Writing a reflective piece on Afghanistan is no easy task, it a contentious and controversial subject made only more so by almost weekly reports of western troops falling at the hands of the insurgency present in the country. However, because it is such a prominent current event with deep seated historical roots it requires some probing and analysing. Alexander the Great is quoted to have once said, shortly after the Macedonian invasion of Afghanistan around 330 BC that Afghanistan is “easy to march into, hard to march out of”. Another of the countries many invaders Mikhail Gorbachev grimly reflected in his memoirs that he considered Soviet involvement in Afghanistan the greatest mistake of his tenure as premier and called it “The Hopeless Military Adventure”. Empires and armies since records of history began have tried and failed time and again to successfully conquer and retain control of Afghanistan. Macedonia failed, Genghis Khan and the Mongols failed, the British Empire failed twice, the Soviet Union failed, and now it seems as though the latest coalition of nations is doomed to the same fate.
What is it about Afghanistan that makes it so notoriously hard to subdue?
In order to go about addressing these questions it is important to put Afghanistan in its proper context and to disregard any and all preconceptions one may have for the nation. In the eyes of an economic historian Afghanistan is a nation stuck in a time warp; firmly rooted in the medieval system of subsistence farming with 80% of its population engaging in agriculture to merely support itself. The population of Afghanistan is overwhelmingly rural and is incredibly fragmented as a result. Despite efforts of some of its leaders throughout the ages Afghanistan is still a pre-industrial society. Industrialisation has historically brought together disparate ethnic groups and differing social classes to forge a collective industrial working class and establish a sense of uniformity no matter the country in question. As a direct consequence of subsistence Afghanistan is gripped by a constant state of feudalism and tribalism making it very difficult for modernization to take a foothold. However, this is not to say that the Afghan clans and tribes are incapable of working towards a common cause. Fiercely independent as they are they have historically united under one banner in the name of Jihad “An Effort of Striving”: to repel any foreign invader seeking to impose its way of life upon them.
Afghans have had considerable practice at this as well because they have a rich history of being both invaded and occupied by a vast array of empires and cultures. Many great powers throughout history have shown their presence in Afghanistan, starting from the Persian Empire (6th and 5th century BC) through the Macedonian Empire (4th century BC), the Muslim Arabs (7th century AD), the Islamic Turks (10th century AD), the Mongolian Empire (13th century AD), the British and Russian Empires (19th and 20th century AD), the Soviet Union (1980), and finally the United States of America (2001). Out of this impressive list of invaders I feel the most relevant are Macedonia, Britain, and the Soviet Union because they represent different time periods and therefore provide a better scope of the country.
When Macedonia invaded Afghanistan in 330 BC Alexander the Great intended to use the country as a staging point for his empire to expand into India. However, Alexander’s armies came under relentless guerrilla attacks by the native Afghan tribes and were forced out of the country in less than two years. The British Empire was at its zenith around between the 19th and 20th centuries, its colonies spanned the globe and its military prowess was exponential. However, in Asia it found itself in competition with the Russian Empire. Britain sought to create a ‘buffer state’ between India and Russia, seeing the unoccupied Afghanistan as a potential launch pad for a Russian attack against the British Raj in India. Afghanistan found itself between these two powerful and rapidly expanding Empires. Then-ruler Abdur Rahman Khan (1830 – 1901) ruefully admitted that, at this time, his country was “like a grain of wheat in a flour mill waiting to be ground down by two millstones”. Fearing that Russia would take the initiative Britain invaded Afghanistan with the purpose of occupying it and potentially transforming it into a colony. During their first stay in Afghanistan the British attempted to integrate elements of western culture into Afghan society with disastrous results. Efforts to introduce Christianity, infrastructure, and universal education were met with stiff resistance which eventually turned into outright rebellion and an insurgency was born. This scenario of forced cultural imperialism appears to be a recurring theme throughout history, a scenario that Britain in particular was a frequent offender of. The magnitude of the insurgency reached such a level that British forces were, like the many others before then, forced out of the country when it became apparent that waging a continued war against such a difficult enemy was not worth the price of admission.
However, Britain was still not content with leaving such a strategic country be and it invaded Afghanistan once again during the same century with renewed impetus. Britain appeared to have learned from its previous mistakes in the country this time around and significantly toned down the scale of its cultural imperialism. Determined to avert another uprising the British ‘propped up’ the rule of Amānullāh Khān (1892 – 1960), a western educated Afghan emir who sought to ‘modernize’ his kingdom – using his international education and cultural experience as a basis for his policies. In a way this system was somewhat effective, certainly more effective than an imperial master handing down orders from halfway across the world anyway, method of integrating culture change in such a resilient society. This regime remained reasonably stable until the era of the Cold War dawned on the world, which is when a particularly violent (even by Afghan standards) and well documented chapter in Afghan history began. Russia, a nation that once vied for possession of Afghanistan with the British Empire during its own Imperial era, now found itself doing the same this time in the guise of the Soviet Union. Fully aware that its empire was in decline in the wake of the Second World War Britain began withdrawing the support it had previously been supplying to Amānullāh Khān, forcing the Afghan emir to turn to the Soviet Union for assistance.
Although the Soviets had reached out to and subsequently had their hand batted away by Amānullāh Khān in the 1920’s when they sought to spread the word of Lenin they now found themselves with the upper hand: Khān was now reliant on them. Unsurprisingly the aid provided by the Soviets had come with a price: the proliferation and support of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). In 1978 the PDPA with help from the Afghan army seized power from then-president Mohammed Daoud Khan in what is known as the Saur Revolution.
From this point on the Soviets essentially governed Afghanistan by using the PDPA as a proxy-government, using leaders such as Nur Mohammad Taraki and Abdul Qadir Dagarwal to try conceal their presence. Now that the Soviets had put their foot in the door in Afghanistan they sought to transform Afghan society into a society based on Communist/Marxist ideals. If the Soviets thought that Afghans would take kinder to communism than they did to capitalism they were sorely mistaken. The ethnic dimension in Afghanistan was so strong that even Marxism, the Marxism of converts at that it would transpire that not even Marxism could overcome it. The problem about the measures intended to bring about cultural change was that, like every single measure brought about by the various foreign nations before them, they took no account at all of Islam and the embedded complexities of Afghan society that stemmed directly from it. Muslim traditions, way of life, social attitudes and law were far removed from the Russian legal system. Islamic law, the Sharia, expressly prohibited foreign influence. Like the British before them the Soviets neglected to notice the growing dissent and disillusionment brewing amongst Afghan civilians unhappy with this enforced culture change. Eventually this dissent evolved into an insurgency against the PDPA. The insurgency took on the name of ‘The Mujahidin’, which literally means “Warriors of Islam”.
As the rate and ferocity of the Mujahidin attacks intensified, thanks in large to financial and covert military aid from the United States, the PDPA government was forced to travel to Moscow to request military support so it could solidify its regime and fight the Mujahidin. The Soviets were understandably hesitant in committing to any sort of military endeavour because they feared they would be viewed as foreign aggressors and invoke Jihad upon themselves. Eventually the choice to commit military support for the PDPA was made by Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev who sent the 40th Army into Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. Brezhnev’s hand was forced to intervene following a month of exceptionally violent attacks against PDPA institutions and against its figureheads. The result, as expected by the Soviets, was the Mujahidin declared Jihad on the USSR. By invading Afghanistan the Soviets had turned what had been an on-going inter-clan, inter-tribe conflict into a collective Jihad against one foreign infidel. Upon arriving in Afghanistan the strategy that the Soviets hoped to adopt was a simple one and one which echoes strongly with what coalition forces are attempting in vain to this day. The plan was to occupy centres of population and key sites to provide firepower and logistic support for the Afghan Army as the latter deployed into the countryside to deal with the insurgency. At the same time, they would train and equip the Afghan Army, so that, hopefully after a few months, it could be left to control the country itself. The Red Army itself had been trained for conventional, large-scale, fast-moving operations against China or across the central European plain and therefore found the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan a totally unfamiliar proposition. It was able to bring massive firepower to bear but the Mujahidin simply left the area under attack only to return later and resume guerrilla warfare. The Soviets had found themselves locked into the very situation they had wanted to avoid: If they continued to fight against the Mujahidin, a seemingly invincible and invisible army, they would continue to lose men, money, and influence at an escalating rate. If they decided to concede defeat and withdraw from Afghanistan altogether the loss would be spun by western governments as evidence that communism had been defeated.
Gorbachev says little in his memoirs about what he calls ‘The Hopeless Military Adventure’, other than to remark: ‘If one recalls how many lives that war cost us, how many young people were crippled for life, and the loss and sufferings of the Afghan people, one can understand the explosion of hope that came from the promise to end this conflict that had brought shame on our nation’.
Andrei Sakharov (famed Russian scientist/philosopher and reformist), speaking in 1988, said that ‘The war in Afghanistan was in itself criminal, a criminal adventure taken on, undertaken by who knows who, and who knows bears the responsibility for this enormous crime of our Motherland. This crime cost the lives of about a million Afghans; a war of destruction was waged against an entire people… And that is what lies on us as a terrible sin, a terrible reproach.’
The defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan was a factor in the dissolution of Soviet communism, because it led to hitherto unsuspected public protests (similar to the American Vietnam War protests) in the Soviet Union. The victorious Mujahidin took power in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal and the first three years of their rule, if it could be called that, was characterized by the total inability of its leaders to agree amongst themselves on any lasting political settlement and their readiness to fight one another at the slightest provocation, or without provocation at all. Eventually, in-fighting within the Mujahidin led to the rise of warlords in Afghanistan, and from them emerged the rule of the Taliban. It is ironic that on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and by supporting the Mujahidin in fighting the Soviets the United States helped bring into being the most formidable terrorist organisation of all time, a decision that would come back to haunt Americans in the cruellest way imaginable.
Afghanistan has never been desired by imperial nations for any measure of material wealth but rather because it has been an attractive staging point for other Middle Eastern operations for the many empires that have occupied it. During their stays in the country imperial nations and modern governments attempted, as they did with numerous other ‘undeveloped’ nations, to modernize those that they deemed below themselves and attempted to align others with their own societal models – none of which were never or ever will be even remotely compatible with Afghanistan and its people. Sharia Law and Islam by an extension vehemently prohibits international interference in Islamic countries, something that every single would-be invader has constantly neglected to realize. The fiercely independent nature of the Afghan people has contributed time and again throughout history to the rejection of both the capitalist and communist models of development – history has made that clear. Afghans will simply not tolerate foreigners dictating to them how they should work and live, failure to acknowledge this sentiment is almost guaranteed to have a catastrophic result.
How does Afghanistan join the 21st century, if it even wants to?
It should be abundantly clear from this essay that no western nation holds the answer. If change is implemented it must be implemented by Afghans, and be tailored for Afghans, and must be done carefully instead of forcefully.
Further Reading (Most can be found via Google Books)
Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Modern History (Martin McCauley)
Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and Politics (Martin Ewans)
The Kingdom of Afghanistan and the United States: 1828 – 1973 (Leon B. Poullada & Leila D. J. Poullada)
Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective (Anthony Arnold)
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Thomas Barfield)