Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires. But now it has become a graveyard for its own people.
Bengaluru: In his book on Afghanistan, John Griffiths wrote a memorable line: “In the 1950’s Afghanistan had a brief flirtation with a siren called democracy.” If only that flirtation had bloomed into something more, how different would have been her destiny.
And who would have thought that the arrival of a Muslim cleric in an Air France chartered flight to Tehran in February 1979 would change the temper and nature of the present world?
The bizarre phenomenon of an Islamic revolution or Enghelabe Eslami in the twentieth century became possible through Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who declared that jihad must be waged against infidels. The Enghelabe Eslami soon had repercussions in Afghanistan—a land of rugged mountains, swift rivers, impenetrable passes, and paralyzing winters. It has been called the graveyard of empires. But now this land has become a graveyard for its own people.
In 1947, Britain left behind not only a partitioned India but also a weakened Afghanistan through the Durand Line, which benefited Pakistan, their cat’s paw on the sub-continent. Soviet Union condemned the Durand Line as an act of British imperialism. Afghanistan was grateful for this.
King Zahir Shah wanted friendship with both the United States and Soviet Union, but the US did not respond. So Russia gave economic aid worth $550 million. It assisted Afghans to build roads between Kabul, Herat and Kandahar, constructed tunnels, assisted power generation in the Duranta Dam, developed the Helmand Valley project, built silos for storing food grains and invested in small scale industries. Defence personnel were trained in Russia; military equipment was supplied by Russia. The education sector progressed in the 1960s and 70s. The status of women significantly improved. There were women doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, judges, and members of Parliament. Young Afghan men and women received medical and technical education in Soviet universities.
The nation was on the road to progress in the 1970s.
Though Soviet Union was the first to recognize Iran’s Islamic Republic in February 1979, it also was the first to realize the danger of Islamic fanaticism, which could incite religious strife and disunity in its Muslim Central Asian republics. This may have prompted Russia to support the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
It is at this juncture that Russia took a fateful step. Instead of resolving matters with President Daoud, they supported the untried and unruly PDPA, which carried out a bloody coup and overthrew the government of Prince Daoud. Nur Mohammed Taraki became the President of the country. Amin and Karmal were appointed his deputies.
The PDPA initially tried to bring social justice to Afghan society. Taraki’s government implemented land reforms, rural development to help the peasantry, improve the legal status of Afghan women. Tribal leaders watched the modernization with growing fear. Iran sent mullahs to foment religious strife. Pakistan, the traditional foe of Afghanistan, incited insurrections along its eastern border. Educated, professional Afghans were deeply anxious about the situation.
The tragedy of Afghanistan began to unravel in 1979. President Jimmy Carter’s adviser Robert Gates suggested that Afghanistan should be made Russia’s Vietnam.
To undermine Russian influence in Afghanistan, the US directed Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) to train Afghan youths who were anointed as Mujahideen or Warriors of God. A bounty of $1 billion fuelled their fanaticism. The Pakistani ISI received $3 billion to train Mujahideen-terrorists. Some 90,000 Afghan guerrillas and another 100,000 reserves were trained in Pakistan.
They received C4 plastic explosives, long range sniper rifles, wire-guided anti-tank missiles, Stryir anti-aircraft missiles, 122 mm howitzers, AGS-17, grenade launchers, M-4L 82 mm mortars, SA-7 surface to air missiles, external satellites, reconnaissance data on the location of Soviet targets. China also wanted trouble for Russia in Muslim Central Asia; it began training Afghan jihadists in Muslim Xinjiang province.
Unaccustomed to governance, lacking political wisdom, members of the PDPA adopted repressive measures. Afghan army officers, the main support of the PDPA, were alienated when they saw the arrests, summary trials, and disappearance of anyone suspected of dissent. Islamic fervour stirred a mutiny of several army units in Herat in mid-1979. They joined the jihadists.
Moscow saw the danger of Afghanistan falling to jihadists.
Afghan leaders asked Moscow for military intervention. Soviet leaders sternly advised them to promote economic development with Soviet aid, involve the Afghan people in governance, offer social justice for their compatriots. Kremlin warned the PDPA that oppression would make the people turn to the Mujahideen and mullah mentors.
Moscow’s counsel for moderation was ignored.
In July 1979, Hafizullah Amin seized power in a violent coup and had his colleague and friend Mohammad Taraki murdered. Amin’s repressive policies compelled some 11,000 Afghans to flee into exile. Another 10,000 was killed. Soviet Union sent more observers and advisers to check the instability in Afghanistan.
A thwarted Amin offered the US military bases on the Afghan-Soviet frontier in return for military support. Moscow now feared the possibility of the US occupying Afghanistan—and to be on Russia’s doorsteps.
In December 1979, Soviet Union decided to intervene and check the mounting chaos in Afghanistan. The General Staff operative team under Marshal Akhromeyev was stationed in Termez, Uzbekistan, on the Afghan frontier. Soviet Union sent some 75,000 troops; an operational team arrived at Kabul’s Bagram Air Force base on 18 December 1979. Intervention in Afghanistan (which had a 2,000 kilometre border with Soviet Union) was dictated by the needs of Soviet Union’s unity, security of Soviet Central Asian republics, and the protection of the nuclear installations located there.
Those nations who had experienced colonial rule did not oppose Soviet policy because they had received moral and armed support from Soviet Union during their liberation struggles. India gave silent support and offered humanitarian aid to the Afghan government at the height of the hostilities.
Zbigniew Brezenski, US’ National Security Adviser, publicly declared that he instructed Pakistan for a joint and coordinated response, “the purpose of which would be to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible; and we engaged in that effort in a collaborative sense with the Saudis, the Egyptians, the British, the Chinese, and we started providing weapons to the Mujahideen, from various sources…”
Thus Al-Qaeda was born.
So began a decade of death and destruction. Dollars and fundamentalism made the Afghan rebels pawns in a game which destroyed their country’s infrastructure. They mined the land, blew up power transmission lines, oil pipelines, radio stations, government offices, hotels, cinema houses and even hospitals. They killed indiscriminately—passengers in airplanes and buses, doctors, teachers, students, and government officials. They became enemies of the Afghan people.
The Soviet government replaced the vicious lunatic Amin by the moderate Babrak Karmal. The Soviet and Afghan armies began to bring a semblance of stability and order to the strife-torn land. Alarmed at the prospect of Soviet presence in oil rich West Asia, US’ Operation Cyclone stepped up arms supply and Stinger missiles to the Mujahideen-terrorist outfits. The CIA funded Osama bin Laden and his followers to assist the Mujahideen against the Russians. Jamal Khashoggi sent immense Saudi funds to the Mujahideen. They began to rout the Soviet and Afghan National Army.
The Red Army, which had defeated the formidable German army at Stalingrad, was defeated by the guerrilla warfare of the well-armed Mujahideen. Deaths and casualties on both sides were heavy.
President Babrak Karmal was not able to consolidate the position of the government. Several cities and provinces were abandoned to the Mujahideen—soon to reinvent themselves as the Taliban. The next President, Mohammed Najibullah, introduced a new Constitution and embarked on a policy of national reconciliation between the various factions. He had brought a measure of stability to Afghanistan when he was assassinated. A UN negotiator, Diego Cordova formulated the Geneva Accord. It was signed by Soviet Union, the US and Afghanistan. Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989.
The US decision to “make Afghanistan Soviet Union’s Vietnam” brought poverty and displacement of Afghan people, destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, and thousands of deaths and millions of refugees.
Two decades later, Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, declared that supplying stinger missiles and other advanced weaponry to the Afghan terrorists was the greatest blunder of recent US foreign policy. President Donald Trump has stated that US policy in Afghanistan was disastrous for the world.
In 2001, Osama bin Laden turned his implacable wrath on “infidel” Americans. The destruction of New York’s Twin Towers brought the full fury of the US and its allies on Afghanistan. The declared purpose was to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers. But Pakistan gave Osama sanctuary. Much later, he was killed by American operatives. A New York Times journalist, Carlotta Gall in her book, The Wrong Enemy, has recorded how counter-insurgency measures taken by the US forces inadvertently killed non-combatants, bombed homes, offices, hospitals and schools. The Taliban was not evicted. They have re-emerged.
After 20 years, the US-led Coalition has left. The 20-year-old “war against terror”, which cost $1 trillion, 47,000 Afghan lives and 4,000 American lives did not achieve its objective. The Taliban have seized weapons and armoured vehicles left by the US Army. Like an irresistible force, the Taliban are moving across Afghanistan, occupying important cities and border posts.
As fierce fighting broke out between government forces and the Taliban, Russians evacuated their diplomatic and consular staff from Hairatan to Uzbekistan. Indians have done the same. Western governments have advised their citizens to leave Afghanistan. After an attack by Taliban forces on Chinese personnel in Pakistan, they have also begun evacuating their citizens.
Afghanistan is slipping back into the grim abyss of the 1990s—fanaticism, obscurantism, and violence. The Taliban forces are sweeping across Afghanistan, killing defenceless Afghans. Thousands of hungry, homeless and terrified survivors are walking over deserts and mountains in search of safety. But safety is illusory. Bombs and guns of Taliban and government forces have killed and maimed people. The Taliban have wanted lists of girls and young widows to get married to their fighters. Enraged and desperate men have formed militia groups to defend themselves and their families against the depredations of both sides.
Hospitals have no room for the wounded. The World Food Program reports that 18 million Afghans are on the verge of starvation. Ten million children are suffering from malnutrition. Hopes for a good harvest and food have ended.
Food production has declined after three consecutive years of drought.
Some 18,000 Afghans who worked with the Western forces fear punishment. They are trying to find safe haven in the US. But the US is not interested. According to President Biden and US, their mission is accomplished—the mission to evict the Taliban. But they have returned in full and furious force.
The new game on the chessboard is not new. The battle for the Eurasian space has been played out for centuries between many empires. It has now an added dimension—the challenge of Islamic fervour. China’s expansionist schemes could be thwarted by Central Asian Muslims who resent the persecution of Muslim Uyghurs. Shia Iran may be anxious about Sunni Taliban advance to its frontiers. While Pakistan may rejoice at Taliban victory, how long will it be until the Taliban want to cancel the iniquitous Durand Line?
Afghanistan’s neighbours and the regional powers have stakes in the situation. Taliban ideology poses danger to those who have enjoyed secular systems and has the potential to de-stabilize Central Asia. One Western analyst held out a message of hope. He stated that freed from western games the regional states—Russia, China, India, Iran, Central Asian republics—can take opportunities for development and discuss these in the forum of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Russians must have felt a touch of déjà vu when a Taliban delegation arrived in Moscow—the fanatical group which waged war on Russians in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. The Taliban have professed their desire to maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan. They have warned India not to interfere. They have assured Russia that they will not attack Russia or its Central Asian allies. Russia has assured them of military retaliation if they do so.
Misery has come round full circle in Afghanistan.
Achala Moulik, IAS (Retd) is author of the novel “Dangerous Dispatches” about frontline journalists in Afghanistan, published by National Book Trust of India.