Sturdy Dominos

Sturdy Dominos

Withdrawing from Afghanistan won’t cause all of central Asia to turn Islamist.

Many advocates of continuing or racheting up our presence in Afghanistan are cut from the same domino-theory cloth as those of the Vietnam era. They posit that losing in Afghanistan would almost certainly lead to the further "loss" of the entire South and central Asian region. Although avoiding explicit reference to "falling dominos," recent examples include  S. Frederick Starr  (School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University);  Sir David Richards (the  UK's relatively new Chief of the General Staff) ; and, in The National Interest Ahmed Rashid .

The fear that Pakistan and central Asian governments are too weak to withstand the Taliban leads logically to the proposition-just as it did forty years ago-that only the United States can defend the region from its own extremist groups and, therefore, that any loss of faith in America will result in a net gain for pan-Islamist movements in a zero-sum global competition for power. Unfortunately, the resurrection of "falling dominos" as a metaphor for predicted consequences of an American military withdrawal reflects a profound inability to re-envision the nature of today's global political environment and America's place in it.

The current worry is that Pakistan will revive  support for the Taliban  and return to its historically rooted policy of noninterference in local governance or security arrangements along the frontier. This fear is compounded by a vision of radical Islamists gaining access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Those concerns are fueled by the judgment that Pakistan's new democratically elected civilian government is too weak to withstand pressures by its most senior military officers to keep its pro-Afghan Taliban option open. From that perspective, any sign of American "dithering" would reinforce that historically-rooted preference, even as the imperative would remain to separate the Pakistani-Taliban from the Afghan insurgents. Further, any significant increase in terrorist violence, especially within major Pakistani urban centers, would likely lead to the imposition of martial law and return to an authoritarian military regime, weakening American influence even further. At its most extreme, that scenario ends with the most frightening outcome of all-the overthrow of relatively secular senior Pakistani generals by a pro-Islamist and anti-Western group of second-tier officers with access to that country's nuclear weapons.

Beyond Pakistan, advocates of today's domino theory point to the Taliban's links to both the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union, and conclude that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would encourage similar radical Islamist movements in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In the face of a scenario of increasing radicalization along Russia's relatively new, southern borders, domino theorists argue that a NATO retreat from Afghanistan would spur the projection of its own military and political power into the resulting "vacuum" there.

The primary problem with the worst-case scenarios predicted by the domino theorists is that no analyst is really prescient enough to accurately predict how decisions made by the United States today will affect future outcomes in the South and central Asian region. Their forecasts might occur whether or not the United States withdraws or, alternatively, increases its forces in Afghanistan. Worse, it is entirely possible that the most dreaded consequences will occur only as the result of a decision to stay.


With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the earlier domino theory falsely represented interstate and domestic political realities throughout most of Southeast Asia in 1975. Although it is true that American influence throughout much of Southeast Asia suffered for a few years following Communist victories in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, we now know that while we viewed the Vietnam War as part of a larger conflict, our opponent's focus was limited to the unification of their own country. Although border disputes erupted between Vietnam and Cambodia, China and the Philippines, actual military conflicts occurred only between the supposedly fraternal Communist governments of Vietnam, China and Cambodia. Neither of the two competing Communist regimes in Cambodia survived. Further, no serious threats to install Communist regimes were initiated outside of Indochina, and, most importantly, the current political situation in Southeast Asia now conforms closely to what  Washington had hoped to achieve in the first place . It is, of course, unfortunate that the transition from military conflict in Vietnam to the welcome situation in Southeast Asia today was initially violent, messy, bloody, and fraught with revenge and violations of human rights. But as the perpetrators, magnitude, and victims of violence changed, the level of violence eventually declined.

This time around, there are at least two questionable assumptions underlying the resurrection of the domino theory. First, the Taliban is no longer the unified group that emerged during 1994. Instead, the term "Taliban" is applied to several groups engaged in the current insurgency against the Karzai government and NATO forces. Those groups collaborate through a complex set of shifting alliances that extend across the disputed Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Second, given that local Taliban have demonstrated their capacity to effectively engage NATO forces without the equivalent of NATO military and civilian trainers or logistical support, other indigenous groups opposed to the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda are also likely to be stronger than domino theorists assume and are likely to proactively defend themselves against radical Islamists once we are no longer there to do it for them.