Afghansistan 2050: Futures That Will Not Be

The following is my contribution to the Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable hosted by the proprietors of ChicagoBoyz. The opening post of the roundtable – which explains its purpose and methods – can be found here. My piece is cross-posted at ChicagoBoyz with the rest of the submissions.

The great challenge with interpreting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet.

Our existence is a funny thing, filled to the brim with labyrinthine contingencies and hidden variables, kingdoms lost for want of nails and hurricanes raging by way of butterfly beats. The landscape of history is defined by its brilliant complexity. Understandably, the study of this complexity is a fractious discipline, divided by multiple schools and hostage to many a divisive reading. A conservative lot, historians seldom make their case without first stressing uncertainty and contingency. Their restraint is the fruit of experience. They know too well that interpreting the past is a difficult endeavor.

And all this despite the past having already happened.

Those who claim to know the pattern of the future betray their unfamiliarity with the pattern of the past. Our understanding of the past remains sketchy and uncertain, subject to constant revision and review. If our vision of what has been is hidden by this haze, how much harder is it to see what will be! Our understanding of the world is imperfect; our understanding of the future is even more so. Futuristics is a blind man’s game, and I have little sympathy for those who ply the art without admitting that the intricate complexities of our Earth may throw even the steadiest trend off of its given course.

How then are we to analyze and interpret the future? One could begin with colorful depictions of our world to be. However, my preference is to keep as much fiction out of this analysis as humanly possible. I suggest an easier alternative: instead of trying to sketch what will be, we should try to sketch that what will not.

Afghanistan is a case in point. I have no pretensions of knowing the state of Kabul or Kandahar forty years in the future. However, I can say with some confidence that over the next forty years Afghanistan’s fate will garner but a little attention. I do not know what major events will come to define the 21rst century. Epidemics, great power war, economic contraction, a global reduction in nuclear arms, democratic revolutions, totalitarian crackdowns — the list of possible disruptions to the current world system is large and shall only grow as we move forward through time. It is a fool’s game to try and predict the scale, shape, or timing of any one disruption, but we can be sure there will be disruptions. Yet it is unlikely that the American servicemen in Afghanistan will ever be the cause for a comparable shift in international affairs. We cannot know the events that will mark our future, but it is difficult to imagine any world-shaking catastrophe or triumph that historians of the future will find less important than America’s war in Afghanistan.

The fundamental irrelevance of the Afghan War on the grand scale deserves a moments pause on the part of all Americans trying to decide whether or not the campaign is worth its price in blood and treasure.

Of course, the campaign is not truly irrelevant. Once again the crux of the matter is not found in what has happened, but what has not. The blood of good men is not the only cost of the Afghan campaign. Also lost is the freedom of American statesmen to act with any sort of initiative on the international stage. Our Bactrian expedition does more than tie American soldiers to the Hindu-Kush: it ties America into a series of outdated strategic relationships which cannot be altered while the war remains.

Consider the stakes the United States has in Central Asia. For the past twenty years America’s policy for the region has been fairly straight forward: lend support to would-be democratic revolutionaries, contain the Russians, and do everything possible to increase America’s political influence and military presence in region. As the vanguard of the color revolutions begin to show their true autocratic colors it has become clear that this policy was a mistake. The Sino-Soviet split was one of the greatest strategic coups of the Cold War; today’s active intervention in Central Asia threatens to reverse what the diplomats of a generation past worked so hard to achieve. The interests of the United States could in few ways be better served than if China and Russia were jostling for strategic influence in Central Asia. The American presence in the region assures that this will never happen. Instead of competing in a new great game the two are drawn together to kick the imperial outsider out of their mutual backyard.

Whether American statesmen have realized the error in their ways is unknown. To be frank, it really doesn’t matter. As long as the Republic has a substantial expeditionary force in Afghanistan it will do all it can to maintain its network of military bases in Central Asia. The logistical demands of the Afghan campaign cannot be met without them. The Russians realize this and are not above using it to their advantage. What can the Americans hope to do in response? The war has locked the United States into series of fruitless policies it cannot escape.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the curious case of American-Pakistani relations. Pakistan is the natural ally of America’s clearest strategic rival and the avowed enemy of her most obvious friend. No matter how much American money is pumped through Islamabad this basic strategic logic will not change.  Moreover, the ISI has devoted a great deal of time and money to training, arming, and protecting the same insurgents who are killing American soldiers today. None of this has stopped the Republic from providing the Pakistanis with billions in arm sales and monetary aid. Nor is it likely to ever do so in the future. Stability in Afghanistan is impossible without the cooperation of Pakistan. As long as American servicemen patrol Pashtunistan, Rawalpindi’s ill intent will be ignored.

The Afghan war is about much more than the plains of Bactria. It is the lynch pin of an entire set of strategic relationships. It defines American foreign policy in ways few politicians will admit. I will give no prediction as to how long American forces will remain in Afghanistan – that will be decided on the domestic scene, and any predictions I might give could only be less sure than those I offer in the more familiar realm of international affairs. While I do not know what year will mark the end of America’s expeditionary adventures in Afghanistan, there is little impetus for American statesmen to reevaluate our Eurasian relations until this date has come. All that can be expected is the radical realignment that will not come.

The textbooks of the future will not have such things inside their covers. Textbooks rarely tell of what did not happen. Therein lies the root of my decision not to write a paragraph from our future. Of those things I am most certain there will be no school text. There are only empty pages for futures that will not be.

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I am not comfortable with the idea, which you have expressed before, that there is a "basic strategic logic" that makes Pakistan the "natural" ally of China and the U.S. the "natural" ally of India. This is too deterministic. Strategy is not like gravity, in which the apple 'naturally' falls to the ground. It's not as if a given configuration of past enmities and amities, coupled with certain unchangeable physical facts of geography, produces a certain diplomatic-strategic outcome, or rather would produce such an outcome if only everyone recognized what the "natural" alignments are. I have difficulty understanding how anyone who knows as much history as you obviously do can embrace this kind of an approach.

You seem to assume, for one thing, that Pakistan and India are going to be unfriendly rivals forever, despite your claim not to be making predictions. There is no warrant for such an assumption. Kashmir looks unsolvable now, but who's to say that in 50 years Pakistan and India might not have settled all their outstanding disputes and might not have a relationship that more closely resembles that which, say, the US and Canada have? Unlikely, perhaps, but not impossible.

Moreover, the US has in fact moved substantially closer to India over the last 30 years. India-US relations are much, much warmer now than they were in the days when India was the vocal leader of a nonaligned bloc that played a significant role in world fora. Your calls for closer US-India ties make it seem as if the US has been 'dissing' India, which is far from the truth. It borders on the absurd — correction, it is absurd — to imply that the only way the US can really show its friendship to India is by cutting all ties with Pakistan. I mean, come on…

I'm sorry if I sound exasperated or annoyed, but I find this kind of analysis quite rebarbative (sorry, couldn't resist the fancy word).


You have also expressed your discomfort with this idea before. My reply has changed very little since you registered your first objections.

The "strategic logic" of the region is more than the sum of enmity and geography. This I do not dispute. A country's foreign policy is just as much rooted in the domestic political struggles and ideologies of the decision makers as it is the physical facts of geography. I am not sure this hurts my case. Indeed, I think it strengthens it – the ISI's hostility towards India is incredibly self-serving. What better to justify the ISI's independence from civilian control and continual hijacking of Pakistani foreign policy than the threat of India?

This is why I think Pakistani-Indian relations will remain rough for quite a while. What some Indian commentators have named Pakistan's "Military-Jihadi" complex ensures it. (One could further mention that as long as the Pakistanis are able to direct home-grown takfiri towards India and Afghanistan they are able to save Pakistan from tearing itself apart.)

Will this complex direct Pakistani foreign policy for the next 50 years? No, I very much doubt it. In 50 years India and Pakistan might very well be the closest of allies. But what will have to change for this to happen? I can only think of a few scenarios (and none save the collapse of the Pakistani state) that allow for such a radical change without generational turnover at the top levels of the ISI.

Moving forward from this point, Pakistan's hostility towards India ensures that it shares a significant interest with China. China's geographic & political position gives its investments in Pakistani infrastructure more weight than American payments. This is the "strategic logic" I speak of. It is not inherently static – outside actors can change the balance of pros and cons that make certain policy options more or less promising to the Pakistani elite. But America's method of persuasion – money payments – is not enough to change the logic of the situation.

Regarding Indian-American relations-

It is not my intent to demean the growing friendship between the United States and India. I do not think, however, that Indian patience with America's two-faced South Asian policy will be eternal. The links between Lakshar-e-taiba and other terrorist groups launching attacks on Indian soil and Pakistan are quite clear. If similar attacks were happening on American soil I doubt we would deal half so nicely with any ally giving money payments to the regime sponsoring such terrorism.

Cut off all links? That is not necessary. Stopping our billion dollar arm shipments would be more than a good start.

Well, I agree that the US has sold too much fancy military hardware to the Pakistan govt over the years, so we can find common ground at least on your last point.

Many of these issues, however, are probably going to be somewhat on hold during the current flood disaster and its aftermath.

Btw, speaking of agreements and disagreements, and going from the serious to the less-than-serious, I've just read your July 31 post "Pick Your Metaphor with Care" and must respectfully dissent re the insult to K. Reeves. To be sure, no one will ever confuse him with Laurence Olivier, but could you see the latter as the star of The Matrix or Little Buddha?

(And on that note, must get offline for a while.)