Since the 19th century, the super powers have been ‘playing’ the Great Game in the region lying across Central, Southern and South-western Asia. During that ‘Game’, Afghanistan, which strategically connects these geographical segments of Asia, has historically been the heartland for British and Russian manoeuvres and struggle for control over Central Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the present timeframe, with the energy resource becoming one of the major contending factors in major powers’ rivalry, the importance of Central Asia has increased further due to its energy resource potential. However, gaining access to those resources and controlling their export routes is not possible for any extra-regional power without having strong military presence in the region. Dominant military presence in Afghanistan is, therefore, regarded by the Americans as vitally important for actualising US’ interests. It provides the platform through which the US can threaten its potential regional rivals as well as dominate gas and oil export routes emanating from Eurasian landmass. Also, Afghanistan lies along a proposed pipe line route from the Caspian Sea oil fields to the Indian Ocean; therefore, its importance in the US 21st century grand strategy is critical. To be realistic, therefore, the US invasion of Afghanistan has to be analysed from the perspective of US geo-strategic and geo-energy objectives, rather than from the US projected perspective of ‘elimination of global terrorists’. This short paper presents an analysis of US 21st century grand objectives, as well as the importance of Afghanistan in the attainment of those objectives.
The breakdown of USSR provided the US with new avenues of rich energy reservoirs in what is commonly known as Russia’s “under-belly” or the Central Asian region. Since then, this region has been a scene of political and economic manoeuvres, rivalry, disturbance, conflict, and struggle to maintain control over its vast energy resources for long-term geo-strategic and geo-economic objectives. Control over the energy resources of this region can possibly enable the US to manipulate its relations with energy-starving countries like India, China, Pakistan, Japan, other East Asian countries and also the European countries in its favour. In other words, control over this region provides the avenues of both geo-strategic and geo-economic domination not only over this region but beyond it as well. It is thus energy-resources, which provide the logic to understand the US policy of politically dominating the entire region through control over Afghanistan, which provides the critically important base for dominating the land route for energy supply and control over Eurasian region, as also dominating the proposed Silk-Route.
Thus, the Afghan war is not about the so-called terrorists or Al-Qaeda, nor is it about ridding the world of dangers of terrorism; rather it has a lot to do with US’ long-term objectives of dominating the world energy resources. It is thus here that the actual significance of the US invasion of Afghanistan lies which requires proper understanding in order to determine the dynamics of the ongoing war in the region.
While we deal with the US’ Eurasian objectives, we have to keep in mind that the US policy of intervention is not a new one, or a product of 9/11 incidents. As matter of fact, the US has been applying this policy since the days of cold war. In fact, it was at its peak during cold war. Although, bi-polar struggle did give it a peculiar a colour of containing the communist influence, however; at the heart of most of US interventions, covert and overt, was economic stakes as well. For instance, in the case of Iran (1953), it was Oil; in case of Guatemala (1954), it was the issue nationalization of US’ United Fruit Company’s land; in case of Egypt (1956), it was Suez Canal which connected the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; in case of Cuba (1961); it was nationalization by the Cuban government of US business, banks and other stakes; in case of Congo(1961), it was its huge reservoirs of natural resources (Diamonds and Copper).
Similarly, the US covertly resisted USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan because it could have jeopardized US interests had USSR established itself in Afghanistan, had access to the Persian Gulf, and manipulated oil transportation through the Strait of Hormuz. It was in this context the Afghan Mujahidin (later turned Taliban under Mullah Umar) were supported. Therefore, to be realistic, it is in the same context that we need to analyze the US invasion of Afghanistan.
The attack on Afghanistan came in 2001, but preparation for the war had already started in 1999 when the Silk Road Strategy Acti was passed by the US congress. This Act outlines the basic policy approach of US for the acquisition of energy in the Eurasian region. The section six of the Act provides the basic logic of US’ policy towards the region. It declares that the region of the South Caucasus and Central Asia has enough energy resources to meet US’ own needs as well as reduce its dependence on the volatile region of Persian Gulf.ii The Act was amended in 2006 which then declared energy security as the prime reason for the US to stay in Afghanistan. Afghanistan got the pivotal position because it was the only country in the region which provided the US with a pretext to invade. The Western saga of Taliban’s misrule and their refusal to hand over Bin laden helped preparing the Western mind to attack and dismantle the Taliban rule. On the contrary, it is ironical to note that no reference was made to Al-Qaeda or Bin laden whatsoever in the 2006 amendment of the Act. Terrorism was not declared in that Act as the reason for staying in Afghanistan.
Although other policy statementsiii do declare elimination of terrorism as one of the main objectives of US, the marked discrepancy between the policies stated and the actions taken creates a contradiction in US’ entire anti-terrorist and anti-Taliban agenda, which gives this war a peculiar colour of political manipulation, resource exploitation and regional domination. The Silk Road Strategy Act, which outlines the main framework of US’ economic and energy objectives, also indirectly paved the
way for the invasion of Afghanistan. Without having a strong foothold in the region, the US could not have been in any position to control energy resources or trade routes. Similarly, without any strong foothold, it could not have been possible for US to dominate the entire region extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and also Central, Western and Southwestern and Eastern regions of Asia. Afghanistan was not only a week country, at least in US’ calculations of Afghanistan’s power potential, but was also located at the center of the region which the US wanted to dominate politically, militarily and economically by controlling the export routes of Oil and Gas. Military presence in Afghanistan was thus to serve regional objectives of the US which. The above sketch illustrates this point.
The successful implementation of Silk Road Act required huge military presence in the region as well as controlled militarization of the Eurasian region as a means to securing control over oil and energy reserves and protecting pipeline routes and trade corridors. The militarization was to be largely against Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan. In other words, US’ actual objectives include not only geo-energy, but also geo-economic and geo-strategic. And achievement of these objectives required removal of the Taliban rule from Afghanistan and installation of favourable rulers. This was and is, in US’ calculations, the possible way of achieving three-fold objectives. Since oil and gas are not merely commercial products, control over territory is an essential component of strategic superiority over potential rivals.
The Afghan War is thus as much a war of securing territory to outmanoeuvre the regional rivals such as China, Russia and Iran as to ensure energy security and secured trade routes. In other words, it was a calculated means of maintaining the status of the only global power status by keeping a check on potential rivals by exploiting their weak points. Conflict in Afghanistan has created conditions for the US to enhance its military presence in the entire region. The Taliban phenomenon itself was meant to facilitate, albeit indirectly, the US in building military bases; for, the Central Asian States have a history of rivalry with Taliban and face the threat of their spreading radical version of Islam in those States.iv In other words, the Afghan War is not about elimination of terrorists; the Taliban are not Al-Qaeda. The origin of the Taliban can be found in the Soviet-Afghan war. It was USA itself which fully assisted the Afghan Mujahidin fighting the Soviets out.
At that time, the interest of the US and that of the Afghans were in considerable convergence. But, after the end of War, situation began to change, and so did US own policy towards Taliban, who themselves originated under the leadership of Mullah Omar after the war and joined by local Afghans and ex-Mujahidin commanders. The US policy took a visible change in 1997 with the appointment of Madeleine Albright as the Secretary of State, who openly criticized Taliban during her 1997 visit to Pakistan. She went to the extent of declaring them as ‘medieval Islamic fundamentalist curds.’ What caused this change of policy was, besides other factors, Taliban’s marked’ insensitivity’ to US interests.
When the Taliban were establishing themselves in Afghanistan, the US hoped that they would serve US interests in Afghanistan, which included construction of Oil and Gas pipelines for US oil companies (UNOCAL and Delta) connecting energy resources of the Central Asian States to the world marketv as later stated in the Silk Road Strategy Act, through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban’s refusal to accommodate US interest should not be so surprising given the peculiar psychological make-up of Pashtun and their historical experiences with foreign powers. Thus, the Taliban were/are local Afghans who do not want to be occupied by any foreign power. Considering the Afghan psyche and behaviour pattern; their past and historical experiences; the geographical terrain of the region and their culture, it is but natural to conclude that Afghans are too difficult to be subjugated by force. It is history which testifies and provides the undisputed evidence that the Afghans are known for maintaining their independence and resisting foreign occupation with full force.vi As such, the Taliban are not terrorists as is projected by the USA and the Western media. They are victim of US’ grand strategy which includes toppling those regimes which do not prove to be sensitive enough to protecting US interests.vii The US invaded and toppled Taliban from their rule in order to pave way for their long term presence in the region. Since this invasion and occupation was against the psyche of the Afghans, strong resistance was inevitable. The Afghans have not only been resisting but their resistance is increasing every day, making it extremely difficult for the US and its allies to establish permanent military presence in the region.
The Geo-Strategic and geo-political aspect of the Afghan war as highlighted above, and necessity for USA of toppling the Taliban regime are closely related to the geo-energy aspect. Control over flow of energy resources in the region with strong military presence in Afghanistan was the calculated means of the US to manipulate regional geopolitics. Most of South Asian and East Asian countries are energy starving, while Northern, Western and Central Asian countries are energy producers. The aim of USA was to have maximum number of energy producers in its axis to manipulate its relations with energy starving states such as Pakistan, India, China, Japan etc. in its favour on the one hand, and on the other hand, competing other powerful energy producers such as Russia and Iran. In other words, as have observed Fouskas and Gokay, control over energy was the key to US global hegemony, keeping check over rivals, establishing new sphere of influence, and integration of the central Asian region into the US led global economy;viii and Afghanistan provided the key place to execute this strategy.
While implementation of Silk Road Strategy Act required militarization of the Eurasian heartland through Afghanistan territory, it also required construction of pipeline routes to ensure security of energy flow. The rationale to pipeline projects was provided in the said act and in National Security Strategy of 1999. The document of the NSS thus stated the rationale:
We are focusing particular attention on investment in Caspian energy resources and their export from the Caucasus region to world markets, thereby expanding and diversifying world energy supplies and promoting prosperity in the region.ix
It is in this context that the US considered it very important to manipulate the vast energy resources of the Eurasian region. Considering form US’ viewpoint, economic dependence of the region on the security umbrella provided by the USA must be maintained in order to strengthen its regional domination and also global reach. For providing that security umbrella, USA needed to build a permanent military strike force in the region with strong and well-equipped military bases in Afghanistan. The aim of these bases is not to ‘dismantle and disrupt’ terrorists; for, there are no terrorists, as defined by USA, in Afghanistan. The aim of these air bases, given the critical geo-strategic and geo-energy importance of the region, is to enable USA to be in a position to prevent any other power from dominating the energy rich region, and also take timely and swift action against any potential threat to US interests.
An analysis of the US strategy of building military bases in Afghanistan would also augment the argument that the Afghan war was/is not about dismantling terrorism but about Oil and Gas. Since its occupation of Afghanistan in 2002, USA has been building military bases, following a systematic plan. During his visit to Afghanistan in 2004, US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld announced building nine bases in the provinces of Helmand, Herat, Nimrouz, Balkh, Khost and Paktia. These nine bases were in addition to already installed three bases in the wake of US’ occupation of Afghanistan. These bases were/are meant to protect both geo-strategic and geo-energy interests of USA. William Engdahl has analysed US strategy in detail. To him, the Pentagon built its first three bases at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, the US’ main military logistics center; Kandahar Air Field, in southern Afghanistan; and Shindand Air Field in the western province of Herat. Shindand, the largest US base in Afghanistan, was constructed a mere 100 kilometers from the border of Iran, and within striking distance of Russia as well as China.x Secondly, Afghanistan lies across the proposed oil pipeline route which is to transfer oil from Eurasia to the Indian Ocean. As a matter of fact, most of the US bases built in Afghanistan lie across the proposed pipeline route (TAPI) in order to ensure its security against all odds.xi
The US fully recognizes the importance of Central Asia’s energy resources and the economic possibilities they offer in world markets and in the region itself. Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said in 2007: “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan,” and to link South and Central Asia “so that energy can flow to the south.” In December 2009, George Krol, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, told Congress that one US priority in Central Asia is “to increase development and diversification of the region’s energy resources and supply routes.” He said, “Central Asia plays a vital role in our Afghanistan strategy.”xii
In the case of Afghanistan, it is the case of TAPI pipeline that matters much. It is the pipeline that is being planned to bring energy from the Caspian region to the Indian Ocean via Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Factually, it was this pipeline that triggered armed conflict in the region. Negotiations with Taliban over the proposed pipeline route failed in 2001, just before incidents of 9/11. Taliban’s refusal to accommodate US’ interests proved to be a last nail in the coffin of Taliban’s regime. They were ousted and the way was supposed to have been cleared for the construction of TAPI pipeline, and the heads of the participant States started meetings to finalize the project. The agreement was finally signed in 2008.xiii Before US’ invasion of Afghanistan and September 11 attacks, US company UNOCAL had already testified to the congress that the pipeline cannot begin construction until an internationally recognized Afghanistan government is in place. For the project to advance, it must have international financing, government-to-government agreements and government-to-consortium agreements.xiv Here a question arises as to what USA would have gained out of this pipeline project? The answer to this can best be given by bringing to limelight the significance of Mackinder’s Eurasian heartland. The pipeline would undercut the geo-political significance of U’ backed other pipeline routes such as BTC and Trans-Caspian, and enhance US’ control over energy export routes. In US’ calculations, if it could control energy export routes with strong military presence in Afghanistan and providing security umbrella, it could control energy resources of the Eurasian landmass, and ultimately control the Eurasian Heartland as well.xv When studied this issue of TAPI in line with earlier quoted Silk Road Strategy Act, the picture becomes quite clear to us that energy-reservoirs, being US’ primary interests in the region, have to be under its control for its long term geo-strategic and geo-economic interests, and maintaining hegemony.
The above analysis of the aspects of the Afghan shows that the US invasion of Afghanistan is not the result of any terrorist group’s agenda of creating disruption in the world. It was primarily the result of the perennial power tussle going on between powerful states in the world politics. It is a fact that oil and gas have been discovered in other ares of the word such as Venezuela, Mexico, West Africa, but it is not getting the same attention. It is so because those areas are strategically not so important as the Eurasian Heartland is.xvi Presence of world’s some most powerful nuclear powered countries, biggest economies and ancient trade routes, all add to the importance of this region in international politics. US both war-time strategy (invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, building bases) and peace-time strategy (building pipeline routes) serve its grand strategy in the 21st century of maintaining hegemony. A careful eye will detect that all of these strategies have a common purpose of enhancing American political control over the Eurasian landmass and its hydrocarbon resources.
The intensified drive to global hegemony and growing dependence of economic prosperity on oil and gas have been the prime moving factors behind the US’ grand strategy for the Eurasian region, which included invasion of Afghanistan and establishing permanent military presence in the region. Although the current situation in Afghanistan appears negative for USA, nevertheless, these were the stated objectives of USA and Afghanistan was to be instrumental in achieving those goals. As such, the war was not about ‘disrupting and dismantling’ terrorists, it was and is about gas, oil and maintaining power, or as in words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a power that dominated Eurasia would dominate two of the world’s three most economically productive regions, Western Europe and East Asia……what happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy.xvii The war thus was not to maintain a balance of power but in favour of USA against its major rivals, most of them lying in the Eurasian landmass.
The Author is a Research-Analyst of International and Pakistan Affairs.
i. http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/106/hr1152/text (Accessed 28 February 2013)
The Act also enlists the range of activities officially supported by the US Government such as planning, financing and construction of communication networks for facilitating smooth flow of energy supplies.
iii. Since 9/11, reference to terrorism and extremism abroad has become a feature of US’ National Security Strategy. The documents of NSS declare terrorism as one of the greatest threats the US has been facing, and the elimination of which is prime objective of wars abroad. It is this context that US’ geopolitics needs to be understood.
iv. Marker Menkiszak, “Russia’s Afghan Problem: The Russian Federation and the Afghan Problem Since 2001.” Center For Eastern Studies 38 (2011): 53
v. Ahsan ur Rehman Khan, “Taliban as an Element of the Evolving Geopolitics: Realities, Potential, and possibilities.” Institute of regional Studies, Islamabad 19 (2000-2001): 98-99
vi. Ahsan ur Rehman Khan, Moorings and Geo-Politics of the Turbulence in Pashtun Tribal Areas Spreading to other Parts of Pakistan ( Lahore: Ashraf Saleem Publishers, 2011) 14-16
The Author has dealt with Pashtun psyche and behaviour pattern, as also other factors impacting their peculiar mindset in detail in his book cited here.
vii. Emre Iseri, “The US Grand Strategy and the Eurasian Heartland in the Twenty-first Century.” Geopolitics 14 (2009), 6, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14650040802578658 (Accessed 1 March 2013)
viii. V. K. Fouskas and B.Gökay, “The New American Imperialism: Bush’s War on Terror and Blood for Oil.” Westport, CT: Praeger Security International (2005): 29
ix. “A National Security Strategy for a New Century” Washington, DC: The White House (1999): 33
x. William Engdahl, “Geopolitics Behind the Phoney U.S. War in Afghanistan” The Market Oracle (2009)
http://www.marketoracle.co.uk/Article14393.html (Accessed 5 April 2012)
xii. John Foster, “Afghanistan, the TAPI Pipeline, and Energy Geopolitics” Journal of Energy Security (2010) http://www.ensec.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=233:afghanistan-the-tapi-pipeline-and-energy-geopolitics&catid=103:energysecurityissuecontent&Itemid=358 (Accessed 6 April 2012)
xv. Emre Iseri, “The US Grand Strategy and the Eurasian Heartland in the Twenty-first Century.” Geopolitics 14 (2009), 19 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14650040802578658 (Accessed 1 March 2013)
xvi. J. Nanay, ‘Russia and the Caspian Sea Region’, in J. H. Kalicki and D. L. Goldwyn (eds.), Energy & Security: Towards a New Foreign Policy Strategy (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 142.
xvii. Zbigniew Brzezinski, ‘The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Importance (Basic Books: New York 1997), 223.
About the author: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an M.Sc in International Relations and a research-analyst of Pakistan and International Politics.
He can be contacted at [email protected]