Washington being permitted to maintain long-term military bases in Afghanistan is reportedly being discussed in the peace negotiations between American officials and the Taliban leadership, which underscores the strategic significance of the country.
The Express Tribune recently reported that the US would provide substantial financial assistance for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan after a peace deal is reached if it is permitted to maintain such a military presence.
It tends to engender a perception that the US may not be inclined to relinquish its influence in the Afghan landscape without providing for arrangements allowing it to preserve and promote its long-term geopolitical and security interests in and around Afghanistan.
Showing a similar trend, the preceding administration led by Barack Obama, while on the one hand stressing the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan, concluded the Afghan-US security pact (within the rubric of Obama’s “Asian pivot” strategy) on the other, which enabled the US and its NATO partners to establish a permanent military presence in Afghanistan.
The pact was intended to allow the US to maintain nine permanent military bases along the Afghan side of its borders with China, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
From a geopolitical perspective, Afghanistan provides the US with a venue for quick access to gather intelligence as well as develop military strategies against geographically adjacent state actors such as Iran, China and Russia, and limit the ambitions of non-state actors such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and ISIS.
As per the Express Tribune’s recent report, the US wants guarantees from the Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used to stage attacks against other nations, which seems to have been borne out by the fact that Washington would not like to see the threat of militancy ballooning, much like what followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
However, more importantly, the report quotes officials affirming that the bases the US now desires would have no role in Afghan security but are meant to maintain a presence for overall regional stability, given Afghanistan’s vital location from the perspective of accessibility.
Apart from this, Afghanistan provides access to the large continental expanse of the Central Asian region. It must be noted that production and supply of natural resources carry a geopolitical significance apart from the economic value and utility of the resources.
In this context, Afghanistan’s importance as an alternative route to transfer Central Asian resources needs to be underscored. First, multiplying the number of pipelines would end the hegemony of a few particular powers.
Second, controlling the production and supply of natural resources would require the projection of military power, which would go a long way in securing the supply of these resources to regional allies and denying the same to countries adopting adversarial foreign policies. Therefore, natural resources can be used as an instrument to control and shape foreign policies of state actors.
To ensure their security, supply routes would require a military presence and thereby would contribute to the development of the military strategies of the controlling power
Third, to ensure their security, supply routes would require a military presence and thereby would contribute to the development of the military strategies of the controlling power.
Finally, the ports and routes for the transfer and trade of natural resources can have a dual use: commercial and military. Therefore, despite the non-viability of the alternative pipeline projects from both financial and security perspectives, they were considered to be of the utmost significance to the US.
In his article The Politics of the Pipeline: The Iran and Afghanistan Conflict in Third World Quarterly in 1999, Adam Tarock explained that the US government invited the presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for talks and pitched its plan for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which would bypass Iran and Russia. It pursued the plan despite the fact that it was expected to cost nearly US$4 billion and would therefore only be possible if the US and Turkish governments paid for part of it.
Similarly, another pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) project (an alternative to Russian and Iranian routes), was pursued by Washington notwithstanding the risks of insecurity to the routes posed by militancy in unstable Afghanistan and Pakistan, which prompted UNOCAL vice-president Marty Miller to describe it as a “dry hole” (that refers to a failed oil exploration well).
Last February, the Trump administration began the process of laying down the US-funded Trans-Afghan pipeline project (part of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, or TAPI. pipeline project) with a fresh name – “peace pipeline.” This underlines the continued geopolitical significance of Afghanistan for great powers such as the US.
Afghanistan as a gateway to the resource-rich Caspian Sea region was underlined in the 1990s when the US Congress started passing bills aimed at diversifying energy supplies from Central Asia and pushed the US administration to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate regime in order to facilitate Washington’s access to the region and act as a bulwark against instability engendered by Afghan warlords.
Andrew Kuchins, Thomas Sanderson and David Gordon maintained in the article Afghanistan: Building the Missing Link in the Modern Silk Road in the Washington Quarterly that many US officials perceived the potential for the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) being transformed into long-term routes for trade and commerce (Modern Silk Road). The NDN comprised several transit corridors established by the US to deliver goods to its forces in Afghanistan in the first half of 2009. This underlined Afghanistan’s long-term relevance in Washington’s strategic moves because the supply routes once in place could be used for dual purposes – both civilian and military.
Washington’s geopolitical aim has been to shape the contours of the Afghan war and peace efforts and exclude the influence of geopolitical rivals like Iran and Russia. The administration of President Donald Trump is no exception and, in fact, it has actually accentuated the US containment policy by reversing the nuclear deal with Iran and slapping multiple sanctions on both Iran and Russia on various ambiguous grounds.
The US, under Trump’s leadership, has been more vocal in criticizing the Iranian and Russian roles in sabotaging peace and stability in Afghanistan by bolstering the Taliban through arms and aid. The current impasse in the peace talks needs to be viewed from a geopolitical perspective that treats Afghanistan as a prized location rather than a long-term burden (although it has cost the US much in terms of both men and material) where the US would push for a long-term military presence.