The United States has been stuck in an unwinnable quagmire in Afghanistan for years, but it isn’t the first global power to wage an unsuccessful war there. Both the British Empire and the Soviet Union were ultimately unable to create a lasting presence in Afghanistan because they weren’t just fighting against the people who lived there—they were fighting against competing imperial interests in the strategically-located region.
Afghanistan has been the center of competing foreign powers for a long time. Between 1839 and 1919, the British fought three wars in Afghanistan, each lasting no more than a few months or years (although the last war was more like a skirmish). During the first two wars, the British Empire wanted to secure the country against Russia’s influence, says Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at James Madison University. During the third, it wanted to secure Afghanistan against the Ottoman Empire.
Similarly, the Soviet Union’s occupation of the region between 1979 and 1988 was bound up in its competition with American during the Cold War. The CIA covertly armed Afghanistan’s mujahideen (or “strugglers”) during that war, meaning that the Soviets were fighting a country that was being greatly helped by another empire.
Afghanistan’s strategic location—it connects Central Asia and the Middle East to South and East Asia—makes it a “kind of a policy way station towards a political agenda,” explains Hanifi. So when large empires go to war in Afghanistan, they come up against other country’s attempts to expert their own influence in the region.
The same is true today. Just as the U.S. secretly armed the mujahideen, NATO has accused Iran of arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. And recently, President Donald Trump asked India—which has a huge economic investment in Afghanistan—to “help us more” in the U.S. war there, according to The New York Times. (Though Trump didn’t name specifics, he was likely talking about economic aid.)
Of course, there are many other factors that make Afghanistan a tough place to wage war in. Logistically, the terrain makes it difficult to move people and equipment. In addition, “the geographic factors of terrain inform cultural values,” says Hanifi, meaning that outside forces don’t always understand the unique relationship between the country’s 14 recognized ethnic groups and its various tribes.
For example, in the current war, Hanifi says the U.S. has emphasized working with Pashtuns in creating a government in Afghanistan. But although they’re the ethnic majority, Pashtuns are spread across multiethnic and multilingual tribes, and the United States’ focus on them as a monolithic group has not been successful.
Looking to Pakistan
On August 21, 2017, President Donald Trump gave a speech about his plan for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Without offering specifics, Trump said that the U.S. will continue to fight until there is a clear victory. Which means, according to experts, that there is no end in sight.
But Trump’s speech wasn’t just about Afghanistan. He also announced that the U.S. would take a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan, which he accused of harboring terrorists.
Unlike the U.S., Pakistan doesn’t have an overarching set of laws governing all of its citizens. Tribes govern using local laws, and Trump’s new plan “is a direct attempt to deny what has historically been that safe haven of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, in Pakistan,” Hanifi says.
An attempt to crack down on individual tribes harboring terrorists “really does call indirectly for a radical reconfiguration of how Pakistan functions as a state,” he adds.
Hanifi says that because of Afghanistan’s strategic location, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ever giving up a presence in the country, even if it formally ends its war there. And with Trump’s break from the United States’ previous policies towards Pakistan’s FATA, the situation is poised to become even more complicated.