When Alexander the Great led soldiers of the world’s sole superpower into Afghanistan he did not fulfill the requirements of today’s counterinsurgency doctrine. He “cleared”, and he “built” – the cities today called Herat, Kandahar, and Bagram – but he didn’t “hold”. He moved on in such haste that he had no time to solidify the governments of the lands he had taken.
We are like Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer in Rembrandt’s great painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We look with a faraway gaze at the strategic void beyond. The lesson’s of Homer’s war epic, The Iliad, are carried into Aristotle’s mind and then down the philosopher’s golden chain to a medallion bearing the image of his former pupil Alexander. Aristotle’s eyes as yet reveal no conclusion, while Homer’s eyes are sightless, and Alexander’s are not visible at all beneath his helmet’s visor. “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.
Significantly, Rembrandt has portrayed Aristotle dressed in the 1648-era clothing of a Stadholder of the Dutch Republic, a victor in the Thirty Years’ War which spelled the beginning of the old age of empires and the start of the modern international state system. The future of this world order now led by the United States may be determined by what happens next in Afghanistan, a war fought to enable Afghanistan to consolidate itself as a legitimate member of the international state system.
Commentators have pointed to three major interests requiring sustained American commitment: to prevent the return of Taliban rule, to stop the reestablishment of terrorist sanctuaries, and to limit the destabilization of Pakistan. These are all valid aims, but far more is at stake.
In the 1990s, all aspects of Afghanistan’s sovereign statehood and recognized governance disappeared, making that country the world’s most dangerous “ungoverned space”. Into this vacuum came a radically new religio-ideological force, the Taliban, soon followed by their protected guests Al-Qaeda. Afghanistan, in the historian Arnold Toynbee’s analysis, had for millennia been one of the world’s geostrategic pivots, a place where cultures clash and swirl and spit out influences – mostly deleterious or pathological – in all directions. This describes the Taliban’s Afghanistan in the post-cold-war period. Over the past few years, the U.S. and allied NATO forces have made impressive progress despite media portrayals of wrongdoing, ineptitude, and corruption in the Afghan government. Contrary to 2008 presidential campaign declarations that Afghanistan was a war vitally important to win, the Obama administration has undermined American military and civil progress there by clearly indicating an intention to end our involvement as rapidly as decently possible. In a real sense, our main adversary has been the administration’s body language and wavering rhetoric, causing our Afghan enemies to take heart, confident that time is on their side, and our Afghan friends to start hedging their bets and making unsavory deals in order to protect themselves when the Americans have departed.
If Afghanistan again falls out of the established world order, the geostrategic pivot, already wobbling, will spin out of control, with consequences in all directions.
Afghanistan is seen by Pakistan as the “strategic depth” it requires to counter-balance India. With a vacuum of power in Afghanistan, India will get deeply engaged there; it already has begun to do so.
Pakistan has been playing a game of Russian roulette with itself, supporting radical Islamists in Afghanistan as a means of influence there but, as a consequence, inflaming and strengthening Islamists in Pakistan in ways which easily could careen out of Pakistan’s control.
Should Pakistan’s government appear unable to maintain secure control of its nuclear weapons, or should they seem within reach of radical Islamists, India will have to take action.
China, already seeing Pakistan as its corridor to the Arabian Sea, will fear a widening use of the territory as a base for Islamist connections to Muslim separatists with ambitions toward the PRC province of Xinjiang. In the West, Iran will deepen its designs on Afghanistan’s Herat region. In short, omnidirectional violence involving half-a-dozen or more states could erupt, with the likelihood that the most radical and ruthless wielders of power would prevail.
Such a scenario could tempt the outside world to stay aloof, to let this geostrategic pivot tear itself apart. But the stakes are too high for such a luxury, and range far beyond Afghanistan. If the U.S. departs in a way that can be portrayed as “Soviet style”; that is, simply abandoning the cause of world order there, it will energize and propel Islamist and dictatorial parties – now already moving to take over the Arab Spring – closer to their goal of dominance of the entire Middle East.
Charles Hill is the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale University and co chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution