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Afghanistan: a brief history

Understanding Afghanistan today is only possible by looking at it in the context of the part played by the competing imperial powers in its past. Jane Shallice offers a guide

11 to 14 minute read

British and allied forces at Kandahar after the 1880 Battle of Kandahar, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.


Part 1: 1842-1930. Invasions and Independence

The origins of Afghanistan as a state with fixed boundaries go back to the 19th century power struggle between Russia and Britain for control over the trade routes and military advantages of this strategic heartland.

As Russia conquered the territories of Bokhara and Tashkent close to the northern border of Afghanistan in the early 19th century, the British became concerned that further gains could jeopardise their hold over India. The ‘First Anglo-Afghan War’ saw a British force depose the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, after he sought to strengthen his ties with Russia. In his place, they installed the deeply unpopular and ruthlessly brutal former Amir, Shah Shujah, a loyal British ally.

Two years later, when the British cabinet made savings by cutting the bribes it paid to the southern Pashtun tribes for their support, British forces in Kabul faced a large and well organised rebellion. They were routed in one of the British army’s worst defeats. A column of 4,500 British troops and 12,000 civilians attempted in vain to make their escape in the harsh January winter. Only one man out of the original 16,500, Dr Brydon, reached Jalalabad alive. Shujah had also been killed. Retribution was immediate. Much of Kabul was destroyed in the process. Shujah’s son was made Amir. But by the time the British had retreated one month later, the new Amir was killed and Dost returned.

Thirty-seven years later, in 1878, when again it appeared to the British that the Afghan ruler (Dost’s successor, Amir Shir Ali) was becoming too close to the Russians, the British government sent a 35,000-strong invasion force. Shir Ali died of natural causes during the invasion, and, with British troops occupying most of the country, his son, Mohammed Yakub Khan, was forced to sign a peace treaty ceding large areas of territory and relinquishing control of Afghan foreign affairs to the British. This treaty imposed by the British, the Treaty of Gandamark, formally established Afghanistan as a state.

After another brief insurrection in 1880, in which the British suffered a notable defeat in the battle of Maiwand, Afghanistan became a client state of Britain, who installed Amir Abdur Rahman as ruler and provided him with weapons. Known as the ‘Iron Amir’, he governed with great brutality, executing large numbers of opponents, making conversion to Islam mandatory and forcibly transplanting entire hostile tribes.

In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand, the British India foreign minister insisted on dividing Afghanistan and what was then British India across a border that bore little relation to demographic realities. Waziristan – the Pashtun homeland – was split between what is today south-eastern Afghanistan and the North West Frontier provinces of Pakistan. The Durrand Line, as it became known, was meant to establish Afghanistan as a ‘buffer state’ between India and the Russian empire, while annexing strategically significant high ground to India.

In 1919, the progressive liberal reformer, Amanullah, became king. He was influenced by the emerging nationalist and modernist movements of the time. A strong influence on his thinking was Mahmud Tarzi, his father in law, who believed in a progressive Islam and like Amanullah wanted to overcome the backwardness of Aghanistan, which they both believed to be in part a consequence of British control. Tarzi became Amanullah’s foreign minister. They demanded unconditional independence from Britain. A short war followed – the Third Afghan War – ending with Britain capitulating to full Afghan independence. Inspired by radical developments occurring throughout the Middle East, Amanullah wanted to build a proper infrastructure, found a mass educational system and a postal network, and tried to enshrine social rights for women in the country’s first constitution.

Meanwhile, the British continued to destabilise the newly independent Afghan state by providing material support to the southern tribes who opposed Amanullah’s radical reforms – which also included forcing tribal leaders to wear suits and cut off their beards. In 1928, after yet another insurrection, Amanullah was forced into exile, leaving Afghanistan to undergo half a century of lacklustre rule by three successive generations of the Durrani family dynasty.

Part 2: 1979-1996. Communism, the mujahideen and the Taliban in Afghanistan

The first 20 years or so of the cold war were a period of relative stability – and the years when Afghanistan became a destination on the hippy trail. The competing big powers used aid to extend their influence.

In 1973, the Durrani dynasty ended. Amir Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammed Daud, with the support of the small domestic Communist Party. Afghanistan became a republic. While many welcomed the modernising direction of the new republic, parts of the population remained extremely conservative, and a small Islamist movement began to gain influence led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud. Under pressure from the government these Islamists moved to Pakistan and forged alliances with Islamist organisations there, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1978, Iranian followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini moved into Herat. Marxist army officers used this as an opportunity to overthrew Daud and installed a communist regime, which immediately moved to speed up the process of modernisation, demanding secular co-education and land reform. As part of the cold war strategy to weaken the Soviet Union, Jimmy Carter’s administration began covertly funding the Islamic opposition with the help of the Pakistani secret services, the ISI.

The government requested military support from the Soviets, and in December 1979 100,000 troops crossed the River Oxus from Russia into Afghanistan. Pakistan immediately received enormous US and Saudi aid to support the mujahideen. In border camps, the ISI trained more than 35,000 foreign and Afghan Islamic militants in insurgency warfare and terror. Those supported in this way included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. William Casey, then head of the CIA, described the policy as attacking ‘the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union’.

By the time Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the war had claimed 1.5 million Afghan lives and displaced two million refugees – half of the world’s refugees at this point were Afghans. The Soviets are estimated to have lost as many as 75,000 soldiers.

Contrary to promises made during the 1988 Geneva Convention, the US continued to fund the mujahideen and the Pakistani ISI. The latter’s power became almost equivalent to a shadow state. The training that it supervised was designed to inflict maximum terror and cause complete social breakdown, turning Pakistan into the world centre of jihadism for the next two decades and very likely sowing the seeds of Al Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden was among the young fighters supported by the US in this way.

The Soviets, meanwhile, backed the government of new president, Najibullah. This support soon dried up, however, when the USSR collapsed in 1989, leaving the army demoralised, poorly equipped and under constant attack. Six of Afghanistan’s 31 provinces quickly fell to the mujahideen.

Ethnic differences undermined any possibility of unity between the mujahideen warlords. Throughout 1991, they fought to expand their areas of power, and Afghanistan became a major source of world heroin supply as they facilitated poppy production and smuggling to fund their militias.

In April 1992, the rebel commander General Dostum and his Uzbek militias entered Kabul and arrested Najibullah. Rabbani was installed as president, with Ahmed Shah Massoud as defence minister. Alliances between the warlords fractured and a brutal civil war ensued. Pashtuns, under Hekmatyar, fought against an alliance of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara warlords under Shah Massoud. Kabul became the scene of a series of massive battles in which 20,000 were killed, and the country was split into small pockets, each under the control of a different warlord. Battles between the factions were incessant and devastating, creating more than five million refugees.

Then, in November 1994, a hitherto unknown force called the Taliban captured Kandahar.

Adherents to a strict and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, they were a highly political movement aiming to transform Afghanistan into an Islamic state. Well armed with weapons remaining from the Soviet conflict, and using Japanese pickup trucks to mount lightning attacks, they were an efficient fighting force. In the next three months they took 12 more provinces.

For many Afghans, influenced by elements of Sufism, the Taliban’s intolerant interpretation of Islam was unwelcome. But as the Taliban began to instill order and stability after 16 years of banditry and crushing exploitation by the warlord barons, they won popular support. This stability came at a heavy cost to individual freedoms, however. Women were removed from public life, losing all jobs, education and most health care. Traditional pastimes, such as playing marbles and flying kites, were no longer allowed. Music and dancing were prohibited, televisions were removed, cigarettes were banned, and works of art were destroyed.

For the next two years, the Taliban fought the warlords, eventually emerging as victors in 1996. Massoud retreated north with the Tajik section of the Northern Alliance, whilst Dostum and the Uzbeks remained secure in Mazar. Hekmatyar sought refuge in Iran.

Part 3: 1996-2009. Enduring Freedom

The Taliban’s relationship with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden – who had arrived in Kabul in 1996 – became of increasing international concern. In 2000, the UN security council passed a resolution instituting sanctions. Pakistan, however, remained loyal to Kabul, and continued to provide fuel and supplies.

The Taliban continued to pound the Northern Alliance, and instigated a campaign of savage internal repression against Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara minority. Meanwhile, a nationwide drought killed 70 per cent of the country’s livestock and ruined 50 per cent of its agricultural land. Again, vast numbers were displaced, yet the UN was unable to raise the $221 million required for humanitarian aid.

In 1989 the US withdrew from direct involvement in Afghanistan. Within ten days of 9/11, however, Bush announced ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’: 110 CIA officers and 316 special forces operatives were given $1 billion to fund the anti-Taliban militias of the Northern Alliance. The assumption was that the 9/11 attacks were the work of Al Qaeda located in Afghanistan. US air support decimated the Taliban, and by November the Northern Alliance had retaken Herat and Kabul. Thousands of Taliban prisoners were massacred in the aftermath.

With victory seemingly assured, the Bonn Agreement was signed in December 2001, and Mohammad Karzai, a former lobbyist for Unocal from an old Pashtun family, was chosen as interim leader.

Despite foreign troops flooding into the country, real power remained with the warlords and their militias. Extortion, kidnappings and killings were rife, and poppy production – which had declined under the Taliban – exploded as the warlords used drug revenues to fund an arms race. The death toll continued to mount over the next two years as they battled for control of territory, yet the world’s media was mostly distracted by events in Iraq. Another devastating drought caused widespread starvation and disease, and Dostum’s militias in the north carried out numerous atrocities against the local Pashtun population. Enormous social upheaval ensued. The number of civilian deaths during this period remains unknown.

In June 2002 an interim government was established. Seventeen top level cabinet posts were given to the victorious warlords of the Northern Alliance, including principal positions in the defence, interior, intelligence and foreign affairs ministries. Pashtuns held 11 seats, Tajiks eight, Hazaras five and Uzbeks three. The interim government remained weak and ineffectual compared to the warlords, however, and reconstruction efforts were impeded by a budget deficit. Offers of foreign aid did not match the resultant inflow of funds. A US think-tank, the Rand Corporation, estimated that $167 per head was required to stabilise Afghanistan. By 2003 the country had received a mere $57 per head.

Unemployment and poverty were endemic. Migration from the countryside increased, and the cities swelled with makeshift shanty towns. Kabul’s population had risen from an estimated 400,000 in the 1970s to 3.5 million. By June 2003, the US had donated $1.9 billion in ‘aid’, but this brought about little improvement. Reconstruction contracts were mostly given to US firms, which frequently overcharged for grossly inefficient work. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams established to operate outside Kabul were frequently subject to interference from the local warlords on whose authorisation and protection they were reliant. Government and NGO corruption was endemic. There was limited success in educational reform. In Kabul, 45 per cent of girls were receiving some form of education, but in the rest of the country the situation remained largely unchanged.

From August 2003, Nato expanded the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) mission, assuming responsibility for nationwide security (previously their operations were confined to Kabul). Ostensibly a peace-keeping force, around 40 countries donated troops. Security continued to worsen, however, and in Helmand and Zabul, the Taliban opened up a major new offensive. The Red Cross and other NGOs pulled out of the southern provinces, and the UN suspended travel for all its employees. By the winter of 2003, the Taliban had recaptured 80 per cent of Zabul province.

The Afghan defence minister pressed donor governments to fund an army of 200,000 soldiers. He received funds for just 37,000. Many recruits were illiterate, and desertion rates were high. Efforts to rebuild the police force were also hampered by similar issues of illiteracy and inadequate funding, training and equipment.

A total of 10.3 million people were registered to vote in the October 2004 elections, 40 per cent of whom were women. Karzai retained the presidency with 55 per cent of the vote. Despite political developments, however, life continued to get worse for the majority. A small government elite grew enormously wealthy through corruption and outright theft – vice president Zia Masoud, for example, was apprehended in a Dubai airport with a million dollars in cash – while development indicators continued to fall. According to the 2007 UN Human Development Report, life expectancy was 43 years, adult literacy ran at just 28 per cent, only 39 per cent of Afghans had access to clean water, and more than one in four children would die before they reached five years of age. This showed a marked decline, even from 2003.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan was deteriorating into a narco-state. Warlords paid by the coalition to curb opium production instead pocketed the money while yields increased. With the economy in ruins, poppy cultivation became the only reliable source of income for farmers. Efforts to eradicate these crops, therefore, make the fragile government yet more unpopular, and fuel support for the insurgency. By 2007, Afghanistan was producing 8,200 tons of raw opium a year – 93 per cent of total world production, an increase of around 4,600 tons from 2003.

Since 2006, the Taliban and their allies have made significant gains on the other side of the Durrand line in Pakistan. At the same time, coalition air strikes and raids against insurgents in Afghanistan’s predominantly Pashtun south have caused large numbers of civilian casualties, further bolstering support for the resistance, which, in turn, was mounting successful attacks on coalition forces with greater frequency.

Counter-insurgency is now overshadowing nation building. Development projects are forced to rely on links with occupying forces, creating dangers for the Afghans involved. Little progress is being made. Karzai’s government remains dependent on the ISAF, and Northern Alliance warlords continue to occupy key cabinet positions.

Insurgents have captured large swathes of Pakistan’s northern provinces, and are engaged in heavy fighting with Pakistani troops, while coalition forces currently control just 30 per cent of Afghanistan. William Dalrymple gives a vivid glimpse of the consequences:

‘Meanwhile, tens of thousands of ordinary people from the surrounding hills of the semi-autonomous tribal belt that runs along the Afghan border have fled from the conflict zones, blasted by missiles from the unmanned American Predator drones and strafed by Pakistani helicopter gunships, to the tent camps now ringing Peshawar. The tribal areas have never been fully under the control of any Pakistani government, and have now been radicalised as never before. The rain of armaments from the US drones and Pakistani ground forces, which have caused extensive civilian casualties, daily add a steady stream of angry foot soldiers to the insurgency. Elsewhere in Pakistan, anti-western religious and political extremism continues to flourish, and there are signs that the instability is now spreading from the Frontier Province to the relatively settled confines of Lahore and the Punjab.’ (Guardian, 4 April 2009)

With 25,000 more American troops awaiting deployment in the coming months, the conflict, and its consequences for civilians and for the stability of the region, only look set to get worse.

This history is based on the original programme notes for The Great Game at the Tricycle Theatre. The programme, with the full version of the three-part history of Afghanistan, is available from www.tricycle.co.uk 

Jane Shallice is a retired teacher and member of the National Education Union

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