In the Cold War period the ideological struggle between advanced capitalism and developed socialism never became hot in the core areas of their concern. But intermittent and intense struggle mostly in East Asia and West Asia continued and this rivalry entered Afghanistan as a direct consequence of the Khomeini revolution in Iran in 1979 and became a new theatre of conflict between the US and the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan is described as a graveyard of empires which is justified by examples. The British suffered a humiliating defeat in 1842 in which only one British soldier returned. During the turbulence after the First World War in the third British-Afghan War (1919), Britain was defeated. Afghanistan became independent. Amir Amanullah Khan (1892-1960), the leader was aware of the country’s backwardness and began a rigorous programme of socio-economic reforms. In 1926 he declared himself king but was forced to abdicate and leave the country in 1929 after an armed rebellion by the conservative clerics. The debacle of the Soviets (1979-89) and the ‘forever war’ of the US, longest in its history, is now over after 20 years. A Harvard University Survey showed that the US did not gain tangible results though President Joe Biden thought that the ostensible purpose of US entry into Afghanistan was to eliminate terrorist hubs. Osama Bin laden is dead but his organization survives. The US was forced to broker peace with the Taliban, an extremist organization more dangerous than Al Qaeda. ISIS is also gaining in strength.
It is also paradoxical that the US which entered Afghanistan with the promise of ensuring a new age of peace and stable democracy is now, though belatedly, arguing as stated by Biden that nation building was not on its cards. The American intervention, far from building an enduring democracy, created a clientelist oligarchy that survived because of widespread corruption despite lack of popular support, as it was in South Vietnam. The US intention was not limited to Afghanistan alone but to extend its influence in Central Asia where new states emerged after the disintegration of the former USSR. With its exit along with its allies this project has collapsed now and ironically the victors are Russia and China. The US also tried to encircle Iran and overthrow the Khomeini regime which was created by its own follies when it overthrew in 1953 the democratic regime of Mohammed Mosaddegh (1882-1967).
Iran has become a net gainer of the US exit as a result of its 25-years agreement with China. The American perception of the existence of an axis of evil in Afghanistan continues even after its exit. Ironically when the US overthrew the Taliban regime most of Afghanistan was not under the control of the Taliban, which facilitated the US to garner support with the warlords and the northern allies. In 2021, Taliban emerged stronger, controlling virtually the whole of Afghanistan. Interestingly during its first stint, it was recognized by only three Muslim countries, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Now it is expected that it will be recognized by many more, ending the isolation that Afghanistan has faced till now. The Chinese are already considering the inclusion of Afghanistan in its BRI project which eventually will link Afghanistan both to the ports of Iran and Pakistan. The Taliban has acknowledged the singular importance of China in its plans. Turkey has started to play a crucial role in this region ever since it began to focus on West Asia and North Africa after being shunned by the EU.
It has often been argued that geography and the social structure in Afghanistan make it difficult for conquest and to hold on to power. This has been the case since the time of Alexander the Great. This is only a partial explanation. History tells us that the total rejection of outside intervention in a proud nation with a strong martial tradition is not age old but is a phenomenon just for the last 50 years. Till the 1970s, Afghanistan was peaceful under King Mohammed Zahir Shah (1914-2007), an intelligent and skilled diplomat who steered his country out of the cold war, maintaining its autonomy. Shah became King in 1933 and was recognized by the US in 1934. In 1956, Khrushchev agreed to provide help to Afghanistan by entering into a close partnership. Shah had a deep understanding of its social structure that consisted of many clans and tribes and ensured delicate balancing between them. This peace was disturbed when he was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan (1909-78), pro-Soviet but who lacked Shah’s skills as he could never build a regime that was as legitimate as that of Shah. In 1973 Daoud became President after overthrowing Zahir Shah and abolishing the monarchy. He was authoritarian, intolerant and brutal unlike Shah. He imposed a one-party system. There were no visible developmental efforts under his tenure resulting in the consolidation of dissatisfaction in the cities. In the summer of 1978, there were many protests in urban areas which Daoud tried to suppress brutally. His rule was challenged by a left-wing socialist outfit, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) which had considerable support from the army and the intelligentsia. The majority of the Afghan army was trained in the former USSR and was influenced by the ideology of communism. The PDPA lacked rural support. It initiated radical reforms despite Soviet advice to go slowly and incrementally. Familial ties and clans became more important than ideology. The intra-party conflict became acute between Nur Mohammed Taraki (1917-79) and Hafizullah Amin (1929-79). Taraki was assassinated in mid-1979.
(To be Concluded)