The war on terrorism brought the impoverished country of Afghanistan to the forefront of world attention. However, even before 9/11, the country was destined to be a key nation in U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Under Samuel Huntington’s conceptualization of clashing civilizations, Afghanistan’s location, at the faultline of three civilizations— Islamic, Russian Orthodox, and Chinese—and near a fourth, Hindu, makes it a natural pivot point for regional stability. The idea that its region, Central Asia, would be a center of strategic gravity for the entire Eurasian landmass is not new, dating back to the writings of Sir Halford John Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan toward the end of the Cold War led to a strategic overextension there and hastened the downfall of the USSR. For a time, the country also served as a bellwether of Islamist fundamentalism. However, many of the same geographic features and cultural traditions that made Afghanistan a safe haven for Al Qaeda continue to facilitate the opium production and heroin smuggling that is so closely linked with Islamist terrorism. These local and regional phenomena therefore have a profound impact at the global level.