Evenly throughout most of the 19th century, the geopolitical competition recognized the strategic position of Afghanistan and its potential to influence what is today Pakistan and India. Simultaneously, the Russian and British empires contended over it in what was known as the Great Game. But both the Brits and the Russians were defeated over time in Afghanistan. The British fought three wars against Afghanistan. The first, from 1839 to 1842, the second from 1878 to 1880 and the final one in 1919. In this last three-month Anglo-Afghan war, Afghanistan won its independence and control over its own foreign affairs.
Then in 1979, the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, the official reason being to support the pro-Soviet regime established via a military coup in 1978. In that respect, some scholars argue the fighting in Afghanistan was integral to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the US intervention in Afghanistan began with the 9/11 attacks on the United States. After a long, tedious war, the previous US administration of Donald Trump and the Taliban negotiated the withdrawal of US troops by 2021, while the current US President Joe Biden, who took over the presidency earlier this year, appointed the date of final departure from the country on 31 August. However, despite 20 years of US assistance, Afghan security forces fell down within weeks and the Taliban captured the capital, Kabul.
The stunning meltdown of the U.S.’s Afghan client state marked the limits of American hard power. Consequently, the so-called "graveyard of empires" refers to the imperial adventures of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, where the end of the fighting coincides, roughly, with the overall decline of the first two empires. Finally, now that America’s 20-year Afghan war has come to an end, the question arises of how the war and the withdrawal will affect the global balance of power. Following the spectacular U.S. collapse, Afghanistan seemingly emerges as an important figure in a new geopolitical chessboard challenge with a new Great Game emerging.
“The Saudi Arabia of rare mineral resources”
What is happening in Afghanistan is not difficult to understand if you combine the facts. America under President Trump decided to disengage from Afghanistan in an unorthodox way. He brought the Taliban to the negotiating table with then-President Ghani for peace talks. The goal was political as well as economic. Taking into consideration that President Trump has always seen things through a "win win" business perspective, as well as the fact Afghanistan is one of the richest countries in raw materials, estimated at trillions of dollars, the lure for everyone was the country's raw material deposits. Which is an additional issue currently rising: the country’s mineral wealth that could lead Afghanistan to much greater international prominence.
This mountainous country is home to large deposits of copper, lithium, uranium, rare earths, and other metals and minerals. It is also home to substantial coal, oil, and gas reserves. Lithium, for example, is the ultimate battery metal, even if only tiny amounts of it are actually used in batteries. Lithium demand, driven by the wider adoption of electric vehicles, is seen rising so fast that production needs to increase significantly over the current decade to meet fast-rising demand. Although Lithium is not a rare metal, its production is concentrated in just a handful of countries, including China and Chile. That is why certain U.S. military officials referred to Afghanistan as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”.
However, lithium seems to be just the start. Afghanistan has some 30 million tons in copper reserves which is arguably more important for the energy transition than lithium because electrification demands copper. According to the experts, wind turbines need between 2.5 and 6.4 tons of copper per MW of capacity for the generator, the cables, and the transformers needed in the installation. At the same time, copper demand stands at an average of 5.5 tons per MW of capacity. But even copper is not the end of the minerals. Afghanistan has many other crucial elements that are vital for the electrification of everything. Besides the aforementioned natural wealth, Afghanistan is also home to a large amount of crude and natural gas. Nevertheless, relative political stability is essential for the development of any of resource industry.
Drone wars as "legacy" of Afghanistan
Historically, perhaps the most significant change brought about by the US-led war in Afghanistan has been the catalyst for a critical change in the way wars are conducted, highlighting the crucial role of drones. In 2000, the US Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not have a single drone equipped with weapons. Since then, military drone operations have grown exponentially, with the US military using drones on many more battlefields. Until the start of the war in Afghanistan, the special features of which returned to highlight the catalytic role that drones can play. The Predator drone was already widely used during the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It was essentially an unmanned motorized glider that could do what no other aircraft could do: fly over an area for more than 20 hours, offering a continuous image of an area thanks to its high-resolution sensors, day and night. The Predator is now replaced by the Predator 2, more commonly known as the MQ-9 Reaper, which is larger, faster and more powerful. In addition, years of ongoing conflict have led to the development of more sophisticated drones, with new sensors and increased operational capabilities, which have made drone technology more mature, reliable and functional. Afghanistan obviously will be written down in history as the first drone war. As of now, in any war, drones and vehicles are likely to play an increasingly important role, undoubtedly as a result of the Afghan experiences.
Reshuffling global power relations
The political and humanitarian implications of the rapid withdrawal of Americans from Afghanistan are making headlines around the world. However, despite the long-term, international implications of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, there are some other aspects of the latest developments that need to be highlighted.
Trump's America has suggested that the talks take place in Doha. This choice was probably made because Qatar is in favor of strict Muslim dogma, but at the same time is the largest US military base in the Gulf, so it should have been accepted by all three sides (Americans, Taliban). Furthermore, Qatar was "going package" with Turkey, a Muslim country that did not pose a political problem to any Afghan government. Moreover, it is a NATO country, so in theory, the Allied interests in the region were secured. The Americans estimated that the Taliban would seize power in two years at best, up to three months at worst. Nevertheless, estimated implementation has failed with the American withdrawal creating new complications for China and Russia. But the plan remains very strong, much to the chagrin of Russians and Chinese who hope the Taliban will not abide by the agreement once they strengthen their position.
After Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government collapsed on Aug. 15, Beijing couldn’t contain its glee at what it described as the humiliation of its main global rival, even though Washington said a big reason for withdrawal was its decision to focus more resources on China. Emphasizing the possibility of China`s turn towards Afghanistan one should notice that the immediate goals of the Taliban would probably be to avoid conflict in order to "drill" into the state apparatus and to ensure their financial independence. In this context, it is estimated that China would develop more trade ties with Afghanistan, as it can procure goods such as iron, copper and niobium from the country, and could even seek to include Afghanistan in the initiative "One Belt, One Road”, thus contributing to the development of the country's infrastructure. It has become clear that China is positioning itself to be a major international partner to the Taliban, seeking to consolidate as much control as it can over strategic supply chains for everything from microchips to electric car batteries, obviously wanting primacy in Kabul and probably would be the first major nation to recognize the new regime.
For Pakistan, the current crisis represents a moment of triumph. Closely aligned with China internationally, they could seek to partner with the Chinese in exploiting the mineral wealth and blocking India from a role with the Taliban regime. Pakistan also wants a certain level of stability to avoid mass illegal migration, something they have dealt with repeatedly from Afghanistan.
As to the China-Pakistan axis, they seek first and foremost a stable situation that can reduce the propensity for radical Islamic terrorism exported north through the former republics of the old Soviet Union.
The geopolitical implications for Iran are that the Islamic Republic is now marginally more powerful in its conflict with the United States, while in the west and in the north, the Iranians will strengthen commercial relationships and seek amicable relations with the new Afghan government.
Perhaps the most interesting role may be played by India. The Indians have long sought relationships in Afghanistan, both for the commercial potential of the nation and to put pressure on Pakistan, which represents the regional issue of widespread concern. It is believed, according to prominent analysts that the Pakistanis are the "ancestors" of the Taliban and, although they do not control them, they can certainly side with them, a fact that could eventually sever US political ties with Pakistan to India's advantage.
Moreover, India is part of the group of countries that make up the Quartet Security Dialogue, also known as QUAD (along with the US, Japan and Australia) and may now strengthen its ties with the US, a development which in turn would signal the intensification of competition between QUAD and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO (which consists mainly of Pakistan, China and Russia) as to which "group" will prevail in the 21st century.
Another regional issue is related to Islam itself, the West's perception of Islam, but also the geopolitical relations between the Islamic states. Moreover, the war on terror is not over, it is simply changing the "battlefield".
The US intention to rebuild Afghanistan did not succeed. However, one should take into consideration that the U.S. will weigh if and how to reenter the Great Game, although the dominant forces in Afghanistan will be from the neighborhood, notably led by China. Thus the Great Game continues, notwithstanding the fact that, for the moment, players are all locals.