“Sherlock,” a popular TV drama produced by the BBC and aired from 2010, is set in present day London and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, solving various crime mysteries together with his friend Dr. John Watson, played by Martin Freeman.
It starts off with Watson, having returned from military service as a doctor in Afghanistan after being wounded, battling the traumas of his experiences in the war that began in 2001.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” detective stories, which the TV series is based on, Watson is depicted as a veteran who served in the second Anglo-Afghan war in 1878.
Britain sent troops to faraway Afghanistan to fight wars there more than a century apart.
In both wars, it experienced fierce battles and faced unexpected hardships, one after another. On both occasions, it saw difficulties in keeping its military forces stationed in Afghanistan and eventually withdrew troops from the country in an embarrassing failure.
Afghanistan is remembered in British history as a symbol of hardships and failures.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan — sometimes dubbed the “graveyard of empires” — in August has been compared with the fall of Saigon in 1975 after the Vietnam War, or the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989.
On the other hand, the Afghan war that started in 2001 was nothing but a war led by NATO followed by a security mission by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Therefore, the British military was also engaged in the mission and the withdrawal from Kabul was a hardship and a failure for its troops as well.
Drawing an analogy between the war in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War puts a focus only on the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but the retreat indicates the failure of the entire global community that assisted Afghanistan’s restoration.
In this sense, Japan should also consider Afghanistan as an issue of its own.
For Britain, which fought three wars with Afghanistan between the 19th century and the early 20th century, it was the fourth time to send troops to the country and withdraw them after experiencing hardships and failures.
For Japan, which hosted international conferences in Tokyo in January 2002 and July 2012 on supporting the reconstruction of Afghanistan, as well as offering massive amounts of aid totaling some ¥700 billion in the periods following the conferences, the situation also represents a big failure.
This September, the Queen Elizabeth, the flagship of Britain’s carrier strike group, made its first port call in Japan and took part in a joint exercise with the Self-Defense Forces.
Amid this backdrop, it is necessary to connect the failure in the Eurasian region with moves by the U.S., the U.K. and Japan to strengthen cooperation in maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.
The ‘Great Game’
Why did Britain send its troops all the way to Afghanistan — located in the middle of the Eurasian landmass thousands of kilometers away — as many as four times to fight bitter wars?
To understand its intentions, the term “Great Game” becomes the key.
The phrase is believed to have been first coined by Arthur Conolly, an intelligence officer with the British East India Company.
In a letter written to Major Henry Rawlinson of the British Army in 1840 during the first Anglo-Afghan War, Conolly used the metaphor to describe the growing geopolitical rivalry between the British and Russian empires over control of Central Asia, likening them to players moving pieces on a chessboard.
This was also the time when geopolitics, the study of geographic influences on power politics, was born.
British geographer Halford Mackinder in 1904 described world politics in the context of conflict between land powers that commanded the Eurasian “heartland” and sea powers that controlled the “maritime lands.”
At that time, the conflict meant a Russian threat to British interests.
During the Cold War, politics in the Eurasian region were greatly influenced by confrontations between the Soviet Union, which possessed vast land on the continent, and the United States, a sea power that tried to contain the Soviet expansion.
From a historical perspective, Afghanistan has been seen as a buffer zone between land powers and sea powers, situated at the forefront of power struggles.
Amid such geopolitical conflicts, major players invaded the country to fill the power vacuum — the British Empire in the 19th century through two Anglo-Afghan wars and the Soviet Union in the Soviet-Afghan war that started in 1979 — and failed.
And in the 21st century, the U.S. invaded this graveyard of empires, faced difficulties and withdrew.
If this failure causes the U.S. to decline, to be replaced by China’s attempt to fill the power vacuum and expand its control in the country at the center of Eurasia, that will have a significant impact on the structure of U.S.-China confrontations.
And if that happens, it will be a threat also for Japan, a key ally for the U.S. in Asia.
The new game
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was different from past instances of aggression by major powers with imperialistic intentions, as it was part of the so-called Global War on Terrorism international military campaign.
The U.K. and Japan played their part as U.S. allies in the conflict.
Following the tragedy of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the global community widely came to a consensus that in order to avoid becoming a target of another international terrorist attack, it was necessary to defeat al-Qaida located in Afghanistan and destroy terrorist training camps.
If that was the goal of the war, the initial objective was achieved in 2011 when Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 2001 attacks, was killed.
But the U.S. government expanded its troops’ operations in Afghanistan to get deeply engaged in state-building.
At that time, the global focus had been gradually shifting from the U.S. crusade against terrorism to geopolitical confrontations among major powers.
A few years later, Russia annexed Crimea, with Kremlin-backed forces seizing control of the peninsula, ignoring international law.
The incident led to a conflict in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian groups and the Ukrainian armed forces.
Meanwhile, China has been trying to expand its power in the East and South China Seas, accelerating moves to forcibly turn disputed islands into military bases.
China and Russia, the two authoritarian superpowers, have been strengthening military cooperation to establish their sphere of influence in the Eurasian region.
On the other hand, the U.S. has been conducting “freedom of navigation” operations to keep watch over China’s expansive activities in disputed waters, while boosting cooperation with its allies including Japan, the U.K. and Australia to enhance an alliance of sea powers.
The deployment of a British carrier strike group in the Indo-Pacific region is emblematic of such an alliance.
China and Russia are trying to take a leadership role in creating order across Eurasia through such frameworks as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Such developments represent a geopolitical movement different from the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy centered on an alliance among sea powers.
This newly formed conflicting structure can be called the “new Great Game.”
Japan should be aware of the risk of the U.S. becoming inward-looking and reducing its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region following its failure in Afghanistan.
In playing the new Great Game in Eurasia, it is important for democracies to unite and work together.
Japan and the U.K. have a major role to play in this game, and defense cooperation between the two countries will be an indispensable pillar to support the U.S.’ moves.
The pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan should be taken as an opportunity to step up the alliance of democratic sea powers centered on the United States.
Yuichi Hosoya is research director at API and a professor of international politics at Keio University. API Geoeconomic Briefing, provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo, is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.
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