Why America Should Let Its Rivals Play the Great Game in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan has long occupied a contentious position between larger powers across South Asia. According to General John Nicholson, the Commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Russian government is arming the Taliban insurgency. Pakistan, too, arms the Taliban to ensure Afghan weakness and limit Indian influence. Iran, for its part, arms the Shia Hazara and western Taliban in Afghanistan and cooperates closely with the Russians to undermine U.S. interests. China has gained a foothold in Afghanistan through mining operations and military operations on Afghan soil while working closely with Pakistan to build an overland trade route to the Arabian Sea.

Given centuries of constant conflict across South Asia, it is amazing that all of these regional powers are cooperating so effectively. China and the Soviet Union went to war multiple times in the 20th Century, and China and Pakistan were important supporters of the Mujahideen resistance during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Russians provided massive military assistance to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in its war against Iran. Pakistan and Iran occupy different sides of the enduring Shia-Sunni divide.

These regional rivals are able to cooperate so effectively, in part, because they have a shared rival who has repeatedly intervened to place itself physically between them: the United States. Each of the countries surrounding Afghanistan vies with the American hegemon in one or more major geopolitical areas. Russia rivals the U.S. for hard power influence in Europe and Central Asia, China rivals the U.S. in international trade and maritime control in the Pacific, and Iran and Pakistan both are at loggerheads with the United States over cultural and ideological influence across the region.

The military presence of the United States in their midst allows these states to put aside their differences and cooperate, or at least cease to work against each other, while they focus on undermining American objectives. In addition to physically barring these states from fighting with each other in proxy wars because of the presence of U.S. forces, they appear to have lost interest in undermining the efforts of their regional neighbors lest they gain a position of advantage in Asia. This tacit cooperation has ultimately limited the United States from attaining a position of continuing strategic advantage as it continues to pour billions of dollars and hemorrhage influence in the NATO campaign to create a stable democracy in Afghanistan.

What would the regional powers do if we left?

It is impossible to predict with 100% certainty what would happen if the U.S. and NATO were to shift from military to diplomatic and covert roles in Afghanistan. However, history provides precedent that the land powers of Asia would compete with each other for influence rather than the form of almost friendly cooperation that now seems to exist between them. Perhaps the world has entered a new age where the dictates of geography no longer affect the strategic priorities of states in Asia, but it is more likely that historical norms would asset themselves, and the region would rebalance to American advantage.

Russia is currently surrounded by NATO. From a Russian perspective, they have been hedged in across their entire western border by the growth of the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War, and the war in Afghanistan began a true encirclement of Russia. In addition to the physical presence of NATO states, Russia has seen encroachment and “interference” in neighboring states that it views as part of its “sphere of influence.” From applying political pressure to the government of Kyrgyzstan to cancel leases with the U.S. Military to the invasions of West-leaning Georgia and Ukraine, Russian strategy over the past decade has aimed to roll-back western presence on its periphery.

This ring of NATO territory around Russia has physically prevented it from coming into conflict with other powers, as it has been historically prone to do. This insulating effect may actually be serving to strengthen Russia geopolitically because it prevents them from squandering their resources in fruitless overextension. It also reinforces their narrative that NATO broke its promises following the Cold War to retain a buffer region in eastern Europe and allows them free-rein to spar with the U.S. in the realms of geopolitics and soft-power such as through (dis)information and cyber.

There is evidence that Russia would over-extend its resources given an opportunity to do so. Where there have been gaps in NATO coverage, such as in Ukraine, the Russians have proved keen to flex their muscles—resulting in little gain and much expenditure. Their foray into the Syrian conflict can be viewed in this context as a desperate attempt strain their treasury and overextend the operational capabilities of their military (for example, look to the fate of the only aircraft carrier in the Russian Navy, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which required a dedicated tugboat escort in order to sail to the Mediterranean and back). With a larger opportunity to squander its resources in Central Asia—for instance against other regional powers that it currently is prevented from challenging due to the NATO/U.S. presence in Afghanistan—Russia could hamstring its long-term growth far more effectively.

China would potentially be the target of Russian ambitions, were NATO not standing physically between the two spheres of influence. China’s cooperation with Pakistan (and potentially Iran) to create new trade corridors across Asia and their hunger for mineral resources across central Asia puts them quickly at loggerheads with Russia. If Iran moves solidly into the sphere of Chinese political and economic influence, it would likely result in the exclusion of Russian interests. It was these same issues that drove the Chinese and Russians (Soviets at the time) into multiple conflicts in the 20th Century. The underlying issues are still there, but the presence of the Americans in their midst presents these states with a larger problem.

The potential for rivalry between Russia and China draws in another major power in Asia, India. A territorial rival of China, India has found itself courted by Russian (Soviet at the time) overtures in the past, and this alignment would likely revive given increased Russo-Sino rivalry. India is also involved with the political situation in Afghanistan as part of its more pressing relationship with Pakistan. While Pakistan has sought strategic “Islamic” depth in Afghanistan as part of its conflict with India, India continues to work to build an ally in Afghanistan that would help to surround Pakistan.

Pakistan, for its part, is likely the most critical regional actor within Afghanistan. Pakistani efforts to control the political landscape in Afghanistan reflect their ongoing conflict with India, as well as ideological conflicts with those that don’t share the strain of Sunni Islam followed by Pakistan’s military elite. The list of these ideological rivals includes the U.S., Russia, Shia Iran, India, moderate Sunnis in Afghanistan, and even their long-term allies in communist China. Pakistan is truly a belligerent actor in the region. Pakistani activity in Afghanistan over the last forty years has been fairly consistent, consisting of destabilizing Afghanistan and undermining any foreign power working in Afghanistan (first the Soviets, and now the U.S./NATO). A withdrawal of U.S./NATO forces from Afghanistan would likely cause little change to Pakistani actions, but their efforts would be directed against whichever states moved to fill the power vacuum created by the departure of NATO. 

Iran is the final regional actor who would be involved in a power struggle to fill the gap in Afghanistan made by departing NATO involvement. Iran, like Pakistan, finds itself surrounded by ideological enemies. Despite this, recent history has seen an amicable level of cooperation between the Iranian, Russian, and Pakistani governments. The potential powder keg of Iranian relations is easy to illustrate: Iran supports Shia Hazara communities in Afghanistan, and has recently recruited, armed, and trained Hazaras to help fight the Islamic State in Syria; Iran supports the activities of Russian agents in Afghanistan who provide military support to the Taliban; The Taliban target Hazaras because they are Shia; Iran also keeps good relations with Pakistan, despite an ongoing effort by the Pakistani government to purge Afghanistan of Shia. In an environment without a common enemy in NATO, Iran would almost certainly come into conflict with its neighbors in Afghanistan.

How would the U.S. benefit from letting these rivalries play out?

Of course, the previous paragraphs are only speculation based on some of the strategic imperatives and historical actions of these states. However, the likelihood is that in the absence of an occupying U.S./NATO military presence in central Asia, at least some of these rivalries would play out. As each of these states is a competitor to the U.S. in one (or several) areas, were any of these countries to become entangled in fruitless competitions with each other, the U.S. would benefit from their misfortune. Not seeking to catalyze destructive wars, the new approach would instead force adversaries across South Asia to invest resources and political capital that is currently aimed at undermining the United States against each other and in Afghanistan.

Again, we have historical examples from the 20th Century which display how the strategic rivalries in central Asia drew these states into adventures which benefited U.S. strategic goals. Russo-Sino border conflicts helped propel communist China into friendly relations with the Nixon administration. Shia Iran’s war with Sunni Iraq strengthened American relationships with the Gulf Arab states. This “Central Asia Effect” has created benefits for the U.S. far beyond the region—The Soviet Union’s foray into Afghanistan (opposed by Pakistan and China in addition to the U.S.) provided a bleeding wound that contributed to the toppling of America’s only global competitor.  

It is important to note that to gain these strategic advantages, the U.S. would have to stop spending blood and money over-extending itself into Afghanistan. The Department of Defense budget alone for Operation Freedom Sentinel (the current U.S. military mission in Afghanistan) is $47.1 billion. That is an enormous amount of money to return to the U.S. Treasury, the use of which would itself accrue advantage to the U.S.. For example, the entire education budget appropriation for the State of Oklahoma in 2017 was $2.3 billion; freeing up just the DoD portion of the budget for Afghanistan could provide resources to eliminate the education shortfalls in that state and potentially across the country. The scale of what could be accomplished internally with the resources being spent on Afghanistan is staggering.

As the U.S. evaluates what the “imperatives” are that keep it in Afghanistan, it would do well to consider the opportunity costs at the same time. The questionable goal of keeping a counter-terrorism “platform” in Afghanistan due to the number of violent extremist groups in Afghanistan (the justification given to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2017, itself a dubious statistic since the number of groups says nothing about the size or capabilities of any of those groups) should be evaluated not only on the dent that it puts in the National budget, but also against the benefit that would accrue by having the Asian powers focusing on each other instead of the U.S..

What is this “counter-terrorism platform” worth to the U.S., when the maintenance of it allows America’s rivals to work against the U.S. unhindered? Terrorists that may be organized and trained in rural Afghanistan pose some level of threat to the U.S., but probably not on the level of a powerful state that can provide ideological and logistical support to those terrorists or one that has free rein to meddle in the American electoral process. As it is in the current situation, the United States and NATO are expending most of their military resources in Afghanistan attacking the Taliban insurgency—a narco-fundamentalist resistance who also seeks to destroy the Islamic State and has expressed no intent to export terrorism to the U.S. or European homelands.

What course of action provides the most benefit to Americans?

In the end, yes, holding onto bases in the middle of Asia to kill terrorists can provide some level of benefit to the U.S. Removing any people who want to end the western way of life from planet earth will always accrue some benefit to America. However, this is a paltry benefit for the cost in resources.

This benefit must also be compared to the opportunity cost accrued by maintaining a presence in Afghanistan. If the U.S. and NATO were not involved in Afghanistan, then regional powers would move against each other rather than against the U.S. Without American force physically located between rival powers, Russia¸ China, Pakistan, India, and Iran would likely burn their resources against each other rather than against the U.S.. To be clear, the objective here would not be new wars between competitors across South Asia. The idea would rather be to place the United States in a position of continuing strategic advantage by allowing it to intervene on its own terms.

Looking towards the rest of the 21st century, the American strategy in South Asia is counter-productive to U.S. goals. Rather than project power to achieve nebulous and often unachievable ends, bring the troops home to increase readiness. Rather than spend 45 billion a year for nation-building in Afghanistan, apply those funds to domestic projects that are more critical to the future of the nation. Let adversaries across South Asia compete with each other while the United States gains in relative power and influence. It’s time to leave behind military overreach to embrace a new and dynamic approach to foreign affairs.

Major Jim Kane (U.S. Army Ret.) served over two decades as an Army officer including deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. A career field artilleryman, he has served in field artillery and fire support positions at all echelons from platoon through Multi-National Corps level. Jim is a graduate of St. Norbert College (BA Philosophy), Troy University (MS International Relations), and also of the School of Advanced Military Studies.

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