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Geopolitical thrust of the Afghan Quagmire

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, 6 July 2019

Even while the US is currently throwing its weight
behind peace talks and seeking a political resolution to the prolonged Afghan
War in its search for safe exit, this does not, however, imply that
geostrategic significance of Afghanistan has dwindled in the American eyes. On
the other side, frequent military reverses, drying of treasure along with the
need to stretch military and economic influence to stem the Chinese threat in
the Indo-Pacific better explain the American exit imperative.

In contrast
to the arguments of many scholars that nuclear proliferation and globalization
are undermining the relevance of geopolitics, the driving factor that has been
setting major powers in motion in Afghanistan has largely been geopolitical.
The American and NATO’s  actions in
Afghanistan “confirms rather than undermine the value of conventional military
capabilities although in the form of lighter and more flexible infantry forces
supported by strategic airlift” Michael Hess, “Central Asia: Mackinder
Revisited”, Connections, Vol. 3, No.
1, 2004, p. 97). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union’s heartland domination,
Eurasian geopolitics has not only witnessed dynamism from the perspective of interests
and role of many state and non-state actors, geopolitics received fresh
attention in academic as well as policy circles. The American scramble for
tilting power balance in Afghanistan as well as Central Asia after taking on
the Taliban regime for not handing over Osama bin Laden – the mastermind of Al
Qaeda-organized and sponsored terror attacks on Twin towers in the American
heartland seemed to have only intensified an already existing belief that the
heartland bestows a geopolitical advantage to the power that controls it. The
questionable motives which strengthen the contention that US action in
Afghanistan was driven more by geopolitical factors than to make the country
free of militancy and terrorism alone remain. First, why the American response
was disproportionate to the 9/11 attacks in so far as it waged a war against
Afghanistan instead of applying legitimate methods to capture a group of
individuals who masterminded the act. Second, why did the self-claimed votary
of the UN violate article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits change of regime
in a country by external actors defying sovereignty and territorial integrity?
The article prohibits the use of or threatened use of force against another
state. The War on Terror aimed at toppling the Afghan regime led by the Taliban
which refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the culprit of the 9/11 US
terrorist attack. Post-9/11, the US
received sympathy from almost all countries of the world but 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. Further, a peace
process among the Afghans was discussed in early December 2001, but this was
repudiated by the US. (A. Munoz, “A Long-Overdue Adaptation to the
Afghan Environment”, in Brian Michael Jenkins and John Paul Godges, (eds.), The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s response
to Terrorism,
Rand corporation, Pittsburgh, 2011, p 12).

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 Indian Ocean and Eurasian landmass and develop multidimensional

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 behaviour of strategic players”
(Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard,
Basic Books, New York, 1997, p. 41). However, it needs to be underlined
that neither Afghanistan nor the former Soviet Republics after their
independence are completely passive actors. They constantly shape the will and
capacity of the geostrategic players pursuing their geopolitical interests.
According to Brzezinski, 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 has described 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,
specialised 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). Thus, Afghanistan
and the Central Asian region are significant for multiple civilian and military
purposes. Being bridge to different areas, the regions serve multiple civilian
interests such as first, the areas are emerging as the major centres of natural
resources, second, the areas provide largest markets of millions of people and
more importantly, they provide the transit-ways for inter-continental

Professor S. Frederic Starr of the Central
Asia-Caucasus Institute at Hopkins University articulated the vision of Modern
Silk Route seeing the enormous trade potential in the region. In the first half
of 2009, the US established several new transit corridors to deliver non-lethal
goods to its forces in Afghanistan which are collectively known as Northern
Distribution Network (NDN) andunderlining the geopolitical
significance of the region many US officials were interested to see this
network being transformed into Modern Silk Route (Andrew, C, Kuchins
et.al, “Afghanistan: Building the Missing Link in the Modern Silk Road”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 33, No
.2, 2010, p. 33). However, it is worth-mentioning that the supply
routes and ports once put in place could be used for dual purposes-both
civilian and military.

According to Farkhod Tolipov, the operation in
Afghanistan was essentially leading to the juxtaposition of two realities: the
international and unifying fight against terrorism, on the one hand, and the
conflict prone, disuniting geopolitical rivalry in the Central-South Asian
macro-region, on the other (Farkhod Tolipov, “Are the Heartland and
Rimland changing in the wake of the operation in Afghanistan”, Central Asia and the Caucasus Journal,
Vol. 5, No 23, 2004, p. 100). For example, the US call for ‘War on
Terror’ was conjoined by many states but their military strategic objectives
substantially differed as they belong to different geopolitical realities.
While Pakistan appeared more inclined to defend its interests against India,
Russia wanted to maintain its interests in Central Asia (strategic backyard) by
safeguarding it against Islamic fundamentalism and drug trafficking whereas it
remained concerned about NATO’s presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan, Iran
seemed to defend its geopolitical interests in Central Asia and maintain its
traditional sphere of influence in western Afghanistan, and the Central Asian
states while sought to apprehend the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to their
territory but at the same time, wished to get rid of the Russian monopoly over
the energy politics in the region and therefore, invited the US presence in the

On the other side, apart from religious undercurrents
of militancy, militants emerged as the most dangerous non-conventional threat
and geopolitical challenge to the US in the post-Cold War era. The supreme leader
of the Islamist-jihadist movement Ayman al-Zawahiri asserted in his book
“Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner” that the struggle ahead will be over the
control of the energy-rich heart of Asia and transportation routes connecting
it with the rest of the world. He said: “If the Chechens and other Caucasian
mujahedeen reach the shores of the oil-rich Caspian sea, the only thing that
will separate them from Afghanistan will be the neutral state of Turkmenistan.
This will form a mujahid Islamic belt to the south of Russia that will be
connected in the east to Pakistan, which is brimming with mujahedeen movements
in Kashmir”(Lorenzo
Vidino, “How Chechenya became a breeding ground for terror”, The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. XII, No.
3, Summer 2005, pp. 57-66).

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Author: Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

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