Afghanistan Geostrategic Importance

When Allah had made the rest of the world, he saw there was a lot of rubbish left over, bits and pieces and things that did not fit anywhere else. He collected them all together and threw them down on the earth. That was Afghanistan. [1]

– An old Afghan Saying.

Introduction

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a landlocked country in South-Central Asia. It is variously described as being located within Central Asia, [2] South Asia, [3] or the Middle East. [4] It is bordered by Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south and east, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, and China in the far northeast. The geographic entity now known as Afghanistan has a very long history, and has been an ancient focal point of the Silk Road and migration. It is an important geostrategic location, connecting East and West Asia or the Middle East. The land has been a target of various invaders, as well as a source from which local powers invaded neighbouring regions to form their own empires. Ahmad Shah Durrani created the Durrani Empire in 1747, which is considered the beginning of modern Afghanistan. [5]

In the late 19th century, Afghanistan became a buffer state in The Great Game played between the British Empire and Russian Empire. Due to its strategic placement Afghanistan became the focal point of intense rivalry between Tsarist Russia and Britain during the nineteenth century. On August 19,1919, following the third Anglo-Afghan war, the country regained independence from the United Kingdom over its foreign affairs. During the ensuing conflict, the war-weary British relinquished their control over Afghan foreign affairs by signing the Treaty of Rawalpindi in August 1919 [6] . In commemoration of this event, Afghans celebrate August 19 as their Independence Day. Afghanistan remained at the centre stage of international politics as a theatre in the cold war games of super powers with Pakistan acting as the frontline state of USA for channelling its financial, material and military supplies to the Afghan Mujahedeen. Since the late 1970s Afghanistan has experienced a continuous state of civil war punctuated by foreign occupations in the forms of the 1979 Soviet invasion and the 2001 USA led invasion that toppled the Taliban government. Afghanistan has assumed importance due to its potential to influence the societies and politics in its bordering countries. (Refer fig 1)

Historical Perspective

The geography of a nation determines its history, politics and the nature of its people. Afghanistan has been called by many names from being “the heart of Asia” by the great Indian poet Mohamed Iqbal, to “the cockpit of Asia” by Lord Curzon. [7] The geo strategic location of Afghanistan has been significant since the earliest Aryan invasion it being located on the crossroads between the Arabian Sea and India and between the central Asia and South Asia, the country has indeed stood guard over the land routes to the Indian subcontinent. Even the ruler of Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had recognised that the key to the security of the plains of India lay in Kabul. [8]

Afghanistan has always remained an area of imperial aspirations, differing perceptions and competitions both in medieval and modern times. [9] Even before Afghanistan emerged as a geo political entity, the region had seen competition for influence by the Mongols, Persians, the Mughals as well as local tribal chiefs. Though Afghanistan as a state existed since 1747, its current political borders evolved only toward the end of the last century (1880-1901) as an outcome of rivalry between British India and Tsarist Russia. Creation of a buffer state between the two giant powers in Asia was a political and military compulsion. Politically speaking, it was the issue of security between British India and Russia that determined Afghanistan as a state more than the factor of its sovereignty since Afghanistan’s spatial location denied it the resources for it to be a viable state. [10] Successive Afghan rulers have maintained stability by sourcing revenue (i.e. plundering) from its neighbours [11] .

Afghanistan played a pivotal role in the security perspective during the era of the great game in the Nineteenth century when Russian and British imperial powers seemed to be on a collision course in Central Asia. [12] The history of Nineteenth century is consequently a history of moves and counter moves on the part of the Russians and the British Empire, which ultimately resulted in the emergence of the land locked Afghanistan as a buffer state in the demarcation of frontiers. Thus, it was primarily this “Great Game” being played out in Afghanistan, which resulted in evolving its current political borders, rather than its need for sovereignty. Since its stability was a key factor in maintaining the fragile security balance in the region, the external powers continued to supply rulers of Afghanistan with assured resources to sustain control and internal stability. Thus, Afghanistan became the only country to hold off both Russian and British expansion in the last century without aligning itself with either. The demarcation of Afghanistan’s border with Russia commenced in 1887, however Russians never lost sight of the fact that they needed to have their influence in the region, and this led to the signing of the ‘Treaty of Friendship’ between the two in 1921 [13] . The British too, carried out the demarcation of the border with Afghanistan by creating the Durand line, named after Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893, without giving any thought to the tribal affinities and traditional affiliations. [14]

Geographical Location

Afghanistan is the world’s 41st-largest country (after Burma) and has an area of 245,000 square miles. It is landlocked and mountainous, with plains in the north and southwest. Afghanistan with a noticeable sizeable chunk of geometrically regular territorial configuration lies at the intersection of the Indian Sub-Continent (Pakistan), the Middle East (Iran), Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and China (The Wakhan Corridor).A In terms of International borders, the details are Pakistan (2430 km); Iran (936 km); Tajikistan (1206 km); Uzbekistan (137 km); Turkmenistan (744 km), and China (75 km).A The northern and southern portion of Afghanistan is divided by the massive Hindu Kush mountain ranges [15] . The Pamir Mountains to the northeast also named “the roof of the world” by Marco Polo are the junction between Tajikistan, Afghanistan and China. In the east, the passes in Suleiman mountain range like the famous Khyber Pass have provided access to the Indian subcontinent.

Geo Strategic Relevance since World War II

The post World War II saw the collapse of the British colonial rule in the Subcontinent and Soviet Union emerging as a Super Power with USA led western bloc and Soviet Union led eastern communist block [16] . With the British departure from India Afghanistan lost its importance, possibly since the western bloc found an ally in Pakistan to counter the Soviet expansion. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 brought the country to the limelight once again and the strategic balance of the subcontinent was altered dramatically with intervention of extra regional powers. The geo strategic relevance of Afghanistan in the above backdrop cannot be overlooked and it gained further importance with the breakup of Soviet Union. Infact the country has emerged as a new centre for terrorism.

Post Cold War Era and the New Great Game

The withdrawal of Soviet Union from Afghanistan once again altered the geopolitical and geo strategic importance of Afghanistan. The resultant power vacuum, infighting among the Mujahedeen commanders, weak government of Najibulla at Kabul, and the lack of United States support to Pakistan, were to a large extent responsible for the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Coupled with an indifferent world community, it formed a sure shot recipe for disaster.

Surrounded by two nuclear states (China and Pakistan), a threshold nuclear state (Iran) and having two other nuclear powers in its near vicinity (India, and Russia) places Afghanistan in a difficult situation with its neighbours as well other powers vying to get a foothold in the region to spread their influence in the region and the subcontinent.

The emergence of new States in Central Asia in 1991 brought to limelight the vast Hydrocarbon resources available in the region and once again Afghanistan acquired the critical importance of the land route from Central Asia to Arabian Sea. It could be asserted that despite its landlocked location, Afghanistan is important in geo-economic terms too both in terms of substantial deposits of oil and natural gas (assessed but not tapped) and as a energy corridor for Central Asia energy produce.A The newly independent states of the Central Asian region have been desperately looking for means of communication to export their oil and gas riches, so as to end their isolation and economic dependence on Russia. Turkmenistan’s hope of reviving plans to lay the pipeline across war torn Afghanistan to Pakistan and then to India revealed the desperation facing these states.

Taliban and the Impact on the Geo Strategic Environment

When Russia eventually withdrew from Afghanistan, the US-supported Mujahideen took control. Instead continuing the support for the buffer state, America’s subsequent withdrawal from the region caused a power vacuum, allowing sectarian interests (the Taliban) to seize control. As Afghanistan had been abandoned by both Russian and the West, the Taliban had no interest in acting as buffer, and pursued their own agenda. Afghanistan, apart from being the land bridge to central Asia has also become a home to the fundamentalist ranging from the Jihadi’s from Kashmir to the Uighur separatists and provided a suitable launch pad for such activities in Central Asia. Afghanistan’s geo-political and historical background further complicated the situation.

The Taliban were initially welcomed by the war torn population since they promised an end to the prevailing anarchy. However, the subsequent quest for power and their change in stance from having no political ambitions, to a flat refusal for power sharing pushed Afghanistan into another period of instability. Afghanistan, till Dec 2001, can therefore be described as having been a legally undivided territory of fragmented power [17] . Soon Taliban as a Host to Al Qaida and its leader, Osama Bin Laden, turned into reality the threat of Islamic Fundamentalism faced by the Central Asian states since 1991. The strengthening of links between militant organisations like Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al Qaida, the Chechen rebels, Uighur separatists and the Taliban, further compounded the security situation in the region. The bombings of the US embassies in 1998 brought USA and the Taliban on a collision course. However, it was the 11 Sep 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre, which roused the world community and forced them to deal with the menace posed by Taliban and its associates.

The Relevance Post 11 Sep 2001

The global war on terrorism (GWOT) launched by USA and it’s allies has added great deal of turbulence in the region. Presence in Afghanistan provides USA an opportunity to influence the region and keep a check on Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, Iranian and the Indian influence, the nuclear states in the region, a job it has already commenced, as is evident from the pressure on Pakistan and the Iranians. [18] The United States however is in a strategic dilemma as it made its Afghanistan strategy totally dependent on Pakistan Army’s cooperation.A A strategic denouement is underway presently.A The United States geopolitically stirs a witches cauldron in Afghanistan by giving primacy to Pakistan Army’s strategic sensitivities to control Afghanistan [19] .A Any US exit from Afghanistan could create a political vacuum which would most likely get filled in by Russia, Iran and India. [20]