Geopolitical thrust of the Afghan Quagmire


Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, 6 July 2019

Even while the US is currently throwing its weight behind peace talks and seeking a political resolution to the prolonged Afghan War in its search for safe exit, this does not, however, imply that geostrategic significance of Afghanistan has dwindled in the American eyes. On the other side, frequent military reverses, drying of treasure along with the need to stretch military and economic influence to stem the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific better explain the American exit imperative.

In contrast to the arguments of many scholars that nuclear proliferation and globalization are undermining the relevance of geopolitics, the driving factor that has been setting major powers in motion in Afghanistan has largely been geopolitical. The American and NATO’s  actions in Afghanistan “confirms rather than undermine the value of conventional military capabilities although in the form of lighter and more flexible infantry forces supported by strategic airlift” Michael Hess, “Central Asia: Mackinder Revisited”, Connections, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2004, p. 97). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union’s heartland domination, Eurasian geopolitics has not only witnessed dynamism from the perspective of interests and role of many state and non-state actors, geopolitics received fresh attention in academic as well as policy circles. The American scramble for tilting power balance in Afghanistan as well as Central Asia after taking on the Taliban regime for not handing over Osama bin Laden – the mastermind of Al Qaeda-organized and sponsored terror attacks on Twin towers in the American heartland seemed to have only intensified an already existing belief that the heartland bestows a geopolitical advantage to the power that controls it. The questionable motives which strengthen the contention that US action in Afghanistan was driven more by geopolitical factors than to make the country free of militancy and terrorism alone remain. First, why the American response was disproportionate to the 9/11 attacks in so far as it waged a war against Afghanistan instead of applying legitimate methods to capture a group of individuals who masterminded the act. Second, why did the self-claimed votary of the UN violate article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits change of regime in a country by external actors defying sovereignty and territorial integrity? The article prohibits the use of or threatened use of force against another state. The War on Terror aimed at toppling the Afghan regime led by the Taliban which refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the culprit of the 9/11 US terrorist attack. Post-9/11, the US received sympathy from almost all countries of the world but instead of capitalizing on those positive feelings to isolate bin Laden and his aides, the US reacted to the occasion in a knee-jerk military fashion. Further, a peace process among the Afghans was discussed in early December 2001, but this was repudiated by the US. (A. Munoz, “A Long-Overdue Adaptation to the Afghan Environment”, in Brian Michael Jenkins and John Paul Godges, (eds.), The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s response to Terrorism, Rand corporation, Pittsburgh, 2011, p 12).

Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth argue that previous leading states in modern era were either great commercial and naval powers or great military powers on land, never both (Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “American Primacy in Perspective”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 4, July-August 2002, p. 23). At the dawn of the Cold War, the US was clearly dominant in economic indicators as well as in air and naval capabilities. But the Soviet Union retained overall military parity, and the twin factors such as geography and investment in land power allowed it with necessary ability to maintain territorial sway in Eurasia. Thus, the US strategy in the post-Cold War has not only been to keep Russia weak to consolidate its control over the heartland, it is also keen to develop its land power capabilities. Afghanistan borders Central Asian states in the north and US’s long-term ally Pakistan in the south. Therefore, control over Afghanistan was considered vital to acquire a line of communication between Indian Ocean and Eurasian landmass and develop multidimensional strategies.

While Afghanistan is strategically located in the middle of major Asian regions like Central Asia, South Asia, West Asia and Far-East. Central Asia being part of larger Eurasia joins Europe with Asia. Therefore, both Afghanistan and the Central Asian region are instrumental to controlling various other regions. In Zbigniew Brzezinski’s words both Afghanistan and the Central Asian region are geopolitical pivots. Geopolitical pivots are the states “whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potential vulnerable condition for the behaviour of strategic players” (Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, Basic Books, New York, 1997, p. 41). However, it needs to be underlined that neither Afghanistan nor the former Soviet Republics after their independence are completely passive actors. They constantly shape the will and capacity of the geostrategic players pursuing their geopolitical interests. According to Brzezinski, geostrategic players are the states that have the capacity and the national will to exercise power or influence beyond their borders in order to alter the existing geopolitical state of affairs. The US, Russia, Iran, India, China and Pakistan can be considered as geostrategic players according to this definition.

The importance of the geopolitical pivots for the geostrategic players has been enormous despite the resistance from the geopolitical pivots and vulnerable conditions arising from the presence of other active geostrategic players. Saul B. Cohen has described Eurasia as a “convergence zone”. According to Cohen the importance of this area is that it is “where five of the world’s geopolitical power centres – Maritime Europe, Russia, China, India and Japan – converge upon it. The countries and regions within the Convergence Zone serve as land, air, and water transit-ways for flows of capital, people, technology, manufactured goods, energy, and other mineral resources. Apart from the strategic advantage, the relevance of the area to the geostrategic players has been multiplied by the presence of untapped massive deposits of natural resources, especially oil and natural gas, specialised agriculture, tourist services, and relatively low wages for off-shore manufacturing operations, and negatively as bases for terrorists and the smuggling of arms and drugs” (Saul B. Cohen,“The Eurasian Convergence Zone. Gateway or Shatterbelt?”, Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol. 46, No.1, 2005, p. 1). Thus, Afghanistan and the Central Asian region are significant for multiple civilian and military purposes. Being bridge to different areas, the regions serve multiple civilian interests such as first, the areas are emerging as the major centres of natural resources, second, the areas provide largest markets of millions of people and more importantly, they provide the transit-ways for inter-continental transactions.   

Professor S. Frederic Starr of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Hopkins University articulated the vision of Modern Silk Route seeing the enormous trade potential in the region. In the first half of 2009, the US established several new transit corridors to deliver non-lethal goods to its forces in Afghanistan which are collectively known as Northern Distribution Network (NDN) andunderlining the geopolitical significance of the region many US officials were interested to see this network being transformed into Modern Silk Route (Andrew, C, Kuchins, “Afghanistan: Building the Missing Link in the Modern Silk Road”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 33, No .2, 2010, p. 33). However, it is worth-mentioning that the supply routes and ports once put in place could be used for dual purposes-both civilian and military.

According to Farkhod Tolipov, the operation in Afghanistan was essentially leading to the juxtaposition of two realities: the international and unifying fight against terrorism, on the one hand, and the conflict prone, disuniting geopolitical rivalry in the Central-South Asian macro-region, on the other (Farkhod Tolipov, “Are the Heartland and Rimland changing in the wake of the operation in Afghanistan”, Central Asia and the Caucasus Journal, Vol. 5, No 23, 2004, p. 100). For example, the US call for ‘War on Terror’ was conjoined by many states but their military strategic objectives substantially differed as they belong to different geopolitical realities. While Pakistan appeared more inclined to defend its interests against India, Russia wanted to maintain its interests in Central Asia (strategic backyard) by safeguarding it against Islamic fundamentalism and drug trafficking whereas it remained concerned about NATO’s presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan, Iran seemed to defend its geopolitical interests in Central Asia and maintain its traditional sphere of influence in western Afghanistan, and the Central Asian states while sought to apprehend the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to their territory but at the same time, wished to get rid of the Russian monopoly over the energy politics in the region and therefore, invited the US presence in the region.

On the other side, apart from religious undercurrents of militancy, militants emerged as the most dangerous non-conventional threat and geopolitical challenge to the US in the post-Cold War era. The supreme leader of the Islamist-jihadist movement Ayman al-Zawahiri asserted in his book “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner” that the struggle ahead will be over the control of the energy-rich heart of Asia and transportation routes connecting it with the rest of the world. He said: “If the Chechens and other Caucasian mujahedeen reach the shores of the oil-rich Caspian sea, the only thing that will separate them from Afghanistan will be the neutral state of Turkmenistan. This will form a mujahid Islamic belt to the south of Russia that will be connected in the east to Pakistan, which is brimming with mujahedeen movements in Kashmir”(Lorenzo Vidino, “How Chechenya became a breeding ground for terror”, The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 3, Summer 2005, pp. 57-66).