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Thoughts on Afghanistan

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Thoughts on Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a rugged borderland, a hodgepodge of rival tribes and religious sects, and a zone of geopolitical competition between great powers since at least the days of Alexander the Great.

To the west lies Shiite Iran. In times of Persian strength, Iran projects power and influence throughout Afghanistan and Central Asia, as the region’s languages and culture still attest. To the extent there is a natural geopolitical hegemon in Central Asia, it is Iran.

To the east lies Pakistan, which first nurtured what became the Taliban (with ample U.S. help) as a guerilla force against the Soviet Union and which, like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, struggles to maintain control over its grotesque creation.

To the north lie the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, where authoritarian leaders have maintained strict controls on Islam and migration since the collapse of the Soviet Union for fear of Afghanistan’s problems spilling into their countries. Uzbekistan, for instance, has only just begun to relax those controls – will President Shavkat Mirziyoyev possess enough self-confidence to continue?

To the northeast lies a narrow, 46-mile border with China, located a short but treacherous trek away from a small highway that leads to the Silk Road-town of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang province, where China’s crackdown on its ethnic Uighur Muslim population is also driven by fear of spillover from Afghanistan.  

For the last 20 years, an international military force dominated by the United States has attempted to remake Afghanistan in the West’s image. The U.S. has spent over $2 trillion and thousands of lives on what successive U.S. governments knew was a fool’s errand but which were not willing to incur the political flak of leaving.

U.S. President Joe Biden is taking that flak now, but the talk of the Afghanistan withdrawal as an indelible stain on his presidential record misses the point. Of the many terrible things Richard Nixon did as president, ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam is usually not considered chief among them.

Biden is the scapegoat of the hour, but in the long run, he will be the president who got the U.S. out of Afghanistan – and refocused it elsewhere. More on that in a minute.

It is hard not to make the Vietnam-Afghanistan comparison, especially with the uncanny déjà vu of the pictures and footage coming out of Kabul bringing back memories of the fall of Saigon. There is another more important similarity, however, one that has afflicted almost every U.S. conflict since the Korean War with the exception of the First Gulf War.

The U.S. got involved in Vietnam in part due to faulty analysis. At the time, U.S. policymakers saw the world through the lens of containment. The U.S. government believed it was in a global war against Communism. The Soviet Union was merely the leader of a global threat, and it was incumbent upon the U.S. to do everything possible to prevent nations from falling into the Communist camp.

What was happening in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, however, had relatively little to do with communism. In the 1950s, Vietnam was desperately fighting a war of independence against French colonial rule. In the 1960s, that conflict morphed into a civil war between competing Vietnamese factions.

While the U.S. thought it was training its Vietnamese allies to fight communists, in reality, it was becoming deeply entrenched in an internecine civil war. The U.S. was little better than Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, and expressing shock that the war wasn’t won after the windmills had been napalm-ed.

The U.S. made the same mistake in Afghanistan. Not five days after the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th, U.S. President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism.” Not on al-Qaeda, not on the Taliban, not on Afghanistan, not even on Islam – but on terrorism. 

As in Vietnam, the U.S. did not comprehend what it was getting itself into. Washington thought it was leading a global crusade against terrorism. It was actually taking sides in an Afghan civil war that had been raging since 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan overthrew the Afghan government, and which will continue long after the U.S. withdraws on August 31st (or shortly thereafter).

Will the U.S. ever learn? Probably not. The Soviet Union’s failures in Afghanistan hastened the collapse of the Soviet government. We are hard-pressed to come up with another country that could waste as many resources as the U.S. has in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 20 years and not suffer regime collapse.

Due to a unique combination of geographic safety (the U.S. is not bordered by any existential enemy), national wealth (the U.S.’s share of global GDP is still around 25 percent), and institutional resilience, the U.S. can lose wars like the one it just lost in Afghanistan…and proceed right on to the next.

Case in point: the U.S. has already moved on to its next enemy. This time, the U.S. is not arming itself for a battle with a vague ideological construct (Communism) or a political tactic (terrorism). China is now the top U.S. foreign policy priority, one of the few issues on which U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle agree. This is neither the time nor the place to judge whether that is a good thing or not (though I’ve likely already betrayed my bias) – it is proffered here simply as a statement of fact.

Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan gives U.S. decision-makers something they haven’t had in two decades: bandwidth. Expect more direct U.S. involvement in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America in the coming years.

Keep a close eye in particular on Taiwan and on the various disputed islands in the South China Sea, where the U.S. and China are most likely to clash eventually. As we’ve written here before, we think it will be a decade or more before anything serious occurs, but there can be no doubt where geopolitical pressure will build in the years ahead.

Enough about the past and present. What does this mean for the future? One of our key predictions for the decade ahead is the emergence of a multipolar world with competing spheres of influence. (You can read the full rationale behind that prediction by clicking here if you’re interested.) “Multipolar” is just a fancy way of saying there won’t be a single dominant power in the world, but rather multiple “poles” of power that cooperate and compete with each other to secure their relative positions. 

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is a perfect example of this. The U.S., while tremendously powerful, is not powerful enough to assert its interests in Afghanistan. The U.S. is withdrawing to focus on more pressing matters. Meanwhile, India, Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and the Central Asian states will have more of a say in Afghanistan’s future than the U.S. going forward. 

For most of these countries, the primary goal will be to make sure that what happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan. Perhaps China or Russia will dabble in attempting to harvest the potential of Afghanistan’s long-touted mineral commodities – and good luck to them. There isn’t enough political stability let alone infrastructure for Afghanistan’s resources to be worthwhile for any foreign country anytime soon.

The country that is most concerning in all of this is Pakistan. Pakistan was created in part by the manipulation of religious identity by political leaders who wanted to retain power in an independent India. (Obviously, that is an oversimplification, see Nisid Hajari’s excellent recent book, “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition” if you are eager to learn more about that relatively unknown chapter in South Asian history.)

Pakistan’s intelligence forces essentially replicated this strategy in Afghanistan, where fundamentalist Islam became a rallying cry for the precursors to the Taliban as they fought the Soviets, and eventually, the U.S. – Pakistan’s erstwhile ally.

Pakistan has been playing with fire for almost three-quarters of a century. Those who play with fire eventually get burned. From the Taliban’s perspective, the Pakistani government is a necessary partner, but also a coterie of hypocrites who only pay lip service to Islam. The shadowy Pakistani Taliban (TTP) sometimes carry out terrorist acts against Pakistani civilians and soldiers and will view the victory of its compatriots in Afghanistan as a blueprint for their own ambitions. 

And need we remind you that Pakistan, unlike Iraq, actually has nuclear weapons, and actually is responsible for the proliferation of nuclear technology to unsavory regimes in Iran and North Korea. 

No doubt some of you will disagree with some or even all of the points contained herein. I invite you to share your thoughts with us by replying to this email if you do. This issue has become a hot-button, emotional one, for obvious reasons. 

Even so, I tried to take a step back and apply the analytical approach we take with many of our clients to Afghanistan to explain as objectively as possible how we got here, how to make sense of the current depressing headlines, and most importantly, to sketch a view of what will happen next.

Honorable mention

RIP Charlie Watts

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