Prospects of Continued US Presence in Afghanistan
In the backdrop of impending US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the debate on the American interests in the region and the necessity of maintaining military bases in Afghanistan is gaining momentum. With Afghan side aspiring maximum through negotiations on BSA, there is an apparent effort from some renowned American analysts to down play the significance of the agreement vis-à-vis US interests in the region. Contrarily, American desperation on the issue is evident from the fact that despite having failed to conclude the agreement within given time lines, last being October 2013, US has yet to walk away from the negotiations with Kabul. Recently, renowned American analyst on Afghanistan Vanda Felbab-Brown claimed that President Hamid Karzai’s strategic calculus that the United States is bound to remain engaged in Afghanistan for pursuing a “New Great Game” in Central Asia, is unfounded. According to her, Washington has identified East Asia as America’s priority area of strategic focus, not Afghanistan or Central Asia. In another similar perspective, Alexander Cooley suggests that ‘analysts shouldn’t exaggerate the level of competition among the great powers. The “return of the great game” analogy is misleading in many respects. Russia, China, and the United States are most often not in direct competition in Central Asia, with a few important exceptions. For the most part, they have been pursuing different goals’.
Does this means that about twelve years of US engagement in Afghanistan through ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and besides 2,153 American deaths and 17674 injured as of November 19, 2013, more than $ 600 Billion financial expenditure was merely a sacrifice to overthrow Taliban Regime and eliminate few hundred Al-Qaida operatives? And if that was the objective, the removal of Taliban in 2002 and the symbolic elimination of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011was not enough to announce victory and pack up from Afghanistan? It must also imply that US has no interest with the untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan that have an estimated combine worth in excess of a trillion dollars. Among the most strategic of these minerals are Rare Earth Metals, which are indispensable to modern technology. They are needed in manufacturing cell phones, laptops, compact disks, flat screen display monitors, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converter, hybrid cars, and solar panels, to name a few items.
Contrary to what is being projected recently regarding declining US interests in Afghanistan, the Afghan potential to emerge as a major hub of connectivity and energy trade in the Eurasia has revived the past concept of ‘19th century Great Game’, a contest between the British and Russian empires for influence in the region. For the analysts, the ‘New Great Game’ involves ‘competition between the US, and its allies against Russia, and China for ‘influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus.’ Thus the US involvement in Afghanistan is viewed as the war of a great power in pursuit of geopolitical objectives rather than simply the defeat of a local insurgency.
Eurasia has never lost its significance to the American policy makers even after the cold war era. Consequently, in 1992, the Pentagon stated clearly and concisely that new US foreign policy goal in Eurasia would be to prevent the re-emergence of a rival that poses a threat on the territory of the former Soviet Union. It was endeavored to prevent any hostile power from dominating Eurasia, whose resources under consolidated control, in American reckoning, would be sufficient to generate global power. Thus a strategy on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor was envisaged. Furthermore, one of the most influential American philosophers, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski in ‘The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives,’ highlights the significance of Eurasia by declaring that ‘for America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia…how America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions’. It is thus evident that America’s primary interest in the region is to ensure that no other power controls this geopolitical space.
The perspective that US only needs to focus on East Asia to accomplish the ‘Asia-Pacific Pivot’ strategy while abandoning Central Asia as well as Afghanistan, is difficult to subscribe. One, it is against the conventional wisdom that without controlling ‘Eurasia and Heartland’, as always identified by strategists; Asia-Pacific can be influenced. Secondly, some US analysts are already perplexed on the prospects of unconditional, sustainable and absolute cooperation from India in the ‘rebalancing Asia’ strategy. Thirdly, besides influencing Pacific, the US quest to have sway over Indian Ocean can be facilitated immensely with continued presence in Afghanistan. At this stage, there are already some leaks in the media regarding draft BSA agreement, which suggest US military presence in Afghanistan at least up to 2024. The contentions on declining American interests in the region thus appear superfluous as these may essentially be aimed at conveying some well intended message to relevant quarters.