Afghanistan has long been infamous for being the ‘Graveyard of Mighty Empires’ from the time of Alexander to Persians to Mongols to British to Soviets or now NATO. The Powers that have tried to conquer Afghanistan have always been decimated or been made to suffer bloody retreats. Afghanistan owes this infamous association because of the Terrain & the Tribes that dominate this region. The terrain in Afghanistan is one of the most difficult ones from the Confluence of Hindu Kush & Himalayan Ranges in North, to the Tora Bora Mountains to east & vast arid plains to the south. Afghanistan, a land locked country still stands isolated from the world in a different Era of 18th Century while the rest of the world has moved into 21st Century. One of the factors that make Afghanistan most difficult to conquer along with is terrain are the Tribal Warlords. Afghanistan as it exists today consist of various tribes like Tajiks & Uzbeks that once formed the part of Northern Alliance while the majority dominated Pashtuns comprise most of the leadership of Taliban. Conflicts in Afghanistan have been fought for centuries on Tribal lines lead by Warlords but whenever any foreign power has tried to conquer Afghanistan it has faced a bloody conflict at the hands of these very Tribal Warlords in one’s of the world’s most difficult terrains. To understand the modern wars once must understand why Afghanistan is called “The Graveyard of Empires’.
Tribes in Afghanistan
Ethnic groups in Afghanistan come in two flavors: tribal and non-tribal. Tajiks are the largest non-tribal nationality in Afghanistan, making up one-third of the population. Tajiks became politically dominant in the region with Tahirids, Safarids, Samanids and Ghurids Empires between the 9th and 12th centuries, and constitute the urban population of almost all the provinces. The urban Tajiks are bureaucrats, clerics and merchants. The rural Tajiks are involved in agriculture. However, the Khans and Mirs have always played the role of local leaders in Tajik society. The Uzbeks, Turkmen, Hazaras, Baluch, Pashtuns and Aimaqs are predominantly tribal. The tribal bonds are stronger in Pashtuns and they can trace their genealogy to a common ancestor. With regard to the others, either they have not been recognized by their tribal decedents externally, such as the Hazaras, or they lost their genealogical character at some point in the past, such as Uzbeks and Turkmen.
The tribal structure of Hazaras was diminished to a large extent as a result of mass killings by King Abdurrahman Khan between 1880 and 1901. Being Shiite, Hazaras faced substantial discrimination since the time of King Abdurrahman until the end of the first republic in 1978. The Communist government supported minorities to some extent and recognized their rights. The Uzbeks are Turkic-speaking people who are dispersed in the north of the country, which became politically dominant in the region in the 10th century with the Ghaznavids. The Pashtu-speaking tribes are categorized in three different social structures and political cultures: the Ghilzais, the Durranis and the Kuchis.
The modern nation-state of Afghanistan has formed as a result of two main factors: The colonial rivalry between Russia and the British in Central Asia, and internal subjugation of different nations and ethnicities by the rulers of Afghanistan. Despite having a diverse political culture at the national level and being a multinational country, the Pashtun culture and kinship structure has configured the nature of the state in Afghanistan over the last two centuries. Since the mid-18th century when the Pashtuns were brought to power by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1747, their political culture has been the defining factor of Afghanistan’s national politics. The kin-based tribal culture enforced a hierarchical social structure at the national political level. In this structure, the Durrani Pashtuns are at the top of the pyramid; Ghilzia Pashtun comes second; and Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras come sequentially at the bottom.
The assimilationist nation-building process centralized the Pashtun kin-based political culture as Afghanistan became a tribalized nation-state. The main reason behind Pashtuns’ consolidation of power was the sponsorship of Pashtun rulers by colonial powers, which changed Afghanistan to a Rentier state. In 19th and early 20th century, it was the British who funded the rulers for example; the British sponsored Abdurrahman Khan with 1.8 million rupees annually. The Soviet Union (USSR) and the US took on the role from British 1950s onward. This assimilationist nation-building and ethnicity-based nationalism were adopted by figures such as Mahmud Tarzi, founder of Serj al-Akhbar newspaper in 1911, and Afghanistan’s foreign minister in 1919. These figures were affected by the nationalist ideologies of the Ottoman Young Turks.
Systematic ethnic, religious and linguistic discrimination and revolt against Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik king, in 1929 were the fruits of this structure. The state structure and resources were used in favor of one ethnic group. The oppressed ethnic groups felt alienated from the nation-building process and this led to grievances and enhanced social rifts.
History of Lost Empires in Afghanistan
After the formation of the modern nation-state from 1880-1929, Afghanistan has witnessed at least seven major conflicts. Starting from the war of state construction and establishing a centralized authority between 1880-1901; on through the 1919 conflict with British India and guerrilla war against the Soviet invasion and the Communist administration in Kabul (1979–92); onto the civil war among the rival mujahedeen factions (1992–96); and the ongoing fight against the Taliban since 9/11, war has been an almost continual presence in the lives of Afghans.
The beginning of modern Afghanistan can be dated back to 1747, when the Afghans in Nadir Shah's army returned home after his death. Their leader, Ahmad Khan Abdali, entered Kandahar and was elected king of the Afghans in a tribal assembly. He took the title Durr-i-Durran ('pearl among pearls') and changed the name of his tribe to the Durrani. Ahmad Shah Durrani, as he is now called, had learnt from Nadir Shah the profession of conquest. He applied these skills with great success over the next twenty-five years. The extent of his empire fluctuated, according to the success of his ceaseless campaigns to protect its boundaries and most of his reign in Afghanistan extended from the Amu Darya in the north to the Arabian Sea and from Herat to the Punjab.
Dost Mohammed: 1818-1838
Kabul was taken in 1818 by an Afghan tribe, the Barakzai, led on this occasion by Dost Mohammed - the twentieth but the most forceful of the twenty-one sons of the tribal chieftain. Civil war against supporters of the Durrani continued for several years, until in 1826 the country was safely divided between Dost Mohammed and some of his brothers. Dost Mohammed received the greatest share, in a stretch from Ghazni to Jalalabad which included Kabul. He was soon accepted as the leader of the nation, taking the formal title of Emir from 1837 and was also accepted in this role by foreigners as well as by the Afghan tribes.
Afghanistan's relationship with foreign powers was by now an important factor. Since the time of Peter the Great, in the early 18th century, Russia was interested in developing a direct trading link with India. This meant the need for a friendly or puppet regime in Afghanistan. The idea of Russian influence in this region (the only neighboring territory with easy access to Britain's Indian empire) inevitably rang alarm bells in London. Thus Dost Mohammed found himself courted by both sides. A British mission was established in Kabul in 1837. While discussions were under way, the Russian envoy also arrived and was later received by the emir. In lieu of these developments the negotiations with the British broke and they were ordered to leave Kabul by emir. The response to this of then governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, was a forceful but an extremely miscalculated step that would cost the British dearly. He used the rebuff by Afghan Emir as a pretext for an invasion of Afghanistan, in 1838, with the intention of restoring a ruler from the Durrani dynasty (Shah Shuja, on the throne from 1803 to 1809) who appeared to be more malleable. This was the first of three occasions on which the British attempted to impose their political will on Afghanistan. All three attempts proved disastrous.
Two Anglo-Afghan Wars: 1838-1842 and 1878-81
In December 1838, British Indian army assembled in India for an Afghan campaign. By April 1839, after a difficult advance under constant attacks from tribal guerrillas, the city of Kandahar was captured. Here Britain's chosen puppet ruler, Shah Shuja, was crowned in a mosque. Four months later Kabul was taken and Shah Shuja was crowned again. By the end of 1840 the rightful Emir, Dost Mohammed, who was prisoner of the British was sent to Exile with his family into India. But the British garrisons in Afghan towns found it increasingly difficult to control the proud Afghan tribesmen, who were up in arms on this foreign invasion.
In January 1842 the British garrison of some 4500 troops withdrew from Kabul, leaving Shah Shuja to his fate (he was soon assassinated). Most of the retreating British and Indian soldiers were also killed during their attempt to reach safely back to India. The British army recaptured Kabul during the summer of 1842, more as a gesture of defiance than as a matter of practical policy - for the decision subsequently taken to restore Dost Mohammed to his throne. He returned from India in 1843 and ruled without further British interference, for another twenty years. He extended his territory, by the end of his reign, as far west as Herat.
Dost Mohammed was succeeded by his third son Sher Ali, after some years of bitter family feuding. It was Sher Ali's perceived leaning towards Russia, which again provoked British hostility. Evoking memories of his father's offence in 1837, he welcomed a Russian mission to Kabul in 1878 and on this occasion even rejected a British one. In November 1878 three British armies divisions pushed through the mountain passes into Afghanistan. They took Jalalabad and Kandahar by the end of the year, and soon seemed to have achieved everything they had wished. A very advantageous treaty was agreed in May 1879 with Yakub Khan (the son of Sher Ali, who has died in February). Under the treaty Yakub Khan accepted a permanent British embassy in Kabul. Moreover Afghanistan's foreign affairs from now on were to be conducted by the British. But events soon proved that such a privilege can be dangerous in Afghanistan. In September the British envoy to Kabul, his entire staff and escort were massacred.
This disaster brought an immediate escalation of British military activity in Afghanistan, but to little political advantage. Yakub Khan was exiled to India. In his place the British accepted Abdurrahman Khan, a rival grandson of Dost Mohammed and the popular choice of the Afghan tribes as their Emir. Abdurrahman had spent ten years in exile during the reign of his uncle Sher Ali, having been on the losing side in the bitter family war of succession. But his chosen place of exile did not chime well with British interests. He was based in the Russian empire, in Samarkand, acquainting himself with Russian methods of administration. In 1880 Britain accepted Abdurrahman as Emir of Kabul, agreeing at the same time not to demand residence for a British envoy anywhere in Afghanistan. When British troops finally withdrew in 1881 (having meanwhile helped Abdurrahman against some rebellious cousins), the political achievement of two costly wars against Russian interference seemed on the debit side. But at least Abdurrahman proved an excellent emir.
Abdurrahman was followed on the throne by three generations of his family. He had set a pattern, which they followed, of an authoritarian regime dedicated to the introduction of technology and investment from more developed countries - though the violence and anarchy of Afghan life often frustrated such modernizing intentions. Abdurrahman was succeeded in 1901 by his son Habibullah Khan, who successfully maintained a policy of strict neutrality during World War I. After the war he demanded international recognition of Afghanistan's full independence. This claim prompted Britain's third ineffectual intervention in Afghan affairs, though it was Habibullah's son Amanullah Khan who had to deal with the crisis (after his father was assassinated in 1919) which lasted a month and was again inconclusive.
This lead to a treaty (signed in Rawalpindi in August 1919) in which Britain acknowledged Afghanistan's independence as a nation. With this achieved, Amanullah accelerated a programme of reform on European lines. But in doing so he alienated the old guard. Amanullah was forced into exile during an outbreak of civil war in 1929. Order was then restored by Amanullah's cousin, Nadir Khan, until he in turn was assassinated in 1933. This act of violence brought to the throne Nadir's only surviving son, the 19-year-old Zahir Shah.
Prelude to Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan
In a reign of forty years Zahir Shah skillfully promoted Afghan interests. Once again neutrality was successfully maintained during World War 2 and in the ensuing Cold War, Afghanistan brilliantly demonstrated the power of a non-aligned country to derive benefits from the major players on both sides. Both USA and the USSR build highways and hospitals, in a mood of superpower competition orchestrated by Zahir's cousin and brother-in-law Daud Khan (prime minister from 1953). Daud Khan resigned in 1963 because of tense relations with Pakistan (the border was closed from 1961 until just after his resignation).His departure prompted Zahir Shah to attempt a major constitutional reform. In 1973 Daud Khan returned to power with military support in an almost bloodless coup. Zahir Shah was forced into exile in Europe.
Since 1978 the Soviet presence gradually increased in Afghanistan - their most recent puppet state, and potentially a prestigious scalp in the Cold War. Now, in the anarchy of late 1979, Moscow decided to take a more active role. In December Soviet troops moved into Kabul. As Britain always feared, Russia finally bid to control Afghanistan. And as Britain long ago discovered, this was a most unwise ambition of Kremlin.
Soviet occupation of Afghanistan: 1979-1989
The communist Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin, was shot within a day of the Soviet invasion. In his place, the Russians brought Babrak Karmal from Moscow, as their puppet ruler but ruling Afghanistan in these circumstances proved impossible. Russian tanks had the power to take any town and Russian planes could bomb even remote valleys into temporary submission, but as soon as the focus of military might shifted elsewhere, the guerrillas returned to take control on the ground. Only Kabul remained a relatively safe area in ten years of devastation and once USA began supplying the Jihadis with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, even Soviet air attacks become dangerous missions. We have already discussed in The Afghan Encounter – Global Islamic Jihad how US along with Saudis & Pakistan launched the militant Jihadis in form of Al Qaeda, Taliban to dislodge the Soviets from Afghanistan. This is one moment is history that changed the nature of wars in future from conventional ones to proxy ones. The most striking bargain was persuading seven Afghan Jihadi groups to come together in a common cause. In 1985 these seven groups, met in Peshawar and formed a united front as the Islami Itehad Afghanistan Mujaheddin (Islamic Unity of Afghan Warriors, or IUAW). The Mujaheddin (from the same Arabic root as jihad, holy war) become famous throughout the world as the latest manifestation of the Afghan fighting spirit.
The warfare between Russia and the mujahedin not only devastated an already poor country but also depopulated it as eventually some 2 million refugees fled into Pakistan and another 1.8 million into Iran. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, the festering sore of Afghanistan was one of the urgent problems confronting him. He first attempted a political solution, replacing the useless Babrak Karmal with a former chief of police, Mohammad Najibullah. But Najibullah proved equally ineffective in reconciling the Afghan people to a Soviet presence, and in 1988 Gorbachev decided to cut his losses by announcing that Soviet troops will begin a phased withdrawal. The last battalion crossed the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River in February 1989 - leaving President Najibullah to try and run a communist Afghan state on his own. This Afghan War drained the Soviets out & it was one of the primary factors that lead to disintegration of the Soviet Union few years later.
NATO’s War in Afghanistan:
While the Americans left Jihadis to fend for themselves in the Region after the Soviet Withdrawal, the Radical movements that they covertly cultivated in Afghanistan took monstrous proportions and started attacking western Targets like WTC in 1993, Nairobi Embassy Bombing, Attack on USS Cole & culminating into the audacious attack of 9/11 that shook the world leading to Afghan Invasion by US & NATO to destroy Al-Qaeda headed by Bin Laden that it once created & to dislodge the Taliban that was providing safe sanctuaries for terrorists. Thus began the next wave of US-NATO Conquest of Afghanistan in the Garb of War on Terror.
The war on terror proceeded with US Air power providing support to Northern Alliance and helped it within a span of few months to dislodge the Taliban & other jihadi elements; that fled to Pakistan across the mountainous terrain between the 2 countries. The War in Afghanistan went on for nearly 13 years with combat operations ending on 31st December 2014 though ISAF & US do maintain a small no of troops as part of BSA (Bi-Lateral Security Agreement) with Afghanistan to train its Afghan National Army.
But it seems none of the great powers learnt the lesson from earlier disastrous adventures by British & Soviets. Just like before, Americans & their NATO Allies faced stiff resistance from Taliban militias who are mainly made of Pashtuns operating from FATA, SWAT & Baluchistan area of Pakistan where they are being backed by its intelligence agency ISI. America’s prime target after the capture of Osama Bin Laden has been the Haqqani Network, which has carried out deadly bombings against the NATO Troops & its supply chains. Ironically the Haqqanis’ are protected by Tribal Militias & backed by Pakistan’s ISI which played a primarily role in the Afghan Jihad vs. the Soviets along with Americans. It is rather intriguing that while America has recently placed Abdul Aziz Haqqani as a Designated Global Terrorist, it has not yet placed Jalaluddin Haqqani - the patron of the group on that list.
The Monster of Jihadi Groups in Af-Pak has grown leaps & bounds with various groups like Haqqanis, Afghan Taliban, Jandullah, Pakistan Taliban and LeT operating out of the region carrying out audacious attack on Coalition Troops and Installations. Afghan Taliban (Quetta Shura) lead by Siraj Haqqani has rather become the major stake holder in the whole region as its being backed by Pakistan, China (since the early 1990s) & now even Iran who want get Taliban into mainstream to prevent/counter the rise of Ultra Extremists like ISIS in Afghanistan, but the recent announcement of death of Mullah Omar the Emir of Afghan Taliban has considerably opened the fault lines among the various factions of the militant group raising the stakes of battle for territories between 2 jihadist groups.
Unlike in Syria/Iraq or any other region, the battle lines in Afghanistan are primarily based on Tribal & Ethnic lines not on sectarian lines of Shia or Sunni. The draw down of American Forces after billions spent on the Afghan War since 2001 & thousands of casualties just goes to underscore the fact that Afghanistan is meant to ruled by its WarLords and that whenever any foreign power has tried to conquer it, it has only resulted in a bloody retreat and a far more messy & chaotic Afghanistan with its Economy & People in tatters. The Americans failed to learn the lesson of history that you can start a war but the most difficult part is to exit the war with minimal damage that too in country like Afghanistan which is infamously known as “The Graveyard of Empires”.