The Roman Empire, at almost all its stages of development, was an empire without borders. The desire, and not always the natural need, for expansion accompanied it right until its collapse. The boundaries of the empire effectively became fronts, where troops were deployed. As you know, in the end, the joke was on the Romans themselves. By taking on their shoulders the unbearable burden of ruling distant peoples, they brought about Romes collapse.
US policy in Afghanistan is a sore subject. First of all, it is unpleasant for the Americans themselves. Started as a counter-terrorist operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which were allied with it (banned in the Russian Federation), it has gone through many stages. State building, an infrastructure hub, the creation of a democratic society, a bridgehead for the influence of "enlightened humanity" in the Middle East and much more. In different periods, the Americans strengthened the role of women in society, then that of national minorities, then again took up the classical mechanisms of management, increasing their military contingents (at the peak of the conflict, Afghanistan hosted more than 140,000 servicemen). There were stages when they announced campaigns to combat drug trafficking, then wrote new constitutions, and sometimes even began to reform Afghan Islam. All this has been going on for twenty years.
We cannot say that during this time, any profound conclusions were drawn. The ‘gentle restraint’ the British classic historian Edward Gibbon wrote about was never introduced to American governance in the region. The Americans tried, tried, and experimented. They wanted the best (for themselves), but things turned out as they usually do. Central Asia and the Middle East have remained a mystery and Washington's Achilles heel. They did not understand Afghanistan and did not feel it.
As Socrates said, a fool who realises that he is a fool is no longer a fool. Paradoxical as it may seem, all of the above was understood by the businessman-president Donald Trump, who is often thought to be ignorant of geopolitics. More precisely, the US Commander-in-Chief realised that nothing good would come out of the Afghan campaign. It was not profitable, nor did it bring economic or political benefits. There is more to be lost than gained from the war in Afghanistan. America’s success grew more and more dubious while its grip on Afghanistan became more and more tenuous and costly. Trump found the courage to say this publicly.
In 2018, the start of a dialogue with the Taliban was announced, quite sensationally. In 2020, an agreement was signed between the United States and the radical movement. The terms and conditions of the withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan were negotiated. The Taliban, in turn, was required to lay down their arms, end the armed and terrorist war and pursue their objectives politically. The parties pledged to release prisoners, start negotiations and not support international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation).
The strategic picture is much more interesting, and it affects many neighbouring states. It can also affect the national security of Russia, which, whether we like it or not, is affected by the Afghan problem.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot happen on its own. It is not a thing in itself and a holy place is never empty. The power vacuum must be filled. This is an axiom of geopolitical science. To withdraw from Afghanistan (or reduce its presence), America must find a replacement. The United States is not going to let go of its geopolitical influence. It needs Afghanistan. Accordingly, the Americans simply cannot collect their things and leave. We need an actor or actors who will continue the infrastructural, humanitarian, economic, and later, possibly, military-political processes. Naturally, the recognised government in Kabul cannot resist alone. It cannot, on its own, continue to promote the economic development of the country. The United States has significantly reduced its involvement in Afghan affairs. However, it has not gone away completely. Washington will continue its economic activity in Afghanistan, but not with its own hands. America will pay, but others will operate.
The idea is not new. The Greater Central Asia project has its roots in the 1990s. Such ideas sounded in the early 2000s. And the New Silk Road strategy was first outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 in India. The idea is as follows: the integration of the countries of Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan, and South Asia (India) into a single economic and infrastructural macro-region, the heart of which will be Afghanistan. The United States, in turn, assigns itself the role of sponsor, ideological locomotive and protector of this process.
The project is actually quite esoteric. It is difficult to imagine a project for the development of the region’s infrastructure and economy where the central link is Afghanistan, which has been at war for the last forty years. In this regard, the idea has been somewhat simplified. Fortunately, the character and methods of the Trump administration in the region reflect this more realistic understanding. I will try to simplify and describe Washington’s plan by relaying several points.
First, the US is starting a smooth exit from Afghanistan. Dozens of military bases have already been closed, and aviation activity has been reduced to a historical minimum (!). Only about 4-5 thousand US troops remain in Afghanistan.
Second, a dialogue between the warring parties has been launched. Washington, in an ultimatum, is forcing Kabul to conduct a dialogue with the Taliban. In parallel, the Americans themselves are conducting direct negotiations with the Taliban.
Third, the United States has found in Uzbekistan and India partner actors who are ready to strengthen their presence in Afghan affairs. Tashkent, wishing after its own recent change of power, to leave self-isolation and strengthen its role in world affairs, giving its economy a new impetus, has agreed to the new role. New Delhi, with its ambitious leader, seeks to reduce Pakistan's influence and strengthen its own.
I call this process the contract policy. The United States is voluntarily relinquishing some of its influence in Afghanistan to its partners. They are implementing projects, and America is directly or indirectly sponsoring this process. It is applying the logic of ‘contracting out’ processes to world politics. Moreover, in many respects, we are talking about construction and infrastructure projects: road construction and the development of the economy as a whole.
As for Russia's interests in this context, Moscow is partners with both Uzbekistan and India. Their historical and humanitarian ties are deep and beyond reproach. Bilateral relations with Tashkent and India are developing incrementally. Most importantly, this cooperation is beneficial to all parties. Earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia and Uzbekistan are allies not merely on paper, but in deed. Here we can highlight the video conference "Opportunities of Russia and the Central Asian States in Afghanistan" held on August 26, which was organised by the Valdai Discussion Club and the Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Leading Russian and Uzbek experts, in a confidential manner, exchanged views and ideas on the processes in the region.
Moscow is happy about the strengthening of the role of our allies in such an important part of the world. However, these processes require even more trust and understanding regarding the intentions of all parties. It seems that Moscow, Tashkent and New Delhi should intensify contacts, share information and be as open as possible. After all, it is obvious to everyone that the United States pursues only its own geopolitical goals. It is unlikely that Washington’s strategists are concerned about the strengthening and economic development of their partners on the ground.