Afghanistan as Strategic Scaffolding

The conventional way to look at the Afghanistan war is as a multilateral coalition forming a security scaffolding around and upon which a stable Afghan nation can form. But if you consider the strategic network that is emerging from the war, it might be more accurate to say that Afghanistan is the strategic scaffolding around and upon which a stable regional arrangement is forming.

The thought was triggered by Saurav Jha’s WPR briefing on India-Iran relations (which, if you missed it, is really worth taking the time to read). It took shape around Nikolas Gvosdev’s recent WPR columns, in which he argues for a “sphere of influence” approach to stabilizing Afghanistan. And it got dialed in on reading the degree of direct Russian involvement in the war effort that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is pressing for this week in Moscow.

The overlap of Indian and U.S. interests in Afghanistan is obvious, and adding Russia (historically India’s most important strategic partner) to the equation does nothing to change that. Jha’s article underscores the ways in which Iran is perfectly compatible with that mix, too, were it not for the broader obstacles to the U.S.-Iran relationship.

But when you pull back to include the broader Middle East picture, the U.S.-Iran relationship is also problematic with regard to Turkey’s regional interests, with Turkey’s conciliatory posture toward Iran creating tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Logically, in broad regional terms, there’s almost a perfect overlap of interests between India, Russia, Turkey, the U.S., Israel and . . . Iran.

The grouping of the U.S., Israel, Turkey and Iran should not be a surprise, given their alignment through much of the Cold War. In fact, if we could magically transform the U.S-Iran and Israel-Iran relationships, it’s hard to imagine that the U.S. response to 9/11 would have been limited to Afghanistan, as opposed to a broader confrontation with the Gulf Arab states most responsible for financing and nurturing the al-Qaida brand of violent extremism. It would also have put the limits of the “Pakistan option” more clearly into focus, and probably resulted in identifying Pakistan as a hedging enemy, rather than a hedging friend, more quickly than has otherwise been the case.

Afghanistan suggests that a return to the Cold War alignment, with the addition of the Russia and India relationships, is a more stable equation. Call it “Cold War Plus.”

The first obvious problem is that we can’t magically transform the U.S.-Iran and Israel-Iran relationships. But that’s the direction we should be heading for, in terms of a grand strategy agenda. In this sense, the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace tracks should be seen more in the context of an Israeli-Iranian rapprochement, rather than an Israeli-Arab rapprochement.

The second obvious problem is that the alignment as sketched above would trigger all of Pakistan’s — and by extension, China’s — strategic anxieties, as well as those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That’s where Gvosdev’s sphere of influences come in, by limiting the zero-sum calculations in Afghanistan — but also in the Middle East and Iraq, where Iran would agree to limit its interference in the “Arab spheres” in exchange for security guarantees and a higher regional profile.

Again, none of this is very realistic in any immediate timeframe, given the levels of suspicion and hostility all around. But the strategic calculations that emerge from Afghanistan make it clear that the U.S. is trying to balance divergent coalitions on either side of Afghanistan (and Iraq) that are working at cross-purposes.