Americans are not likely to leave Afghanistan without Interests Protected: Lessons from Cold War Geopolitics


Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra         14 August 2018

Afghanistan’s sensitive geo-strategic location caught attention not only of regional powers but also the extra-regional powers like the British Empire in the nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth century. Its prized location instead of being a boon for Afghanistan has become a bane for it. It fell victim to the old Great Game during the nineteenth century between the Russian and British Empires, the Cold War period between the US and USSR and to the new Great Game going on in the twenty-first century with multiple players.

Afghanistan was the site where two Empires (British and Russian) and two superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union) jostled for geopolitical supremacy in the regions between the Eurasian Heartland and the Indian Ocean known in academic circles as the ‘Great Game.’ These regions were considered vital for the development of land as well as naval strategies. Furthermore, these areas also assumed significance for their ability to provide access to critical resources for the sustenance of global power, such as minerals, gas, and oil.

Afghanistan shares a border with the Central Asian region on the north, the Chinese province of Xinjiang on the east, Iran on the west and south-west, Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir on the south and south-east. Therefore, its location at the crossroads of Central, South and West Asia catapulted its geopolitical significance and enhanced the number of geopolitical stakeholders. See the first page of Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities, Vol. 2 – The Challenges, K. Warikoo (ed), Himalayan Research and Cultural Foundation, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2007.

During the Cold War, the US took a concerted effort at containing the Soviet Union’s geopolitical ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South Asian region by anchoring regional security blocs like South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and investing more towards the socio-economic development of a non-aligned state like Afghanistan. In an attempt to thwart Soviet influence in Kabul and encourage Afghanistan to maintain distance from the Soviet Union and its bloc, Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., former US ambassador to Afghanistan, advised the Department of State that the US must continue providing economic assistance to Afghanistan as a means to this end. A top-secret memo from the US embassy in Kabul to the Department of State reads: “We continue to demonstrate our friendly and tangible interest through a visible American presence in this country.”Hafizullah Emadi, “State, Modernisation, and Rebellion: US-Soviet politics of domination of Afghanistan,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 4, January 26, 1991, p. 179.

The US loan to Afghanistan before the first Five-year plan was $91.5 million as compared to $5.6 million provided by the USSR. However, the USSR provided $126.9 million during the first five year plan and $258.3 million during the second five year plan as compared to the US’s loan of $97.3 million and $155.7 million for the first and second five year plan respectively.See “US Overseas Loans and Grants and Assistance from International Organisations: Obligation and Loan Authorisations”, 1 July 1945-30 September 1985, p. 8. US Embassy, Kabul, “Helping People: US Agency for International Development Mission to Afghanistan” April 1979, p. 35.

However, the collapse of the American sponsored Helmand project, rise of Pashtunistan issue and closure of border by Pakistan forbidding transfer of Afghan goods through its territory during Daoud’s premiership brought the Soviet Union and Afghanistan into a tight relationship. This came as an opportunity to the Soviet Union to expand its influence into Afghanistan and beyond it. After the Vietnam War, there was a downturn in the American will to get militarily involved in distant places of Asia and Africa. However, that did not mean the American retreat from critical geopolitical regions like Afghanistan. Once the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979, the US revived its old relationship with Pakistan which went soured after the Carter Administration cut off economic and military assistance to Islamabad on the ground of its involvement in the nuclear development program. With the assistance of Pakistan, relationship with China was established and strengthened despite détente with the Soviet Union. American allies in West Asia like Egypt and Saudi Arabia proved to be useful in spite of the growing dissatisfaction of the Arab countries with the American pro-Israel stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict. Fortunately for the US, despite the fall of Shah in Iran, Tehran did not slide towards a pro-Soviet position.

Geopolitical importance of Afghanistan for the US was underlined by the fact that most of the sophisticated weapons were brought to strengthen insurgency against Soviet occupation within a short span of time. The first arms-mainly .303 Enfield rifles-arrived in Pakistan on January 10, 1980, fourteen days after the Soviet invasion. Charles G. Cogan, “Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979”, World Policy Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1993, p. 76.

While US President Carter gradually increased the level of aid to the insurgents, Ronald Reagan expanded it considerably. In the mid-1980s, the success of the mujahideen, combined with more aggressive tactics by the Soviet forces, led to a further increase in the US involvement. Ted Galen Carpenter, “US aid to anti-Communist Rebels: The “Reagan Doctrine” and its pitfalls,” Cato Policy Analysis, No. 74,, accessed on March 15, 2011.
The escalation of conflict was authorized in a March 1985 National Security Decision Directive. In the latter part of 1986, the US brought the first ground-to-air missiles in the form of American Stinger, a handheld, “fire and forget” anti-aircraft missile to Afghan territory to fight the Russian forces. Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Current Issues and US Policy,” CRS Report for Congress, updated on August 27, 2003, p. 2.

This shows the continued Congressional interest in the covert action program. The level of the US aid to the Afghan resistance is believed to have risen to over $400 million annually at the height of the program in fiscal years 1987 and 1988.

Gradually, as the American involvement deepened in Afghanistan, its strategy took a shift from containment of the Soviet Union to one of forwarding presence. The United States and Pakistan pursued an anti-Soviet “rollback” policy not only to wipe out Soviet influence in Afghanistan but to weaken the continental power and divide the heartland as well. Barnett R. Rubin and Abubakar Siddique, “Resolving the Pakistan-Afghanistan Stalemate,” Special Report, No. 176, United States Institute of Peace, October 2006, p. 9.

The US National Security Decision Directive of March 1985 not only authorized increased aid to the mujahideen, but it also included diplomatic and humanitarian objectives as well, including guaranteeing self-determination for the Afghan people. However, when many Afghans considered the jihad ended with the departure of Soviet troops, the rollback policy increasingly relied on Salafi Arab fighters. Furthermore, the US resorted to diplomatic measures like excluding the Eastern Europe from the purview of economic sanctions meant for the Soviet Union which could have no other objectives other than dividing the heartland which was then firmly occupied by the Soviet Union. The US to gain a preponderance of power in Afghanistan did not agree to a ‘neutral and friendly’ Afghanistan as there were clear signals that the mujahideen would come to power following the withdrawal of Soviet forces and provide Washington with necessary leeway in the region.