The American President Donald Trump recently remarked amid speculations and quandary over the question of US troop presence in Afghanistan post-peace deal that 8, 600 American troops would remain in the country even if Washington reaches an agreement with the Taliban. This piece seeks to explore the geopolitical reasons which might prompt US to seek a long-term presence in Afghanistan.
Scholars like 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 the 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 behavior of strategic players” (Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, Basic Books, New York, 1997, p. 41). According to him, 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 preferred to describe 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, specialized 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).
In contrast to the Cold War era, when the US could develop a grand strategy around a clear Soviet threat and was able to mobilize allies to pursue its geopolitical interests by mustering support from the pro-capitalist and anti-communist Islamic countries, evaporation of the overarching ideological threat in the post-Cold War era put the American geopolitical interests in jeopardy by placing them under the spheres of various regional powers and militant groups.
In this context, the US was poised to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate regime. For instance, Robin Raphel, the in-charge of the Central Asian region in the US State Department, paid two visits to Kabul to meet the Taliban government functionaries. The US State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said that the US found ‘nothing objectionable’ in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law. An energy policy report released by the Bush Administration soon after coming to power elevated the importance of the exploitation of Caspian energy resources by projecting it as one of the primary security objectives of the US.
The American search for a major global threat around which it could organize its geopolitical interests ended with the al Qaeda’s attack on its twin towers on September 11, 2001. Terrorism assumed such global significance and the US’s militaristic approach culminated in the global war on terror. Terrorism emerged as the most dangerous non-conventional threat and one of the primary geopolitical challenges to the US in the post-Cold War era.
While the ‘doctrine of enlargement’- an American strategy to spread its influence to the areas of strategic importance like Central Asia through the promotion of democracy and human rights was developed by Anthony Lake, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, post-2001, the US was seen strengthening the authoritarian rulers in the region putting its ideological baggage on the back-burner. Under the rubric of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ the US sought to forge close ties with the Central Asian states in the guise of taking on terrorism – a common threat.
To secure a firm foothold in Central Asia, the US not only acquired temporary forward basing in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, strategic engagement in the region was also fostered through access to airspace and restricted use of bases in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
There were instances of frequent US official visits to Central Asia, intelligence sharing, and improved coordination within the US Central Command. Revival of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project in 2002 which was going through geopolitical uncertainties due to turbulence perpetrated by the Taliban pointed to recurring US interest in Afghanistan.
Geo-strategic significance of Afghanistan is underlined by the fact that even while the preceding American administration under the Obama’s leadership stressed on the draw-down of American troops from Afghanistan, it concluded the Afghan-US security pact which enabled the US and its NATO partners to establish a permanent military presence in Afghanistan. The agreement allowed the US to maintain nine permanent military bases along the Afghan side of the shared border with China, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Long-term geopolitical underpinnings of the Trump administration’s Afghan strategy became visible in February 2018, when the US-supported Trans-Afghan pipeline project (part of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India or TAPI pipeline project) – ‘peace pipeline’ was launched by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who was joined by leaders from Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India and Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US Forces Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, also attended the ceremony.
The project along with continuing sanctions appeared as strategies aimed at marginalizing Iran in energy politics and preventing it from laying down Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Threat of sanctions also prevented India and Iran from cooperating to complete and operate the Chabahar port to get easy access to Afghanistan. Similarly, Pakistan and Iran also failed to work on IPI pipeline project.
The Afghan peace pipeline could only commence after the Afghan Taliban assured its support to the project given their ability to destroy the pipeline. Hasib Danish Alikozai, in his article ‘Taliban Vows to Protect TAPI Gas Pipeline Project’ writes: “Qari Mohammad Yusuf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesperson, claimed credit for the project, implying that it was initially planned during the Taliban regime, and said the group will ensure its security in areas under its control”.
The Taliban were not only aware of the windfall financial gains for Afghanistan from the project; they probably believed that they could easily come to power by directly pursuing peace talks with the US. However, it is unlikely that the US would relinquish its hold over Afghan geopolitics without providing for arrangements that would assure the US government of preservation and promotion of its long-term geopolitical interests in and around Afghanistan.
The continuing American efforts at shaping the contours of the Afghan peace efforts excluding the influence of geopolitical rivals like Iran and Russia fall squarely with its geopolitical ambitions. The Trump administration heavily relied on a containment policy toward Iran and Russia by reversing the nuclear deal with Iran and slapping multiple sanctions on both Iran and Russia on various ambiguous grounds. The US, under the Trump leadership, has also been more vocal in criticizing the Iranian and Russian role in sabotaging peace and stability in Afghanistan.