Yes, the primary mission is still to protect the homeland by preventing Afghanistan from being used again as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the U.S. or our allies.
And, yes, troop levels and the operational tempo have always been predicated on a single proposition, to buy enough time so that Afghan security forces can successfully take the lead against the Taliban or any other terrorist entity who plan to use Afghanistan as a training or operational base.
But there is a bigger picture.
Pakistan created and supported the Taliban as an instrument of its foreign policy and has always viewed Afghanistan as a client state, a security buffer against what they consider potential Indian encirclement and as a springboard to extend its own influence into the resource-rich areas of Central Asia.
In line with those objectives, Pakistan has an economic incentive to force the U.S. and NATO out of Afghanistan in order to pursue the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative that aims to connect Asia through land-based and maritime economic zones, a project that includes exploitation of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and, more broadly, the Belt and Road Initiative are China’s attempt to extend its strategic reach to the Indian Ocean, East Africa and the Middle East. That approach is similar to what China is doing in Southeast Asia, building artificial islands in the South China Sea as military and logistical bases. It all reminds one of Imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” of the 1930s and 1940s, to create a self-sufficient “bloc of Asian nations led by the Japanese [Chinese] and free of Western powers”.
What should be an even greater concern to the U.S. is China’s growing military ambitions in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.
China has established a military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, construction of which started in February 2016 and is expected to be completed in 2018.
To complement that effort, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor allows China to develop the port of Gwadar in Balochistan, a region forcibly incorporated into Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947.
Look at the map.
Gwadar would provide China with a military and logistics base at the entrance of the Gulf of Oman, the shipping route to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, a potential chokepoint for Middle East oil exports. Gwadar will also be supplied by a transportation network directly linking China to the port.
The Chinese military base in Djibouti is at the entrance of the Red Sea, transit point to the Suez Canal.
Upon completion of those facilities, China will have a strategically critical region bracketed by its military.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to conclude that the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Chinese military ambitions depend on the stability of Balochistan, and, thus, presents a possible lever to influence the regional strategic environment including the situation in Afghanistan.
It is an incontrovertible fact that the U.S. and NATO cannot succeed in Afghanistan without a significant change in the strategic conditions because the operational tempo of the war and the supply of our troops are regulated by Pakistani whims.
Balochistan, a region rich in minerals and other natural resources, has been the home of a festering ethnic insurgency. Despite its mineral wealth, the Baloch people have been intentionally kept underdeveloped by the Pakistani government, along with oppression and alleged extrajudicial killings by the Pakistani military.
An autonomous or independent Balochistan could counter Chinese military expansionism, provide a potential bulwark against the terrorism-exporting nations in the region and offer a more reliable sea-land link to Afghanistan.
Frankly, unless the U.S. starts learning to play strategic chess, it could be checkmate.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of “Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution “. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.