While the Trump Administration has experimented with both offensive and reconciliatory gestures, violence perpetrated by the Taliban as well as ISIS continues stifling the process of political resolution and state-building exercises. This would prolong US presence in Afghanistan regardless of the Taliban’s demand that the foreign troops leave Afghanistan before any peace talks begin.
However, the reasons why the present US Administration may choose to stay for an indefinite period seem to be geopolitical than continuing violence.
Afghanistan’s importance in the Great Game during the Cold War
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, http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa074.html, 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 hand held, “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 in 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 forward 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 Stated Institute of Peace, October 2006, p. 9). The US National Security Decision Directive of March 1985 not only authorised increased aid to the mujahideen, 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 in order to gain 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.
The Afghan War and Attempts at Political Resolution to the continuing Conflict are not immune from Geopolitics
The preceding Administration led by Obama while stressed on the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan, it concluded the Afghan-US security pact which enabled the US and its NATO partners to establish permanent military presence in Afghanistan. The pact 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 clear from the objectives that the President set out for himself from the beginning of his rise to power.
A published opinion piece in the ‘Providence Journal’ on 11 September, 2017 noted: “Candidate Trump vowed to get the US out of Afghanistan…but he made clear his plan to participate in economic development (in Afghanistan) to help defray the costs of the war”.
In February 2018, the Trump Administration began the process of laying down the US-funded Trans-Afghan pipeline project (part of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India or TAPI pipeline project) euphemistically called as ‘peace pipeline’ which is, in reality, a geopolitical move to marginalize Iran in energy politics by putting it under stringent economic sanctions and preventing it from laying down Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. It could happen only after the Afghan Taliban assured its support to the project given their ability to destroy the pipeline.
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.
From a geopolitical perspective, Afghanistan provided the US accessibility to a large continental expanse to operate against both conventional threats like Iran, China and Russia and non-conventional threats like the Afghan Taliban, the Haqanni network and ISIS. Apart from the economic value and utility of natural resources, its production and supply carry a geopolitical significance. In this context, Afghanistan’s importance as an alternative route to transfer Central Asian resources needs to be underlined. First, multiplying the pipelines would end the hegemony of a few particular powers.
Second, controlling the production and supply of natural resources would require military projection of power which would go a long way in securing supply of these resources to regional allies and denying the same to countries adopting adversarial foreign policies. Therefore, natural resources can be used as an instrument to control and shape foreign policies of state actors.
Third, the supply routes for their safety would require military presence and thereby would contribute to development of military strategies of the controlling power.
Finally, the ports and routes for the transfer and trade of natural resources can have dual use: commercial and military. Therefore, despite the non-viability of the alternative pipeline projects both from financial and security perspectives, they were rendered utmost significance by the US.
While the US has had recurring geopolitical interests in Afghanistan, they became more pronounced following the emergence of resource-rich Central Asian region as an alternative to turbulent West Asian region. The resource potential of the Caspian Sea region was widely published in various reports in the 1990s inducing the US Congress to respond quickly and pass bills aimed at diversification of energy supplies from the Central Asian and Caspian region. 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 an overriding 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 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.
In order to secure a firm foothold in Central Asia the US not only secured temporary forward basing in Uzbekistan, Kirgyzstan, 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 the turbulence perpetrated by the Taliban pointed to recurring US interest in Afghanistan.
The way the ‘War on Terror’ was conceived pointed to underlying American geopolitical interests in Afghanistan. The Afghan war which aimed at toppling the Afghan regime led by the Taliban on the ground of its refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden – the culprit of 9/11 to the US contradicted the UN Charter provisions which prohibit change of regime in a country by any external actors. The article 2 of the UN Charter prohibits the use of or threatened use of force against another state.
There were reports, however, which allegedly brought out the dimension of prior intent of the US to fight the Taliban. For instance, there were news that the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden because there was no extradition treaty between the US and Afghanistan and there was a long tradition in Muslim countries to treat foreign visitors as guests. Second, the Taliban expressed its willingness to deliver bin Laden over to the US or to a third country if US officials provided convincing evidence that bin Laden had, in fact, been complicit in the 9/11 attacks while the US President George Bush’s response was that the US officials would not furnish any such evidence to the Taliban government.
It is understandable that following the 9/11, the US received sympathy from almost all countries of the world. However, 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. Scholars like Arturo Munoz put forth the facts that strengthen the belief that the US was against any possibilities which could have implied lessening of American role in Afghanistan. For instance, he notes that the US was opposed to reconcile with the Taliban as early as December 2001 even though a peace process among the Afghans was discussed at that time.
The American drive to forge Greater Central Asia in the first decade of 2000 to move Central Asia away from Russian orbit of influence towards Afghanistan and Pakistan and its intention to see the Northern Distribution Network (the US established several new transit corridors to deliver goods to its forces in Afghanistan) transformed into Modern Silk Route as many US officials perceived the potential of this network being actually transformed into long-term routes for trade and commerce underlined the geopolitical thrust in the US Afghan policy.
The continuing American efforts at shaping the contours of Afghan war and peace efforts excluding the influence of geopolitical rivals like Iran and Russia fall squarely with its geopolitical ambitions. The Trump Administration is no exception while it has actually accentuated the American containment policy 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 been more vocal in criticizing the Iranian and Russian role in sabotaging peace and stability in Afghanistan by bolstering the Taliban through arms and aid. The failure of the peace efforts with the rise of the Taliban offensives in the city of Ghazni in the mid-August 2018 points to the protracted geopolitical nature of the Afghan conflict which evades possibilities of irreversible paths to success.