Now that all foreign troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan, ending almost two decades of occupation, there are a series of questions that need to be discussed. For watchers of international politics, the US’s sudden exit from a region that was once called “the heartland” by John Mackinder, a control over which determines who commands the world, a region for which it, directly or indirectly, fought with the USSR, and which shares a geographical boundary with its main rival, China, is nothing less than a puzzle.
The fact that China has emerged as a potential challenger to the US hegemony in the world is now well-known. People involved in international politics have already cited ample evidence for the same. Therefore, in this article, we will not dwell on the obvious and try to unfold the puzzle for our general readers.
The Reasons Make Little Sense
Any textbook on international politics will tell you that a ‘superpower’ is one that has “global territorial influence”, and a hegemon has interests in all corners of the world. The US, ever since the second world war, has tried and maintained this status, as no continent, no region was without an active presence of American troops. The same was true for the Soviets. The reason why Russia could not prevent the rise of a unipolar polity after the fall of the USSR was its inability to match the global presence of the US. According to one estimate, the US alone has over 800 overseas military bases of different sizes all across the world today. In comparison, Russia, France and Britain together maintain just 30 such bases.
The withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan creates a situation, probably for the first time since the second world war, in which the US has no physical military presence in the entire Central Asian region.
How can a superpower leave a region as vast and as important as Central Asia without its active presence? Apart from the fact that there are vast, mostly untapped, mineral and hydrocarbon resources in the region, Afghanistan’s proximity to China and its geostrategic location crucial for South, Central and West Asia make it essential for a superpower to have a direct presence there. And yet, the Joe Biden administration is adamantly unapologetic about its desertion. Citing some $2 trillion expenses and around 2,400 military casualties in a two-decades-long presence in Afghanistan as the reasons for its withdrawal makes little, if any, sense.
The Long Way Out
The rut of Americans losing its allies in the region started long back in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution overthrew its puppet Shah Pahlavi from power and students seized the US embassy for months in Tehran. Pakistan, the staunchest ally of Americans in the region — so much so that there was once a joke that the country is run by three A’s (Allah, Army and America) — has gradually become the closest ally of its rival and challenger, China.
The US, until very recently, had almost free access — covert or overt — to most of Pakistan’s military bases. However, during the recent evacuation from Afghanistan, the temporary halt of the US forces in the country caused a diplomatic storm, forcing the government in Pakistan to make a public statement about the temporariness of the presence. Hence, today, it is almost impossible to think of Pakistan being a host of American troops.
There is no military presence of the US in the ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and it is very unlikely that any of these countries will be willing to host its troops in the near future. The US did have a base in Uzbekistan, which was closed in 2005, and a base in Kyrgyzstan, which closed in 2014. The diplomatic inroads created by the close alliance of the Russians and the Chinese through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and economic investments made by the Chinese through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have consolidated the region behind the Chinese.
To Fight Another Day?
So, what could be the reason that US policymakers decided to abandon the country's only military base in Afghanistan with such haste? Apparently, the American Central Command will have its operations controlled from faraway Qatar. However, keeping aside the technological advancements that have increased the accuracy of remote operations, if American troops could not defeat the Taliban from their bases within Afghanistan, it is foolish to think that they will now be able to do so from faraway Qatar.
The only possible explanation, which is, at best, a partial one, is that given the larger challenges posed by the Chinese and Russians, combined with their local regional allies such as Iran in West Asia, US policymakers find it wise to retreat from Central Asia, for now, to consolidate the remaining fronts elsewhere.
The aggressive forays of the Chinese in Africa, Latin America and in other parts of Asia (including the South China Sea) at a time when the US economy is under so much stress makes it look like a wise decision to withdraw from a “forever and endless war in Afghanistan” and concentrate on more significant battles, where there may still be some hope left to salvage its global position — perhaps.
(The author is an Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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