The Absurdity of the New 'Great Game' in Central Asia

Afghan security forces keep watch as smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan

Geopolitics are not a good rationale for continuing the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

When the American people went to the polls in November 2016, they could be forgiven for thinking they had elected a president who might just bring the troops home from Afghanistan. After nearly seventeen years of grinding war in that poor, desolate and ultimately insignificant country, it seemed that Americans had finally had enough. However, in a classic symptom of what ails the Republic, the common sense instinct to pull the plug on a failed policy was overturned by military and foreign policy elites with a strong vested interest in current practices. As a recent Yale analysis candidly explains: “In the United States, a huge community of defense and civilian personnel earn a living counting on the endless nature of this war without saying so.”

One doesn’t have to be well versed in history to know that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires. That an entire British army was eliminated there in January 1842 yielding just a single survivor attests to the immense difficulty of the terrain, as well as the warlike inclinations of the local inhabitants. The Soviets met a similarly determined opponent, and it is a long celebrated plank of the American cold warrior ethos that the “genius” of aid to Afghan insurgents [Моджахеды Афганской войны] put the final nail into the coffin of the sclerotic Soviet leadership. Never mind that this aid seems to have had rather substantial blowback against U.S. national security interests.

Of course, there is the dreadful prospect of yet more Afghan and American casualties. Thankfully, U.S. fatalities have decreased due to the miracle of modern battlefield medicine, but what about the thousands who have suffered grievous wounds? Does anyone seriously believe that the armed forces’ incredibly high suicide rate is unrelated to the nature of counterinsurgency wars with excessive deployment schedules, no visible enemy, nor any endpoint? There is also the problem of wasted resources that now may well exceed $1 trillion. That money could have bought a lot of infrastructure at home—too bad. However, one of the very weakest arguments for “soldiering on” in Afghanistan concerns geopolitics: the soft underbelly of Central Asia, so the argument goes, must be guarded from encroaching Chinese and Russian influence. As on many issues related to this sad conflict, Americans are being swindled.

Occasionally, it has been pointed out that American lives and treasure in Afghanistan are going to protect Chinese investments. More recently, Afghanistan seemed to become yet another front in the “New Cold War” between Washington and Moscow as the Kremlin was accused of supplying weapons to the Taliban. But like many accusations hurled in the ever-more politicized atmosphere of U.S.-Russian relations, this charge seems to lack for any publicly verifiable evidence. Given the parlous state of U.S.-Russian relations, surreptitious initiatives in that direction by the Kremlin cannot quite be ruled out either, despite vehement denials from Moscow. Elsewhere, I have examined China’s unfolding strategy for Afghanistan, but a spate of recent articles in the Russian press, including the January 19, 2018 headline “Afghanistan Initiative Will Allow the Kremlin to Press on Washington” [Афганская инициатива позволит Кремлю надавить на Вашингтон] from Nezavisimaya Gazeta begs the question of Russia’s role in the reemerging “Great Game.”