After more than five decades of continuous conflict, peace remains elusive in Afghanistan. The Central Asian country has a long and troubled history of foreign military occupation, covert intervention, violent acts of militant Islamism, and regional warlords. Moreover, its security has deteriorated even further due to the central government’s inability to establish internal order, secure effective territorial control of the country for governance purposes, and advance the rule of law.
In 2001, the Taliban regime was swiftly overthrown by a coalition headed by the United States; however, after almost 20 years of Western military presence – a length that is roughly equivalent to a new generation coming of age – not much progress has been made on the nation-building front. Despite the fact that more than two trillion dollars have been spent by the US government in the war effort and more than 3,500 foreign servicemen from several countries have been killed, the Afghan central government’s reach is little more than symbolic beyond Kabul and real power belongs mostly to tribal chiefs, local strongmen and, of course, the Taliban. In the grand scheme of things, it looks like Afghanistan has been engulfed in a cycle of endless war and permanent turmoil, one that no one seems able to stop.
In this context, recent reports detailing one-on-one peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, along with the possibility that Washington will withdraw much of its remaining forces in the near future, have triggered ambivalent reactions. The US public strongly supports the idea of bringing troops home from a dangerous quagmire on the other side of the world, but most of Washington’s foreign policy elites are reluctant to back such a plan. There is also a marked lack of consensus amongst geopolitical analysts on a way forward. The issue is exceedingly complex and any complete understanding must begin with examining the historical roots of the current crisis.
Afghanistan’s Geopolitics in Historical Perspective
Afghanistan is a landlocked country located in the core of Central Asia. Even though its lack of access to the sea and its rugged terrain – which hinders its dynamic participation in international trade – have prevented it from becoming a wealthy society, the country’s position has been tremendously pivotal throughout history. Tellingly, the Dutch American geostrategic thinker Nicholas Spykman regarded Afghanistan as a segment of the plateau that serves as buffer between Eurasia’s heartland and its rimland. Today, Afghanistan is contiguous to Iran, Greater Turkestan (once under Soviet control) and China, and is also in close proximity to the Indian subcontinent.
Nevertheless, it can also play the role of land bridge. Indeed, Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of civilizations for centuries. Its territory was part of the ancient Silk Road, a continental corridor that connected much of the Eurasian landmass through the flow of goods, ideas, religions, diseases, technological innovations, military mobilizations, languages, currencies, aesthetic styles and even culinary tastes. Interestingly, what is nowadays Afghanistan (an entity that used to be called “Bactria”) was conquered in classical antiquity by Alexander the Great – through political schemes tailored according to local realities rather than through sheer military power – during his campaign to reach the easternmost corners of the known world.
During the 19th century, Afghanistan became a contested geopolitical battleground. In the so-called “Great Game,” the spheres of interest of both Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia clashed in Central Asia. London wanted to protect the British Raj’s northern flank, whereas Moscow was interested in securing a gateway to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. This incompatibility of interests fueled diplomatic intrigues, the extensive use of espionage, covert operations, and military force.
Afghanistan became an arena for great power competition once again at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Red Army intervened in order to protect a feeble and secular client regime that was geopolitically aligned with Moscow. However, despite the Soviets’ overwhelming military, technological, and economic superiority, geographic challenges and fierce resentment from the local populace proved considerable obstacles in conducting the war.
Furthermore, the overt Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided a window of opportunity for Washington – especially the CIA – to give the Kremlin its own Vietnam War by providing weaponry, equipment, and intelligence to the so-called Mujahideen. Other countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran fanned the flames of militant Islamism, which was seen as a spearhead against both Moscow’s regional geopolitical ambitions and the “godless” nature of the official ideology preached by the Soviet Union.
Accordingly, what started as a limited counterinsurgency campaign devolved into an exhausting war to prop up an increasingly unpopular regime and to prevent Islamic fundamentalism from spreading like wildfire into the Soviet Republics of Central Asia, especially in light of the mass arrivals of jihadists from several corners of the Muslim world and the recent precedent of the Iranian Revolution.
Eventually, the war in Afghanistan turned into a black hole that absorbed copious amounts of Soviet military, economic, and human resources. It was also detrimental for the prestige of the Soviet Union in the third world and it was demoralizing to Soviet society itself, particularly in a context shaped by growing unrest in the Warsaw Pact satellites in Eastern Europe, economic stagnation, declining oil prices, and an unsustainable arms race with a rival superpower that was economically and technologically superior.
When Soviet troops finally withdrew, the damage has already been done. Military force was insufficient to anchor the country to Moscow’s geopolitical orbit. Hence, the disastrous result of the invasion was one of the key factors that played a role in the demise of the USSR. This historical example eloquently illustrates why Afghanistan is often referred to as “the graveyard of empires.”
One of the reasons why Afghanistan has been historically so difficult to conquer is its mountainous geography. As thinkers like Ibn Khaldun, Carl Schmitt and the classical authors of geopolitics have argued, man is a creature whose worldview and behavior are influenced by surrounding circumstances. Said conditions thus play a role in the development a society’s national character. In this regard, it is important to bear in mind that – throughout history – mountains have given birth to clannish communities that are reluctant to accept the influence or authority of outsiders. Thus, identities tend to respond to tribal belonging rather than the modern notion of formal national citizenship.
Afghanistan’s Endless War
Though the Soviets eventually left, the fighting did not stop, not even after the predictable collapse of the regime they had actively backed. The resulting power void triggered conflict amongst competing factions until the Taliban – a fundamentalist group that can be classified as the legitimate heir of the Mujahideen – took over. Consequently, Afghanistan became an Islamic state ruled by one of the strictest possible interpretations of Sharia.
The Taliban managed to achieve control over a sizeable portion of the country’s territory. Aside from institutionalized enforcement of Islamization, Taliban rule was characterized by other problems. Infrastructure was in shambles, militant insurgencies were active, the prospects of development were dismal, and the country had all but become a sort of Pakistani satellite (Islamabad regarded Afghanistan as a strategic buffer against India). More troublingly, Afghanistan had become arguably the primary incubator of international jihadism.
As a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks – orchestrated by a Saudi terrorist mastermind hosted by the Taliban – the US launched a military campaign to remove the Taliban from power. Some NATO countries (Canada, Germany and Italy), other US allies (Australia and New Zealand) and regional anti-Taliban militias (the Northern Alliance) joined the war effort.
In a matter of months, Operation “Enduring Freedom” successfully overthrew the Taliban and a managed political transition took place. Eventually, military activities extended to Pakistan, considering the deep geographic, ethnic, religious and political links that connect Afghans and Pakistanis. Eventually, the so-called “Af-Pak” operational theatre became one of the global epicenters in a global war on terror. Nevertheless, even though Al-Qaeda was hit hard and much of its leaderships was beheaded by US conventional and Special Forces, the Taliban was not dismantled.
Nevertheless, the war went on. The Taliban regrouped and reorganized itself as an insurgency that engages its enemies through asymmetric tactics. On the other hand, the Pentagon’s strategic planners did not contemplate what would come next after the fall of the Islamist regime. Furthermore, the subsequent occupation, nation-building policies, and reconstruction efforts have absorbed enormous amounts of resources and the political end goals being pursued have long since become obscured.
It must be borne in mind that, far from being a technical matter, war is eminently a political phenomenon whose purposes have thus to be defined according to political criteria. In this regard, the effort to remake Afghanistan in the image of the Western world – understood as part of the neoconservative crusade launched by the Bush administration to export liberal democracy and free markets – has been a failure. Moreover, the removal of both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq have unwittingly encouraged the Islamic Republic of Iran to pursue an expansionist agenda that seeks the creation of geostrategic project of regional hegemony known as the “Shiite Crescent.”
Even judging by far more modest standards, the outcome cannot be described as successful: instability and anarchy prevail in much of the country; terrorist attacks remain a common occurrence; the Taliban have turned out to be a highly resilient force; the development of effective institutional capabilities (including security services) still leaves much to be desired; there is an ongoing refugee crisis; constant reports of war crimes have weakened legitimacy; financial aid has been pocketed by all sorts of outlaws; and, finally, Afghanistan has become the world’s top opium producer with profits fueling a perpetual cycle of war. In a country where the prospects of a reliable income for rural people through lawful means is largely unrealistic, the eradication of drug trafficking remains a remarkably difficult task.
Hence, it looks as though Afghanistan has become a contemporary example of that famous axiom – attributed to various American statesmen and generals – advising against fighting a land war in Asia.
A Path out of the Conflict?
Although previously unthinkable, the US has engaged the Taliban in diplomatic talks under the Trump administration. The negotiations have not been smooth sailing due to intermittent attacks and clashes, but it looks like there is room for a peace settlement barring some unresolved matters. Yet it is essential to bear in mind that – as it is often said – the devil is in the details, especially when said details involve heterogeneous stakeholders, bitter interethnic rivalries, and external geopolitical considerations.
Washington has contemplated the idea of a withdrawal or a reduction of its forces so that only a residual American military presence (presumably responsible for preventing terrorist attacks which could directly target US interests) remains there. Although controversial, this measure is not irrational, particularly considering the aforementioned circumstances, and it would represent a tacit acknowledgement of the structural limits of US national power and resources. Moreover, it could help Washington reorient its foreign policy towards other flashpoints in which US interest are more directly at stake.
If the US diminishes its presence, others will fill the power void. After all, Moscow, Beijing, Delhi, Tehran, and Islamabad are also interested in advancing their geopolitical and geoeconomic agendas in Afghanistan, considering its value as a trade and energy corridor. Likewise, Afghanistan is also a tempting prize because of its strategic mineral wealth: the country is home to significant deposits of lithium, rare earths, industrial metals (including iron and copper) and even gemstones. Furthermore, its untapped reserves of natural gas offer additional incentives.
Therefore, external powers eager to harness Afghanistan’s assets for their own purposes will have to take care of the burden that comes with it. In this case, Washington would be in a disadvantageous position regarding the race for strategic raw materials but, in contrast, its withdrawal might create a confrontational vortex that attracts the competing interests of countries which happen to be American rivals. Put bluntly, Afghanistan would become someone else’s problem. Such a course of action is hardly detrimental to US geostrategic imperatives, particularly taking into account that the discord would be instrumental to preventing the most dangerous threat to American national security: the emergence of a unified Eurasian coalition.
As the US prepares to disengage, Afghanistan remains at a turning point. That history seems doomed to repeat itself with the Central Asian country is perhaps reflective that its importance as a geopolitical pivot is just as valid now as it has been before – and perhaps even more so.
However, the great powers that have been drawn there need to calculate their strategic moves carefully in terms of both cost-benefit analysis and the connections between available resources/capabilities and desired outcomes. Otherwise, the implementation of poor planning or pursuit of policy based on some abstract criteria or wishful thinking could lead to the same disastrous consequences we’ve seen in the past. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the art of statecraft should not be confused with missionary work. Only time will tell if that truism in the minds of future decision makers.