Prospects of an Afghan Peace (Part II): Engagement in Afghanistan - Why empires retreat and regional powers step in

Analytics | Philip Roehrs-Weist | 26-02-2019, 18:45

With the Doha talks showing significant progress over the last couple months, Afghan opposition leaders negotiating with the Taliban in Moscow recently and President Trump once again floating the idea of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in his state of the union address, it seems like Washington's military disengagement is just a matter of time. With the main security guarantor of the Afghan government out of the picture, will peace be possible in the war-torn country? After the first part summarized the domestic obstacles for peace Afghanistan faces, the second part will explain why global powers historically retreated and why regional powers will inevitably increase their future engagement.

Read the first part here


Why global powers failed

Afghanistan has historically been open to foreign interference due to its lack of centralization. Yet, it has been especially the attempts of modern global powers to establish some sort of imperial control over this tribal territory, which made it famous as a "graveyard of empires“. Britsh imperial forces suffered several major military defeats against a broad Afghan coalition during the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars. The Empire`s efforts to establish a colonial regime as a buffer against the Russian state in what came to be known as the "Great Game“ finally failed. Both the Soviet Union and the United States tried to create communist-and liberal proxy regimes respectively in order to fend off Islamist factions. Both suffered mission creep in their efforts to stabilize these regimes against their opponents in an asymmetrical conflict.

Even though the reach of their ambitions varied, all of these great power interventions suffered the same fate: Retreat caused by a combination of lacking political will on one hand and lacking strategic prioritization of Afghanistan as geopolitical theater on the other. These two variables finally altered the cost-benefit analysis in regards to their Afghan interventions.

'Remnants of an Army' by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842. 


While the loss of political will occurred predictably in London, Moscow and Washington after the underestimated resilience of their Afghan opponents caused continuing losses for all three global powers, it is remarkable how the perception of their mission changed over time.

The three global powers had different goals in Afghanistan but all of them devaluated the strategic importance of these goals over time. The British elite finally came to the conclusion that the narrative of the „Great Game“ has been inflated by the paranoia of a Russian advance towards India and accepted a neutral Afghanistan as a sufficient buffer against Tsarist ambitions in South Asia. The Soviet Union, yet still struggling to accept the presence of Islamist forces at its Central Asian underbelly, soon realized that its military efforts were part of an imperial overstretch that contributed to its socio-economic downfall. One could argue that Afghanistan had a higher strategic value for the Soviets due to its location and the Soviet Unions vulnerability as a continental empire. Yet, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the newly established Central Asian republics constituted a buffer between Afghanistan and Russia, enabling Moscow to largely ignore the country from there on. The United States, though initially highly motivated by the task to root out the Taliban as the key ally of Al-Qaeda in its Global War on Terror, soon lost interest and prioritized its war efforts in Iraq. Later on, the American public generally became disenfranchised with the neoconservative state-building projects in the Greater Middle East and growing factions in both political parties are adopting more anti-interventionist stances. 


Why lesser powers inevitably engage

These failures might be understood as evidence for the impossibility of pacifying Afghanistan. Some observers might ask: „Why even look at the potential of lesser powers to fill in if the global great powers of their time all failed“. The answer to that is simple. The above mentioned imperial heavyweights ended their engagement in Afghanistan because the cost-benefit-assessments among their elites altered until retreating was finally seen as the better option. The regional powers, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of assessing a possible retreat because they are bound to Afghanistan by the simple fate of geography. Developments in the country are far more consequential for these actors. Risks are direct threats to the national or regime security and not risks to a minor piece in an imperial puzzle. The strategic value of Afghanistan as a geopolitical arena does therefore not change in the context of imperial ambitions. It is constant. This is the reason why regional powers will not simply accept a power vacuum after a U.S. retreat. Countries like India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, China, and Iran will almost certainly take action in one way or another to ensure the protection of their own interests.

Another reason for doubting the ensuing engagement of neighboring states is the fact that most regional players have far fewer capabilities to deal with the challenges they would encounter in this war-torn country. Accordingly, they would have no initial incentive to try to influence Afghan affairs. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that the global great powers were also active in a limited military role, as none of them went into full war mobilization for their campaigns in Afghanistan. It is correct to assume that regional powers will not match these kinds of deployments, yet, their engagement might turn out to be more sustainable over the long-term. Also, there are multiple foreign policy tools available to these governments. An engagement neither has to be direct nor militarily in nature to be significant. Both indirect support for proxy groups as well as economic means can be an effective way to influence Afghan affairs in a cost-controlled manner.  The big-scale military adventures of London, Moscow, and Washington will serve as a reminder to stay cautious as the amount of deployed troops does not automatically transfer to success.

The regional powers are also aware of their own limitations. If we imagine Afghanistan as the centerpiece of a regional subsystem, we can see a rough balance of power between the regional players surrounding it. Therefore, none of them would attempt to set-up or push for any kind of control that would mirror the imperial power's colonial-or proxy regimes. Their ambitions are limited because they do not perceive themselves as a potential hegemon but as one of several players in a multi-polar regional system, where no one is strong enough (or willing)1 to dominate the others. Regional powers are also unlikely to fall trap to an imperial hubris because they generally have a smaller margin of error compared to great powers. An all-out military intervention is therefore not a viable option to begin with because it is neither neccessary nor sustainable due to the balance of power. This relative lack of capability paired with the immediate nature of threats emerging from Afghanistan could make for stronger incentives to compromise, at least in theory.

Considering these factors, a permanent engagement of several regional players is highly likely. Still, this does not mean that an Afghan peace is in reach. One could imagine a concert of regional powers interacting in a constructive manner to protect their interest and mitigate threats in Afghanistan, resulting in improving stability and relative peace. This Defensive Realist interpretation could be an improvement over the unilateral struggles to establish imperial order. On the other hand, one could also imagine a scenario based on the assumptions of Offensive Realism. The result would be an acceleration of the current instability as a power vacuum sucks in scrambling rivals that see Afghanistan as an arena for a zero-sum struggle. Rivaling states could attempt to undermine each other's interests driven by a security dilemma, even though the chances for ultimate victory are slim. The developments in Afghanistan will be heavily influenced by the actions of its neighboring countries. The behavior of these regional powers, in turn, will be shaped by the conditions of the international system. Part Three will analyze the conditions driving the actions of the main regional powers and how these affect the possibility for an Afghan peace.


In the case of China. This will be further explained in Part III. 

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Philip Roehrs-Weist

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