Afghanistan – 1800 to 2020
As the world-conscience is focused on the Syria Crisis, which has practically stirred the Middle East in its centrifuge, the momentum of which has pulled most world players into its whirl – we almost tend to forget that Afghanistan is an issue to be reckoned any more.
We tend to forget that the United States has actually not withdrawn from Afghanistan after all and that present-time US-pet India is still clawed in Afghanistan however infirmly. And we tend to waive the forethought of how this clamping of the two, adds to the fragile stability of the Asian political arena.
We also tend to brood away from the deliberation, how the US in its distressful decent from a sole superpower status, will travail any ray of hope, and especially remain latched on to Afghanistan to the last possible because of the symbolic ideal Afghanistan holds of being the graveyard of empires – surviving which would reflect as a real strength of the US. The question is, how long can the US survive in Afghanistan. This essay will also endeavor to reassess the geopolitical imagination that enshrouds Afghanistan with negatives like its having a ‘cursed geography’ or its being ‘unable to become a nation-state because of its strong ethno-nationalisms’ and to demystify its real standing in the global arena.
A Little History
History begins for the Afghans in antiquity, when waves of migrants from the Caucasus region started leaving for wider lands and pastures towards the east. In their path that went through the Central Asian States all the way to Mongolia – Bactria, a safe nestle guarded by the great Pamir and the Hindukush and watered by the Amu Darya, lay in the way. Later, this region, now centered in Balkh, became the gateway for invaders from the north and the west. Starting from Darius of Persia and Alexander of Greece, what is now called Afghanistan, was successively invaded, from the west by the Scythians, from the south by the Kushans (Indian), from the northwest by the Hepthalites (Chinese), from the east by the Ghaznavids (Persian) and from the north by the Mongols.
Perhaps for the tribal way of life and the lack of a central governance or a central army of local origin, Afghanistan has been envisioned by its neighboring empires as a no-man’s land, ready to be occupied. It seems that while all the regions around Afghanistan had hardened in their identity much earlier, Afghanistan being at the vortex of all these empires, was late in this aspect. In fact the first time that the Afghans invaded other lands was when the short-lived Hotak Dynasty, that ruled for 27 years between the Safavid and Afsharid Persian empires who ruled over them, when they occupied Persia and parts of western Pakistan, in 1709.
In 1725, under the Hotaks (Ghilji, Pashtuns), the Loya Jirga, a body meant for choosing a new head of state, making a new constitution and settling national and regional issue, was created. When Nader Shah of the Afsharid Empire died, it was this Loya Jirga that raised Ahmad Shah, of the Durrani (Pashtun) Tribe, and the commander of the Abdali regiment under Nader, to power, proclaiming the State of Afghanistan under him in 1747. Ahmad Shah Durrani again conquered territories into Mughal India, Persia and Bokhara. In fact it was him, who saved the Mughals from being engulfed by the Marathas, by defeating them in the 3rd Battle of Panipat, in 1761.
By 1818, at the end of the Anglo–Maratha Wars, the British were well entrenched in the Subcontinent and in 1839 they waged the First Anglo-Afghan War. This was when they thought that Dost Muhammad, founder of the Barakzai Dynasty, was allying with the Russians – an alliance that might open the way to India for the Russians. The three Anglo-Afghan Wars are considered to be part of the Great Game and the fact that the Afghans were successful in keeping the Russians, the Persians and the British from invading their land again, is a proof that Afghanistan had eventually matured as a nation-state with its own independent, unbreachable identity. And we will see, as we go, that ethno-nationalisms have become a problem in Afghanistan because of the way the imperialists and the expansionist neighbors of Afghanistan played with the people.
Afghans in the Great Game
The Great Game began when Russia’s imperialist expansionism started threatening and clashing with the same of the British. Russia’s expansion was multifaceted, they were expanding into Eastern Europe, putting their fleets in the Baltics, warring with the Ottomans for Caucasus and the Black Sea and to their south they had gradually invaded Georgia, Azerbaijan and most of the Central Asian States in the previous century – and were now sitting at the borders with Transcaspia, Persia and Afghanistan. The British and the French, for their fear of Russia, had aided the Ottomans in the Crimean War, defeating them for the time – but the threat was constantly alleviating.
Since the Russo-Persian War of 1772, the Persians despised the Russians and tried to counter their presence by allying with the British. Britain did not want that Persia should try to take over Afghanistan, destroying the buffer between Britain and Russia, nor did it want Russia to invade Persia, whilst it would use Persian soil as a route to India. Both Russia and Britain had their Permanent Residents in the Persian court, and forced the Shah to remain embroiled in the tug-of-war between the two super-powers. In 1855, with Russian approval, Persia eventually took over Herat, Afghanistan, which they considered to be historically part of their empire. In reaction the British waged the Anglo-Persian War upon them, inflicting a conclusive defeat upon them in the case of Afghanistan.
In the three Anglo Afghan Wars, the Afghans ensured their control over their own sovereignty and the Durand Line was set at the borders between them as British India. Therefore to say that Afghanistan lacks the ability to form a central government, seems to be a mythical creation of Russian, British and later US invaders, created as an excuse for their heinous acts of invasion. Afghanistan was centralized and independent in 1747, and was never a British, Russian or Persian colony after that – but the center was always in Kabul, with the Pashtuns.
But this center was pulled apart by the north/south divide in Afghanistan. The things that caused the north/south divide in Afghanistan are several. The terrain: the Hindu Kush covers the whole of central and eastern Afghanistan, literally separating the hilly landscape from the plains in the south. The ethnicity: though all states have ethnicities, in Afghanistan these ethnicities are pronouncedly cross-border, the Tajik, the Uzbek, the Kyrgyz all have cross-border relations and alliances; the Pashtuns and the Baloch are an extension of the same in Pakistan. In fact, 30 million Pashtuns live in Pakistan compared to 16 million Pashtuns living in Afghanistan. On top of that, one million of Afghans live as refugees in Iran and 2.5 million in Pakistan – all this legitimizes concerns of the neighbors – especially Iran and Pakistan feel they have direct stakes in the politics of the country. The climate: the harsh winter climate of the Hindu Kush makes logistics impossible and the people of the hills scarcely move out of their villages in the winters, impending centralization.
In the historical sense, the Iranians lay claim on Afghanistan for the time when Afghan territories were a part of the Safavid Empire and Afghanistan lays claim on the northwest of Pakistan for the time when Ahmad Shah Baba (the father) had ruled its territories. Pakistan, being a nascent state itself, has never laid claim on Afghan land, but it has a special relation with the land and the people. The two nations not only share ethnicities (Pashtun, Baloch, Hazara), but they are also both Sunni majority states as opposed to Shia majority Iran, which makes the bondage with Pakistan stronger.
The clash of empires culminated in the two World Wars, after which most empires ceased to exist and nation-states emerged out of the ruins of these empires. But the story of Russia was a little different, though the empire of the Tsars was terminated at the end of WW1, Russia again came out as a giant after WW2, as a Soviet Republic that subsumed 14 neighboring nations into its fold. With such a huge landmass that touched the Baltics, the Arctic, the Black Sea, the Pacific at its extremes and that was hedged right across Persia and Afghanistan at its south, it was certainly formidable. Nothing less than an empire, Russia posed as the second superpower of the world, opposing the United States.
The Cold War
As so, ensued the Cold War, between them. Afghanistan was dealt with in the Cold War as unfinished business. Russia thought that if its influence, under the banner of ‘socialism’, could be infused throughout Eastern Europe, China and in far-flung states in Africa and South America, then Afghanistan should not be seen as an impossibility. But they knew it wasn’t easy, so they turned from military technique to the soft-power one.
After WW1, like in many other communist-success-countries, Russia backed/supported the Young Afghan Movement in Afghanistan’s soil, under Mahmud Tarzi, a proponent of socialism, modernism and secularism, who was made to return from Istanbul after an exile of about 23 years. Tarzi remained foreign minister under two Barakzai kings Ammanullah and his son Habibullah, from 1919 to 1927. When the British lost the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war in 1919, Ammanullah allowed mass arrival of foreign diplomats and experts to the country, the opening of French and German schools in Kabul, and signed several bilateral treaties with Turkey, Persia, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. The Soviets aided Ammanullah with weapons and money, and helped him quash the Khost Rebellion. Thus the Soviets changed their game-plan from warring with the Afghans, to instating their ideologically trained and funded men in the highest authorities. When Zahir Shah the last of the Barakzai line was ousted (1973) by Daud Khan, he exiled to Italy, where he established the ‘King of Afghanistan’s Secretariat’ in Rome.
And Daud Khan, who replaced him, was also of the socialist party of Afghanistan, the PDPA, that later split into the Khalq and Parcham factions in 1965, led by Muhamad Taraki and Babrak Karmal, who were both die hard Leninist and Marxist, and Soviet favorites. During Karmal’s rule (1979), his right-hand man Najibullah was made head of KHAD, which reported directly to the Soviet KGB, and whose budget came from the Soviet Union itself. Eventually Soviet-style reforms, which were seen as anti-Islamic by many, caused a civil war against the communist-backed regime, which broke-out throughout the country. And midst an extremely volatile and uncertain Afghanistan the Soviets invaded Kabul in 1979 and remained for 10 years.
In the Cold War perspective, this was a tense time, in the same year the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty had been signed, which decisively threw Egypt into the US-camp – which had previously been impossible with Gamal Abdul Nasser. And in the same year the American-backed Shah of Iran had been ousted by the Iranian Revolution. Khamenei immediately ousted the British Oil Company too and the US and Iranian navies came face-to-face. The Americans managed to pull Iraq out of Soviet influence and instigated Saddam Hussein to wage war against Iran with their arms support – a war that would last roughly the same period (1980 to 1988). So although the US and Russian interests clashed in every continent and at many state-borders, but Iran and Afghanistan became the real battlegrounds in this decade – and a test for real superpower contest.
The Americans had also recently lost a two-decade long war in Vietnam, where communist-backed North Vietnamese had driven out US-troops in 1975. So the US desperately needed victory in both these fronts to ensure its superpower status. The US was already pursuing the ‘containment strategy’ since Truman’s times, which meant supporting the insurgency in all pro-Soviet countries. For this reason the US began pouring massive aid and arms for Afghan insurgents that were trained in neighboring Pakistan and also in China. The burden was also shared by the Arab monarchies, who considered the Russia/Iran nexus a threat, especially as Shia-Iran’s backing of Shia groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain was increasing by the day.
Though there were several Mujahedeen factions, but from the North, Jamiat-e Islami was a major mujahideen group led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and in the South, Hezb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was the major group. When the Soviet withdrew in 1989, the country fell into bitter civil war, as different faction were being aided by different sides. In fear of a total collapse Pakistan backed a new insurgency, the Taliban, who swiftly suppressed the other factions and formed a government in 1996.
The US were of the idea that they were the ones who had actually won the war and were not ready to let the newly born Taliban steal their victory. With a broken Soviet Union and a stalemate in the Iran-Iraq War, they came for Afghanistan with new fervor. On one side, the US immediately turned against Iraq, the day the Iran/Iraq War was over, accusing it for the WMDs, making it a pit hole for the whole of the Middle East. And on the other side, they attacked the Taliban government in Kabul, which had brought relative stability after decades of unrest.
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, in the pretext of 9/11 and AL Qaeda, to what extent was this a false-flag, is another story. Today after 15 years of US occupation of Afghanistan, the local and global scenario have shifted and both the Afghans and the US have to wake up to a new dawn!
In the decades of the 70s and 80s, US success-stories of instating pro-US regimes by supporting coups and insurgencies, were spread round the globe, from South America, where bitter truths from Nicaragua, Honduras and several other states defy human morality – to Africa and Asia. In these decades the US had symbolically won in both the Iran-Iraq War and the Afghan front – but that success was from a distance – the US did not have the vision to foresee that coming close was going to change the scene.
With the start of the 2000s, the US invaded Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), launched War on Terror on Pakistan’s northwest (2004), backed the Arab Spring (2011), intervened in Libya (2011) and initiated Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (2014) – this was a definite over-stretch.
Perhaps the US miscalculated that in the 70s and 80s, China had not become formidable in its economic might that was now turning its profits in building its military and navy. That Russia, after an embarrassing decline could opt for a second-coming. That suddenly the The Pink Tide would effectively cut-off US influence in South America and that China would be able to bid for multinational projects throughout South America, Africa and Asia crossing all US interests. And that those with boats on ground lose and those that act from a distance win and that this time Russia and China were the outside stakeholders.
In all this new evolution, the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan has once again become the bedrock of geo-positioning. While Russia aligns with Iran to secure the whole belt through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, making it harder for the US to gain a footing in these territories. China and Russia also align together to keep the US empty-handed in the South China Sea and in the whole of west Pacific. They also align to quash US’ bid to make India the next economic giant in place of China in the coming decades. And for that reason they align with Pakistan, the arch-rival of India to defeat US in Afghanistan without shooting an arrow. And they can do that by just sitting on the fence and waiting, thinking that as soon as the US will be ousted by the Taliban, all the mineral wealth of Afghanistan would be theirs to take.
Therefore, it is not Afghanistan’s geography that is ‘cursed’ – if the lives and future of the Afghans would be vouchsafed in the hands of the Afghans themselves, who would build a democratic unity – the same geography and the riches beneath its soil, could give Afghanistan a commanding position in the region.
In such a global scenario, it is imperative to understand Pakistan role in Afghanistan. When the US invaded Afghanistan, they led the Northern Alliance to power, whilst Iran, Russia and India backed them too. This, because pro-Pakistan Taliban was against the interest of each of them. Russia had just been broken down because of its failed war with the Afghans and Iran wanted to pursue its increasing Shia influence which would be abated if the Taliban stayed and India not only wanted the wealth of Afghanistan, but a gateway into Central Asia and also an isolated Pakistan.
Pakistan was perhaps wise to foresee this great-game, when Pakistan decided to abandon all existing militias for a Pakistan-born Taliban trained and armed in the teeming Afghan refugee-camps at its borders. How could Pakistan out-win the US and the Russians in the game of backing insurgencies, when the both had expertise in this game throughout the Cold War? Perhaps this is the uniqueness of the Afghans and the thing that makes Afghanistan formidable.
The hard fact of the day, however, is that in 15 years the US has been unable to stabilize the government in Kabul. The writ of Kabul is not even complete inside Kabul, where political factions vie for power, where massive corruption in foreign funds is the order of the day and where suicide bombings are a daily phenomenon. Outside Kabul, if there is any control, that is of the Taliban. Hence the US and its allies cannot get what they came for. The 2016 Sigar Report exclusively stated, ‘USAID’s program Mining Investment & Development for Afghan Sustainability (MIDAS) aims to strengthen the MOMP and relevant private sector-entity capacities to exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources in accordance with international standards’. But, it says ‘The security environment, insufficient infrastructure, declining global commodities prices, and inadequate capacity at the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum (MOMP) have all hampered the development of this sector’. So, it says, ‘USAID said [that] the MOMP currently cannot administer the approximately 339 existing extractives contracts. This caused MIDAS to be re-scoped to provide technical assistance and transaction-advisory services to the MOMP in its effort to either cancel or renegotiate some or all of these contracts’.
In such a bleak situation, when western analyst are assessing the US/Afghanistan case to be a stalemate, the Russian and the Chinese have made a new gesture. They have, making ‘terrorism’ a major concern for them, and fearing the rise of ISIS against their territories, have declared their support for the Taliban, whom they consider the only force that could eschew ISIS in Afghanistan and prevent it from crossing into their lands. Like this they have completely encircled the US in Afghanistan. Now, the already daunting Taliban will be getting supplies from Russia and China too – making the future more uncertain for the region.
In future perspective, whoever will stay in Afghanistan, will have fortunes to dig, and a renewed hegemony on the affairs of the region – not because of Afghanistan’s unique geography – but because outsiders deem this nation to be a scattered one – one that they can manipulate. And where the human element can be compromised – everything is for the taking. In fact a land with no rules and no government regulations is a capitalist’s heaven.
For stakeholders, a constantly unstable Afghanistan, with tribes warring each other for ever, would be the ideal setting to extract their interest in the cheapest bargains. But those for whom the human factor matters more than the economic one, those who have to live and die in this soil, and those who associate the future of their children with this land – for them survival, existence, identity and dignity count more than all the riches outsiders avarice for.
The US does not have the option to leave voluntarily, because leaving would tilt the whole of Asia towards Russia and China. For this reasons they will sustain their presence, with a weak center, unable to defend itself or establish a writ on its own and would prefer to fight down the Taliban themselves. This, they would achieve by extensive, indiscriminate bombing and special operations. Perhaps allowing ISIS to implant in Afghanistan (reports are that US and India are backing ISIS against the Taliban) was the first step in this process and the US has already started bombing the Taliban, calling their attacks to be against ISIS.
For Pakistan, the failing of the Taliban would mean a complete encircling of India around it, who are already occupying Kashmir and looking forth to Central Asia. India, with its expansionist mindset would surely become an existential threat for Pakistan. Again, siding with Pakistan adds to Afghanistan’s stability too, as Pakistan has not ambition on its land but only fights its own war of survival in its soil. In midst of global actors, the two can find a wall to recline on, in each other. Ensured survival and stability will open the future to both.
The coming decade may see a slow-pace status quo situation, which may weaken US morale to stay. We might also see a surge of Russian aid that may enable the Taliban to crush the US force. We may also see a status quo because nobody wants to see a strong Afghanistan, making its own choices. We may even see a wide-spread civil war against Kabul, like the one against Babrak Karmal. But most favorably, we may see a strong Taliban, ready to negotiate with the North minus the Kabul authority, which do not represent the North but only US interests.
The status quo, however, can prevail for decades to come as any feasible-for-all solution is impossible. Will Kabul go on with its court-politics, forsaking nation-building for another time or generation? Or will it at last realize its real worth and embrace the mujahideen who have stood as the real defenders of their soil against outsiders – and because of whom, Kabul has been hatching deals with the expansionists. The Taliban and the Northerners are the real heirs of the land and in their unity lies the real solution – the solution of an Afghan owned Afghanistan.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oracle Opinions.