The Middle-East is a region in the Asian continent that stretches from Egypt to Iran. Something heard quite often during conversations about Afghanistan is whether the country can be included in this bracket, especially as events in Afghanistan are so often considered alongside those in Middle-Eastern countries.

The Short Answer

The short answer is no, Afghanistan is not in the Middle-East. Afghanistan is most commonly referred to as being a part of the region of Central Asia; a group of countries that occupies the area between China, India, Russia and Iran. Afghanistan is also a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation alongside Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and as such is sometimes termed as a South Asian country. It is, however, not a Middle-Eastern country.

The Long Answer: The 'Middle-East’ in the 20th Century

One factor that creates confusion about Afghanistan’s relationship to the Middle-East is the unspecific nature of the term ‘Middle-East’. Wherever the ‘East’ is really depends on what position on the map you are located, never mind what you want to define as the ‘middle’ of it. 

Popularised by American officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1902, the term ‘Middle-East’ was at first narrowly defined as the area that bridged the gap between India and the Arabian peninsula (essentially Iran), and was designed as a useful label given the area’s geopolitical importance for the navy. The ‘Middle-East’ label was also useful as it plugged somewhat of a gap in definitions that had existed since the middle of the 19th century, between the ‘Far East’ (China), and the ‘Near East’ (Ottoman Empire). 

Soon after, Mahan’s definition was expanded upon by British journalist Valentine Ignatius Chirol, to include further places of military interest nearby such as “Iraq, the east coast of Arabia, Afghanistan, and Tibet". In this sense, Mahan’s definition is almost exactly the same as that which is currently in usage, but with the all-important addition of Afghanistan (as well as Tibet).

Following the end of the first World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Chirol’s definition formed the basis for the UK’s newly-established ‘Department of the Middle-East’, created by the then-secretary of state for the colonies, Winston Churchill. However, given the fact that this department’s focus was mainly on the land acquired after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it was decided that Afghanistan should be removed from this definition. All of a sudden, Afghanistan was no longer in the Middle East.

It was during the Second World War that the new usage of the Middle East became most popular, as the British public started reading newspaper updates about ongoing military developments in the area. Once the war ended, and the Cold War developed, American audiences too turned their gaze towards the political developments in the region and adopted the now-common British term.

The 21st Century and the Greater Middle East 

All of this is not to say the ‘Middle East’ is never going to change again. The term 'Greater Middle-East', coined by U.S. President George Bush once again sought to redefine the term based on areas of military interest. This definition saw a re-inclusion of not just Afghanistan, but of the entirety of North Africa stretching to Morocco - which, confusingly, has its capital further west than London.

The ‘Greater Middle-East’ did not enter popular terminology, and as such the Middle-East does not include Afghanistan at this present moment in time. But all of this does demonstrate that the definition has gone through several different changes depending on time and circumstance. Some of these definitions have included Afghanistan, and some of these have not. 

But for now, if someone asks you if Afghanistan is in the Middle-East, you can just tell them the short answer: no.

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