of a new, possibly final offensive. Beginning with the surprise attack on the home of Afghanistan’s minister of defense in Kabul, followed by an explosive day of fighting to take the city of Herat, the Taliban are now engaged in an all-out campaign to wrest control of the country away from the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
The United States’ rapid and sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan has left a massive political vacuum in the region. Yet, so far, few look prepared to fill Washington’s place as the guarantor of regional security vis-a-vis Afghanistan. In the past few weeks, Russia and China have both emerged as possible contenders through their engagement with the ascendent Taliban. On July 8, a Taliban delegation met with Russian officials in Moscow, where they declared their intention not to cross the national borders of Afghanistan. Then on July 28, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a Taliban delegation in Tianjin. In the talks, the Taliban claimed that Afghanistan would not be used by those seeking to harm China and emphasized that they ultimately wanted friendly ties with all the neighboring states. Such comments were clearly intended to ameliorate Beijing’s fear of the Taliban offering a safe haven to Uyghur militants or threatening Xinjiang.
The Central Asian states have anxiously watched these unfolding events, but they have been presented with few good options. On one hand, they can choose the entrenched security protection of their former patron, Russia. Indeed, Moscow has offered military support through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to protect the region’s borders in the case of a Taliban infiltration. Tajikistan has requested additional Russian forces to manage the flow of Afghan soldiers fleeing the Taliban. On the other hand, they can look to an ascendant great power in China, armed with the promise of trade and investment, to stabilize the restive region. Already, Beijing has engaged in regional diplomacy by leveraging its leadership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia and most of the Central Asian republics, to offer its support for vaccination, counterterrorism, and economic development efforts. Both institutions provide a certain framework for regional cooperation led by the great powers.
But there are serious structural flaws with this approach. First, it assumes that the great powers actually have the capacity to take responsibility for the region’s affairs. In the case of Central Asia, both Russia and China are preoccupied with controlling their own restive Muslim frontiers in Chechnya and Xinjiang. Whereas Russia offers autonomy, China has opted for direct control of the population, both with limited success. Second, neither framework is comprehensive. Whereas Russia offers a security-centric approach in the CSTO, China’s only tangible offer is substantial economic cooperation, although the SCO is theoretically a more comprehensive organization.
What is required is a new approach toward cooperation in Central Asia able to foster a stable regional political environment. Rather than relying on states external to the region, the Central Asian republics should take their future into their own hands. In this, they should turn to the example of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Formed in 1967 at the height of the Cold War, ASEAN offered a new and bold vision for smaller states to foster a stable regional political architecture for comprehensive cooperation rooted in consensus. ASEAN has had remarkable success in using the consensus approach to neutralize internal conflicts so the states of the region can form a united front and cooperate to balance between external great powers.
This pragmatic approach to cooperation is precisely what is required in Central Asia. Previous attempts at cooperation failed because they did not unite all the regional states in a comprehensive partnership based on consensus. They also failed to regularize regional diplomacy between the regional states to resolve disputes and diffuse conflict. This is only possible if such an institution, like ASEAN, follows a strict policy of noninterference in the affairs of the five states of the region — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although their political systems remain kleptocratic and oligarchic, they are capable of cooperation. What they need is an institutional framework.
The war in Afghanistan can make this a reality. The prospect of the fall of the Kabul government presents an opportunity for the Central Asian states to make good on cooperation. This is exactly what ASEAN did in the wake of the fall of Saigon in 1975. Presented with the Vietnamese threat, the initial member states strengthened their cooperation first proposed in 1967 with new frameworks to institutionalize regional diplomacy. Two decades later, Vietnam would ultimately join ASEAN. Already, in Central Asia, the anticipated U.S. withdrawal has stimulated greater regional discussions since 2018. All the republics need is a model to institutionalize these discussions.
ASEAN is that model. It uniquely provides a framework to forge genuine cooperation between smaller states as to balance regional and international forces. While some suggest the region consider adapting the approach of the European Union or the Nordic Council as well, only an ASEAN-like approach, which utilizes decentralized, consensus-based institutions, can be flexible enough to adapt to the changing power dynamics of the region. It is the only means for uniting these smaller states to balance between Russia, China, and the other powers circling the region.
Central Asia is on the cusp of a new era. The goal is not to establish a new alliance or a new federation, as such proposals ignore the political realities of the region. Rather it is to find a mechanism for cooperation that is open and inclusive and can ultimately build up trust between the states of Central Asia and regions beyond. Such a framework is not designed to end Russia’s military or China’s economic presence. Rather it is designed to allow the republics to be less dependent on external powers and instead their fellow neighboring states to stabilize the region and secure their survival in the international system.
Two years ago, S. Frederick Starr asked whether Central Asia was witnessing its “ASEAN Moment.” Today is Central Asia’s ASEAN moment. It is the time for the regional states to use the conflict in Afghanistan to their advantage, and to use their recent leaders’ summit in Turkmenistan to stimulate the formation of a comprehensive partnership, based on consensus, dedicated to regional cooperation and through regular diplomacy. That is the only way to achieve a lasting, stable peace in the region for years to come.