Robert Kaplan on Afghanistan – from His “Revenge of Geography”

In the 3rd Presidential debate, both President Obama and Governor Romney spoke of Afghanistan in a futuristic past tense. They promised that America will leave Afghanistan in 2014. No one should be surprised. Literally every one in America is fed up with that conflict. And no one believes there is any real value in that poor, desolate and backward country.

We take the opposite view and that is why, three years ago, we wrote an article about the Strategic Importance of Afghanistan to America. We described Afghanistan as the place “where the World meets on land“. Our last paragraph read:

  • “If America runs away from Afghanistan, it will never be allowed in again. The game for Afghanistan will begin again, this time with China, Pakistan, India & Iran. We would favor the China-Pakistan axis to win this prize. What is the prize? Central Asia, access to the Persian Gulf and Trade with 3.5 billion people…If you don’t believe us, look at the maps again.”

That article jolted us when we read it again this morning. Because, that article was written to refute the views expressed on a TV show by Richard Haass, President of Council of Foreign relations. Why is that important? Because Mr. Haass is reportedly in contention for the Secretary of State position in a Romney Administration.

Mr. Haass would not care about what we think or write. But hopefully he will pay attention to the views of the celebrated Robert Kaplan, one of America’s most respected geopolitical analysts. Mr. Kaplan loves maps even more than we do and he has written a new book titled The Revenge of Geography.  And what does Mr. Kaplan say in his book about the importance of Afghanistan?

  • A stable and reasonably moderate Afghanistan becomes truly the hub of not just southern Central Asia, but of Eurasia in general. Mackinder’s Heartland exists in terms of the “convergence” of interests of Russia, China, India, and Iran in favor of transport corridors through Central Asia. And the most powerful drivers of Eurasian trade routes are the Chinese and Indian economies. Estimates for overland Indian trade across Central Asia to European and Middle Eastern markets foresee a growth of over $100 billion annually.
  • For a quiescent Afghanistan would spur road, rail, and pipeline construction not only in all directions across Afghanistan, but across Pakistan, too, and therein lies the ultimate solution to Pakistan’s own instability.


From our very first article about Afghanistan in August 2008, we have advocated the concept of Pushtunistan, a reunited homeland for the Pushtuns. The core problem, we argued, was the 1893 partition of Pushtuns into today’s Afghanistan and today’s Pakistani-controlled province of Khyber Paktunkhawa. Our basic view has
been that the eventual resolution of the Af-Pak conflict will be a
unification of the Pushtuns residing in one homeland, either de jure or de facto

At that time, the term Pushtunistan was decidedly unfashionable in the American establishment. We don’t recall Mr. Kaplan using it either. But in his new book, The Revenge of Geography, Mr, Kaplan uses the Pustunistan term frequently and authoritatively:

  • Looking at the relief map, and noting that more than half of the world’s 42 million Pushtuns live inside Pakistan, one could conceivably construct a country called Pushtunistan, lying between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Indus River, thus overlapping the Afghani and Pakistani states.
  • a case can be made…a historic realignment is now taking place that could see Afghanistan disappear on the political map; in the future, for example, the Hindu Kush (the real northwestern frontier of the subcontinent) could form a border between Pushtunistan and a Greater Tajikistan.

The second scenario above was called as “an irredentist Pushtunistan” by Ambassador Blackwill in his January 2011 article titled Plan B in Afghanistan.

Mr. Kaplan adds:

  • The Taliban,…, may, in the words of Asian specialist Selig Harrison, merely be the vehicle for this transition that is too broad and too grand to be in any way deterred by a foreign military run by impatient civilians back in Washington.

The key question is whether, in post-America Afghanistan, the Taliban become pro-Afghan & anti-Pakistan or remain agents of Pakistan. Mr. Kaplan does not discuss the probabilities but lays out the results:

  1. An Afghanistan that falls under Taliban sway threatens to create a succession of radicalized Islamic societies from the Indian-Pakistani border to Central Asia. This would be, in effect, a Greater Pakistan, giving Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate the ability to create a clandestine empire composed of the likes of Jallaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Lashkar-e-Taiba; able to confront India in the manner that Hezbollah and Hamas confront Israel.
  2. Conversely, an Afghanistan at peace and governed more or less liberally from Kabul would give New Delhi the ability to extricate itself from its historical nemesis on its northwestern frontier, as well as to challenge Pakistan on both its western and eastern borders.

The first would be a disaster for every neighbor of Afghanistan including the civilian population of Pakistan. But frankly, the civilians in Pakistan just don’t count to the real power in Pakistan, the military-intelligence establishment and their terrorist agents. The second would bring a huge dividend of peace and economic growth to Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, and India. 

Getting back to President Obama and Governor Romney, we are hopeful and optimistic that their rhetoric about Afghanistan is mainly that. Both President Obama and Governor Romney realize that the complete withdrawal from Iraq was a strategic mistake. Regardless of who becomes the next President, we believe that America will maintain a presence in Afghanistan, a less intrusive and less visible one perhaps but a real presence.

Because the Pentagon and the State Department realize what Robert Kaplan writes in his book,

  • For
    Afghanistan, as a geographical buffer between the Iranian plateau, the
    Central Asian steppes, and the Indian subcontinent, is breathtakingly
    (emphasis ours)

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