At first glance this remote landlocked nation may not seem to have a whole lot of strategic importance but in actuality it is incredibly important to many regional and global powers. In 19th century , Afghanistan was of great importance to the British empire as a buffer zone between Russia and its prized colony of India, which prompted the British to seek influence in the country. The British suffered the same faith in Afghanistan as Russians were going to suffer roughly a century later; they found themselves stranded in a rough mountainous terrain surrounded by a hostile population comprised of many different ethnicities and tribes with special and convoluted relations with one another. The majority of the country’s population is made of an ethnic group called “Pashtuns”. They are well known for their unique customs and codes which are collectively known as “Pashtunwali” which defy their tribal way of life.
A country with so many different ethnic groups, conflicting tribes while affected by extreme religious extremism is always at danger of descending into instability and chaos the same way Afghanistan did. These factors along have caused many more countries, for example Libya and Somalia, to fall into a path of destruction.
These vulnerabilities can be exploited by the said countries neighbours to influence their internal affairs in a way they deem profitable to their own countries.
After the end of British Raj and subsequent independence of the rivalling nations of India and Pakistan, it became evident to both countries that a strong Afghanistan could pose a significant threat to Pakistan. This powerful and stable state of Afghanistan could have tried to influence the rather large Pashtun population of Pakistan and supported their separatist efforts. To make it worse for Pakistan, Afghanistan could have become close with India in order to pressure Pakistan from both sides. On the other hand in the heat of the cold war when Pakistan was generally seen as a US ally and India, although not communist, leaned towards the Soviet Union; this made Afghanistan even more important since aside from fears of the spread of communism, a Soviet influenced Afghanistan would have been more likely to establish closer ties with India.
However despite occasional political infightings, up until 1970s, Afghanistan for the most part remained a mostly calm and mundane country without making much news headlines. This all changed after a bloodless coup ousted the last king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973. The coup was led by Mohammed Daud Khan, a distant cousin of the king and one of his former prime ministers. After the coup he declared himself the first president of Afghanistan and shortly created his political party which later on during his presidency became the only legal party in the country. His peaceful but fragile government came to an end only 5 years later when he was overthrown and subsequently murdered along with his family in a coup orchestrated by the Soviets and carried out by the “people’s democratic party of Afghanistan” and their sympathizers in the Afghan army.
Although most scholars usually consider the above mentioned communist coup in 1978 known as the “Saur revolution” as the beginning of the Afghan conflict (a general term for all of the wars in Afghanistan ever since), it would make more sense to count the establishment of the republic of Afghanistan under Daud Khan as the beginning of the Afghan conflict. This idea makes more sense when we consider geopolitical and geostrategic factors. First Daud Khan was a Pashtun irredentist, he denounced the internationally recognized border of Afghanistan and Pakistan (“known as Durrand line”) and openly called for the unification of Pashtun people in the form of a Pashtun homeland. This enraged Pakistan and as a result of that the United States refused to provide weapons for the Afghan army as opposed to its ally Pakistan. Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan increased even more after Daud Khan started to support armed anti Pakistani Pashtun groups. In response Pakistan’s funding and support of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan, something that allegedly has continued to this day. One example of how greatly Pakistan’s rule affected the policies of Afghanistan is the successful Pakistani intelligence (ISI) operation in 1975 in order to rescue Afghan Islamist leaders and bring them to Pakistan. Amongst those leaders were some of the most famous future leaders of the mujahedin groups, including Burhanuddin Rabbani, the future president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (the successor state to the communist government after its fall in 1992), Ahmed Shah Massoud, perhaps the best known mujahedin guerrilla commander and the more extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whose group of fanatic followers was generally perceived as a terrorist group.
As a result of this Afghanistan became closer with the Soviet Union and India. Around the same time, China, another neighbour of Afghanistan, which had become a rival of the Soviet Union following the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and had significant border disputes with India decided to side with Pakistan as a potential ally in the region, something that would later on place China against the Afghan government and on the side of the rebel groups.
However, despite being initially friendly, relations with the Soviet Union started to deteriorate in mid 1970s as Daud Khan sought to have closer relations with western countries and the US in particular. We must remember that although left leaning, Daud Khan was not a communist and officially followed a policy of neutrality and non alignment in the cold war.
As mentioned before Daud Khan’s government was eventually overthrown and replaced by a communist government. The new government started to implement vast economic and social reforms, which proved extremely unpopular among the general rural population. The new communist regime was extremely brutal and committed numerous acts of human rights violations.
However widespread public unrest was not the only problem of the communist regime as it also greatly suffered from political infightings and internal divisions within the people’s democratic party. The first president of the communist regime, Nur Muhammad Taraki, was overthrown and killed only a year after assuming power not by the opposition but by one of his former friends, Hafizullah Amin. The fact that Amin had murdered his predecessor shocked and angered the Soviets and was a crucial factor in leading them to assassinate Amin only three months after he assumed power, replacing him with a more moderate and more loyal president, Babrak Karmal.
At this time Mujahedin insurgency was rapidly spreading throughout the country and the Afghan army was in a state of shambles. The Soviets made the terrible mistake of assuming that it is possible to counter a guerrilla campaign using conventional methods. Bad military tactics employed by the Soviets in addition to the extreme unpopularity and incapabilties of the Afghan government and the ever increasing foreign support for the mujahedin trapped the Soviets in an unwinnable war that not only did not save the communist government in Afghanistan, but to an extent it even contributed to the fall of Soviet Union itself.
Throughout the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the loose confederation of Mujahedin received massive amounts fundings from United States (mostly through CIA’s “operation cyclone”), Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Huge sums of finances were received from Arab golf states and other muslim countries as well.
However most of the US funding was indirect, meaning that they would rely on Pakistan to transfer the funds to the mujahedin. This created a major issue that was largely ignored at the time; Mujahedin was composed of many different factions and Pakistan was free to send the US provided funds and equipments to whichever of them it pleased. As a result of this many fundamentalist groups were strengthened, most notably Hekmatyar’s Islamic party which was responsible for killing other mujahedin and thousands of civilians and as mentioned before was mostly considered a terrorist group and the most extremist militant group in Afghanistan before the Taliban.
The idea of “supporting mujahedin to defeat the Soviets no matter what” might have been useful to some of the Pan-Islamist countries in the region, most notably Pakistan and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, but as for the United States the results were disastrous. Many scholars believe that the foundation of Taliban and September 11th attacks were indirect consequences of the US’s blind support for the mujahedin.
Eventually after years of fighting among each other, in 1996 most mujahedin factions were defeated by a new ruthless group called the Taliban. Some continued resistance against Taliban in the far northern regions of the country until 2001 when they recaptured most of the country with the help of the NATO forces. However it was already too late and despite losing major cities Taliban had planted its roots deep within poor and isolated rural areas of the country where they continue to receive public support.
Afghanistan must serve as a historical lesson that some countries are too politically and socially complex for foreign actors to try to influence them. Even with good intentions it could still only complicate things for worse. Had the Soviets not intervened in Afghanistan in 1973, 1978 and again in 1979 things might have been different today not just for Afghanistan but also for many more countries including United States and the Soviet Union itself.