U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the top diplomats of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on July 1, with Afghanistan high on the agenda as U.S. forces prepare to exit the war-torn country and Washington seeks Central Asian partners.
The meetings in Washington come as the Taliban has taken control of dozens of districts in recent weeks, raising concerns that the Western-backed government in Kabul and Afghan security forces may collapse.
The Taliban sweep across northern Afghanistan has put several districts bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the militants’ hands, presenting a possible security threat to the two Central Asian countries.
Tajik officials are preparing for a possible influx of refugees, while Uzbekistan last month announced military drills along the border.
“We have strong shared interests when it comes to security in the region, particularly with regard to Afghanistan,” Blinken said in brief remarks alongside Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
Kamilov said his discussions with Blinken would “pay serious attention to the situation in the region.”
Separately, in his meeting with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, Blinken discussed Afghanistan and “affirmed the U.S. commitment to Tajikistan’s security, stability, and territorial integrity,” according to a State Department readout.
Even as U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, the United States has vowed to continue to provide support to the Afghan government and security forces, including the option of launching air strikes against the Taliban using warplanes from outside the country.
When President Joe Biden earlier this year announced U.S. forces would exit Afghanistan by September, he said the United States would “not take our eye off the terrorist threat in Afghanistan.”
“The United States will reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and assets in the region to prevent the reemergence of a terrorist threat in Afghanistan,” he said.
In recent weeks, media reports, including from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, have suggested U.S. officials are looking to reposition some forces in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in order to keep track of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, given the two countries’ proximity to Afghanistan.
Potential options, according to U.S. officials, include putting troops, drones, bombers, and intelligence assets at bases or facilities in the two Central Asian countries.
Other options under consideration are using U.S. forces in the Middle East and navy ships at sea.
The prospect of U.S. troops in Central Asia may come up against opposition from Russia and China, two U.S. rivals with influence in the region.
In addition to looking into options to deploy some forces in Central Asia, a U.S. media report said that Washington wants to temporarily house in three Central Asian countries some 9,000 Afghan citizens who worked with the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Bloomberg quoted two people familiar with the talks as saying the United States has asked Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to take in the Afghans.
The State Department has declined to comment on the report.