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The geostrategic (il)logic of Afghan airfields

January 3, 2011

How long will we be in Afghanistan? Certainly after the purported 2011 and 2014 deadlines, by most accounts. But there is a vast difference between an advisory presence and turning Afghanistan into a full-fledged outpost of US military power, à la post-war Germany or Korea. Senator Lindsay Graham seems to prefer the latter (H/T Starbuck).

Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina says that having a few U.S. air bases in Afghanistan would be a benefit to the region and would give Afghan security forces an edge against the Taliban.

Graham tells NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he wants to see the U.S. have “an enduring relationship” with Afghanistan to ensure that it never falls back into the hands of terrorists.

Salon’s War Room has a more detailed transcript of his remarks here. Graham is mainly talking about airbases to continue what we currently do in Afghanistan – close air support and other missions in support of defeating the insurgency. His comments about the regional benefits of US presence, however, are more interesting.

Neoconservatives, in their heyday, were often accused of being imperialists (something the Salon blog reiterates) whose fine talk about democracy and nation-building was really just a charade for their secret designs to control the Middle East and take over the world. Unsurprisingly, this has led to countless re-formulations of the “Great Game” narrative in Afghanistan today, something I am certainly guilty of committing. It is important, however, to recognize how little the US effort in Afghanistan actually fits into a larger regional strategic vision.

Airbases in Afghanistan would only really be useful for supporting the Afghan government, if they were helpful at all. So too would a continued US military presence in general. The idea that Afghanistan is any kind of “launching pad” for US punitive expeditions or geostrategic control of Central Asia is fantasy. Why would Iran or Pakistan allow US overflights to a base actively working against their regional designs? Why would Afghans try to “earn” bases and a permanent presence they absolutely do not want?

The reality is that most of the US presence in Central Asia is currently directed around sustaining the war in Afghanistan, not the other way around. So too would US military bases in the region. US bases in the defeated nations of WWII and the Korean peninsula were not to suppress communist insurgencies, they were to protect regions from communist invasion. Even in the most cynical, stripped-bare calculations of weltpolitik there is no significant advantage to putting a permanent US presence in Afghanistan that would extend beyond the unwilling host’s borders.*

The Great Game was of such high stakes because both Britain and Russia had direct territorial stakes in Eurasia, unlike the United States. Britain wanted to protect India, and Russia wanted to consolidate its expansion. Afghanistan was a buffer state, not a prize. I am not opposed to permanent US military bases in and of themselves. But there is little sense, either in winning the Afghan war or preserving US power after it, in putting them in Afghanistan.

*The best possible case would be maintaining influence over India and Pakistan by preventing escalation of their competition over Afghanistan. But US military presence in Afghanistan will hold us increasingly hostage to Indo-Pakistani disputes, which will erupt inevitably, instead of moderating them.

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