With the announcement Wednesday of the deaths of one American and two Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, July has tied June 2008 as the deadliest month on record for the U.S.-NATO coalition (at 46 fatalities each) in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion. Though the Turks appear to have died in a non-combat-related traffic accident, the month of July is only half over, and the tempo and nature of current operations all but guarantees that it will be the most costly month in terms of U.S. and NATO lives -- by a significant margin -- since the war began nearly eight years ago.
With a new offensive under way in Helmand, more widely distributed operations are putting more troops on the roads, where improvised explosive devices are already the largest cause of coalition casualties, and are increasing soldiers' risk of encountering mines and undetonated ordnance dating back to the Soviet war (1979-1989). Overall, the death toll -- while tragic -- is to be expected.
But to what end? We have remarked upon the disparity between the long-term counterinsurgency mission and the more limited political and popular domestic tolerance for the costs of the war. Here, we will explore the role of Afghanistan in Washington's long-term plans for the geopolitical future.
The United States became a global power through military control and commercial exploitation of the world's oceans -- the same oceans that made possible its founding by European colonists and domination by its former colonial master, Britain. Even in colonial times, Americans relied heavily on maritime trade -- and this reliance has only grown as the years have gone by.
Today, the United States is the only country in the world with a preponderance of political, economic and military power astride both the Atlantic and the Pacific. This is no small observation. In the early 1980s, trans-Pacific trade began to equal -- and later exceed -- trans-Atlantic trade for the first time in history. Whoever controls both the North Atlantic and the Pacific will be at the center of global commerce -- and that is exactly the position in which the United States finds itself. Access to and dominance of the world's oceans remains critical to American hegemony.
From a geopolitical standpoint, it is imperative for Washington to prevent the emergence of a unified Eurasian power with the resources and coherence to directly challenge U.S. dominance of the world's oceans -- and, as important, space. Such an entity would threaten the very foundations of American power. Thus, the containment and management of former powers like Russia and emerging powers like China is the United States' long-term geopolitical imperative.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 shook the United States to its core but, by contrast, never threatened any of the underlying foundations of American power or geopolitical security. Both before and after the subsequent U.S. invasion, Afghanistan -- a "graveyard of empires" more than 300 miles from the nearest coastline -- had and has no direct bearing on the pillars of U.S. power.
In short, it is a peripheral war, not a strategic or existential one. Very real national objectives -- counterterrorism efforts and the hunting of high-value militant leaders, sanctuary denial and the like -- remain important for the United States. Though the targets of these objectives remain concentrated in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan at the moment, the objectives themselves are, by their very nature, not only transnational but global.
It remains to be seen how much and for how long the United States and NATO countries will be willing to continue to invest in Afghanistan, in terms of both money and lives. That investment is not made in a vacuum. It could come at a very real cost, in terms of the neglect of more fundamental U.S. and NATO interests elsewhere in the world.