Afghanistan a second Chance to Transform a Nation

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A Second Chance to Transform a Nation

Tim Wood

Final Research Based Argument

Prof. Bruce Lusignan


Table of Contents

Historical Background, Pre-European Intervention 3

Early Precedents of Failed Western Intervention in Afghani Affairs 4

The Events Leading Up to the Soviet Conflict 6

The Soviet War and US Involvement 8

The Post War Situation and the Rise and Fall of the Taliban 12

The Flip Side to American Involvement in Afghanistan; A Proposed Solution 14

Works Cited 19

Supplementary Images & Diagrams 20

I. Historical Background, Pre-European Intervention
Before Western European intervention in its affairs, Afghanistan progressed relatively well while resisting the interference of invading foreigners. The region was among the first to domesticate plants and animals over 50,000 years ago, and in the 2000s BCE, urban centers served as important centers of commerce and craft. The city of Mundigak, located near the modern city of Kandahar, possibly invented bronze and served as an important passage between Mesopotamia and other Indus valley civilizations. Its relative prominence and strategic value led Darius the Great to expand the Persian Empire into the majority of Afghanistan in an invasion around 500 BCE that included some of its most metropolitan areas. In a foreshadowing of conflicts to come over the next few thousand years, the Afghan people constantly revolted against and attacked the Persian authority with their tribal groups, particularly in the Arachosia region. After 200 years, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, which consequently led to another invasion into Afghanistan met by constant and bloody revolt. In 50 AD, Kushan rule was established by King Kanishka, but the empire fragmented into hostile dynasties 170 years later, setting up the stage for the White Hun invasion of 400 AD that resulted in the destruction of Afghani Buddhist culture. In 550 AD, Persians reaffirmed control over roughly the modern boundaries of Afghanistan, but once again, Afghan tribes revolted fiercely against the Persian occupiers. These events should have served as important and noted precedents for future generations of invaders (Chronological History of Afghanistan).

II. Early Precedents of Failed Western Intervention in Afghani Affairs
The region of Afghanistan became strategically significant with Great Britain’s colonization of India. By the early nineteenth century, India provided vast amounts of resources, land, and profit for England, and the British considered India the jewel of their “imperial crown” that needed to be protected at all costs (Chirnside). Under its tsarist rule, Russia had been expanding in many directions, and southward seemed to be the next logical alternative. Russia sent various diplomatic envoys that began to gain favor with Dost Muhammad, the acting ruler of Afghanistan during that time. Britain began its campaign in 1839 with almost 20,000 troops, capturing Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul. British forces captured Dost Muhammad and exiled him to India, where he would not influence the new puppet government under the former ruler Shah Shuja. Upon Dost’s exile, Great Britain assumed that stability and control would last under the new ruler, so they withdrew all troops save for two envoys in Kabul. Two years passed without much action, but in 1841, Afghani rebels converged upon the Kabul outpost and killed many of the British forces left behind. The British troops were offered safe passage to India once they surrendered, but when they were ambushed in the Khyber Pass, Britain reinvaded the region. However, the Afghanis continued to rebel vigorously and assassinated Shah Shuja. Facing massive and widespread retaliation without a puppet ruler to exert influence, the British saw a grave situation and withdrew from Afghanistan. The exiled Dost Muhammad returned to Afghanistan and reoccupied the royal throne with the people’s satisfaction, thus proving the continuous autonomy and resiliency of the Afghans as well as their distaste for foreign intervention (Afghanistan Online).

Despite their failure in the face of Afghan resistance in the 1830s, Great Britain kept their strong strategic interest in Afghanistan as a player among the Anglo-Russian competition. The Russians had defeated the Ottoman Empire by 1878, thus establishing a large base of power in many areas around Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Russians sent a small envoy in the late 1870s to the Afghani government, which at that time was under the royal control of Dost Muhammed’s son, Sher Ali. The British wanted a parallel presence in Afghanistan and demanded that Sher Ali admit an English group; a refusal would be countered by a threat of war and invasion. The Afghans had not forgetten the British injustice of only a generation before, and so their refusal to admit the English convoy resulted in a British invasion with 35,700 troops. Sher Ali narrowly escaped the British, who instated the puppet king Yakub Khan. Even more compliant than his pupper predecessor, Yakub Khan signed a treaty ceding the Kurram, Khyber, Michni, Pishin, and Sibi regions of Afghanistan, which were never recovered. However, by September of 1879, the Afghanis revolted once again and declared a jihad (holy war) upon the invaders— the 100,000 who responded to the call for jihad cleared many British presences in Kabul. Facing incredible resistance once again, the British withdrew and claimed to have authority over Afghanistan’s foreign policy and relations. In 1907, Russia and Great Britain signed the Convention of St. Petersburg, which essentially declared that Afghanistan would not be in Russia’s “sphere of influence,” while Britain would be require to “neither annex nor occupy – any portion of Afghanistan or to interfere in the internal administration of the country” (“Modern Afghanistan”). Once Amir Habibullah Khan was assassinated, his son diverted attention from accusations of patricide by declaring a jihad on Britain on May 3, 1919, thus sparking a third Anglo-Afghan War that caused a stalemate that resulted in a settlement for Afghan independence; additionally, Afghanistan became one of the first countries to officially recognize the new Soviet Russian government, starting a unique relationship between the two states (Afghanistan 1919).

III. The Events Leading Up to the Soviet Conflict
According to several sources, society in Afghanistan during the preeminence of the Soviet Union remained largely conservative and devoid of the large bourgeois-proletarian class divides that often incited communism. Furthermore, only 5% of the population could read any sort of communist literature, and even those who could had no modern, invading imperialist power on which to focus their discontent. Additionally, because of the good relations the Afghani monarchs pursued with the Soviets, the Soviets did not actively pursue the installation of a communist government as they did in countless other nations of the region. Regardless, once Shah Mahmud brought liberal reform in the late 1940s, the press became free to criticize government policy, while student and political groups grew in number, particularly in the university scene in Kabul. The 1949 Afghani Parliament was among the most left-leaning ever elected, and further liberal reforms began to be demanded by a newly-informed public. As newspapers increasingly hammered the Afghani government and spurred resistance among the general populace, Shah Mahmud realized that he extended his liberal policy too far—by 1951, Afghanistan dissolved student groups at Kabul University, and newspapers that countered the government’s authority were simply dismantled and shut down. As Nyrop and Seekins note, "the disillusionment which accompanied the abrupt termination of the experiment in liberalism was an important factor in the radicalisation of the men who later established the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan." (Nyrop and Seekins, 6). The harsh conservatism rampant in the Parliament of 1952 reflected this government-initiated backlash against liberalism (Afghanistan Online).

Soon after, the government’s power transferred from the monarchy to the king’s first cousin Prime Minister Daoud, who despite his Western-education, held an authoritarian mindset, to the disappointment of the liberals of the 1940s reforms. Prime Minister Daoud sought to modernize the relations and internal affairs of Afghanistan to bring it to speed internationally without playing a submissive role to western nations: he unveiled his ministers’ wives at the protest of Muslim leaders, whose protests only led to Daoud’s challenge to find a verse in the Koran sponsoring veiling, and the consequent ejection of these opposition leaders. Daoud’s stern policy on the Pashtunian region led to subtle aggression between Pakistan and Afghanistan throughout the 1950s. Once Afghanistan’s trade routes to India and many other large importers of Afghani goods were sealed by the Pakistanis, Afghanistan’s economy suffered terribly and caused the well-known and publicly supported family of the previous monarchy to ask Prime Minister Daoud to step down from power. Despite Daoud’s control and easy ability to reject this offer, Daoud and his foreign minister and brother Naim stepped down from power and Zahir Shah of the royal family named the European-educated Muhammad Yousuf to his place (Seekins).

After about a decade of uneventful rule, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took power with Daoud as leader in April of 1978 despite its lack of widespread support among the general Afghani populace. The coup marked a leftist shift to power, as the PDPA was openly pro-Soviet and more importantly, pro-communist, which drastically changed Afghanistan’s former status as a non-intervening, neutral nation among a hotbed of politics and alliances. The coup itself was largely carried out by Soviet-trained officers, marking a backbone Soviet inclination in Afghanistan’s defense structure (Seekins).
IV. The Soviet War and US Involvement

Up until this point, the United State largely refrained from involving itself with Afghani affairs. The majority of its efforts in the region had been focused on the Soviet Union and surrounding nations’ conversion to communism under the heavy political, economic, and military force of the nearby USSR, as well as the situation in Iran with the falling support for the American-installed Shah. However, with the rise of the PDPA into power, the United States began to pay significant attention to the affairs in Afghanistan, particularly with the growing Soviet influence in the nation. Because the PDPA had an unfriendly stance toward the Muslim religion, many Afghanis at the grassroots level were fundamentally and religiously opposed to their new socialist government. From the Soviet side, two theories are held: first, the recovery and maintenance of a friendly socialist government in nearby Afghanistan, or the conquest of a nation that stood in its way toward an extension of its power to the southern coastlines (Seekins). Regardless, the United States had intense involvement as far as six months before Soviet intervention: the Central Intelligence Agency saw the situation as a golden opportunity to “give the Soviets their Vietnam,” as National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it (TalkLeft).

The United States knew that their financial involvement in Afghanistan would inevitably lead to Soviet military involvement. Once the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA had been meeting with mujahideen resistance fighters who were largely based in Pakistan to keep operations running smoothly. The United States provided arms, training, and multiple forms assistance to the Afghani resistance fighters, many of which were deeply religious and believed that their faith obligated them to engage in the conflict, in the form of jihad, literally a striving or struggle that represents a defensive action or a move to correct what is perceived as wrongdoing. In an effort to disguise their aid and involvement, the United States provided much aid to Pakistan, whose government agency ISI (parallel to the CIA) funneled the funds toward the Afghani resistance movement against the Soviet-supported PDPA government.

A brief chance for US withdrawal of involvement occurred when Islamic militants took over Pakistan’s government near the end of President Carter’s tenure, but once Reagan was elected president, he and Congressman Wilson, a mastermind behind the conflict, the Pakistanis were guaranteed massive amounts of funds once again, totaling some $3 billion by the end of US involvement (Chalmers Johnson, 6). The most effective tool the Soviet government had against the insurgents was the Hind MI-24, a heavily armored gunship helicopter that easily took down entire villages of resistance fighters, who could not retaliate. As a result, Congressman Wilson pushed heavily for the Oerlikon, a Swiss made antiaircraft rocket made by a company in which Wilson had a stake in the sales. Soon, after little hesitation, Reagan sponsored an effort to supply Stinger antiaircraft missiles and train the mujahideen, who used it with great success against the Hinds. All this support led to heavy Soviet losses, and soon President Mikhail Gorbachev declared a pullout of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1988 to cut its losses, and a subsequent declaration of a “victory” in the Cold War by the White House. Yet as Chalmers Johnson stated in his piece published by the Los Angeles Times, the “CIA armed…some of the same people who in 1996 killed 19 American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; blew a hole in the side of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden harbor in 2000; and on Sept. 11, 2001, flew hijacked airliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon” (Johnson, “Largest Covert Operation”).

Ultimately, Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic Monthly describes the Afghanistan situation as far worse than Vietnam, dwarfing most parallels that people try to draw:

“According to most military experts, a comparison between the war in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War is most useful as a point of departure. Whereas American air strikes over North Vietnam were tightly controlled, the Soviets engaged in indiscriminate carpet-bombing of urban areas and populated farmland. (No major city in Vietnam was damaged to the extent that Qandahar has been.) Whereas the American military tended to use helicopters to attack specific targets or to insert troops, the Soviets used their flying battleships to demolish whole villages. And whereas the Americans carefully mapped their minefields and deployed mines mainly on the perimeters of their bases and positions, the Soviets kept few maps and sowed literally millions of mines throughout the entire Afghan countryside. ‘By the standards of Vietnam, Afghanistan was much more savage," says David Isby…who calls the kind of war the Soviets fought "cheap and nasty," and others have characterized it similarly. Weapons like mines and mortars were unleashed on such a scale as to obliterate much of the population upon which the guerrillas depended, severely restricting the need for actual battle. Estimates of the number of unexploded Soviet mines now in Afghanistan range up to 30 million. (In Qandahar my driver kept to well-rutted tracks; walking even a few feet off the road is considered hazardous.) The Soviets lost between 12,000 and 50,000 men in Afghanistan, significantly fewer than the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam.Yet the number of Afghan civilians who were killed during the war—estimated at more than a million—is more than the number of civilians killed in Vietnam, a country that had two and a half times as many people as Afghanistan. The Soviets achieved the effect of a nuclear strike without actually having to deliver one.” (Kaplan 3)

Afghanistan faced incredible national destruction and devastation unlike anything else, but the people of Afghanistan responded uniquely: rather than surrender at the face of constant brutality and defeat, the will of the Afghans only strengthened. As Kaplan goes on to argue, Afghanistan had been accustomed to living without the benefits of a modern world, and the bombings did not mark the destruction of a “modern industrialized society” that Western nations feared so much (Kaplan 4).

Overall, the war began as an evolution of a bloody coup staged by the communist faction in Afghanistan that led broad reforms on the government and society that were not received well by the population. Essentially, Afghanistan faced a civil war that broadened as the Soviet brass decided to intervene and support the fledgling communist government and secure their form of leadership, as they had done with some degree of success in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively (Nawroz and Grau). The Soviets held a vast advantage over the Afghans technologically, but the Afghans used their will to successfully use guerilla warfare in the defense of their country. Nawroz and Grau state that the most important lesson to be learned from the conflict is that “a guerrilla war is not a war of technology versus peasantry. Rather, it is a contest of endurance and national will. The side with the greatest moral commitment (ideological, religious or patriotic) will hold the ground at the end of the conflict. Battlefield victory can be almost irrelevant, since victory is often determined by morale, obstinacy and survival” (Nawroz and Grau).

V. The Post War Situation and the Rise and Fall of the Taliban
At the time of Gorbachev’s announcement of the retreat of Soviet forces in 1988, various rebellious factions headed by local warlords held control of different regions of the country. By 1992, Kabul had been captured by these factions in opposition to the communist government, and the alliance formed a 50-seat governing council with Burhanuddin as the acting leader and interim president. However, the local warlords could not unite properly and form peace, and leader Gulbiddin Hekmatyar of one of the myriad guerilla factions attacked the new government and other opposing factions. Soon, Afghanistan was divided into multiple distinct regions, each with its own warlord controlling more or less discrete territories.

In the midst of all of the fighting, a powerful new faction emerged called the Taliban, a “militia of Pashtun Islamic fundamentalists…[with] increasingly powerful force” (Infoplease). Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, became indoctrinated after devoting himself to refugee camps near Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghanistan War, and by 1994, he had created a militia powerful enough to succeed in battle against local warlords. By September of 1996, the Taliban had captured both Kabul and Kandahar and controlled two-thirds of the entire country, where they imposed an extremely strict and conservative interpretation of Islamic law that led to consequent bans on entertainment, the pictorial depiction of living things, and the oppression of women, all a supposed adherence to virtue and religious law. By 1998, the Taliban was well on its way to controlling 90% of Afghanistan, and soon the United States compiled allegedly conclusive evidence that Afghanistan had been hosting terrorist training complexes funded by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian member of a multibillionaire construction family that had ties to the American Embassy bombings in 1998 (Nyrop and Seekins). At this time, the United Nations officially recognized the interim president Burhannudin and the Northern Alliance, the last remaining stalwart of opposition against the Taliban. Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud led peace agreements that sustained limited times of peace between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, but with his assassination in September 2001, the region was headed on a path toward grave instability.

Combined with the evidence linking the Taliban to September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States led a campaign to oust the Taliban and their support of bin Laden’s terrorist network al Qaeda from Afghanistan by directing air strikes and providing financial and arms support to the Northern Alliance fighters. American troops landed in the country in November 2001 on a search for Osama bin Laden and the leaders of the al Qaeda network, and continue a quest for alleged justice and world peace. Between the defecting al Qaeda and Taliban troops and the successful cooperation with the Northern Alliance, the United States achieved its goal of ousting the Taliban. In December of 2001, a pan-Afghan conference appointed Hamid Karzai to the office of interim president, the position Rabbani once held. Muhammad Zahir Khan became reintroduced as the widely-accepted “father of the nation,” and Afghanistan seemed to be on a path toward amelioration.
VI. The Flip Side to American Involvement in Afghanistan; A Proposed Solution

The main goal of the United States in invading Afghanistan was to capture Osama bin Laden. To this day, America has still not succeeded, and Afghanistan seems at risk for the future. Hamid Karzai, the US-backed interim president, has been elected to a two-year term and offers a good hope for relatively liberal leadership in Afghanistan. However, one of his vice presidents has been assassinated, and Karzai himself has had attempts on his life; warlords in various regions refuse to follow his authority and have no consequences for their disobedience; the Taliban and al Qaeda supporters and sympathizers have reemerged, particularly in the south of the nation; finally, statistically, Afghanistan remains one of the most torn, desperate nations on earth (Hersh).

Afghan poppy cultivation.
In 2002, the Defense Department commissioned Army Colonel Hy Rothstein to analyze the Afghani military strategy and draw a conclusion based on its success. After much research and field work, Rothstein conclusively decided that the US strategy of air raids months before the insertion of any ground troops “was not the best way to hunt down Osama bin Laden and the rest of the Al Qaeda leadership, and that there was a failure to translate early tactical successes into strategic victory…in fact,… the victory in Afghanistan was not, in the long run, a victory at all” (Hersh 40). The Bush administration had been so singularly focused on opposing the Taliban that it did not consider a strategy beyond “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this case, this strategy led to heavy support for local warlords who lent some degree of success to ousting the Taliban but consequently had stronger resources to resume the internal tension among territories and warlords that plagued Afghanistan before the war.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz remarked that “Faster is better” with regard to finishing operations in Afghanistan, yet Afghanistan shows no signs of progress that should result from American financial and governmental leadership (Hersh 40). Today, over 70% of Afghans live on less than $2 a day, and the infant mortality rate is 257 per 1000 births— surprisingly, far worse than the poverty-stricken nations of sub-Saharan Africa. Heroin and general opium production has risen exponentially to the level of half the nation’s gross domestic product and the operating budgets of terrorists, while theft and robberies occur constantly throughout the country. The support for the Taliban in certain areas has stemmed from the lack of control and security evident in may areas of the country that were previously gripped by fear of the Taliban’s Islamic rule but were nonetheless statistically safer (Hersh 40). The United States has also unwaveringly backed Karzai to unreasonable extents: Afghans and certain parts of the international community have begun to question Karzai’s leadership abilities, and he is at risk to being perceived as a US-dependent puppet politician in whom his own ministers have no faith, as in the case of his finance minister. Even worse, with the consequent and questionable incursion into Iraq, Afghans have been worried, and with good reason: in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has a very recent history of abandoning fragile nations immediately after military struggles, as with the post Soviet Afghanistan and the Shiite minority in Iraq during the post Gulf War period of the early 1990s. Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker has interviewed United Nations workers who have come across countless Afghans who would say, “’We don't like the Taliban, but they did bring us security you haven't been able to give us” (Hersh 40).

Overall, the situation needs change. The United States must change its detrimental pattern of nation building (and breaking), and institute positive change in Afghanistan as an example of the ability of America to rebuild and transform for the better. United States corporations should be given financial incentives to start self-sustainable fledgling industries so that Afghanistan may rely on economies that are not related to drugs. Funds must be heavily invested in the training of a permanent security and army force that can secure the nation and make it as safe, if not safer than the times of the Taliban; the people of Afghanistan must not be able to look back at the years of the Taliban favorably in terms of security, personal freedoms, or economic times. Iraq must not be the only priority of the United States, and the American press has an obligation not to allow the Bush Administration to put Afghanistan on the back burner as it has without any popular opposition. Finally, the United States should ensure that decisions for the course of the Afghan future are being made by the universally-respected United Nations rather than the stigmatized White House— more specifically, once security and economy have been invested into the nation and have truly made positive change, the new leader of Afghanistan must be popularly elected and reflect the new freedoms emergent from a rebuilt nation.

Works Cited

  1. World History at KMLA. “The Second Anglo-Afghan War 1878-1880.” 4 March 2004.

  2. Afghanistan Online. “Chronological History of Afghanistan.” 15 March 2004.

3. “Modern Afghanistan.” 13 March 2004.

4. “Third Anglo-Afghan War.” 20 March 2004.

5. Molesworth, George Noble. Afghanistan 1919 : an account of operations in the Third Afghan War. London: Asia Publishing House, 1962.

6. Nyrop, Richard F. and Seekins, Donald M. “Afghanistan Country Study and Government Publications.” Government Publications Access. 21 March 2004.

7. Johnson, Chalmers. “The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History.” 23 April 2004.

8. “The Politics of Crime.” 26 April 2004. .

9. CDI Terrorism Project. “Lessons from History: US Policy Toward Afghanistan, 1978-2001.” 22 April 2004.

10. Kaplan, Robert. “Afghanistan Post Mortem.” The Atlantic Monthly [Periodical] April 1989.

11. Nawroz, Mohammed and Grau, Lester. “The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of Future War?” US Army Foreign Military Studies Office. 10 May 2004.

12. “Afghanistan: History.” 14 May 2004.

13. University of Nebraska, Omaha. “Afghanistan Atlas Project.” 15 May 2004.

14. Hersh, Seymour M. “The Other War: Why Bush’s Afghanistan Problem Won’t Go Away.” The New Yorker. Page 40, April 12, 2004.

15. North, Andrew. “Why Afghanistan Wants $27.5bn.” BBC News: World. 15 May 2004.

Modern Map of Afghanistan (

Northern Alliance fighter listens to foreign radio broadcasts for the latest news about the war against the Taliban. Bagram, October 2001.”

Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons as a result of the recent war.

An example of Afghanistan’s huge problem of leftover explosives and military refuse from the Soviet-Afghan Wars.

Photos by Alexander Merkushev.

Photo on previous page:

A recently formed police squad with their new hardware and uniforms. ;

International Soldiers keep the peace at the first soccer match allowed after the fall of the Taliban.

US Forces observing a bombing raid in Southern Afghanistan


Afghan interim president Hamid Karzai with George W. Bush

Sequence of Shots of an aerial bombing raid on an al Qaeda vehicle, December 2001

Afghani women wearing burkas, as dictated by the Taliban government of the late 1990s in Afghanistan.

View of the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan from Pakistan

Used heavily during the mujahideen movements against the Soviets.

Mujahideen of the Soviet-Afghan War of the late 1970s and 1980s. 1618064_islamicmilitants300ap.jpg

Painting Depicting the Fatal March of the British Soldiers in the First Anglo-Afghan War


A painting depicting the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1842.


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