Afghanistan: General Overview
Afghanistan is a landlocked country in South West Asia with land borders extending to Pakistan 2,430 km, Iran 936 km, Tajikistan 1206 km, Turkmenistan 744 km, Uzbekistan 137 km, and China 76 km. Its total area is 647,500 sq km which is slightly smaller than Texas. The topography comprises mostly of mountainous terrain with arable land constituting only 12.13%. The population is estimated at 30 million. The major ethnic groups are Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, and Uzbek 9%. Its major languages are Afghan Persian or Dari 50%, Pashto 35%, and the Turkic languages primarily Uzbek and Turkmen 11%. The literacy rate is 28%.
Afghanistan is extremely poor and highly dependent on foreign aid, and agriculture and trade with neighboring countries. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care and jobs. Criminality, insecurity, weak governance and the Afghan government’s inability to extend rule of law to all parts of the country pose challenges to future economic and social growth. Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world. While the international community remains committed to Afghanistan’s development, pledging over $67 billion at 4 donor conferences since 2002, the Government of Afghanistan will need to overcome a number of challenges including low revenue collection, anemic job creation, high levels of corruption, weak government capacity and poor public infrastructure. Its purchasing power parity GDP is $27.36 billion (2010 est.) and income per capita is $900 (2010 est.).
Afghanistan’s strategic location as a region on the old Silk Route invited foreign invasions over millennia. Alexander the Great tried to conquer it on his way to India, but faced with fierce internal resistance was forced to leave in a few years. Many other groups such as the Buddhist Kushans, the Mongols and various Afghan and Persian groups controlled it for some length of time. But this region famously described as the “graveyard of empires” has eluded long term occupation from foreign invaders. The first Mughal emperor Babar conquered Kabul around 1520 AD. He made it a base for his foray into India in 1526 AD where he defeated the ruling Lodhi dynasty and established the great Mughal empire which ruled large parts of the Indian subcontinent for over 300 years. Afghanistan became a unified state after its conquest by the Afghan chieftain Ahmad Shah Durrani in the 1760s.
During the 19th century the two powerful empires of Great Britain and Russia clashed in Afghanistan. The British who at that time had become rulers of India wished to check the southward expansion of the Russian empire. This had apparently been a goal of the Russians since their ruler, Peter the Great, enunciated it in the 18 century. Afghanistan got caught up in this great power rivalry. The Afghan rulers naturally wanted Afghanistan to be free of this rivalry which Rudyard Kipling the British writer and Nobel laureate famously termed as “The Great Game.” The British invaded Afghanistan thrice to extend their influence. In the three Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th and the early 20th centuries these invasions were met with strong resistance from the Afghan tribes who united to oust the foreigners. The Russians too were largely unsuccessful in dominating Afghanistan. Afghanistan thus continued in its role as an uneasy buffer state with its rulers fending off the British and the Russians by at times playing off one against the other.
Afghan Monarchy Overthrown:
A major event was the overthrow of King Zahir Shah by his Prime Minister and first cousin, Sardar Daoud, in 1973. Daoud abolished the monarchy and declared Afghanistan to be a Republic. He had been dubbed as the “Red Prince” by some observers for his pro-Soviet proclivities. Daoud could not hold on to power for long. A group of pro-Soviet army officers deposed and killed Daoud in a coup in April 1978. Afghanistan’s troubles intensified from that date. The new rulers, heavily influenced by Marxist ideology tried to transform Afghanistan into a secular Marxist state. These attempts aroused fierce opposition from sections of the conservative population lead by the clerics. The insurgents started an armed resistance against the Marxist Afghan government.
Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan:
The Soviet Union then took the momentous step in 1979 of invading Afghanistan in an attempt to install a pro Soviet puppet regime. The Soviets got bogged down in a violent civil war that engulfed Afghanistan.
The US Reaction:
In 1979 the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War. Both super powers were engaged in zero sum game for defeating its existential enemy. The US could not remain oblivious to the Soviet move in Afghanistan. In the American threat perception of its rival, the Soviet regime which had injected thousands of its troops into Afghanistan had come perilously close to the oil rich Persian Gulf countries. American strategists were concerned that the Soviets might be tempted to use Afghanistan as a base to invade the Persian Gulf countries and thereby control the oil supplies of the Middle East. The US could not countenance such a grim possibility which would tilt the scales against it in the Cold War. Pakistan a US ally too was deeply concerned to see the Soviet army on its border. The Pakistanis felt that maybe the Soviets wanted to conquer Pakistan to realize Peter the Great’s dream of reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Moreover Pakistan had to cope with hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who fled Afghanistan to seek refuge in Pakistan. In a couple of years 5 million Afghan refugees had fled to Pakistan and Iran, the largest refugee influx in modern history. Pakistan’s share of this influx was a daunting 3.5 million.
The US seized the opportunity to make the Soviets suffer the same fate that had befallen the former in Vietnam. It did this by orchestrating a global jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Apart from the Western countries, it found willing support in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries to mount resistance against the Soviets. Billions of dollars of financial aid, supply of sophisticated weaponry coupled with thousands of Muslim volunteers from Morocco to Indonesia were mobilized in this campaign. Pakistan became the major conduit for the passage of the volunteer fighters to Afghanistan as well as the supply of sophisticated arms and money. The US subcontracted the operational side of this huge enterprise to the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of Pakistan. After a few years of fierce fighting in which thousands of Soviet soldiers died, while at least two million Afghan civilians as well as resistance fighters lost their lives, the Soviets realized that they were unable to defeat the Afghan Resistance. The Soviet Union was forced to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in defeat in February 1989.
US Withdraws Attention from Afghanistan:
As soon as the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan the US called it “mission accomplished” and lost further interest in Afghanistan. This was a policy error with immense ramifications. In the absence of American support for peace building in that war ravaged country, the Afghan civil war continued till 1992 when the Afghan Resistance finally captured Kabul. Afghanistan’s travails were not over. The paper thin unity among the factions comprising the Resistance soon fell apart. They started fighting with each other for power.
Rise of the Taliban:
It was in this state of anarchy that an obscure group calling itself the Taliban (students of religion) sprang up to end the internecine fighting among the Afghans which was heaping untold suffering on the populace. Its leader was a religious cleric Mullah Mohamed Omar who had participated in the war against the Soviets. He came from a village near the Pashtun heartland of Kandahar. The Taliban captured Kabul and made further territorial gains. The non Pashtun Afghans were opposed to the Taliban but could not resist them militarily. At one stage the Taliban controlled nearly 90% of Afghanistan.
Entry of Osama bin Laden:
Osama bin Laden a rich Saudi young man had taken up the Afghan cause. He endeared himself to the Afghans through his organizational abilities, his bravery in battle against the Soviet occupiers and his philanthropy toward the Afghans. After the departure of the Soviets he along with his group of Saudi war veterans returned to Saudi Arabia. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, Osama offered his services to the Saudi royal family to use his battle hardened warriors to defend the Kingdom if attacked by Saddam. His offer was rebuffed. Instead, King Khalid asked the US for help. Thousands of American men and women soldiers arrived to defend Saudi Arabia. When Saddam was defeated and evicted from Kuwait in 1991, the American troops stayed on in Saudi Arabia. In Osama’s mind the American action constituted a betrayal. His antagonism toward the Saudi royal family and his anti American views took root from that time. His Saudi nationality was revoked by the Saudis making him a persona non grata in Riyadh. He went to Sudan. When the Sudanese got tired of this high profile visitor, he sought residence in Afghanistan, the scene of his past adventures. The new ruler of Kabul, Mullah Omar agreed to Osama’s request. Osama arrived in Kabul in 1996. He engaged in more philanthropic work. One of his son’s married Mullah Omar’s daughter thereby further cementing his relationship with the Taliban Emir.
Osama issued his famous fatwa enjoining Muslims to kill Americans wherever they could find them in 1998. He and his group started attacking American assets including:
- Bombing of the Khobar Towers housing troops in Saudi Arabia. Around 20 US servicemen were killed in the bombing of the facility.
- Bombing of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Daresalam, Tanzania. Around 300 persons including around 15 Americans were killed.
- Bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. 17 US sailors were killed.
9/11 and its aftermath:
The attack on the US World Trade Center and the Pentagon was an atrocity the likes of which the US mainland had not experienced before. Nearly 3000 persons lost their lives. Deeply angered, the Bush Administration demanded of the Taliban to hand over Osama to them to be tried for this outrageous terrorist attack. Mullah Omar refused this demand unless irrefutable evidence of Osama’s complicity was provided to the Taliban. Thereupon President Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, less than a month after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Taliban were defeated and a NATO supported government under Hamid Karzai was installed in Kabul. The Karzai government is weak, corrupt and ineffectual. It depends heavily on the US troops to survive. Some of his countrymen derisively refer to Karzai as the “Mayor of Kabul.”
The forth coming tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has naturally provided scholars and observers a handle to offer their perspectives. Many of them, except diehard neoconservatives, are veering to the assessment that America’s invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan were a costly mistake. US troops in the thousands are still present in both countries where they are targets of an assorted bunch of opponents. Some six thousand US soldiers including many of its allies’ soldiers have lost their lives in what the Economist has called “grinding wars of attrition.” The Economist has also referred to a costs-of-war project at Brown University according to which on a “very conservative” estimate 137, 000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Furthermore the wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees in these countries. The Brown Project puts the wars’ ultimate cost, including interest payments and veterans care, to the United States at up to $4 trillion – equivalent to the country’s cumulative budget deficits for the 6 years from 2005 to 2010. According to another estimate the US is borrowing $2 billion a day from international creditors to prosecute its forward policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are a number of examples from history where nations have bankrupted themselves through incurring unsustainable expenditures on wars. It is to be hoped that our policy makers are keeping these examples in mind as they try to fashion viable exit strategies from both countries.
It is just as well that the Obama administration has stopped using the term “war on terror.” Zbigniew Brzezinski a while back had correctly pointed out that terrorism or violent extremism was a tactic. A country could not go to war against a tactic. Many others have echoed Brzezinski’s analysis. The latest official is Eliza Manningham-Buller the former head of MI5. During a recent lecture she stated that the 9/11 attacks were “a crime not an act of war.” “So I never felt it helpful to refer to a war on terror.” Her above comments seem to imply that it was a mistake for the US to invade Afghanistan when there were conceivably other options available to bring Osama bin Laden to book. Manningham-Buller continued that September 11 was a “monstrous crime” but it needed a considered response, an appreciation of the causes and roots of terrorism. She said she hoped that there were those – in Western governments – who were considering having “talks with al Qaeda.” Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for a number of years in a major article in the London Review of Books captioned “The Irresistible Power of Illusion” has made a persuasive case for the futility of pursuing a military solution in Afghanistan. The US has been engaged in the longest war in its history and yet it is nowhere near subduing the Taliban. Stewart also criticizes the incongruity of the US and NATO trying to rebuild Afghanistan while at the same time trying to pacify it militarily. The two objectives are mutually contradictory.
Some of the latest writing – The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda by Fawaz Gerges, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World by Robin Wright, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign by Sherard Cowper-Coles and The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke provide further insights into the West’s intervention in Afghanistan. According to the Economist, Professor Gerges and Ms. Wright both argue that the West has done a poor job of understanding the Muslim countries where they have intervened. Their views are powerfully reinforced by former British Ambassador to Afghanistan Cowper-Coles. The later “exposes the group-think- the belief that sufficient military effort would bring success – that has blighted Western efforts there over the past decade”. The book is a “withering critique of Anglo-American delusions – and of official Afghan shortcomings.”
Al Qaida today:
Current analysis suggests that al Qaeda was never the existential threat to the US as it was made out to be by a febrile media. The threat from al Qaeda was used by the neoconservatives surrounding Bush to tamp protest to his Manichean vision of fighting “evil.” Herman Goering the Nazi leader once famously said that no matter whether a government was a democracy or a dictatorship, all it had to do was to trumpet a foreign threat to obtain a compliant public. The Nazis used the “threat” of the Jews to gain compliance of a large section of German public opinion to their odious ideology. General Jones the former National Security Advisor said publicly that al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and along the lawless border with Pakistan, had dwindled to an insignificant number. They were no longer a formidable enemy. Al Qaeda pockets did exist in Afghanistan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, in Yemen and North Africa, but these groups do not have mass support among Muslims. Like all past terrorist organizations al Qaeda too will peter out. It is therefore unlikely that al Qaeda will be able in its considerably reduced state to launch another 9/11 type of attack, particularly after the elaborate security infrastructure established in the US. Continuing international vigilance will likely diminish its operational capability further.
Situation in Pakistan:
The Regan Administration by subcontracting the Afghan war to the ISI empowered that agency manifold. The power assumed by the Pakistan Army and the ISI have had negative effects on strengthening civil institutions in Pakistan. The ISI nurtured and mentored some young Afghan refugees in Pakistan, many of whom crossed the border to join the ranks of the Taliban. The ISI and the Pakistan Army wanted the Taliban to become rulers, hoping that a pro Pakistan government in Kabul would provide them “strategic depth” in their rivalry with India. This quixotic quest for strategic depth has boomeranged on Pakistan. The American invasion of Afghanistan which toppled the Taliban regime and al Qaeda has resulted in Pakistan providing “strategic depth” in Pakistan’s ungovernable tribal areas to the Taliban as well as sanctuary to some remnants of al Qaeda. Neither the American forces in Afghanistan nor the Musharraf led government in Pakistan could take countervailing action to prevent this exodus of the Taliban and al Qaeda to Pakistan. Pakistan has 40 million Pashtuns in its provinces bordering Afghanistan. While the majority of Pakistani Pashtuns do not support either the Taliban or al Qaeda, some Pashtuns have sympathized with their fellow ethnic compatriots. The Pashtuns have not paid much attention to the Durand Line border separating Pakistan from Afghanistan. Many Pashtuns consider the Durand Line as an artificial border imposed by the ruling British in 1893. Bonds of tribal affinity still exert a strong influence in that part of the world. These Taliban elements were able over the past decade to recruit some Pakistanis particularly in the impoverished areas of Southern Punjab. The “Pakistani Taliban” has declared war on the Pakistani state which they consider a puppet of the US. They have waged attacks including suicide bombing across the length and breadth of Pakistan. These have exacted a terrible toll: around 30,000 civilians killed. The Pakistan Army has suffered huge losses estimated at 3000 killed in its counter insurgency campaign in the tribal areas. These developments have destabilized Pakistan and retarded its economic growth. Some analysts have estimated that Pakistan has sustained $40 billion of damage because of the insurgency. Pakistan is thus undergoing the most difficult period in its history. It is largely reacting to the conditions in Afghanistan. It should be emphasized that the vast majority of Pakistanis do not support either al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban. Stabilization of Afghanistan is a sine qua non of a return to stability in Pakistan.
What Needs to be Done?
- A clear recognition that a military solution in Afghanistan is beyond achievement by the US led NATO alliance in Afghanistan. The current efforts to pit Pashtun against Pashtun are not likely to succeed.
- Sustained efforts should be made by the US to draw the Afghan Taliban into a future government in Afghanistan. The Taliban Pashtuns who constitute the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan cannot and should not be kept out of power in Afghanistan. The status quo existing there is a recipe for unending civil war.
- A similar approach should be made towards al Qaeda. If the al Qaeda remnants abjure attacks on the US, the US can promise a cessation of drone strikes on its leadership. Good diplomacy implies opening contacts with ones’ enemies to find avenues to neutralize them.
- The US should remain vigilant if al Qaeda cannot or does not want to be neutralized peacefully. In that case US Special Forces can resuscitate counterinsurgency operations against them.
- The US and its allies will have to remain engaged for decades in the economic development of Afghanistan.
- The US should enlist Afghanistan’s neighbors and particularly Pakistan and Turkey in the rebuilding of a relatively peaceful Afghanistan.
Finally the US should ponder seriously the sound advice contained in a recent Economist editorial: “The trick in the next 10 years will be to win back the trust of the allies (especially Pakistan), use force sparingly, go wherever possible with the grain of Muslim sentiment instead of rubbing against it. Bur there can be no return to the innocence of September 10th. 2011 – and sadly no end to the vigilance.”