Afghanistan was one of the few countries, probably the only one that survived the 19th century Great Game, the decades of landgrab competition between Victorian England and Tzarist Russia in central and east Asia.
It is the only country in the modern world which no European power ever colonized or really ruled, a nation which has never been defeated by a foreign power, including the mighty Soviet Union which, invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
But this proud nation has more than once been humbled by its own people, who since the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989 waged what seems like a never-ending civil war that is expected to reach its climax once the last American soldier leaves on September 11 this year.
A constant state of war
What is about Afghanistan that keeps it in constant state of war? And why the great powers of every era seem particularly keen on dominating this landlocked country with its unforgiving terrain?
For a starter, Afghanistan is strategically and geopolitically important, neighbouring China, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian countries. It lies in the centre of an area, that for long has been the focus of key players with conflicting interests such as England, Russia, India, China, Iran and more recently the United States.
The Khyber Pass, located between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has for centuries been one of the most important trade routes and strategic military locations in the world.
The Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes, nearly 7,000 km long, also known as the cultural crossroads of the Indian, Persian and Chinese civilisations, passed through Afghanistan. Secondly, the country is also quite rich in untapped natural resources such as minerals, gas and oil. Some estimates put the country oil and gas reserves’ value at $1 trillion.
An ethnic, tribal divide
However, its population of 40 million are divided between nearly 50 ethnic, tribal and sub-tribal groups, with at least 30 languages. The main communities are the Pashtun, by far the majority group at 42 per cent of the population, followed by the Tajik at 27 per cent and the Hazara and the Uzbeks both at 9 per cent.
Therefore, it has always been challenging to unify such diverse, and often conflicting, ethnicities. Afghanistan saw only brief periods of stability in the last 200 years. And instability in Afghanistan would naturally destabilise the entire region and, as recent history proved, provide safe haven for terrorist groups and drug producers and traffickers.
In much of the 19th century, the British and Russian empires were locked in what was known as ‘The Great Game’ - the competition to secure hegemony in large parts of Asia, particularly Afghanistan. Britain’s exaggerated fears that Russia was planning to invade India, which was under British rule, decided to seize Afghanistan, as A buffer zone.
The British launched three failed military campaigns for this purpose, the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842), the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880) and the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919)·
It took the English three devastating wars to learn that Afghanistan is a country that is virtually impossible to conquer. Its diverse tribes and ethnic groups may often fight among themselves for the most ridiculous reasons but will always unite to repel an invading foreigner.
Sanctity of the land
The Afghans will never show mercy to those who attempt to breach the sanctity of their land. Rudyard Kipling can attest to that.
Most of the works of the colonial era English author focussed on India, where he was born in 1865, but his most famous poem is the one that has over the years become a stern warning note for would-be Afghanistan invaders. The poem, The Young British Soldier, written more than a century ago goes like this:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what Remains,
An’go to your Gawd Like a soldier.”
Kipling is well known to be a colonial propagandist, someone who saw the non-English as lesser breeds, henceforth his verses in this poem seem awfully stereotypical and prejudiced. Nevertheless, they capture the humiliation of the British on the hands of the Afghans in the First Anglo-Afghan War.
By the end of this campaign in 1942, and as the British army, their families and thousands of support staff retreated from Kabul, they were attacked by Afghans. By the end of the day, they were all dead except for one young British soldier. Yes, a single soldier managed to make it to Jalalabad, where the British commanders were stationed.
Most probably, his life was spared by the Afghans to tell his superiors back in India of the horrors that await them if they attempt another campaign. After three failed campaigns, the British seemed to have learned their lesson. But another power, 100 years later, tried its luck, only to suffer a similar humbling fate.
On December 24, 1979, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, which was at its prime, invaded Afghanistan to instil a friendly Communist government headed by Babrak Karmal, the exiled leader of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
The Mujahidin take-over
They seized Kabul in a matter of hours but for the next 10 years, they suffered countless attacks by the resistance fighters, then called ‘Mujahidin’, heavily armed by the US, Pakistan and other countries fearful of the spread of Communist ideology in this part of the world. With their guerrilla tactics and armed with US-supplied anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, the ‘Mujahidin’ inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets.
After 10 years and more than 15,000 of their soldiers dead, the Soviets decided it was time to get out of Afghanistan. The last Soviet soldier crossed back across the border on February 15, 1989.
For the next five years, and with no foreign threat at the door, the Afghans were back in their own traditional feud, fighting for power and resources.
In 1994, a small zealous group of religion’s students, calling themselves the Taliban, with their twisted mix of tribalism and a rigid interpretation of Islam, and fed up with the in-fighting among the ruling Mujahidin, began its march from the south of the country with the aim of establishing their own Islamic state. By 1996, the extremist Taliban captured the capital Kabul.
As they established their religious emirate, the Taliban opened the vast country to all those willing to fight against the western hegemony, especially the former Arab fighters who fought along the Afghans against the Soviets.
Osama Bin Laden was one of them and he set up one of the most notorious terror shops there - Al Qaida, from which he plotted the 11 September 2001 attacks on American which led to the US invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban government quickly tumbled. Its leaders became on the run and a pro-US government was installed.
The Americans didn’t learn the Kipling lesson too. After 20 years of war, thousands of dead and injured soldiers and hundreds of billions wasted, the Americans, like the British and the Soviets before them, have finally resigned to the ‘Afghan factor’ and decided it was time to get out. They failed to bring peace to the war-scarred country.
History repeats itself they say. The Taliban, who inherited the Soviets more than two decades ago, are doing it again. They are likely to inherit the departing Americans.
The Wall Street Journal few days ago quoted a confidential government report as saying that the US intelligence community has concluded recently that the government of Afghanistan “could collapse as soon as six months after the American military withdrawal is completed.” The Taliban are poised to take over the country, again, it noted.
A Taliban rule is therefore likely. They have swept large parts of the country in the past few months. Their previous experience at the helm wasn’t an inspiring one. Yet, they may have leaned few things since. They have perhaps evolved in thinking and approach.
Few can claim they have sufficient knowledge of what their reclusive leaders think and plan. Will the ruthless and intellectually rigid student movement bring peace that Afghanistan has for 200 years been yearning for? That remains to be seen. One thing is clear- the concerned global players are giving them the chance this time.
They don’t have a choice, do they?