The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
When America Leaves: Asia after the Afghan War

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan will have far-reaching strategic implications for all of Asia. The American preoccupation with a narrow conception of these implications ill serves the U.S. national interest.

Published on April 5, 2012

Afghanistan is passing inexorably into a post-American phase that will have far-reaching consequences for the interconnected space encompassing the Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir, Pakistan proper, Afghanistan, the five Central Asian “Stans”, eastern Iran, China’s western province of Xinjiang, and the seven republics of Russia’s South Caucasus region. In this zone, Greater Central Asia, multiple sources of conflict already exist even as new patterns of trade and investment are emerging, not least in energy. Increasing competition between long preponderant powers and challengers whose presence has heretofore been minimal are changing the calculus of risks and opportunities. Note as well that Greater Central Asia provides a bridge for competition and conflict to migrate and shape the larger interactions among China, India, Russia and the United States.

 Greater Central Asia is also a zone in which ethnic groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, Uighurs, Turkmen and several others) are divided by state borders, with a potential to extend conflicts in one country into others, fanning fears of separatism and irredentism as they do. Migrants and revolutionary ideologies (democratic, nationalist and Islamist) are also unsettling the status quo in places where their influence has hitherto been minimal. Unable to assay the combined consequences of such variegated changes, states and various groups within the region increasingly view competitors with suspicion. To all this is now added the uncertainty about the aftermath of America’s exit from Afghanistan.

Handing Over the Keys

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ntil now, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been robust enough to prevent a free-for-all competition among its neighbors. Following President Obama’s July 2009 surge, which added 30,000 U.S. soldiers, the number of American troops approached 100,000. They are supplemented by about 42,000 troops from the forty-plus states constituting the International Security Assistance Force (although only a small fraction of the coalition’s non-U.S. forces has seen sustained combat). The United States and its allies (as well as third parties) are also training the Afghan army and police. Defense Department expenditures for this purpose totaled nearly $40 billion from 2002 to 2011 and are continuing. The United States and Afghanistan are seeking an arrangement that enables an unspecified number of American troops to remain beyond President Obama’s 2014 withdrawal deadline, but whatever eventually becomes of this effort, it is not premature to speak of a post-American Afghanistan. 

In addition to the 10,000 troops withdrawn by the end of last year, 23,000 will have been removed by mid-2012. The current plan is to hand all significant responsibility for security to Afghan forces at the end of 2014. Things could change, of course, but given ongoing U.S. economic woes and the American public’s weariness over a war that has lasted a decade and cost some $476 billion, it’s a safe bet that the disengagement will continue even if Obama is not reelected, and regardless of the “situation on the ground.”

We also know something about the conditions that obtain in Afghanistan as the post-U.S. phase commences. The Taliban and other insurgents cannot be defeated or forced into a negotiated settlement by 2014. Even with Obama’s surge and the contribution of allies, there are insufficient troops to force a surrender or even to leverage a sustainable negotiated peace. A full American withdrawal, or a cutback to a small presence, will likely invigorate the main groups battling the United States and the Karzai government, the insurgents of the Haqqani clan and of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—both dating back to the mujaheddin war against the Red Army—and, of course, the Taliban. Despite the tough talk emanating intermittently from Washington’s corridors of power, the fact that American officials are lambasting the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies for aiding these groups while conducting back-channel talks with the most brazen of them, the Haqqanis, shows that a war-weary United States is looking to leave. Obama’s surge and his major acceleration of drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan have undoubtedly put the insurgency on the defensive by killing many of its commanders and reducing the areas of its control in the south, and with that the capacity to launch large offensives. Yet the Taliban has replenished its ranks and changed tactics to suit new conditions and setbacks. It is increasing attacks in the west, north and center, where the density of foreign troops is lower, ramping up suicide bombings, attacking military installations and embassies, and assassinating senior Afghan politicians and administrators. Pace the logic underpinning the surge, what the Taliban have not shown, despite the additional military pressure placed on them, is any serious interest in a settlement. They may dangle that prospect for tactical and psychological reasons, but they have never shown any indication of sincerely embracing it.

The Taliban’s aim is not to defeat the American army; with only about 20,000 fighters, it cannot hope to do so. Its aim is rather to deplete the will of the United States and its allies and to erode support for the war among their citizens simply by demonstrating the continuing wherewithal to wreak havoc through selective violence. Once foreign forces leave, the insurgents expect to face a weak Afghan government whose legitimacy has already been badly compromised by incompetence and corruption. (This hardly means that the Taliban will necessarily seize power: The Afghan armed forces and militias loyal to warlords will resist them and will be backed by outsiders—but that is another matter.)

Faced with an unpopular regime, a preternaturally weak polity and a dogged insurgency, the United States and its allies have been training an Afghan army and police force (the target is 378,000 by the end of 2012) capable of keeping order and fighting insurgents once foreign forces leave. But this is a Herculean labor, and it is failing. Fifty-seven percent of Afghan males are illiterate, the nascent security forces face an attrition rate approaching 25 percent a year, the rottenness of the state threatens to either corrupt the military and police forces or entice them to seize power, and pervasive corruption enables infiltration by the insurgents. None of this is surprising. Any military force, particularly a new one, reflects the pathologies of its milieu. Afghanistan’s military is no different. What this means is that even if built up, the Afghan security forces could be undone by deeper problems that even extended tutelage by outsiders cannot fix.1

To fill the void created by the lack of sufficient indigenous military and police units, the United States and the Afghan government have been funding and training local militias under the “Afghan Local Police” program. Whatever the intent of the policy, these units have in practice been organized along ethnic and tribal lines. Along with the other makeshift forces that pervade Afghanistan, they are already acting as free agents, robbing and brutalizing the population, notwithstanding the supposed oversight by the Interior Ministry and local tribal councils.2 In a post-American Afghanistan their ties to the government may prove tenuous at best. If past patterns hold, their commanders are apt to align with neighboring states competing for influence in the country. If there’s one trait that defines the warlord, it’s equal-opportunity cynicism.

Scorpions in a Bottle

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f conflict will not end inside Afghanistan, what does a post-American Afghanistan mean for the region? The short answer is a lot. For a longer answer, let’s start with India and Pakistan.

The India-Pakistan contest over Afghanistan, already well advanced, will intensify with the American drawdown. India is among Afghanistan’s biggest sources of aid and has poured more than $1 billion into building transportation infrastructure and training security forces. It has a phalanx of diplomats and intelligence operatives and technical specialists in place in Kabul and in its four regional consulates. In October, India signed an “Agreement of Strategic Partnership” with the Karzai government, which of course did not go unnoticed in Islamabad. A month later, a coalition of public and private Indian companies sponsored by the government-owned Steel Authority of India (SAIL) won a contract to develop the giant iron ore mine (its reserves are estimated at 1.8 billion metric tons) at Hajigak in Bamyan province, west of Kabul, a venture in which it is expected to invest nearly $11 billion over thirty years.3 And in Tajikistan, whose territory it once used to support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s and now uses to airlift supplies that are then sent by road into Afghanistan, India has established a presence by refurbishing the Ayni airbase, training Tajik security personnel and modernizing the Varzob-1 hydroelectric station. 

A project that illustrates the conjoining of economic and security goals in India’s calculations in Afghanistan, and the convergence of its interest with Iran’s, is the 217-kilometer road it completed in 2009 in Nimroz and Farah provinces to connect Zaranj, in southwest Afghanistan near the Iranian border, with Delaram, which lies athwart the 2,700-kilometer “Ring Road” linking Kandahar, Kabul, Kunduz, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.4 Because Zaranj is tied by road to the Iranian port of Chahbahar, the Indian project reduces landlocked Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan’s harbors while enabling India to move its exports and aid into Afghanistan—no small matter given that Pakistan separates India from Afghanistan. That Chahbahar is less than a hundred kilometers from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which has been modernized and expanded by China, provides New Delhi a bonus. 

Another big Indian undertaking, though one that does not complement Iran’s interests, is the refurbishing of the Salma Dam on the Harirud River in the Chishti Sharif district west of Herat city. Begun in 1978, but mothballed after Afghanistan’s descent into war, the project resumed in 2004 and will generate 42 megawatts of electricity and irrigate nearly 300 square miles of farmland. But it has been slowed by insurgent violence in the district—which India has sought to counter by paying the Afghan Ministry of the Interior some $700,000 annually to train and deploy guards—and cost overruns that have raised the price tag to $180 million, more than a threefold increase over the original projection. While Salma will benefit Afghanistan, it will reduce the water Iran receives from the Harirud, and local Afghan police officials have charged that Tehran, which has called on India to halt its work, has been backing Taliban insurgents to disrupt work on the dam.5

India’s strenuous efforts in Afghanistan stem from a determination to reestablish the pattern that prevailed from 1947 to 1992, when Afghanistan was ruled by a series of regimes that, while different in makeup, were all friendly toward India and wary of Pakistan: Zahir Shah’s monarchy; the “republic” of Mohammed Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin and brother-in law, who ousted and exiled him in 1973; and the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party, which took power after a 1978 coup, in which Daoud was killed, and ruled until 1992. The configuration changed to India’s detriment once assorted anti-Soviet mujaheddin groups began a vicious battle for power that year. That melee enabled the Taliban’s rise in 1994 and, with support from Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, its victory two years later. 

Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex is equally resolved to counter India’s flanking maneuver and to establish a dependent government in Kabul. Its efforts began early. Pakistan exploited its position as prime purveyor of American and Saudi aid to the anti-Soviet resistance in order to help its favored Islamists gain power. Pakistan first backed Hekmatyar, but once it realized he was a liability it switched to the Taliban. Pakistan was one of only three states to establish full diplomatic relations with the Taliban (the others being Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). It abandoned the Taliban, albeit never completely, only after Washington delivered an “us or them” ultimatum after 9/11, and then too only after rancorous debate within President Pervez Musharraff’s top military circle. Thus it is not surprising that Pakistan’s generals and ISI operatives now consider the Haqqanis, Hekmatyar and the Taliban as agents for thwarting India’s encirclement plan. They have a long history with these groups; by contrast, Karzai, who regularly chides Pakistan for abetting the insurgency, is seen as New Delhi’s man.

Neither India nor Pakistan will be able to resist the temptation to exploit each other’s weaknesses in other locations once their contest in post-American Afghanistan accelerates. For Pakistan, the most likely venue is Indian Kashmir; for India, it is Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province, home to a third of its natural gas as well as other resources, and the site of an armed rebellion that has persisted with varying intensity since 1948, prompting major military offensives by the government. 

Notwithstanding the anxieties of nonproliferation doomsayers, the real danger in South Asia is not that such lateral moves will beget crises that then spiral toward nuclear war; South Asia is not immune from the iron logic of deterrence. Rather, it is that the competition between India and Pakistan in post-American Afghanistan will increase violence in Kashmir, making cooperative solutions to Afghanistan’s problems even harder and relegating to tactical irrelevance such mutually beneficial projects as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.6

Rolling the Dice

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n argument often encountered in debates on the Afghan War is that the key to defeating the Taliban and allied groups is convincing Pakistan to abandon the insurgents. There has persisted for years a widespread belief that this can be done if Pakistan is subjected to enough American pressure. This contention is wrong, because it fundamentally misreads Pakistani perceptions and attitudes that are rooted in both history and culture. 

The leaders of the Pakistani military and the ISI (often dubbed “the deep state”, they are in fact the state, certainly on matters of war and peace) simply do not trust the United States. Not unreasonably, they expect that, once America withdraws from Afghanistan, Washington will resume the alignment with India initiated by George W. Bush and interrupted unexpectedly by the 9/11 attacks. They believe that American leaders have come to regard India as an essential counterweight to China and, in general, as far more consequential than Pakistan to the global balance of power and to America’s larger strategic interests. They view Washington, not without a basis in experience, as a fickle friend whose policy consists of phases of alignment and aid followed by ones of sanctions and, despite its regular embrace of Pakistani strongmen, democratic disquisitions. With the suspicion that the United States is again using Pakistan comes a general inclination to reciprocate, the specific manifestation of which is the policy of hedging Pakistan’s bets in Afghanistan. 

Pakistan’s military and intelligence chiefs also believe that they can safely defy the United States because Washington has no alternative to Pakistan so long as it is mired in Afghanistan. Pakistan provides critical assets. It abuts Afghanistan and has a longer border with it than does any other country. It controls two supply lines which, despite the creation of alternative routes via Russia and Central Asia, are important for supplying American and allied forces: the north-south line that originates in Karachi port and runs to Peshawar and thence across the Khyber Pass into Kabul, and another running from Karachi to Chaman, in Balochistan, and on to Kandahar. (These routes are important, in part, because they are vastly less costly to operate than the alternatives.) Pakistan also offers sites for gathering intelligence on the Taliban and allied groups, and its airbase at Shamshi in western Balochistan has supported a tactic that has become particularly important under Obama: drones strikes on Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds in the FATA.7

The generals’ wariness toward Washington is shared by the public. Most Pakistanis believe that supporting America’s Afghan war, especially the stepped-up drone attacks, has only increased bloodshed at home and strengthened violent Islamists. Many blame the threat to Pakistan from its own Taliban on the United States. Above all, every Pakistani knows—and has always known—that one day the Americans will depart and leave Pakistanis to face the whirlwind. The depth of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan (in mid-2011, only 12 percent of Pakistanis surveyed were favorably disposed to the United States) cuts across classes and regions. While American officials are given to reminding their Pakistani counterparts how substantial U.S. aid is ($18 billion since 2001, two-thirds of it military), Islamabad sees it as compensation for services rendered in the fight against the Taliban, including some 40,000 military and civilian lives claimed since 2001 by war and terrorism. Again, such reasoning resonates with the public, especially when civilians die in drone attacks and Pakistani troops are killed by ISAF military operations gone awry.

Still, Pakistan is making a dicey wager in assuming that it can back the Haqqanis (whose strongholds cover the Afghan provinces of Paktia, Paktika, and Khost, as well as Pakistan’s FATA), Hekmatyar (his bastions are Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan) and the Afghan Taliban (its strongest support is in the southern provinces of Qandahar and Helmand, with rear support in the FATA and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) without simultaneously strengthening the Tehrik-i-Taliban situated on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Islamabad’s wager is that a deal can be done with the Taliban in Afghanistan by trading Pakistani support in exchange for their cutting ties with their brethren in Pakistan. But the distinction between the two Taliban wings, Afghan and Pakistani, may prove chimerical. The war has tightened their collaboration, which is eased by the nature of the 1,600-mile Afghan-Pakistan border: essentially a line on the map drawn by the British in 1893 that successive Afghan governments have refused to accept, divides the Pushtuns (and Baloch) of both countries, and is porous and thus ideal for infiltration, gunrunning and smuggling. 

Thus the debate ranges among American experts on whether Pakistan is playing the United States, is genuinely unable to eradicate militants ensconced in FATA, or is leery of making a full-bore bid for fear that that would produce more dead soldiers and an upsurge in terrorism. There is no need to choose, however; all three of these statements are true to one degree or another. What is unequivocally true, though, is that Pakistan’s violent Islamists have become far more powerful since 2001. Their reach now extends beyond the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to the Punjab, Pakistan’s richest, politically pivotal province. The supposition that they can be subdued once their Afghan counterparts are sated and indebted to Pakistan is a stretch. Indeed, it is a wager resembling a game of Russian roulette.

Empire’s Aftermath

India and Pakistan will not be the lone contenders in post-American Afghanistan. Neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan may be pulled in if rump armies based on Afghanistan’s Tajiks and Uzbeks emerge (as happened between 1992 and 2001, with the Uzbek forces led by Abdul Rashid Dostum and Tajiks led by Ahmed Shah Masoud). Such armies are likely to form to secure their homelands in the north and northeast of Afghanistan if the security situation deteriorates because of Taliban successes. Unlike Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, which are societies with a nomadic past where Islam sunk shallower roots, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan emerged from sedentary communities with larger urban populations where Islam therefore has a stronger social foundation. While this in itself says nothing about what role Islam will play in their politics and what forms of Islam will prove strongest, the post-Soviet history of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan shows that they cannot escape the reverberations of Afghanistan’s religious extremism and violence. They could easily become entangled in post-American Afghanistan’s conflicts deliberately—as in the 1990s—by supporting their Afghan co-ethnics against the Taliban in cooperation with India, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Or they could be sucked in unwillingly by violence and refugee flows created by upheaval in Afghanistan. Either way, geography and ethnicity put Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the front lines, and both states already have major problems and limited means.

For its part, Russia is determined to keep militant Islamic movements out of Central Asia. The Czarist and Soviet empires ruled the region for 150 years, and Moscow still has substantial economic and strategic interests there that will be jeopardized if violent, chiliastic Islamic movements in Afghanistan (to whose influence the Soviet invasion contributed mightily) become powerful enough to reach into the “Stans”, directly or indirectly. 

Despite being far removed from Afghanistan, Russia’s North Caucasus region is also susceptible to ramped-up religious radicalism there. What began in Chechnya in the twilight of the Soviet Union as a largely nationalist movement for autonomy and then independence has metamorphosed and metastasized across the North Caucasus. Radical Islamist groups have displaced nationalists and have formed “jamaats” whose “emirs” vow to establish a sharia-based state throughout the region. Russia’s relative success in Chechnya (where state-sponsored Islam nevertheless thrives) has been offset by the mounting mayhem in the other North Caucasus republics, particularly Dagestan. Insurgent attacks, kidnappings, bombings and assassinations are routine. In combination with entrenched local problems—above all staggering unemployment, corruption, criminality and feuds among ethnic groups that were shoehorned into various “republics” during the Stalinist era—the bloodletting has created what former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called Russia’s primary internal security problem. 

Historical trends do not favor Russia in its turbulent southern periphery. Except for the 19th-century Czarist conquests, and Soviet rule thereafter, the North Caucasus, like Central Asia, would have gravitated toward the larger Islamic world—to the south and southwest, instead of to the north. That process has resumed since 1991 and is reshaping identities and introducing new modes of thought and social protest. Ruling elites with roots in the Soviet era are now rapidly passing from the scene. A post-Soviet generation is emerging into an environment in which corruption, repression and poverty provide ample tinder, and the Russian state is relatively weak in its periphery. This makes Afghanistan’s future more important for Russia than ever.

The Dragon’s Dilemma

So far, China has been able to expand its economic presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan without having to protect it. Between 1992 and 2009 alone, its trade with the five Central Asian states increased from $527 million to $25.9 billion.8 In Kazakhstan, which has been its focus, China holds a majority share in 15 firms and a smaller stake in many more. Its position in the hydrocarbons sector is particularly strong. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) owns one major Kazakh oil company and is a majority shareholder in another; the two combined produce 320,000 barrels per day. In 2009 China strengthened its position by lending Kazakhstan $10 billion, a transaction that enabled CNPC to become joint owner, along with the Kazakh state-owned energy company KazMunaiGaz (KMG), of MangistauMunaiGaz (MMG), one of Kazakhstan’s biggest oil companies, which produces 115,000 barrels per day. All of this has necessitated means for transporting energy, and so a pipeline owned jointly by China and KMG now carries oil 1,400 miles from Atyrau off Kazakhstan’s north Caspian Sea coast to Alashankou in Xinjiang.9

Beijing has also invested elsewhere in Central Asia. Over the past several years, it has signed deals with Uzbekistan for assorted projects worth $4 billion and has agreed to buy ten billion cubic meters of Uzbek natural gas per year. China is already importing 17 billion cubic meters from Turkmenistan and has financed a pipeline that traverses Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and could raise its imports from Turkmen and Kazakh fields to sixty billion cubic meters annually. Turkmenistan received a $7 billion loan from China in 2009 and 2010 to develop its South Yoloten-Osman gas field, among the world’s largest. China expects to start receiving the output in 2013, with the volume set to reach ten billion cubic meters within three years and double that at its peak.10 Accompanying this upsurge in trade and investment in Central Asia has been a big Chinese migration, complete with the emergence of Chinatowns.11

Thus China has quickly created a substantial stake in Central Asia, and its influence is eclipsing that of the historic hegemon, Russia. It far exceeds that of India, likely its keenest rival in the ensuing decades. Yet this success makes Beijing’s position hostage to developments in Afghanistan (to take one example, the Yoloten-Osman gas field lies close to the Afghan border), where China has also begun to make investments, especially in raw materials. The China Metallurgical Group Corporation won the competition to develop the Aynak copper mine southeast of Kabul in Logar province. It will invest $3.4 billion (and build a rail line, power plant and smelter) in hopes of recovering 11 million tons over two decades. The CNPC signed a contract with the Afghan Ministry of Mines in December 2011 to begin producing oil—together with an Afghan partner, Watan Oil and Gas—at three sites in the Amu Darya basin, which the Afghan government claims contains 80 million barrels of crude oil and possibly a like amount in unproven reserves, only a fraction of the 1.6 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of gas it claims is embedded in the river basin.12

So far, China has been able to tend to its commercial concerns, leaving the expense and hazards of providing security to the United States and ISAF, but once they depart, Beijing will have to safeguard its economic assets and the technical specialists, managers, and construction crews it deploys to develop them. Despite the presence of American troops, the Taliban already operates in Logar and in adjacent Wardak province, and their exit will force Beijing to contemplate a role in Afghanistan’s security. China will try to minimize its exposure by shoring up local authorities; should that prove insufficient, it will have to consider direct involvement, knowing that initial commitments often lay the groundwork for larger responsibilities and greater risks.

Aside from economic investments, Afghanistan also matters to China because, like the “Stans”, it abuts the increasingly restive Chinese province of Xinjiang. Xinjiang was conquered by the Qing Dynasty in 1759 and, after a period of independence beginning in 1933, was retaken by the Chinese Communists in 1949. It is remote from China’s principal centers of power in the east (the capital, Urumqi, is 1,400 miles from Beijing), covers 1.6 million square kilometers, a sixth of China’s landmass, and holds huge oil reserves, particularly in its Tarim River basin. Nationalism and Islam’s appeal have risen in Xinjiang over the past two decades, as have protests and violence. 

Indeed, to Beijing’s puzzlement, despite the increase in education and economic development in Xinjiang, its nine million Turkic-Muslim Uighurs appear no more reconciled to Chinese rule than they were in 1949. To the contrary, these transformations have stimulated nationalism, particularly because economic development and Beijing’s deliberate policy of changing Xinjiang’s ethnic composition has produced an influx of Han Chinese, who now number about eight million and account for 40 percent of Xinjiang’s total population (21.8 million in 2010), compared to 5–6 percent in the early 1950s. Clashes between Uighur protesters and police, and between Han and Uighurs, have increased, as have bombings and attacks by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which Beijing insists is tied to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and uses camps in Pakistan.13 Some 300,000 Uighurs live in Central Asia, three-quarters of them in Kazakhstan alone. China has pressed Central Asian states to crack down on Uighur nationalist groups and demanded that activists be extradited. 

For China, the stability of Afghanistan, the “Stans” and Xinjiang are intertwined, the more so because the Wakhan corridor, a 400-kilometer salient within Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakshan, sandwiched between Tajikistan and Pakistan, offers access to Xinjiang. Hence it’s not just defending the sunken costs of trade and investment that may draw China into Afghanistan, but also apprehensions about its own internal stability.

Sunni vs. Shi‘a

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ran is the other Greater Central Asian state eyeing developments in Afghanistan as the American drawdown looms. For now, Iran may benefit from having 100,000 American troops mired in a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan and may even share tactical interests with the Taliban. There have been intermittent reports of Iranian arms reaching the Taliban, and some shipments have been intercepted by NATO troops. 

However, there has long been bad blood between Tehran and the Taliban. Iran supported the Herat-based anti-Taliban Tajik warlord Ismail Khan, and matters did not improve once the Taliban consolidated its power. The Taliban persecuted two Afghan communities with cultural ties to Iran, the Shi‘a Hazara, who inhabit Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, and the Tajiks in the north and west. After the Taliban killed eight Iranian diplomats in 1999 while brutally subduing northern Afghanistan, Iran massed troops on its eastern border, and war seemed imminent. More generally, Iran’s Shi‘a theocracy has regarded the establishment next door of a millenarian Sunni regime backed by Persian Gulf Sunni monarchies as a menace. Tehran will therefore surely ratchet up its involvement in post-American Afghanistan, particularly in the western part of the country. 

A particular advantage Iran has is that Herat, with its large Tajik population (about a third of the province’s total of 1.8 million), has long been a sphere of Iranian influence and, indeed, along with other areas of Afghanistan was part of Iran’s various empires, going back to the Achaemenid era (550–330 BCE). Economic and cultural ties between Iran’s Khorasan region and Herat have also been particularly strong. Iran has a consulate in Herat and has pumped significant sums into the city and its hinterland, providing electricity, building factories and highways, and constructing a rail line between Herat and the Iranian city of Mashhad. Iran, like India, is determined to give Afghanistan another (and shorter) opening to rival Pakistan’s port of Karachi. In hopes of becoming a thoroughfare for Afghanistan’s trade with the Middle East, Iran has upgraded the highway connecting its Chahbahar port to Afghanistan, complementing India’s Zaranj-Delaram road project. 

 Iran also has interests south of Herat because of the insurgency rooted in the non-Persian, Sunni Muslim Baloch, who live in its southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan (but who are also spread across southern Pakistan and southwestern Afghanistan). That province contains Chahbahar and shares a 700-mile border with Afghanistan and (mainly) Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Tehran fears that the insurgency offers its adversaries opportunities for subversion and has claimed that suicide bombings by the Baloch insurgent movement Jundallah prove the group’s ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and that it is being backed by Pakistan, Britain and the United States as well. Thus, the more Iran and Pakistan work at cross purposes in Afghanistan, the more each will be tempted to exploit one another’s foibles. 

Coalitions and Consequences

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he American departure from Afghanistan will thus create multiple uncertainties including among the most powerful residents of the region. Each contestant has vulnerabilities; each has too much at stake to stand aside and let events take their own course. All parties will thus be mindful of what marketing gurus call the “first-mover’s advantage.”

India, Pakistan, China and Iran will be the most deeply engaged (Russia is likely to concentrate on Central Asia, though not exclusively). Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will not be able to compete with them on an equal footing, but they will be disproportionately affected by the consequences of Afghanistan’s instability and the struggles over its future—an unenviable position. If the United States vacates Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airbase, which it has used since 2002 to ferry supplies to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan will seek security by moving closer to Russia (Moscow has already been pressing it to end American access to Manas)—the more so if Afghanistan becomes more unstable. 

India, not eager for the United States to leave Afghanistan, is likely to be Washington’s principal local partner once the United States seeks to influence outcomes there under the new circumstances created by military disengagement. Pakistan will be ambivalent as the 2014 deadline nears: It stands to lose significant U.S. aid, but it will gain a freer hand in Afghanistan. It may also find that detaching itself from America’s war takes some wind out of extremists’ sails. Russia, China and Iran will be pleased to see the large American military deployment on their flanks end. Together with Pakistan, they have opposed the retention of American bases in Afghanistan after the pullout. They, too, however, will be anxious about the aftermath. 

Two things make the impending competition especially dangerous. Afghanistan, already unstable, is likely to become more so, and the reverberations will course through Greater Central Asia. Moreover, the states in this zone have no record of working together collectively, nor do they have a regional forum they can use to break this pattern. (The Shanghai Cooperation Organization cannot serve this purpose because India, Iran and Pakistan are not full members, and China will balk at giving India a bigger role; nor can the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which includes Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, but not China, Iran or Russia.) India and Russia have long had compatible aims in Afghanistan, and Iran’s goals in Afghanistan overlap with theirs, but this alone will not provide a basis for wider collective action so long as India, Pakistan and China lack common interests and mutual trust. Ultimately, the consequences of the competition will depend on whether post-American Afghanistan acquires a government with the stability and savvy to do what its predecessors have adeptly done over the past two centuries: preserving national independence by manipulating outsiders’ rivalry.

To Leave or Not to Leave

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t’s reasonable to ask why the United States should exit Afghanistan if the result will be uncertainty and a contest among several states that bids fair to be fractious and even violent. Some will claim on a moral basis, and indeed are already claiming, that Washington’s exit constitutes another abandonment of the long-suffering Afghans—and of women and minority ethnic and religious communities in particular. 

Alas, that claim is true. But politics, especially its international variant, is seldom powered by sentiment or moral duty. Landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan has little weight in the global balance of power, which means that, for the United States, the downsides of departure are correspondingly small. Afghans have suffered grievously since 1978, and it would be nice if the United States had the knowledge and the capacity to deliver them lasting stability, civil liberties and prosperity. But it does not and never did—notwithstanding the illusions of nation-building enthusiasts left and right.

Despite the rebarbative proclamations issued from Washington about the unshakeable commitment to Afghanistan and the importance of its stability to American security, there has been no commensurate military or economic investment. Largely due to the war in Iraq, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan remained below 30,000 (and until 2004 well below) until 2005. Despite the increase in U.S. and ISAF deployments following Obama’s election, at their acme the number of international troops per thousand Afghans (1.6) fell dismally short of the corresponding figures for Bosnia (2.9), Haiti (2.9), Iraq (4.0), and Kosovo (19.3) and was nowhere near 20, a benchmark used by counterinsurgency experts. And an international police presence was absent altogether. The same gap between rhetoric and reality has been evident in external economic assistance, with disbursements being puny in relation to grand pledges.14 And as the war dragged on, opinion polls in the United States and Europe showed declining public support for spending more blood and treasure, or even time, in Afghanistan. 

As the American departure looms under these circumstances, the danger that Afghanistan will again become a haven for hatching murderous plots against the United States has naturally received more attention. But it is arguable whether maintaining tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan and assuming responsibility for its political trajectory are the best ways to prevent it from being the laboratory for another 9/11-style assault. True, Osama bin Laden crafted his deadly plan from Afghanistan, but the money, technology and skills essential for hijacking planes and slamming them into tall buildings presupposed a level of modernity that Afghanistan never offered and never will. These essentials were acquired in Europe and the United States. This suggests that terrorism must be countered ultimately through an adroit, persistent combination of diplomacy, intelligence and homeland security. Occupying countries wholesale is a spectacularly inefficient solution—and is simply not sustainable. 

The United States retains various means to help Afghans and shape competition in Afghanistan. Hence post-American Afghanistan need not become non-American Afghanistan. Yet the United States cannot determine how the states of Greater Central Asia conduct themselves in the competition to shape Afghanistan: it will be but one player among many—and a distant one at that. Nor can America predict how the struggle in Greater Central Asia will affect relations among the region’s major powers or what implications it will have for U.S. global strategy. Yet it is the contenders for influence in post-American Afghanistan, and above all the Afghans themselves, who will pay the steepest price for beggar-thy-neighbor behavior. Whether this realization begets a consensus that enables cooperation is another matter. Present trends provide little reason for optimism. 

1See Alim Remtulla, “In the (Afghan) Army Now”, The American Interest (September/October 2011).

2Human Rights Watch, “Just Don’t Call it a Militia: Impunity, Militias and the ‘Afghan Local Police’” (September 12, 2011). 

3Eltaf Najafizada, “Afghanistan Awards India Hajigak Iron-Ore Mining Rights”, Bloomberg, November 28, 2011.

4The last 233-kilometer section of the Ring Road, in Afghanistan’s northwest, remains incomplete, but the Asian Development Bank has committed $340 million to fund it.

5Interview with India’s Consul General in Herat, in “India Won’t Back Out of Project”; Amir Bagherpur and Asad Farhad, “The Iranian Influence in Afghanistan.”

6The three parties reached an agreement on this project in 2002 and proclaimed their commitment to it as recently as 2011. The 1,040-kilometer pipeline has an estimated price tag of $7.6 billion and a thirty billion cubic meter capacity.

7Following an errant NATO operation that killed 28 Pakistani troops in FATA in November 2011, Islambad ended U.S. access to Shamshi and suspened access to the two supply routes.

8See the data in Cholpon Orozobekova, “Beijing’s Stealthy Expansion in Central Asia”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 12, 2011; and “China Quietly Extends Footprints into Central Asia”, New York Times, January 2, 2011. 

9The project began in 2003, and its last leg was completed in 2009. Its projected capacity is 400,000 barrels per day by 2013.

10It is estimated to hold six trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

11Precise data are unavailable, but the estimated number of Chinese in Kazakhstan is 300,000, 200,00 in Kyrgyzstan, and 150,000 across the other three “Stans.”

12Ministry of Mines, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, “Afghanistan, CNPC International Reach Agreement for Amu Darya Oil Tender.” 

13China’s claims are explored in Shirley A. Kan, “U.S.-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: Issues for U.S. Policy”, Congressional Research Service Report, July 15, 2010.

14Data drawn from Seth G. Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (Norton, 2009), Figures 7.1–7.3; James T. Quinlivan, “The Burdens of Victory: The Painful Arithmetic of Stabiity Operations”, Rand Review (Summer 2003); and Riaz Mohammad Khan, Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremis, and Resistance to Modernity (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2011), pp. 115–17. 

Rajan Menon is Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).