After 9/11, American military power erupted into South-Central Asia. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan required supporting efforts in Pakistan to the south and the former Soviet Central Asian republics to the north. Today, Pakistan has returned to democracy but remains a distinctly difficult ally. A provisional government in Kyrgyzstan wrestles with ethnic violence and threatens to shut down the U.S. air base at Manas (while notably not touching the Russian base at Kant). In Afghanistan itself, the focus of the U.S. effort, much-publicized "surge" offensives in the south and political reform efforts nationwide are not moving fast enough for skeptics either in Congress or the U.S. media. Russia, China and India all have interests and influence in this region, but what is the American stake in this new "Great Game"? South-Central Asia is a tough neighborhood for the U.S. to be in. Do the rewards of staying -- or the risks of leaving -- outweigh the costs of our presence?
After nearly nine years, there is no consensus on the strategic goal of the American commitment in Afghanistan and its neighbors. Does our presence in Pakistan and Central Asia exist only to support our war in Afghanistan? Or are we waging war in Afghanistan in the cause of stability and wider U.S. interests in the region? For many mindful of domestic U.S. politics, the goal is simply "never again 9/11," a counterterrorism campaign narrowly focused on al-Qaeda. For many who are mindful of history, the goal is "never again 1989," not repeating the collapse of U.S. interest after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that let the country slide into instability. For those mindful of economics, the stakes are not just Afghanistan's recently touted trillion-dollar mineral deposits -- originally mapped by the Russians and on Chinese investment lists -- but Afghanistan's location as a potential crossroads between India's growing economy, hungry for both markets and resources, and Central Asia's wealth of oil and natural gas. For the realpolitik traditionalists, Afghanistan's location makes it a strategic outpost outflanking both Russia and Iran. But do any of these reasons, alone or in combination, justify a nine-year war?