The Great Game Is Back, and Afghanistan Is at the Center of It

The Great Game Is Back, and Afghanistan Is at the Center of It

The United States should not disengage and simply leave the Afghan game to others. It needs to stay in this new Great Game, wherever it might lead.


ON THE eve of Operation Enduring Freedom, the American invasion of Afghanistan, almost exactly twenty years ago, I published an essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “Graveyard of Empires,” launching a sobriquet for Afghanistan that has endured relentless repetition to this day. In it, I suggested that the United States should avoid employing some tactics in Afghanistan that might result in a broad civil war that would ultimately drive the United States to simply give up and leave. That is how it played out twenty years later, at the end of August 2021.

There has been ample commentary on the optics of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, most of it critically focused on the tragic events at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul—thirteen dead U.S. service members, over 170 Afghans killed, and desperate Afghans falling to their deaths from the wheel wells of departing U.S. transports. The chaotic U.S departure was a stark reminder that withdrawing foreign armies from Afghanistan has on occasion been an untidy affair.


In January 1842, British major general Sir William Elphinstone’s army, along with dependents and camp followers totaling over 16,000, departed Kabul for the British garrison at Jalalabad some ninety miles to the east. Despite having received guarantees of safe passage by their Afghan adversaries, after seven brutal days on the march, Elphinstone’s army had been completely wiped out by Afghan ambushes, snipers, and the brutal winter cold. The sole surviving British officer, Surgeon William Brydon, upon arriving wounded and dazed at the Jalalabad Garrison was asked about the location of Elphinstone’s army.

“I am the army,” he responded.

THE WITHDRAWAL of the Soviet Union’s 40th Army from Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, was a tidy affair. Having signed an agreement the previous April in Geneva, the Soviets stuck to their withdrawal schedule for their 115,000 troops down to the last moment of the last day. It was a made-for-television production, with the commander of the 40th Army, Colonel General Boris Gromov, making his exit as the last Soviet officer to cross “Friendship Bridge” over the Oxus River into the Soviet Union. Three-quarters of the way across the bridge, the Soviet general leapt down from his tank, strode a few yards to meet his fourteen-year-old son, Maksim, who awkwardly presented his father with a bouquet of red carnations. The two Gromovs then marched the last fifty yards out of Afghanistan together, cameras rolling in a specially constructed pavilion on the Soviet side of the Oxus. Though the Soviets lost their Afghan war, Gromov would thereafter be referred to, oddly, as “the hero of Afghanistan.” It might also be noted that as the Soviets exited Afghanistan, they were not being pressed by a few hundred thousand panicky Afghans trying to catch a ride with them. The Mujaheddin, who had battled them for a brutal decade, and the Afghan people, for the most part, were happy to wave them goodbye.

The other great armies that have conquered and then withdrawn from Afghanistan over the millennia—Alexander the Great and the Mogul emperors Genghis Khan, Babur, and Tamerlane—all eventually gave up on Afghanistan, and left behind them little else but Greek coins and the DNA that still marks the faces of Afghans across the broad reaches of the Hindu Kush.

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan was anything but tidy, though it may not be properly assessed until after the partisan political debates on the end of the American adventure in Afghanistan have mercifully faded. The Biden administration inherited an agreement reached with the Taliban by its predecessor calling for a May 1, 2021, total withdrawal of all U.S. forces. The new administration extended that date to September 11, an adjustment the Taliban apparently accepted without deal-breaking complaint. The newly inaugurated Biden administration also inherited a small U.S. force in Afghanistan of about 2,500 troops, though that number surged to over 5,000 during the withdrawal. The last U.S. troops departed Kabul at 11:59 pm Kabul time on August 30, 2021.

During the two-week evacuation operation at HKIA, almost 125,000 persons were evacuated by air, including most of the Americans known to be in Afghanistan at the time. The Americans left behind continue to trickle out at the time of this writing, with fewer than 200 who may still wish to leave. The ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) terrorist attack at HKIA that killed thirteen American service members and over 170 Afghans, marred what was otherwise a remarkable military airlift operation; but even a clockwork air evacuation could not soften the hard fact that America was walking away from its longest war and that it had lost, at least as viewed by the Taliban and their neighbors in the region.

Much of the criticism of Biden’s evacuation operation at HKIA centers on claims that Bagram Air Base, about thirty miles north of Kabul, should not have been abandoned as early as it was and should have been used for the evacuation instead of HKIA. Such criticism ignores the fact that using Bagram for the evacuation would likely have required at least a full division of troops, or more, to secure both the airbase itself as well as the thirty-mile corridor from Kabul to Bagram. Moving 125,000 souls, Americans and Afghans, through that corridor, possibly under pressure from ISIS-K or Al Qaeda, would have required a major surge of U.S. forces back into Afghanistan. That was never a viable option for the Biden administration.

Biden’s critics also assailed the president for removing all the remaining troops, claiming that he could have left the residual force of 2,500 troops permanently in Afghanistan. After all, they asserted, the American force of 2,500 had not taken any casualties in over a year. That claim ignores the salient fact that the Taliban had inflicted no casualties on American troops because they were sticking to their part of the February 2020 agreement. Had we decided to break the agreement with the Taliban and keep that residual force in place permanently, casualties would most certainly have again begun to mount. The president would then have faced the choice of an even more chaotic withdrawal under Taliban pressure, or a surge of around 30,000 American troops back into Afghanistan. The imagery of either choice would have been a disaster.

As it was, the night vision shot of the last American officer to depart Afghanistan, Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, was a haunting, and perhaps enduring, symbol of the American adventure in Afghanistan itself.

Sadly, there will be no American “hero of Afghanistan.”

NOW, AFTER a twenty-year occupation, the United States and its NATO allies are gone, and Afghanistan is widely expected to revert to the bad old days. But what might that mean? Media coverage of the Taliban takeover of the entire country suggests an organized monolith is now in charge in the Islamic Emirate. Assessments of the makeup of the new interim government uniformly conclude that there is no Taliban 2.0; and that this new government is pretty much like the last one dispatched by Operation Enduring Freedom two decades ago. The appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as interim minister of interior has been seized upon as a signal of the harsh direction this new Taliban government will take. But is that the whole story?

Maybe not. As this new interim government so rapidly cobbled together evolves, it will face enormous challenges. With the bulk of Afghan financial reserves frozen—$10 billion held by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank—and access to lending institutions effectively blocked, with the exception of about $1 billion pledged in UN emergency assistance, the government of the Islamic Emirate is for practical purposes bankrupt. Even their local currency, the Afghani, is printed in England, and currently is not being imported into Afghanistan. Food and the other imports needed to support even the most meager civil society are in dwindling supply. So as the Taliban pulls together its interim government, it will have to take into consideration how its new government will be perceived by all potential donor nations, not just its former adversaries, the United States and its NATO allies.

At the same time, the Taliban leaders will have to keep an unsophisticated base of fighters from rising against them. The fact that the Taliban moved so uncharacteristically swiftly in forming this interim government suggests that they are trying to play for their two key audiences—their base now and the international community later. For now, the Taliban leaders seem to be playing it safe, watching their backs as they install an interim government and setting the stage for the changes they have likely already contemplated.

Their primary challenge will be to avoid angering the rank-and-file fighters who took them into Kabul. Thus, the current lineup is their victory team, whose appointments were designed to quell potential power struggles among the permanent players. Of particular interest will be the dynamics between what may be emerging as the Yaqoob and Haqqani wings of the movement and the government. Mohammad Yaqoob, the eldest son of the late Mullah Omar, has taken the defense portfolio—most likely, and inevitably, because of his blitzkrieg sweep across the entire country. The interior portfolio, taken by Sirajuddin Haqqani, may reflect the minimum he would accept among the national security ministries.