This chapter, titled "Afghanistan and the Changing Regional Environment," is perhaps the most important of Mr. Goodson's book since a comprehensive understanding of the Central Asia region and beyond is a requirement for related strategy and policies to be achievable and effective. Mr. Goodson summarizes Afghanistan's unique position as follows:
"Despite its devastated infrastructure and economy and its limited natural resources... Afghanistan's geographical location and cross-border ethnic ties position it to play a critical role in trade between South Asia, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia. This is a novel situation for Afghanistan in the modern era, when it has more often served as a buffer state between empires or, as it has most recently, fought to avoid absorption into an encroaching superpower."
Of course, we know that up until this point in 2001, the Taliban within Afghanistan had been primarily growing and exporting the product of its opium crops, while using those funds, and the funds from other outside actors, to import the tools--people, weapons, equipment and hard currency--required to wage war against minority ethnic groups, which also had their own cross-border channels for the procurement of weapons and hard currency. Then, with 9/11, we came to the public understanding that locations in Afghanistan acted as critical nodes, or hubs, in the global supply chain of terrorist activities. From the writing of experts such as Douglas Farrah, we also know that terrorists and their facilitators gravitate to, or are often part of, cross-border criminal organizations and activities:
"At the root of many of the reasons for this is the absence (of), ineffectiveness (of) or grossly corrupt governments in the regions where these pipelines operate. Without some ability of the government-usually after decades or centuries of absence-to convince people there is a reason to support it, the insurgencies/drug traffickers/non-state actors win by default."
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan found to its north a new collection of proxy, or "seam," states forming a weaker constitution than that provided previously by the Soviets--Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazahkstan. As Mr. Goodson details, the influence of Communism thus subsided and a resurgence of Islam rose to threaten the pre-existing stability in the region. Ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties between these states also rose from the fall of Soviet domination to take a more prominent role in regional interaction. Together with the fragile constitution of Pakistan and Iran, these states form the first ring of instability with which must be dealt with as part of any strategy and policy for Afghanistan.
Mr. Goodson makes an important point that, with the relatively weakened state of North-Central Asia, the states surrounding Afghanistan in this first ring are on a more level playing field in terms of projecting power in the region. Where these states lack their own natural and economic resources--such as oil, gas, or raw minerals and established industries--they will more likely end up as proxies via which larger, stronger and more distant states will project power in the region. This alignment and influence may be channeled through political connections, such as old Soviet hands in the former Soviet republics, ethnocentric connections, such as between Turkey and Turkmenistan, religious connections, such as between Pakistan and Sunni-dominated countries in the Middle East, and opportunistic connections, such as between Pakistan and the United States where the relationship provides sustainability and leverage against regional, and even internal, actors in opposition. Understanding and addressing these "relationships by extension" must also be included in the formation of strategy and policy directed at Afghanistan.
In my previous post, I highlighted that the foundation for the Taliban's strength originated in and rests with Pakistan's western tribal regions. As Mr. Goodson notes, the regular turnover and integration of refugees from Afghanistan within these western tribal areas was fed by the Soviet Union's harsh, counterinsurgency tactics. This in turn, however, fed a new insurgency rooted in Pakistan that the Soviets "could not defeat...The increased efforts of the Soviet-Kabul forces to interdict supply routes and strike across the border into Pakistan after 1985 demonstrates their understanding of the problem."
Sound familiar? Almost 15 years later, the United States has also significantly ramped up its efforts to do the same, as analyzed and reported by Bill Roggio at Long War Journal:
These strikes are only effective if Pakistan turns up the heat from the other side. I call this the "hammer and anvil" approach to dealing with the enemy at Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Essentially, the goal of the U.S./NATO is to strengthen Afghanistan to the point its constitution is strong like an anvil up against the states that border it. Simultaneously, our expectation is that Pakistan will apply the hammer to its western tribal provinces, thus crushing the terrorist and supporting criminal elements based there, and that support the weakening and continued instability of the Afghan state:
In addition, the strategy in Afghanistan must include tactics geared to strengthen this anvil on the borders with the North-Central Asian states and Iran. As Mr. Goodson notes, "just as permeable borders make possible the easy flow of people and economic goods throughout the region, they also make possible the spillover of conflict from one country to another, as from Afghanistan to Pakistan during the mid-1980's and from Tajikistan into Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in the early 1990's."
Logically, our strategy for the region should be most difficult to execute beyond Afghanistan in the direction where states are weakest and most prone to failure, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Egypt, and which form the second and third rings of instability for Afghanistan. At the same time, any strategy deployed in the region should be drawing strength and cooperation from those states most integrated with the global economy and security rule-sets established by various international bodies and organizations, such as Turkey, China, India and Russia.
I would like to finish with this from Mr. Goodson:
"If geoeconomics increasingly pushes geopolitics off the stage, then growing pressure from outside actors to end the Afghan conflict may allow trade to replace war as the primary way in which Afghanistan interacts with its neighbors."
It is this endgame that our strategy and policies towards Afghanistan should be cultivating and encouraging in skilled coordination with countries such as Turkey, China, Russia and India, in the least. Unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence that this is currently the case beyond ad hoc activities. As long as this remains so, we will be unable to both strengthen the Afghan state to a point it can stand on its own while, at the same time, also bring about the economic connectivity in the region required to drown out the current architectures that give life and resilience to terrorist and criminal organizations and activities.
Looking to the future, I will review Mr. Goodson's conclusions in Chapter 6, "The Future of Afghanistan," in my next and final review post on Afghanistan's Endless War.