While many refer to Afghanistan as the “Graveyard of Empires”, they rarely ponder how this term has manifested itself. Why would empires throughout history traverse and become suck into this no-man’s land? Afghanistan is a rare country in history that has been geographically cursed due to its location. No matter what point in history, Afghanistan has always been caught in the crossfire of the geopolitical rivalries between global powers. As the US enters the 18th year of its longest war, the first battleground in the War on Terror has now spanned 3 presidential administrations and has become America’s first multi-generational war. Why is the US still in Afghanistan; geographical advantage of the Heartland Theory.
When the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11th, the objectives were clear to avenge the attacks of 9/11 by punishing Al Qaeda and dislodging the Taliban from power for providing the safe haven. As the war progressed, another objective was tacked on, instilling Jeffersonian democracy into a highly tribal-centric nation. The dust had not even settled from all the carpet bombing in Afghanistan, when the US changed its focus to its next theater of war, Iraq. Taking advantage of the US distraction, as well as the corrupt and despotic like practices of the Afghan government, the Taliban reorganized and re-branded their message as no longer being oppressors but liberators fighting the “Western Occupation.” They promised the one commodity that only they were able to bring in for the past 40 years in Afghanistan; peace and security. As the war approaches two decades, the Taliban are at the strongest levels since their overthrow.
Trump won the election on the vision and promises of being an anti-war candidate, his first task was to withdraw from this “useless” war. Yet a year into his presidency, his vision shifted to going all in on the war in Afghanistan. Despite using the mother of all bombs and doubling US forces as well as mercenary forces, the results desired have not been achieved. The US has supposedly entered a new phase, a negotiated settlement with the Taliban for a US withdrawal, but its also been a distraction for allowing the US to privatize the war possibly. Speculation is that the new plan is to allow Erik Prince’s Academi to leverage mercenaries supplemented with a couple thousand US special forces and air support to continue the war in perpetuity, thus not a full withdrawal. If the war is privatize, this may be the great solution Trump is looking for, he “fulfills” his campaign promise of withdrawing the US military from the war in Afghanistan yet doesn’t leave a vacuum similar to Iraq, which saw the rise of ISIS, even though such a comparison is a false equivalency to this situation. Unfortunately, a complete withdrawal will never happen, due to the military establishment and war hawk’s goals for American interests in the region.
Pakistan has been viewed as the epicenter of instability in the region for some time and even more so due to its arsenal of nuclear weapons. An American military presence in Afghanistan essentially ensures nearby forces to secure the nuclear stockpile in the situation that instability finally overcomes Pakistan. Perhaps even more foretelling for such a need of nearby American forces is the growing Chinese economic and military involvement in Pakistan especially the revitalization and expansion of the port in Gwadar.
This port represents a strategic key to China’s future, who is landlocked on its western border. By leveraging this port in Pakistan, China can project power into the Indian Ocean and come into direct challenge to the American naval supremacy in the Persian Gulf. As a result, the American presence in Afghanistan, allows for a contingency to monitor the situation up close and prevent in certain scenarios while securing certain interests.
Its ironic how political positions change with the tide of history. In 2001, the US allied itself with Iran to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both historical adversaries had a greater enemy, the Taliban. 17 years later, reports are emerging that the former archenemies, Iran and the Taliban, are working together to attack the US military and interests in the Afghanistan.
Today, many in Washington’s establishment see Iran as the biggest threat in the Middle East. This fear of Iran appears to be so real that it has even brought the Israelis and Saudis to work together to stymie the Perso-Hegemonic aspirations. Thanks to the invasion of Iraq, the Iranian sphere of influence has extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. While Saddam’s Iraq was a bulwark to Iranian regional aspirations, the Iraq of today has become a military ally to Iran. With the Iranian aspiration towards nuclear weapons, US strategy and interest hinges on containing the nuclearization of the region. Due to the volatile and fickle situation in the region created by the US invasion of Iraq, the importance of a US military contingent next door has never been more stressed than now.
Russia and Central Asia
While the domestic politics in the US continue to ante up against Russian interference in the US election, the military establishment has already moved forward in Europe by moving forces along the Russian border and into the former Soviet satellite states. The last unhampered Russian zone of influence is energy-rich Central Asia. The Asian Steppes were once characterized as the black-hole of Asia. This region will become a battleground for vying regional powers and the US due to the resources and geopolitical implications for those who control it. With the US presence in Afghanistan, its ability to project into the region has never been greater. The US has attempted to build bases in the different countries as an attempt to fight the War in Afghanistan while attempting to usurp the Russian influence.
Central Asia has become the grand chessboard for Russia, China and the US. As a result, those in the military hierarchy see the enormous benefit of maintaining a presence in Afghanistan as the key to securing Central Asia and finally encircling Russia itself.
Finally, the burgeoning threat to American hegemony is China. As the Chinese economic power rises, its military is following suit. Whether in Africa, Asia, South America, or Europe, Chinese business has been taking root and expanding. One of the greatest schemes launched by the Chinese has been the Silk Road initiative to help connect its economic hubs across the Asia into Europe and Africa by land and by sea similar to the ancient path. This economic vein is the key to China’s ascension to becoming a true rival to the US but it must go through Central Asia and Afghanistan, where the current American presence is able to impede these aspirations.
Another unnoticed event taking place has been the mass exodus of young Uighur men from China’s Xinjiang province and traveling to fight in the Syrian conflict. While the Uighur men are Muslims, ideology has not been the sole purpose for their migration for war, it has been a means to escape their current repression by the Chinese government and desire to go back to fight against that authoritarian regime.
While China is the closest power to rivaling US hegemony, the state of its domestic affairs and tensions amongst its minority populations such as the Uighurs and Tibetans, pose the greatest danger to its long-term growth. The US will watch as these Uighurs return and eventually partake in insurrection against the Chinese government in their bid for an independent Turkistan. The US might even leverage such insurrection to help destabilize China, which can be easily facilitated by its presence in Afghanistan, which borders the turbulent Chinese province.
While Americans and the media continue to question the motives and need for the continued war in Afghanistan, the military industrial war machine has recognized the geographical and strategic importance of Afghanistan to the Empire. These strategic imperatives of the military and intelligence establishment are usually left out in the political discourse. Acknowledging these interests may help shift the debate on the true need for prolonging the occupation of Afghanistan.
The biggest impediment to fulfilling this prerogative is the Taliban momentum that has been marginalizing the Afghan government and could lead to the eventual forced withdrawal of the American military. As President Trump continues to ponder the next phase of his strategy in Afghanistan, these factors will play a role into his decision but perhaps nothing will be more prudent than a negotiated withdrawal rather than a prolonged occupation that will end in more deaths with the same eventual result.