Afghanistan is the only country in modern history which has been at war for almost half a century. When the Soviet Union (USSR) militarily intervened in Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, with around 100,000 forces, bloodshed, human casualties, injuries and displacement became a usual feature there. Forty years of war in Afghanistan not only destroyed the country but destabilised Pakistan.
The armed conflict in Afghanistan was unleashed in July 1973, when Sardar Mohammad Daud, a former prime minister, with the support of Moscow, deposed the Afghan King, Zahir Shah, abolished monarchy and declared himself president. His violent death in a military coup on April 27, 1978, launched by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) further polarised the country as the clergy turned against the PDPA regime calling for a jihad against an “infidel” government in Kabul. As Afghanistan plunged deeper into chaos and violence during the PDPA government, the first wave of refugees crossed the Durand Line and began to launch jihad from Pakistan.
The Soviet military’s intervention in Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, was the outcome of Moscow’s attempt to prevent losing control of Afghanistan. From December 1979 till February 1989, the Soviet-Afghan War between the Soviet forces and Pakistan-US-backed mujahideen groups displaced millions of Afghans and caused large-scale casualties. The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan arranged through the Geneva Accords of April 14, 1988, unleashed another phase of war between the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul and the mujahideen groups who failed to establish their own government, till the time the USSR disintegrated and Dr Najibullah’s pro-Moscow regime in Kabul was toppled in April 1992.
Afghanistan remained under large-scale violence and war till the Taliban dislodged warring mujahideen groups by occupying Kabul in September 1996. Yet, peace remained fragile in Afghanistan as war between the Taliban regime and the Northern Alliance broke out which ultimately led to the Taliban’s ouster after 9/11, in early October 2001. The ongoing US-led war and occupation in Afghanistan is the longest in American history. With the world commemorating 40 years of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan it’s time to analyse how the sustained level of war and violence destroyed at least two Afghan generations and left the country grappling with periodic outbreaks of violence and acts of terrorism.
There are four factors which should be examined while analysing 40 years of war in Afghanistan. First, the nature of the Afghan state which is still tribal, ultra conservative and influenced by warlordism. Factually, it is 200 years older than Pakistan as the Afghan kingdom was established in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani but unfortunately it has not been able to emerge as a nation-state. As rightly stated by Amin Saikal in his book, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival, that “rare is the country that has sustained as many blows and such hard blows, as has Afghanistan since its foundation as a distinct political unit in 1747. It is the only country that has experienced military occupation and intervention by Great Britain (twice in the nineteenth century), the Soviet Union (in the 1980s) and the United States of America (since late 2001)”.
Monarchy, which was termed a buffer between antagonist forces, was abolished in July 1973, and since then Afghanistan is in turmoil. The weakening of the Afghan state and its organs created a vacuum which warlords, the Taliban and various non-state actors (NSA) tried to fill.
Second, more than the foreign military presence, the fragmentation of Afghanistan along ethnic lines is a major cause of violence and war in that country. The lack of ownership of Afghanistan by different stakeholders ranging from political parties, to the Taliban, other NSA and warlords also hinders the peace process. Unless the Afghans reclaim their land and are united in rebuilding their country, the very notion of peace and stability in Afghanistan will be a non-starter. For that the Taliban must renounce violence, agree to join the political process and contest elections as a political party so that one can expect them to be law-abiding citizens instead of trying to seize power by force. Democracy, tolerance and political pluralism in Afghanistan require a cultural transformation of the society, from tribal and highly conservative to modern and enlightened. It is an uphill task but without ensuring political awareness, moderation and tolerance, Afghanistan will not be able to change for the better.
Third, the Afghan people’s social and human development is imperative for a stable and peaceful society. Since the removal of the Taliban regime by US-backed forces and the induction of Hamid Karzai as the Afghan president, billions of dollars flowed in for reconstruction but unfortunately, positive socio-economic changes failed to take place. Corruption, nepotism and the misuse of authority by those wielding power along with foreign forces deepened the plight of the Afghans.
Had financial and human resources been properly used, Afghanistan would have become stable and peaceful with poverty and social backwardness would have eradicated to a large extent. Afghanistan’s economic dependence on the world can be verified from the fact that around 80% of the annual budget is funded from foreign, primarily Western sources, making the country a leaking bucket as the incoming aid evaporates either through corruption, misuse of resources or inefficiency.
Finally, Afghanistan can never stand on its own feet unless local stakeholders enter a serious peace dialogue. Strong institutions and work ethics will go a long way in stabilising Afghanistan which will undoubtedly be beneficial for peace and stability in Central, South and West Asia. The Afghan people are endlessly suffering and two generations have been destroyed in armed conflict.
The hope for peace in Afghanistan in the last 40 years has been a victim of political vendetta by Afghan leaders and the failure of diplomacy at the international level to engage the Taliban, the Afghan government and the US. In its essence, more harm has been caused to Afghanistan by its leaders than by foreign powers. If the country was attacked and occupied by the USSR and the US it was because of its internal dynamics which provided an opportunity to the two superpowers to invade.
Furthermore, no lessons were learned by the Afghans from these four decades of violence, wars and displacement as their past has been bitter, present crises-ridden and future uncertain. The US must also be held responsible for ruining Afghan lives because it failed to learn from the Soviet occupation and withdrawal, and engaged itself in war. With around 3,000 American soldiers killed and hundreds injured along with one trillion dollars spent, Washington lacks the capability to understand the region’s history. None of the wars in Afghanistan from 1979 till date ended in a victory for any party and only augmented the misery of its people. One can only hope Afghanistan is in a better shape in 2020.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2019.