Afghanistan on Grand Chessboard

Since late 1990s, when legendary Zbigniew Brzezinski published his world-famous book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997)”, one of the key geostrategic focuses has been on Central Asia and especially on Afghanistan. America’s “war on terrorism” can be seen through the lenses of this geostrategic discourse.

Afghanistan has a long history of wars and armed conflicts and one common, striking feature has been that any major foreign conqueror, who has come in has got stuck in it without that victory they were seeking. Great Britain, Soviet Union and now the US have tried, each in turn, but with the same result. Afghanistan’s location has been seen for over a hundred years as a strategic locus, a “Grand Chessboard à la Brzezinski”. No wonder why so many players, internal and external, have been running around.

From American point of view, it is worth to recall Brzezinski’s severe warnings of potential threat of China-Russia alliance and “if the US loses Eurasia, it will lose the world hegemon forever”.  His assessment is such that a crucial war will be fought in Central Asia and it is vital important that the US must win this war.

Geopolitical background of US presence in Afghanistan

The “hidden agenda” of the war on terror in Afghanistan has been an open secret, the containment of China and Russia as well as a direct gateway to interfere in both countries’ internal affairs. The geographical location of Afghanistan is suitable for this kind of operations.  The establishment of the SCO and RIC-format can be seen as a counter-operations in the context of the US presence in Afghanistan. However, in public discussions, Russia and China have been reticent about that topic so far. Now, the situation is changing significantly. 

The recent surge in tensions between the US and China on the one hand and the US and Russia on the other, has intensified the Biden administration’s Afghan quandary. China and Russia clearly have their post-US withdrawal designs ready for Afghanistan. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently spoke of plans to integrate the China-led Belt and Road Initiative with the Russia-led EAEU. That would potentially benefit Afghanistan’s economy a lot. A China- and Russia-aligned Afghanistan would provide a useful direct territorial link connecting south, west and central Asia.

US strategic reviewing … to leave or not to leave.

Trump administration made an agreement with the Taliban in 2020 that the US troops leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.

The report to the US Congress by the Afghanistan Study Group, in February 2021, makes a strong case for extending the US military presence in Afghanistan beyond May 2021. The report’s key message: “… further US troop withdrawals should be conditioned on the Taliban’s demonstrated willingness and capacity to contain violence and on real progress toward a compromise political settlement.”

Conditions based action was factually confirmed by a video conference held between NATO defense ministerson February 18, during which no decision was made about withdrawing the alliance’s troops from Afghanistan by May 1. The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin unequivocally announced the position on the “Afghan issue” assuring NATO allies that the US would not be hasty or disorganized about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated, in mid-February 2021, that the promise of NATO coalition to leave Afghanistan by May 1. is conditions-based, criticizing that the Taliban has to meet their commitments.

The dire Afghan situation came into focus in mid-March, when the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its 2021 High-Risk List, which identifies threats to the US position in Afghanistan. Once again, this Afghan case turns around as a geopolitical/great power political issue. SIGAR Report makes it clear that the key background player here is Pakistan, which has extensive and close relations with the Taliban.

According to the official of Biden administration, on Tuesday April 13, the withdrawal will not be conditions based. “We will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1, and plan to have all US troops out of the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” the official said. “The President has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.  And so, he has reached the conclusion that the United States will remove its forces from Afghanistan before September 11, by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The much-awaited UN-led conference on Afghanistan was planned to begin on April 24 in Istanbul, where Turkey, Qatar and the United Nations are co-convening a high level and inclusive conference from 24 April – 4 May 2021. Now, the purpose, meaning and importance of this conference has changed overnight and the meeting has just been postponed to some later date. The consequences and ramifications of this Biden’s non-conditions-based withdrawal will radiate wide and far in the future of great power relations.

Significant events and processes on other theaters worldwide

The triangle game of great powers is going interminably clock around worldwide. At the same time, “accidentally”, in Europe major escalation is taking place around Ukraine and “on near waters” of China escalation around Taiwan (increasing number of both Chinese and American provocations) is getting new “all-time highs” as well as the situation in South China Sea. 

The outsider can only guess, how much in these occurrences are “ad hoc” based and how much “planned”, even “co-planned”.

Then, surprisingly, the abrupt decision of unconditional surrender of the US & NATO forces and to leave Afghanistan for the Taliban!  And again, more abrupt decisions (today), this time withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders.

Strategic implications

What were the True and Real Reasons behind this Biden’s unexpected, non-conditions-based withdrawal decision, clearly against all the advisors’ statements (see above)? When getting down to the issue and trying to figure out some clues, maybe certain preliminary notes is possible to find.

Internal factors

Excessive costs of Afghan war, totaling over 2 trillion dollars so far, is huge. The tightening great power competition requires more money and focus on weapons development than endless and strategically futile war fighting. Besides, the war burden to American society and tiredness of fighting “eternal war” have been real internal factors in the US. Therefore, Biden’s opportunity to end “eternal war” on the 20th anniversary of “war on terror”, enables in principle more freedom to Biden’s strategic movements.

However, the US has “grave doubts” about the Taliban’s reliability amid the imminent start of the pullout of US forces from Afghanistan, as CENTCOM Chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie has said two days ago. Obviously, the US will be mulling this issue for a long time, for and against.

McKenzie added also that if the US left Afghanistan and sought to go back in to deal with a specific potential threat, it would need “heavy intelligence support,” and that such operations would become “harder” after withdrawal due to a loss of the “ecosystem that we have there now.” He referred to CIA’s present position inside Afghan operation theater. Pulling out of US & NATO troops means that CIA’s whole network and intelligence capability come along leaving behind a vacuum.

The planned withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan will most likely disrupt a CIA network that was created there during more than twenty years. Intelligence obtained by agents working on the ground is crucial for secret CIA missions, including those related to drone strikes. The troop withdrawal plan stipulates the removal of the hundreds of special operations forces from Afghanistan not publicly acknowledged by the US government but known to be there. The question is also of CIA paramilitary officers, which obviously shall leave along.

Since the US military occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, followed by NATO occupation in 2003, opium production has increased exponentially. Areas under Taliban control had zero production in 2001 (Global Research, UN Reports). Afghanistan is the source of more than 90% of world’s opium supply and more than 95% of the European opium supply since 2001. What is the future of Afghanistan’s multibillion dollar heroin business, remains to be seen?

External, strategic factors

However, the preliminary analysis indicates that most interesting and dramatic factors can be found here in this category.

It seems that China’s and Russia’s strategic cooperation and combined operations, “pressure here or here opens new opportunities there”, are turning out well-functioning. The assumption is that China and Russia will utilize fully in rapid pace these opening opportunities in Central Asia.

In this framework, Biden’s decision of unconditional withdrawal can be seen as a fatal strategic mistake to the US, which China and Russia will obviously utilize effectively for their benefit. The emerging vacuum of power behind American backs, will open extensive chances to Chinese BRI and Russia’s Great Eurasian Partnership both politically, economically and militarily.

China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran cooperative axis will establish new trade and traffic ways and roads, routes and hubs, in the context of BRI, geographically from China via Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to Russia and finally to Europe, covering also other central Asian countries. Economic potential and importance are massive here and will reach very far in the future.

The US will be regionally marginalized in this process and its strategic position will decline significantly in the triangle game of great powers. Ironically, along with the warnings of Brzezinski.