Afghanistan: The many invasions of … (Afghanistan)

What is noteworthy is the extent to which the broad division of forces in the war between the Soviets and their client regime versus the Mujahideen is similar to the division of forces in the current struggle between the NATO forces and their Afghan allies versus the Taliban.


Afghanistan, a country whose current population is estimated to be about 31.5 million, has been invaded many times over the millennia. In his whirlwind conquests in the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great seized the lands bordering on the Aegean Sea and the whole of the Persian Empire, driving into Afghanistan and a corner of India before turning back to the west and occupying Egypt in 332 B.C.

During his brief stay on Afghan soil, Alexander left one important legacy, the city of Kandahar, which was named after him. Despite its forbidding terrain in the heart of Central Asia, Afghan mountain passes have served as gateways for important commercial routes. And the territory of Afghanistan has been prized as strategically important in imperial struggles over the centuries.

The Russians and the British invaded the country on a number of occasions, ultimately concluding that local resistance made Afghanistan too much trouble to be worth long-term occupation. During the 19th century, the British and the Russians eyed each other's empires across the territory of Afghanistan in what came to be known as "the great game." The British feared that if the Russians gained control of Afghanistan, they could push through the Khyber Pass and threaten British India.

The Khyber Pass has been the legendary route for invasions going in both directions over thousands of years. It was the route Alexander the Great took as he left Afghan territory for his foray into India. The British forces in India were woefully undermanned should a Russian force descend on them. The British had always relied on the power of the Royal Navy to sustain their Indian empire. A threat from a great land-based power to the north would pose a much different kind of challenge.

For those who analyzed the geo-politics of the late 19th century, the favourite war they imagined was that between Russia and Britain, a war that would have had Afghanistan as its strategic centre. Among others, Karl Marx thought it likely that this would be the next great war to break out among the imperial powers. That war, of course, was never fought. But that did not stop both the Russians and the British from maintaining a continuing interest in Afghanistan.

To counter the Russian threat and to gain a predominant role in this strategically vital territory, the British fought three wars, known as the Anglo-Afghan wars. British military planners in Calcutta concluded that the safety of India required a cordon sanitaire, a swath of territory including Afghanistan that was safely under British sway.

The first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842, an effort to reduce Afghanistan to a dependency resulted in a humiliating defeat. The British garrison in Kabul was expelled and during its wretched winter retreat to the Khyber Pass, it was very nearly decimated. The war helped develop the reputation of the Afghans in the English speaking world as ferocious fighters in their resistance to foreign occupation of their country. To restore their prestige, tarnished by the disaster, the British launched raids deep into Afghanistan where they put villages, crops and livestock to the torch.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880, was waged when the existing Afghan regime refused to concede a favoured position to the British in Kabul. The war ended with regime change in Afghanistan and resulted in a period of British control over Afghan foreign policy. During this war, when he went on a speaking tour of Scotland to denounce the imperialism of the governing Tories, Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone charged that in Afghanistan the British had razed villages, leaving their inhabitants destitute and starving.
During the latter 19th century, the British and the Russians agreed on the boundaries for Afghanistan that endure today. During the First World War, Afghanistan remained neutral despite German efforts - playing on some local sympathy - to install a pro-German regime.

During the third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, the government in Kabul sought to end British control over the country's foreign policy. British intelligence concluded that the Afghans were seeking aid in the form of aircraft and pilots from the newly created Soviet Union. The British, who had had enough of war by then, signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi on August 19,
1919. With the treaty, London gave up its decades-old effort to control Afghan foreign policy. August 19 is celebrated by Afghans as their national independence day.

The retreat of the British from Afghanistan did not end the country's miseries at the hands of foreigners. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, an invasion that ended in colossal failure. Many date the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European Empire from that abortive adventure.

The Soviet interest in Afghanistan had existed for many decades prior to the invasion. In the 1950s, the Soviets began providing aid to Afghanistan, conceived by them as a part of their global Cold War struggle against the United States and the capitalist West. The Soviets built roads, constructed a number of oil pipelines, and established irrigation systems.

During the 1970s, local Afghan communists overthrew the Afghan monarchy and established their own regime. The communist regime promoted land reform on behalf of the peasantry and women's equality. The idea of equal rights for women was deeply offensive to conservative elements in the country. The version of Islam practiced in rural Afghanistan insisted on the dominance of men and on the required covering of women (the burka) when they appeared outside their homes.

The Soviets sent more than 100,000 soldiers into Afghanistan. As was the case with the American assault in 2001, they quickly secured Kabul and appeared to have overwhelmed their foes. Having turned out the previous government, the Soviets installed Babrak Karmal as the country's new head of government.

Karmal, an acclaimed actor and Marxist, was one of the 28 founding members of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1965. He was elected to Afghanistan's National Assembly the same year and served in that body until 1973.

In 1967, the PDPA split into two factions, with Karmal heading the more moderate of the factions, the one that had more contacts with the outside world. After the reuniting of the factions in 1977, the party seized control of Afghanistan the following year. Initially Karmal served as the regime's Deputy Premier, but the resumption of factionalism and the rise of his political opponents resulted in Karmal being demoted to the position of ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

The efforts of the PDPA to modernize Afghanistan met with stubborn resistance. As the country sank into chaos, the Soviets invaded. Soviet commandos killed the country's leader Hafizullah Amin, opening the way for Karmal's ascent to power. Karmal promised democratic and constitutional reforms. He pledged an end to the death penalty in Afghanistan, individual rights and freedoms and the election of national and local assemblies.

What is noteworthy is the extent to which the broad division of forces in the war between the Soviets and their client regime versus the Mujahideen is similar to the division of forces in the current struggle between the NATO forces and their Afghan allies versus the Taliban. The Soviets had a firm grip on Kabul and other cities, as does NATO, and the Soviets promised reform to the people of Afghanistan including equal rights for women, as does NATO. sounding promises that were made, the Soviets and their Afghan underlings used force to pummel the insurgents into oblivion. The Soviets bombed the rural areas of Afghanistan, destroying villages, farm land and irrigation systems. This scorched earth policy killed an enormous number of people, rendered millions homeless and pushed the people in large parts of the country into starvation.

On top of all this carnage, the Soviets sowed the Afghan landscape with tens of thousands of land mines. Over the years, the weapons have killed and maimed thousands of people, and continue to take a heavy toll. The ruthlessness of the Soviets and their clients was reminiscent of the worst atrocities of the Stalinist regime during the forced industrialization and collectivization of land during the 1930s, when millions of people died, especially in the Ukraine.

The Jimmy Carter administration in Washington vehemently opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other things organizing a boycott by western countries of the Moscow Olympics in the summer of 1980. The fact that the Soviets and their clients, although far from being democrats, were decidedly more pro-women's rights than were the insurgents, did nothing to deter the Carter administration from supporting the insurgents. From the beginning the Americans helped organize and fund the armed opposition to the Soviet client regime.

The war that ensued between the Karmal government and the Mujahideen was both a genuine civil conflict and a proxy Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. The war, which devastated the country, forced several million Afghans to flee their homeland into neighbouring regions of Iran and Pakistan. From sanctuaries outside Afghanistan, these displaced people served as a recruitment base for the guerilla forces that fought the Soviet backed government.

The insurgents were generously financed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as by China, allowing them to purchase weapons on a large scale. As the war progressed, the Mujahideen developed a flexible, decentralized fighting force, with units of about 300 men each, who were able to hit the Soviets and their Afghan allies and then retreat. After several years of conflict, the insurgents possessed many hundreds of small bases in Afghanistan.

The Mujahideen, drawing on money, weapons and leadership from multiple sources, were never a unified movement. Their most famous leader, of course, was the Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was highly effective as an organizer and financier of the insurgency in Afghanistan and his efforts drew fighters into the country not only from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, but from many parts of the Muslim world.

For the Soviet Union, the financial and human costs of the war were staggeringly high. In 1989, after a decade of conflict in which 15,000 Soviet soldiers perished, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev concluded that his country, whose Eastern European empire was already showing signs of collapse, had to withdraw from Afghanistan. After the Soviets pulled out, their client regime gradually disintegrated, collapsing altogether in 1992, when the forces of the Mujahideen surrounded Kabul and seized it.

The fall of the Soviet regime in Afghanistan was far from being the end of the country's woes. No sooner had the victorious Mujahideen entered the capital than they fell out with each other to wage war for control of the country.

The Karmal regime faced fierce and growing opposition in the countryside. Despite the liberal developed among the Pashtun population in the south that they were not sufficiently represented in the shaky government in Kabul.

Out of this turmoil, religious scholars and former Mujahideen fighters established the Taliban, with its main base in Kandahar. By 2000, the Taliban had seized control of almost the whole of the country. By that point, the active opposition to the Taliban was limited to a small corner of the country, the fiefdom of the Northern Alliance, which continued to receive UN recognition as the government of Afghanistan.

Under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban sought to replace rule by the warlords, who had subjected Afghans to misery, corruption, rape and bloodshed, with a government intent on imposing a very strict version of Islamic or Sharia law. The Taliban regime quickly became notorious for its implementation of public executions and floggings at soccer stadiums. Men had to wear beards and were beaten if they did not.

As soon as the Taliban took control in Kabul, girls were banned from attending school and women were forced out of the workforce, a move that created a shortage of labour in both the educational system and in health care. Women, who were forced to wear the burka (a full body costume and head covering exposing only slits for the eyes), were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative. Women, who disobeyed these regulations, could be beaten or even killed. Nail polish was banned and women flouting this regulation were liable to have the tips of their fingers cut off.

Kite-flying and other supposedly frivolous activities were prohibited, as was foreign music and television. Taliban extremism became notorious internationally. In 2001, destruction by the Taliban regime of the 2,000-year-old Buddhist statues in Bamian, seen by Mullah Omar and his associates as idolatrous, led to global condemnation.

There are many strains of Islamic thought and practice. While it is not our purpose here to discuss the origins of Taliban thought and the place of such thinking in the wider spectrum of Islamic ideas, it is clear that many Islamic scholars are highly critical of the Taliban's approach to theology and society. According to some scholars, Taliban ideas combine some of the elements of Wahhabism, a strain of Islamic thought dating back to 18th century Saudi Arabia with customs of the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan.

In addition to being criticized for its domestic practices, the Taliban regime was harshly condemned internationally for allowing the poppy and heroin trade to continue. In part in response to international protests, the Taliban cracked down on the poppy trade and claimed in the summer of 2000 that it had reduced the trade by two-thirds. Just as efforts to stamp out the poppy trade have damaged the standing of the present Afghan government in some regions of the country, where the heroin trade forms the base of the economy, Taliban attempts to do the same also led to political alienation and opposition.

Another feature of the Taliban regime, one that was ultimately to bring it to grief, was its willingness to allow Afghan territory to be used as a refuge and training ground for Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, which means "the base," developed from the Arab volunteers who went to Afghanistan during the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation.

In the early 1990s, Al Qaeda's central operation was based in Sudan. After 1996, it shifted its headquarters to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden developed close ties with the Taliban leadership. The result was the establishment of training camps in Afghanistan.

In August 1998, following the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. military to launch cruise missile attacks against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. He named Al Qaeda as the organization responsible for the embassy attacks and pinpointed Osama bin Laden as the leader of the organization.

The Taliban never managed to eliminate all internal opposition to its rule. As we have seen, the Northern Alliance continued its armed struggle against the Taliban regime. With the U.S. assault on Afghanistan in the weeks following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, yet another Afghan regime was put together, this one including elements of the Northern Alliance. Once again, Afghanistan was invaded from abroad, this time by the world's only superpower and its allies. Once again an Afghan government was constructed, this time to suit the new invaders.

As was the case in previous invasions of Afghanistan, the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that the West will tire of its mission and will withdraw its forces leaving the various power groups in Afghanistan to sort out their own future. In the meantime, all that will have been achieved is to deepen the misery of the people of this unfortunate country.

Von: 21.03.2007 by James Laxer

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