Much water has flown under the bridge that links Central Asia to Afghanistan over the Amu Darya (Amo River) since the first Soviet tanks rolled across it into Afghanistan in December 1979.
Several regimes have come and gone in Afghanistan. A number of rulers have been killed or died in exile, but Afghanistan remains in turmoil. When the Soviets left in February 1989 signaling their failure to subdue the Afghans, there was hope that the country would at last have peace and the mujahidin who had battled Soviet forces would work out a power-sharing arrangement. That was not to be.
More bloodletting followed and the country fell under the control of warlords who terrorized the civilian population. Banditry became rampant until the Taliban emerged on the scene in late-1994. These madrasah students based in Qandahar had several things going for them: they were united behind a leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar; and they were disciplined.
The Taliban first took on the warlords and dealt with them with a firm hand. They restored law and order in areas under their control. Then they turned their attention to Kabul where two groups — the Northern Alliance headed by Ahmed Shah Masoud, and Hizb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar — were locked in a battle for control. When the Taliban arrived in Kabul in late-August 1996, Masoud fled to his hideout in Panjshir Valley. Hikmatyar first went to Pakistan and then Iran and back and forth several times (he finally made up with the US-backed regime of Ashraf Ghani and now lives in Kabul).
There are many twists and turns in the Afghan saga that we need to consider but first let us trace its tragic history. Afghanistan has been subjected to foreign invasions, each one unsuccessful in terms of the invaders’ objectives but nonetheless leaving the country in ruins. Millions of Afghans have lost their lives and some five million are still living as refugees in Pakistan and Iran.
What has emerged from 40 years of turmoil in Afghanistan is that successive rulers have ill-served the people. Their overriding concern has been to hang on to power for as long as possible. Some have indulged in an orgy of killings; others have lined their pockets. The people have been further impoverished. Even the $1 trillion the Americans have reportedly spent in Afghanistan since 2001 have gone to either destroying the country or lining the pockets of corrupt American contractors and their Afghan agents, including those calling themselves rulers.
It may, therefore, help to briefly review what has transpired since the Soviet tanks rumbled across the Amu Darya on December 24, 1979. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets before them were motivated by a desire to help the Afghans, notwithstanding their moralistic pronouncements. Empires pursue their own selfish interests, whether it is to gain advantage over one or more rivals or covet the natural resources of the target territory. America’s conduct since 2001 has brought this ugly reality to the fore with stunning clarity.
Let us, however, return to the time when Soviet tanks rolled from the north into Afghanistan. Guided by Afghan communist army officers — Major Aslam Watanjar, Sarwari and Gulabzoi — the invading forces faced little or no resistance from Afghan regime forces. Watanjar in particular was well known in the army since he had led the tank assault on the presidential palace on April 27, 1978 that overthrew the government of President Mohammad Daud Khan.
President Daud and his entire family as well as his brother Naeem and his family were gunned down and their bodies dumped in a mass grave outside the palace. The communists grabbed power in Kabul but the people were far from subdued. In fact, communism was anathema to the predominantly conservative population that was and remains rural and steeped in Islamic traditions, even if their understanding of Islam is somewhat archaic.
Since the April 1978 coup, Afghans have had no peace. First, the communists battled it out with each other and resorted to brutal killings. Initially grouped around the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) — there was nothing democratic about it — the party split into two factions: Khaliq (People) and Parcham (Banner).
Nur Mohammad Taraki who led the Khalq faction became the Marxist regime’s first president. BabrakKarmal was head of the Parcham faction. In the power struggle, Khalq won and Karmal fled the country. But even Khalq was riddled with divisions. Taraki’s Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin was no less ambitious or ruthless. He had Taraki strangled to death in September 1979 and grabbed power. Communist infighting continued to take a toll of the handful of Marxists that comprised the ruling party forcing the Soviets to directly intervene in December 1979.
The first thing the Soviets did upon arrival in Kabul was to dispatch Amin to the other side to join his former boss Taraki. Then, they installed Karmal as president. A clownish figure, he failed to garner any support among the people. It was, in any case, a herculean task.
By 1987, the Soviets had tired of Karmal’s antics and replaced him with Dr. Najibullah. A medical doctor, Najibullah presided over the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in February 1989 but that also sealed his fate. He was overthrown in April 1992 when the mujahidin took control in Kabul.
For nearly 10 years (December 1979–February 1989), the mujahidin and the Afghan people fought the Soviets. The invaders had tried to impose a Soviet-style system on a largely rural-based conservative population. Based on tribal loyalties, the Afghans did not like the Soviets’ hardnosed policy of imposing change from the top.
The Soviets and their Afghan puppets in turn indulged in scorched-earth policy against Afghan villagers but failed to subdue them. Brute force is not a good policy to win hearts and minds. Eventually, the Soviets were forced to leave the country. From February 15, 1989 to September 1996, various Afghan factions, all of them former mujahidin, fought each other for control of Kabul before the Taliban emerged and took over the reins of power.
The Taliban in turn were driven from power in October 2001 when the US and its allies attacked Afghanistan under the spurious allegation that Osama bin Laden was involved in the 9/11 attacks. He was not; it was a complete lie but the warlords in Washington, driven by hubris, were not interested in facts.
Many experts including leading architects, structural engineers, and firefighters have questioned the official version of 9/11. Successive regimes in Washington have refused to investigate these concerns. Nor have they explained what the five Israelis dancing on a building and filming attacks on the Twin Towers were doing on that fateful day?
In October 2001, more than 100,000 US troops backed by massive air power, attacked Afghanistan. America’s NATO allies and 43 other countries provided an additional 60,000 troops bringing the total of foreign troops to 160,000. Armed with the most sophisticated weapons and backed by massive air power, they easily dislodged the Taliban from Kabul. It was suicidal for the Taliban to have stayed put. Their only chance of survival was to abandon the capital and melt into the mountains.
That is precisely what they did and gradually regrouped. The turning point came in 2005 when they started to make territorial gains. Today the Taliban control more than 60% of the country while the US-backed regime in Kabul is confined virtually to the presidential palace. Fighting continues in different parts of Afghanistan as the ill-motivated regime forces, “US-trained and backed,” continue to lose ground to the Taliban. The Americans are on the verge of total defeat, hence their desperate bid for a face-saving withdrawal from the landlocked country. The Taliban are poised to retake power in Kabul, even if in some power sharing arrangement with other groups.
Several lessons can be drawn from Afghanistan’s 40-year war. First, never invade Afghanistan even if you are a superpower. Second, the Afghans will never accept a system imposed by outsiders. Third, when the Afghans have driven the invaders out, they will resume fighting among themselves. That is what they are good at: fighting!