A Brief History of Afghanistan: By Adam Ritscher

This was delivered as a speech at a Students Against War teach-in in Duluth, Minnesota (USA)

The story of Afghanistan is in so many ways a very tragic one. Afghanistan is one of the most impoverished nations of the world. It is one of the most war-torn, most ravaged, and most beleaguered of nations. It is a nation that has been beset by invasion, external pressure and internal upheaval since before the time of Alexander the Great. Its people are a people who have endured more than most of us can ever imagine. In fact, for many Afghanis, all that has changed in the last one thousand years are the weapons which have been used against so many of them. It is therefore with great sadness and respect that I tell the story of Afghanistan.

First of all, who are the Afghanis? Afghanistan has historically been the link between Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It is therefore a nation made up of many different nationalities – the result of innumerable invasions and migrations. Within its current borders there are at least a dozen major ethnic groups – Baluch, Chahar Aimak, Turkmen, Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Nuristani, Arab, Kirghiz, Pashai and Persian.

Historically the Pashtun nationality has been the most dominant. The term Afghan, for example, generally is viewed by other peoples in the country to refer to the Pashtuns. The royal families of the country were Pashtun, and today the Pashtun represent about 50% of the total population. Tajiks come in second with 25%, and the rest make up considerably smaller percentages.

Within the country there are tiny Hindu, Sikh and Jewish communities, but the vast majority of this people are Muslims – and in fact many ethnic groups consider Islam to be one of the defining aspects of their ethnic identity. This is true of the Pashtun for example.

Islam was brought to Afghanistan during the eight and ninth century by the Arabs. Prior to that the nation had been ruled by various Persian, Greek, Sassasian and Central Asian empires. Following a subsequent break down in Arab rule, semi-independent states began to form. These local dynasties and states however were overwhelmed and crushed during the Mongolian invasions of the 1200s – conquerors who were to remain in control of part or all of the country until the 1500s, despite much resistance and internal strife. Following the collapse of Mongol rule, Afghanistan found itself in a situation much like what has continued into modern times – caught between the vice of two great powers. During this time it was the Mughals of northern India and the Safavids of Iran that fought over the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. Armies marched to and fro devastating the land and murdering the people, laying siege to city after city, and destroying whatever had been left by the invading army that preceded it.

It was not until 1747 that Afghanistan was able to free itself. This was the year that Nadir Shah, an empire builder from Iran, died and left a vacuum in central Asia that a former Afghan bodyguard, named Ahmed Shah, was able to fill. Ahmad was a Pashtun, and his Pashtun clan was to rule Afghanistan, in one form or another, for the next 200 years.

Ahmad was able to unify the different Afghan tribes, and went on to conquer considerable parts of what are today eastern Iran, Pakistan, northern India and Uzbekistan. His successors though proved unable to hold his vast empire together, and within 50 years much of it had been seized by rival regional powers. Within the country there were numerous bloody civil wars for the throne, and for many Afghanis it meant little that their lives were now being uprooted and destroyed by ethnic kin, as opposed to foreign invaders.

Beginning in the 1800s Afghanistan’s internal affairs became dramatically aggravated by the increasing intervention by two new imperialist powers – the British Empire and Czarist Russia. The British were expanding and consolidating their colonial holdings on the India sub-continent, and were looking at the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan as a natural barrier to prevent invasion by rival imperialists. The Russians, for their part, were expanding south and east, swallowing up several formerly independent sultanates and emirates in Central Asia. The two great powers essentially engaged in a race for Afghanistan, and their fiendish seizures of land, overthrow of indigenous nations and reckless interference into the affairs of the remaining independent states in the region became known as “the Great Game.”

Imperialists often give such trivial, and even humorous, sounding names to their interventionist schemes, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the peoples of the region experienced the consequences of these actions in a manner that they in any way would have interpreted as a game. For them the consequences were devastating. The arrival of European imperialism into the region simply accelerated, and made more devastating, the wars, poverty and material destruction that had already wracked the region.

During this time, on two separate occasions, British armies from India outright invaded Afghanistan in attempts to install puppet governments amenable to British economic interests, and that would oppose the economic interests of Czarist Russia.

The first, which became known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, took place in 1838. Outraged by the presence of a single Russian diplomat in Kabul, the British demanded that Afghanistan shun any contact with Russia or Iran, and that it hand over vast tracts of Pashtun inhabited land to British India (regions that are today party of Pakistan). Dost Mohammad, the Afghan ruler, agreed to these humiliating demands, but the British still invaded the country. The British seized most of the major cities in Afghanistan with little resistance, but their heavy handed rule soon resulted in a popular uprising by the people which resulted in the massacre of the entire British army of 15,000, save one.

British outrage over the uninvited arrival of a Russian diplomatic envoy in Kabul in 1878 resulted in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Again the British were able to occupy all of the major cities, but unlike the last time, the British got wind of an impending rebellion against their occupation, and brutally crushed it in a pre-emptive move. They did subsequently withdraw, but not before they set up a puppet ruler and forced the country to hand over control of its foreign affairs to Britain.

Afghanistan would remain a British protectorate until 1919. Then, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the wave of popular rebellions that rippled through Asia subsequently, the then king of Afghanistan, Amanullah, declared his country’s full independence by singing a treaty of aid and friendship with Lenin, and declaring war on Britain. After a brief period of border skirmishes, and the bombing of Kabul by the Royal Air Force, Britain conceded Afghanistan’s independence. Stung by this turn of events though, Britain conspired with conservative religious and land owning elements with the country who were unhappy with Amanullah’s attempts to secularize and reform the country. The outbreak of an uprising and civil war forced him to abdicate in 1929. Different warlords contended for power until a new king, Muhammad Nadir Shah took power. He was assassinated four years later by the son of a state execution victim, and was succeeded by Muhammad Zahir Shah, who was to be Afghanistan’s last king, and who would rule for the next 40 years.

Zahir Shah’s rule, like the kings before him, was one of almost total autocratic power. The word of the king was the word of law. And while advisory councils and assemblies were sometimes called to advise the king, these bodies had no power, and in no way represented the people of Afghanistan. These bodies were made up of the country’s tribal elders – a nice sounding term that in reality referred to the brutal land owners and patriarchs. And while some history books refer to this time of Afghanistan’s history as one where attempts were made to “modernize” the country – all this really meant was newer rifles for the army, the purchase a few airplanes for a token air force, the creation of a tiny airline to shuttle the ruling elite around, and some telegraph wires to allow the king to collect this taxes more promptly. Under his rule political parties were outlawed, and students were shot and killed when they protested.

In 1973, the king was overthrown and a republic was declared. But this in reality represented very little. For the king had simply been overthrown by a prominent member of his own family, Daoud, who decided to title himself president instead of king.

Under Daoud a certain liberalization took place, meaning that some of the most draconian realities of the monarchy were rolled back, but by and large whatever hopes and expectations arose among the people – little was done to satisfy them.

Daoud had seized power with the help of an underground party named the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan – a pro-Moscow communist party. The PDPA had aided and collaborated with Daoud in exchange for government posts. Once he had consolidated power though and felt he no longer needed these controversial allies, he ditched them, and ordered a crack down upon the party.

In 1978 the PDPA seized power from Daoud in a military coup. After seizing power they began a series of limited reforms, such as declaring, more or less, a secular state, and that women were deserving of equal treatment of men. They sought to curtail the practice of purchasing brides, and tried to implement a land reform program. They quickly met with fierce opposition from many sections of the deeply religious population though. The PDPA’s response to this was very heavy-handed, aggravating the situation. Soon several rural areas rose in open armed rebellion against the new government.

At the same time, the party’s long history of factionalism came to a bloody head as the more radical wing of the party sought to wipe out the more moderate leaning wing.

Immediately following the PDPA coup, the Soviet Union took an active interest in the so-called socialist revolution unfolding in its backyard. Dismayed by the clumsiness of the radical faction of the PDPA, the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and handed power over a man named Karmal, who was the leader of the more moderate faction of the PDPA.

Though perhaps this was not the Soviets original intent, once inside Afghanistan, they found themselves forced to commit more and more troops and material to prop up the unpopular PDPA government. Several Islamic fundamentalist groups sprang up and began waging guerilla warfare, many of them operating from camps set up by the CIA and Pakistani Intelligence within Pakistan, from which they could strike into Afghanistan, and then beat a hasty retreat over a guarded border.

For its part, the United States government initially paid little attention to the PDPA coup in Afghanistan; its attention was instead focused to the west, where a popular revolution has overthrown their most valuable Middle East ally, the brutal and autocratic Shah of Iran. This changed of course once the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan.

At that point the United States took an active interest in the Islamic fundamentalists waging war on the PDPA and the Soviets. The CIA began providing military training to the Mujahadeen – the name the Islamic guerillas came to be called. They provided what in the end amounted to billions of dollars worth of weapons, including sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that allowed the guerillas to take out modern Soviet tanks and jet planes.

After offensive after offensive, year after year, gradually the Soviet military became discouraged. They were able to occupy and hold all of the major cities, just at the British imperialists had been able to the century before, but they were unable to subjugate the countryside. Soviet causalities began to mount dramatically, and with the CIA’s providing the Mujahadeen with Stinger missiles, even their control of the air was becoming a costly affair.

At the same time the CIA kept increasing and updating the Mujahadeen’s supply of weaponry, the Saudis and Persian Gulf Emirates contributed billions of dollars to their coffers, and thousands of Arabs responded to the Mujahadeen’s call for jihad, or holy war, against the secular Soviets – including the wealthy Saudi playboy, Osama bin Laden – who quickly became one of the CIA’s most important operatives in its proxy war against communism.

In 1989 the Soviets withdrew, leaving the PDPA government to fend for itself. The CIA soon lost interest in its mercenary forces now that they had accomplished their mission of bleeding the Soviets white. The misc. Mujahadeen factions began fighting as much with themselves as with the PDPA forces, resulting in increased suffering and bloodshed. It wasn’t until 1992 that Mujahadeen fighters were able to topple the remnants of the PDPA government – ending the Stalinists attempts to bring revolution to the people of Afghanistan at the point of a gun.

Different Mujahadeen warlords occupied different cities and regions of the country. Burhanuddin Rabbani, the same Northern Alliance warlord who recently took Kabul from the Taliban, was the warlord who ruled over the city from 1992 until his ouster in 1996. During his reign over 60,000 people were murdered and thousands of women were raped. Current Northern Alliance warlord Rashid Dostum who is in control of the city of Mazar –E – Sharif, also ruled over it from 1992 until his ouster in 1997. Similarly the warlord Ismail Khan again rules the city of Heart, which he also ruled from 1992 to 1995; and warlord Yunis Khalis is back in control of Jalabad, which he ruled from 1992 to 1996.

The collapse of the PDPA government did not mark the end of Afghanistan’s civil war. The Mujahadeen warlords continued to bring death and destruction upon the country as they fought over the spoils, and sought to enlarge their new fiefdoms at the expense of their neighboring rivals.

While the CIA, after having done such a fine job of instigating unrest and warfare in the 1980s, could care less about the aftermath, Pakistani Intelligence forces maintained their interest. Seeking to end the civil war which threatened the stability of their own country – itself a prison house of many nationalities – Pakistani Intelligence aided in the creation of a new Islamic fundamentalist movement, the Taliban. The Taliban was born in the Islamic schools that had sprung up inside the Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan. Its leadership and the bulk of its initial ranks, were made up of young religious students, primarily Pashtuns, motivated by the zeal of religion and the belief that they were ordained to bring stability and the ways of Allah back to their war torn land. They railed against the corruption, greed and factionalism of the contending Mujahadeen factions inside Afghanistan, and when they mounted a military push to conquer the country, they were initially well received by certain sections of the weary population. Their ranks were filled by rank and file Mujahadeen fighters and young idealists from inside the country, and city-by-city they were able to occupy most of the country. In 1996 they captured the capital city of Kabul, and had forced most of the remaining warlords into a small pocket in the far north of the country. These warlords subsequently formed a defensive alliance termed the Northern Alliance. By the time of the start of the current war, Taliban offensives had reduced their enclave to a mere 10% of the country.

Once in power the Taliban sought to create a theocratic state based on their interpretations of the Koran. Though already severely repressed by the various Mujahadeen warlords, the plight of Afghanistan’s women was made even worse under the new regime. The veil became the law of the land, and women were forbidden from attending school or holding employment outside of the home. Television was banned and an effort was made to purge the country of any signs or remnants of secular or Western influence. The country became politically and diplomatically isolated.

Then came the current war. Following the September 11 World Trade Center bombings the United States accused Osama Bin Laden of the crime. Bin Laden, who had left Afghanistan following the defeat of the Soviets, had returned after falling out of favor in Saudi Arabia, and being pressured to leave his first nation of refuge, the Sudan.

The U.S. government demanded that the Taliban hand over Bin Laden. The Taliban’s response was to demand proof of Bin Laden’s guilt, and after receiving none, they refused to hand him over.

Within a few weeks the United States began bombing the impoverished country, as well as providing active support to the Northern Alliance warlords. Following weeks of devastating bombing, and several failed offensives, the Northern Alliance succeeded in breaking out of its northern enclave, seizing the city of Mazar – E – Sharif, and then moving on to take Kabul. This set in motion a series of defeats for the Taliban, which began surrendering and abandoning almost every major city in the country, and retreating into the mountains. The U.S. meanwhile has continued its bombing campaign, and now has Marines on the ground hunting for Bin Laden. All the while the people of Afghanistan continue to suffer.

The United Nations, hardly a radical source of information, has estimated that up to 8 million Afghanis may starve this winter due to a shortage of food, made all the more severe by the intentional U.S. disruption of humanitarian aid, and bombing of Red Cross and other humanitarian aid facilities inside the country. At least hundreds, and more likely thousands, have been killed by U.S. bombs, and many more are dieing as the Northern Alliance and Taliban warlords fight it out. Hundreds of thousands of land mines and unexploded cluster bombs lay scattered across the nation’s landscape. And there is no end in sight to the misery.

It’s hard to say how much longer the Taliban will continue to fight, or when the U.S. will end its war. Afghanistan’s future, like its past, looks very dark indeed. Currently Northern Alliance warlords, southern Pashtun warlords, opportunistic émigré politicians, and even supporters of the aging deposed autocrat King Zahir Shah, are arguing about who will be the exploiter-in-chief of the devastated land. Most likely they will come up with some sort of coalition government – that will perhaps hold the different factions together, perhaps not. In the end it matters little, since none of the figures involved represent the people of this country, and none of them seem to have ever had their interests at heart.

What is the solution for Afghanistan? What will end the suffering of its people? The most immediate thing would be for the United States government to end its bombing, withdraw its troops, and respect the Afghan peoples right to self-determination. And while this alone would not end all of the bloodshed and the fighting, it would create a situation where the workers and farmers of Afghanistan would be more able to cast off the warlords and petty feudal tyrants, take control of their destinies, and create a society that is based upon cooperation and solidarity. Towards that end let us redouble our efforts to stop the U.S. bombing, to stop the U.S. war on the people of Afghanistan!