It’s Much Bigger Than Afghanistan: U.S. Strategy for a Transformed Region


The use of a large conventional bomb against an Afghan tunnel complex occupied by Islamic State militants recently captured the media’s imagination. Talking heads rushed to discern the meaning of the decision. Was it President Donald Trump sending a message to North Korea? Was the president even involved in the decision? It turns out that he wasn’t.

The U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, says he ordered the use of the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Burst Bomb, known colloquially as the “mother of all bombs”) for purely tactical reasons: “This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles.” The jubilation expressed by U.S. media in purely tactical destruction, however, sent a strategic message to some Afghans: that the United States considers their country a collection of targets to destroy rather than a country with a history and, hopefully, a future. A senior pro-government political analyst in Kabul whom I have known for decades points out that even if the Islamic State flees the area, the government’s weakness means the Taliban, who pose a greater threat to the government, will fill the vacuum.

Nicholson’s February request for a few thousand more U.S. troops in Afghanistan was the last time the Army general made national news. Yet, just like his use of the MOAB, such an increase would have only limited tactical implications. More troops would do nothing to prevent attacks like the April 21 strike on the 209th Division in Mazar-i Sharif that claimed the lives of at least 140 Afghan soldiers. Previous troop increases have shown that U.S. troops alone cannot eliminate or even meaningfully reduce the Taliban insurgency. Whether launching a few missiles at a Syrian air base, sailing an aircraft carrier toward North Korea (or not), dropping MOAB, or sending more troops to Afghanistan, tactical demonstrations of strength not tied to strategic objectives sooner rather than later deteriorate into bloody demonstrations of futility.

Washington has not decided, or even realized that it must decide, whether its goal in Afghanistan is to maintain an open-ended military presence or stabilize the country through a political settlement with the Taliban and its neighbors. Almost everyone in Afghanistan and the region believes the U.S. goal is a long-term military presence rather than the stability of Afghanistan, and acts accordingly. America’s focus on military tactics combined with silence on political objectives reinforces that belief.

Choose Your Path: See the Whole Board, or Don’t

It is time to recognize that the United States might be able to maintain an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan or stabilize the country, but not both. A permanent military presence will always motivate one or more neighbors to pressure the United States to leave by supporting insurgents — and forestalling stabilization. Currently, Pakistan, Iran and Russia — which together control access to all usable routes to landlocked Afghanistan — are trying to exert such pressure.* Precipitous withdrawal without a settlement, of course, could lead to even more violence.

Such a settlement would be as much with Afghanistan’s neighbors as the Taliban, but U.S. strategic thinking about the region is caught in a time warp. Washington still conceives of the region as a theater of the war on terror, and forms bilateral policies toward Afghanistan and its neighbors on that basis. The economic growth of China and India, however, has changed the stakes in the region. Both the apparently permanent U.S. military presence and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have changed the region’s perception of the Taliban.

China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran all see Afghanistan first and foremost as a part of a larger set of regional issues rather than just a problem on its own terms. These countries need stability in Afghanistan and the areas around it for infrastructure to connect their economies to global markets. This need is particularly acute for China, which cannot maintain its historic level of economic growth without opening up its central and western regions to international investment and trade. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which links the continental and maritime sectors of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, has made Pakistan central to President Xi Jinping’s success.

As what everyone, including the United States, thought would be a time-limited counter-terrorism intervention in Afghanistan has morphed into a permanent outpost, neighboring states view the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as geostrategic. In their view, the United States could use its bases and other military assets in Afghanistan against them under the banner of counter-terrorism[RE1] . The United States said support for terrorism was one of the rationales for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It could easily do so again to justify intervention in Iran, classified by the U.S. State Department as a leading state sponsor of terrorism, or Pakistan, where Washington fears nuclear materials or weapons could fall into terrorist hands. Russia also suspects that the U.S. may use counter-terrorism for broader purposes. According to Ekaterina Stepanova,

Russia suspects the United States and the West of trying to manipulate the ISIS issue in Afghanistan…to remind Russia of its vulnerability on its southern flank and to divert its attention from other security issues or regions where it is more active and has higher leverage, such as Syria or Donbass.

That is why Russia convened China and Pakistan in late December to discuss the war against the Islamic State and a political settlement in Afghanistan. Russia invited India, Iran, and Afghanistan to a subsequent meeting in February, and added the Central Asian states and the United States to the invitation list for a meeting that took place earlier this month. Washington declined to attend, saying Moscow had not answered its query about the purpose of the meeting. Though they have not said so definitively on the record, U.S. military commanders appear to believe that Russia is supplying weapons and ammunition to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

In its statement at the meeting, Afghanistan emphasized its gratitude to the United States and NATO, but also offered to host the next round of talks in Kabul. Kabul would have to gain Washington’s agreement to attend in that case. Moscow may well be asserting its own importance, tweaking Washington for its inability to bring the effort to a conclusion, and even providing covert aid to keep pressure on the United States to withdraw. Some in Washington claim Russia wants the United States to fail in Afghanistan, but that assumption is meaningless without a definition of success. American strategists need to broaden their aperture: Russia hopes to sponsor a regionally owned settlement to deprive the United States of any rationale to keep its military in Afghanistan. And unless Washington values a military presence over stability, such an outcome is, in fact, in the American interest.

The United States cannot dismiss such concerns as the behavior of “spoilers” who can only obstruct. American policymakers need to view this through the lens of broader geopolitical shifts. The relative capabilities of the United States and the region have changed. The table below shows that in 2001, the combined GDP of all the regional powers convened by Russia equaled 24 percent of the U.S. economy. In other words, the United States had over four times the resources of those states. By 2016, those regional economies had reached 84 percent of the U.S. economy — the U.S. preponderance was reduced to near parity.

Source: IMF. Note: Afghanistan’s GDP is for 2002, not 2001, and 2016. Pakistan GDP is for 2001 and 2015, not 2016.

Chinese and Indian economic growth are the largest factors in the change. Vital connectivity projects in both of these rising great powers depend on Pakistan and Iran. Xi Jinping of China has staked his ten-year term on the Belt and Road Initiative, of which CPEC is the centerpiece. India has responded with its joint venture and transit agreement with Iran and Afghanistan to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar and link it by road and rail to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Japan recently joined the consortium, throwing its support behind it.

Iranian officials have been urging China and Pakistan to link the two mega-projects by building the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and linking China’s projected Central Asia initiatives to the Chabahar project. India objects to CPEC, as it crosses territory Delhi claims as part of Kashmir. After the February China-India strategic dialogue, however, Indian Foreign Secretary Jaishankar said 

On Afghanistan, they certainly seem to suggest to us that their approach and policies are in tandem with us, not on a different page.

Jaishankar raised CPEC’s infringement on India’s sovereignty, but at a press conference he said that, as a “pro-connectivity country,” India “would like to see what proposal anybody has in this regard.” India and China also agreed in principle to cooperate in Afghanistan on joint projects of capacity building, as China and the United States have done since 2012. While such projects are small, they would mark a huge departure from past practice by both of the Asian giants.

A Path Forward for the United States

The United States will not withdraw its forces from Afghanistan precipitously simply because of the suspicions of neighboring countries — but for those troops to stabilize the country, the United States needs to demonstrate that their presence benefits rather than threatens the region. There are common interests both in opposition to the Islamic State and in support for economic connectivity, but pursuing them will require the United States to insulate its policies related to Afghanistan from conflicts it has with these countries on other matters. Despite disputes elsewhere, such as in the South China Sea, the United States and China have cooperated in Afghanistan by trying to start a peace process through the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which also includes Pakistan and Afghanistan. If the United States were to take the surely controversial but wise step of joining the China-founded Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, in which China and India are the major shareholders, my interlocutors tell me this would be seen as a strong positive signal in Beijing, buying Washington considerable political capital. The United States could exempt economic support for Chabahar from Iran sanctions through a national security waiver, citing its strategic importance to America’s partners India, Afghanistan, and Japan. The U.S. relationship with Russia is volatile and unpredictable, but both sides seem committed not to let it slip into total enmity. Joining the proposed Afghanistan-hosted session of Russia’s regional initiative would be a good next step.

The United States and Pakistan are obviously at odds over the Taliban. Given Pakistan’s control of U.S. military supply lines and increasingly favorable regional diplomatic position, bilateral pressure will have at most marginal effect on Islamabad. The most likely source of additional leverage is China. Beijing would like Pakistan to rein in the Taliban, but its deep and extensive interests in the country preclude any public opposition. U.S. cooperation with China to connect Afghanistan to CPEC and restart peace negotiations would benefit Afghanistan and provide a context to pursue the issue of Taliban safe haven with China. That approach is more likely to succeed than coercive diplomacy given Pakistan’s increased value to China, Russia and Iran, which insulates Pakistan from bilateral U.S. pressure more effectively than ever.

In a December conversation in Moscow, Russian Special Presidential Envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov confirmed that once the United States joined the talks, and the participating nations reached consensus, Russia aimed to bring the Taliban into that framework as well. Such an invitation, he said, was still premature, as the state participants — specifically the government of Afghanistan — had not found consensus on how to do it.

The biggest obstacle to starting talks with the Taliban so far has not been the principle of talks, but the framework for talks. The U.S. and Afghan governments want the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government in a format emphasizing the latter’s legitimacy. The Taliban say they do not recognize the Afghan government. The United States attacked them, not an Afghan government that did not exist at the time. Hence, they want to talk to the United States before they meet with the Afghan government. Their preferred venue is their political office in Qatar, which reinforces their standing as a political organization. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (United States, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) convened a meeting near Islamabad where some Taliban notables close to the ISI (Pakistan intelligence) attended as clients of Pakistan. Pakistan wanted the talks to be under its close control because of its fear that the Afghan government and Taliban would reach a deal at Pakistan’s expense (not a baseless anxiety, by the way), but the Taliban rejected it as a humiliation. Russia, Iran and India also protested at not being included, despite efforts by President Ashraf Ghani to brief them.

The Russia-led regional initiative is an attempt to create an alternative to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group. It may not work either. Trying to solve a problem should not be confused with optimism. If the principal American aim is to maintain a strategic outpost in Afghanistan to assert U.S. predominance in the region, then this initiative is against U.S. interests. If the U.S. goal is to stabilize Afghanistan with the support of its neighbors — the only way it ever has been stabilized — this framework is a starting point worth testing.

In his official statement at the April 14 meeting in Moscow, the Afghan representative, M. Ashraf Haidari, stated that the welfare of the region requires a “regional consensus on the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan as a common good” and “direct talks with the authoritative leadership of the Taliban . . . on our own soil, our own home.” The United States can best achieve its own objectives by joining this initiative, especially if its next meeting is in Kabul, and by providing political and financial support for regional economic connectivity and cooperation.


Barnett R. Rubin is Director of the Afghanistan Regional Project and Associate Director at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University. He taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013) and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan (2001-2002). His most recent book is Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror (2013).

* In addition to Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan borders on China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The 47-mile (78 kilometer) China-Afghanistan border is closed and has little carrying capacity. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also landlocked. Outside access to each requires lengthy and expensive transit through China or Russia. Only the Russian route, which the United States used when Pakistan closed the land route in 2011, has sufficient usable infrastructure, though the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will eventually change this. Except for transit via Iran or Russia, access to Turkmenistan is possible only through the Caspian Sea and transit across the Caucasus. Afghanistan is now working with partners to open this “Lapis Lazuli route,” but it will not be usable for at least a decade.