As Michael Barry pointed out in his book “Le Royaume de l’insolence“*, the mountains of Afghanistan have acted as a protective line for the Indian subcontinent for centuries, and today also for the Arab-Persian Gulf against invaders from the steppes of Central Asia.
Anyone coming from the North held the Afghanistan barrier, could spread out down the South and impose himself by force! Continuing Russia’s imperial policy, the Soviet Union recognized this reality in December 1979 when it occupied “the land of the Afghans”.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Afghanistan’s strategic role has evolved, without losing its importance, however. Far from it. First of all, because the “countries of the steppe”, and above all Russia, have become weaker. Secondly, because of technological developments which, for the first time in history, could enable a Chinese army to cross the Himalayan barrier.
Finally, we have to admit that Afghanistan’s peripheral powers – Russia, Iran, and China – are hostile to the West. Here adds Pakistan, the country in the Southeast that we cannot ignore. Indeed, the authorities in Islamabad have been playing a double game with the United States and China for years.
Washington has always pretended to see nothing, counting on its strength to dominate the situation. Currently, however, China’s economic weight, combined with its geographical proximity to Pakistan, means that its interests prevail over those of the United States and, more generally, over those of the West.
In addition to these three observations on regional geopolitics, there is a fourth reality: since the war of resistance against the Soviets, Afghanistan has taken on an emblematic value in the eyes of radical Islamists. Combined with its mountainous terrain, which lends itself to the creation of impregnable refuge zones, and the de facto authority of the Taliban, which is favorable to the ideology of Islamist terrorists, this makes the country an ideal base for launching attacks against the rest of the world.
The Western presence in Afghanistan, mostly American we have to say, made it possible to keep China, Russia and Iran at bay. Moreover, military operations were conducted from Kabul, stemming the tide of Islamist terrorism. From a strategic point of view, and without even mentioning the human aspect, it becomes clear that the departure of the American army from Afghanistan was a tragic mistake.
Moreover, it seems obvious that it is inconsistent to try to make China yield by sending a fleet to its main gateway, bearing in mind Washington’s stated priories in the region, while the backdoor – Central Asia – remains open.
This observation helps us to understand Emmanuel Macron’s worried reaction on his return from Beijing in April 2023. The French President’s comments also highlighted the risk of a strategic decoupling of Europe and the United States, a break-up that Beijing ostensibly wants. Because if Washington closed the sea routes from China, Europe could continue to receive Chinese products via the “New Silk Roads”. The Old and New Continents would then have diverging interests, and NATO’s very existence would be threatened.
As things currently stand, a return of Western armies to Afghanistan is not an option. What we do need is a friendly presence in the country. Firstly, in the form of armed and political resistance to the Taliban. Then, if we act correctly, the return to Kabul of a cooperative power, supported by the West and which would be its advanced position in the region.
If the United States were to opt for this wisdom solution, the only thing left to do would be to put in place the means to allow the emergence of military resistance to the Taliban. This is both complex and difficult, but feasible. What’s more, we no longer have any other choice.
* “Le Royaume de l’insolence: l’Afghanistan”, Michael Barry, Flammarion _Publishing Group, 1984 et 2011.
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