The great challenge with interpreting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet.
Our existence is a funny thing, filled to the brim with labyrinthine contingencies and hidden variables, kingdoms lost for want of nails and hurricanes raging by way of butterfly beats. The landscape of history is defined by its brilliant complexity. Understandably, the study of this complexity is a fractious discipline, divided by multiple schools and hostage to many a divisive reading. A conservative lot, historians seldom make their case without first stressing uncertainty and contingency. Their restraint is the fruit of experience. They know too well that interpreting the past is a difficult endeavor.
Those who claim to know the pattern of the future betray their unfamiliarity with the pattern of the past. Our understanding of the past remains sketchy and uncertain, subject to constant revision and review. If our vision of what has been is hidden by this haze, how much harder is it to see what will be! Our understanding of the world is imperfect; our understanding of the future is even more so. Futuristics is a blind man’s game, and I have little sympathy for those who ply the art without admitting that the intricate complexities of our Earth may throw even the steadiest trend off of its given course.
How then are we to analyze and interpret the future? One could begin with colorful depictions of our world to be. However, my preference is to keep as much fiction out of this analysis as humanly possible. I suggest an easier alternative: instead of trying to sketch what will be, we should try to sketch that what will not.
Afghanistan is a case in point. I have no pretensions of knowing the state of Kabul or Kandahar forty years in the future. However, I can say with some confidence that over the next forty years Afghanistan’s fate will garner but a little attention. I do not know what major events will come to define the 21rst century. Epidemics, great power war, economic contraction, a global reduction in nuclear arms, democratic revolutions, totalitarian crackdowns — the list of possible disruptions to the current world system is large and shall only grow as we move forward through time. It is a fool’s game to try and predict the scale, shape, or timing of any one disruption, but we can be sure there will be disruptions. Yet it is unlikely that the American servicemen in Afghanistan will ever be the cause for a comparable shift in international affairs. We cannot know the events that will mark our future, but it is difficult to imagine any world-shaking catastrophe or triumph that historians of the future will find less important than America’s war in Afghanistan.
The fundamental irrelevance of the Afghan War on the grand scale deserves a moments pause on the part of all Americans trying to decide whether or not the campaign is worth its price in blood and treasure.
Of course, the campaign is not truly irrelevant. Once again the crux of the matter is not found in what has happened, but what has not. The blood of good men is not the only cost of the Afghan campaign. Also lost is the freedom of American statesmen to act with any sort of initiative on the international stage. Our Bactrian expedition does more than tie American soldiers to the Hindu-Kush: it ties America into a series of outdated strategic relationships which cannot be altered while the war remains.
Consider the stakes the United States has in Central Asia. For the past twenty years America’s policy for the region has been fairly straight forward: lend support to would-be democratic revolutionaries, contain the Russians, and do everything possible to increase America’s political influence and military presence in region. As the vanguard of the color revolutions begin to show their true autocratic colors it has become clear that this policy was a mistake. The Sino-Soviet split was one of the greatest strategic coups of the Cold War; today’s active intervention in Central Asia threatens to reverse what the diplomats of a generation past worked so hard to achieve. The interests of the United States could in few ways be better served than if China and Russia were jostling for strategic influence in Central Asia. The American presence in the region assures that this will never happen. Instead of competing in a new great game the two are drawn together to kick the imperial outsider out of their mutual backyard.
Whether American statesmen have realized the error in their ways is unknown. To be frank, it really doesn’t matter. As long as the Republic has a substantial expeditionary force in Afghanistan it will do all it can to maintain its network of military bases in Central Asia. The logistical demands of the Afghan campaign cannot be met without them. The Russians realize this and are not above using it to their advantage. What can the Americans hope to do in response? The war has locked the United States into series of fruitless policies it cannot escape.
Nowhere is this better seen than in the curious case of American-Pakistani relations. Pakistan is the natural ally of America’s clearest strategic rival and the avowed enemy of her most obvious friend. No matter how much American money is pumped through Islamabad this basic strategic logic will not change. Moreover, the ISI has devoted a great deal of time and money to training, arming, and protecting the same insurgents who are killing American soldiers today. None of this has stopped the Republic from providing the Pakistanis with billions in arm sales and monetary aid. Nor is it likely to ever do so in the future. Stability in Afghanistan is impossible without the cooperation of Pakistan. As long as American servicemen patrol Pashtunistan, Rawalpindi’s ill intent will be ignored.
The Afghan war is about much more than the plains of Bactria. It is the lynch pin of an entire set of strategic relationships. It defines American foreign policy in ways few politicians will admit. I will give no prediction as to how long American forces will remain in Afghanistan – that will be decided on the domestic scene, and any predictions I might give could only be less sure than those I offer in the more familiar realm of international affairs. While I do not know what year will mark the end of America’s expeditionary adventures in Afghanistan, there is little impetus for American statesmen to reevaluate our Eurasian relations until this date has come. All that can be expected is the radical realignment that will not come.
The textbooks of the future will not have such things inside their covers. Textbooks rarely tell of what did not happen. Therein lies the root of my decision not to write a paragraph from our future. Of those things I am most certain there will be no school text. There are only empty pages for futures that will not be.
“T. Greer” can claim no special title in the fields of security policy or international affairs beyond that of “informed citizen”. American by birth, he currently divides his time between the states of Minnesota and Hawaii. He writes for The Scholar’s Stage, a blog devoted to history, ecology, geopolitics, military affairs, and the odd intersections to be found between them.