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Afghanistan

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Afghanistan

Geopolitics of Afghanistan – Part I

By: Saber Azam [*]

Introduction:

Afghanistan has been a significant limelight of regional and international politics for centuries to the extent that some experts consider it still the “graveyard of empires.” Indeed, the current territory of this country had been invaded by many mighty powers, yet at the same time, it gave birth to its realms that conquered others in the region. Defeat of any major regional or world player in this land has always ended, sooner or later, to the rout of its glory and might. The geography, history, cultures, languages spoken, religions practiced, and many other aspects of its people’s way of life are highly complex realities that make Afghanistan an envied and feared territory. There is no doubt about its strategic and geopolitical importance in the fight for gain and fame between the East and the West. 

Ancient giants confronted each other ferociously on this land. However, the antagonism of the world’s more recent powers took a particular form from the 18th century onwards. They clashed on this territory for the conquest of West Asia. Such contentions are still ongoing with different actors. Understanding the dynamics of quicksand-like politics and conflicts in this country is quite demanding.

Many experts are undoubtedly aware of the substance of this article. However, there is a firm belief that practically all foreign interventions in Afghanistan lacked careful psychological and sociological studies of the peoples of the country, their diversity, histories, cultural intricacies, and attachment to their ancestral values. The Greeks, British, Soviets, and Americans committed the same mistake that military might and money can change the realities on the ground to their advantage. In effect, this was not the case! Furthermore, it is a fact that foreigners are authors and owners of the overwhelming majority of articles written, studies undertaken, and views expressed. An Afghan perspective would bring a fresh and perhaps more realistic vision.

Geography, Quick Overview of Past History, and Ethnic Composition:

Afghanistan is an over 652,000 square kilometers land-locked country in the heart of West Asia, surrounded on its east and south by the People’s Republic of China and Pakistan, on its west by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its north by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Like Switzerland, it is also the cradle of the region’s highest mountains, which cover about 80% of the land. The Hindu Kush range, an extension of the Himalayan Mountains, with Mount Noshaq at 7,492 meters, divides this country into half from northeast to southwest. The lower segment of the Hindu Kush, the Suleiman Mountains, forms the eastern and part of the southern boundaries between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Peaks of over 6,000 meters in Wakhan, bordering the People’s Republic of China and over 5,000 meters elsewhere, deep and impenetrable valleys on each side of the mountains, and plains of southwest, ranging from 700 to over 1,000 meters high with extremely moody climate compose the landscape of Afghanistan. The freezing weather in the northeast mountains, the torching heat in the southwest deserts, and the clement temperatures in lower vales characterize the same season ambiance in Afghanistan. The 2,400 kilometers long Amu Darya – Oxus River – forms the border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and part of Turkmenistan before vanishing at the Aral area. Helmand River emanates from the central Hindu Kush and runs for nearly 1,200 kilometers to irrigate the planes of Kandahar and Helmand. It finally ends its course in the Helmand Lake between Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many other rivers, such as Morghab, Kunar, Kabul, Kunduz, and Harirod, originate from the northern or southern flanks of the Hindu Kush to reach different neighboring countries. Therefore, Afghanistan is one of the leading water providers in the region, and as such, it maintains a crucial strategic advantage. This country also links Central and West Asia through diverse passes over the Hindu Kush and the Salang Tunnel.

Afghanistan possesses extraordinarily unearthed raw materials that are unevenly spread in the country. Its treasures include Barite, chromite, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, sulfur, lithium, zinc, uranium, talc, marble, salt, coal, natural gas, and petroleum. In addition, the precious and semi-precious stones inside its mountains, particularly emerald, ruby, kunzite, garnet, tourmaline, aquamarine, beryl, and lapis lazuli, are of the highest quality. Therefore, its wealth makes the country a strategic target of powers searching for natural resources and gemstones. This country is also a crucial crossroad of east-west and north-south commerce. To reach China, Marco Polo and his uncle crossed the highlands of Hindu Kush to assert the utility of the Silk Road that bifurcated through Balkh southward to India and westward to Europe. Lastly, Afghanistan has a highly talented young generation who has flourished in academic, scientific, and artistic arenas outside their country.

The history of Afghanistan and the derived ethnic composition in this country is very ancient, composite, and intricate. Existing records demonstrate that Ariana, the initial name of this land, was inhabited over 4,000 years ago and resisted invasions by eastern tribes scurrying from China or southern forces rushing from India or western might coming from Persia. It was ruled by the Persian Achaemenid Empire from 550 to 330 BC. Alexander the Great and his massive army invaded it in 330 BC and remained engaged for over five years in unending combats they never won. The Macedon icon ended his ambition of conquering India and withdrew to Babylon, where he died in 323 BC. Subsequently, the Greco-Bactrian realm, established by the descendants of Greek settlers and soldiers intermarried with local populations, was established between 256 and 100 BC. During the same period, the Indian Maurya Empire conquered the southern parts of the Hindu Kush Mountains between 322 and 185 BC. Parts and parcels of Ariana were invaded by several other powers, such as the Indo-Scythian and Indo-Parthian kingdoms, established by the nomadic people of Central Asian origin, the Yuezhi Kushan Empire, emanating from China, and the Xiongnu Kidarite Red Huns and the Hephthalite White Huns kingdoms of north Central Asia steps. Finally, the Persian Sassanian Empire took over again the administration of pre-Islam Ariana from 275 to 650 AD. 

The apex of the middle age history of Ariana was the conquest of Islam between the 7th and 10th centuries and the division between Arab and non-Arab disciples of this religion. The entire Muslim world was then ruled by the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, including the oriental part of the vanished Sassanian Empire called Khorasan or Chorasan, which encompassed eastern areas of Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Central Asia. Abu Muslim of Khorasan, born in Balkh in the current Afghanistan, was a famous general of Al-Mansur Abbasid. When tasked to capture an essential city in Khorasan, Merve, located presently in Turkmenistan, he declared independence from Baghdad. Though Al-Mansur viciously killed him, his legacy remained, and the non-Arab Muslims of Khorasan began having their spheres of influence in the regional geography, politics, and economy. Subsequently, the Samanid (819 to 999 AD), the Ghaznavid (977 – 1186 AD), and the Ghurid (1170 – 1215 AC) Empires emerged. They conquered India, moved towards China’s western provinces, and dominated Central Asia’s northern steps. The immense outcome of their triumph was the propagation of Islam in areas under their domination. Khorasan became part of the Turkic Seljukid and Khwarazmi Empires before being brutally invaded by Genghis Khan between 1219 and 1221 AD. The Timurid (1370 – 1507 AD) of Central Asian origin regained the independence of this territory and ruled from their capitals, Samarkand and Herat, to glorify sciences, art, and culture. Their cousins, the Moghuls, took over to rule southern parts of Khorasan and India between 1526 and 1857 AD. They built several marvels among the world’s or region’s heritages, such as the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, and many more.

Meanwhile, diverse Iranian kingdoms, notably the Safavid Empire (1501 – 1722), partially restored the prestige and glory of the ancient Persian Empires. It is essential to note that the take-over of Khorasan by Pashtun kings of Hotak and Durrani decencies in late modern history coincided with the effective arrival of the British Empire to the Indian sub-continent through the East India Company. Many still believe that the Pashtun kings assisted the British to a great extent, consciously or otherwise. For example, Mahmud Hotak attacked the Persian Safavids in 1722 AD and sieged their capital, Isfahan. Despite the surrender of Sultan Hossain Safavid, the Hotak king continued his assault, as a result of which between 80,000 and 100,000 individuals lost their lives on the battlefield or of hangar and thirst. Ahmad Shah Durrani attacked thirty times India, with eight consequent bloody invasions of the subcontinent, between 1747 and 1773. Instead of repulsing the British, the Indian Maharajas and Sultans were more concerned about the wild incursions of the Durrani kings and their undisciplined fighters. The British effectively used the Pashtun or Pathan threats and their traditional policy of divide and rule to conquer India entirely by the late modern period. At the same time, the Russian Empire had advanced significantly in the Caucasus and Central Asia regions. The strategic objective of the Russians consisted of reaching the Indian Ocean through the land of Khorasan. Henceforth, they had gained the northern sides of the Amu Darya. The British opposed the Russian ambition by all means and at all costs. This was the beginning of the First Great Game in West Asia. Subsequently, the territory governed by the Durrani kings was used as buffer geography. Each side endeavored to have their favors through political influence, bribery, and military incursions in the case of the British. The Durrani kings skillfully enriched themselves and their family members, proved their usefulness to both sides and remained in power. In 1855, the British named the Durrani territory Afghanistan, the land of Afghans. 

Such a tumultuous and rich history and the indispensable geography as a significant crossroad resulted in the cohabitation of multiple ethnic groups, faiths, languages, and cultures. Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baloch, Aimaq, Nouristani, Pashai, and numerous other minorities are owners of this land, each speaking their distinct language and preserving their rich cultural heritage. Though Islam is the current religion of the entire country, the Cheshm-e-Shafa and the celebration of Nowruz, the solar calendar’s first day, demonstrate this country’s Zoroastrian past. In addition, the famous Buddha of Bamiyan, the 150 Jewish manuscripts in the “Afghan Geniza” in central Afghanistan, and the Sajawand, Asamai, and Bhairo Hindu temples demonstrate its rich ancestral cultures. Sunni, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims, as well as Hindu and Sikh communities, lived together in the cities, valleys, and plains of this country. Due to decades of ongoing conflicts, it is hard to precisely determine Afghanistan’s population, demography, cultural wealth, and economic diversity, as no census has been performed since 1979.

The East-West Rivalry in Modern Period – The First Great Game in West Asia:

As was pointed out earlier, control over the current territory of Afghanistan constituted the cornerstone of the Russian and British Empires’ competition in West Asia, known as the First Great Game. The two superpowers used this country as a shield zone, where they engaged in proxy wars for intelligence, influence, and political or strategic gains. Russian policy seemed more subtle as they avoided intervening directly in the internal affairs of their southern neighbor. They aimed to persuade the rulers to favor their policies and ambitions. However, the British applied a policy of carrot and stick. Their mastery of brain games seemed more efficient than the Russians.

On the one hand, the British enjoyed the Durrani kings’ repeated attacks and invasions of India and the subsequent plundering and massacres, significantly weakening India’s multiple rulers; on the other hand, London did not want them to become strong enough and pose a threat to its power. Furthermore, they expertly created division among the Indian potentates but also within the ranks of Durrani pretenders of the throne. Most believed that the European superpower would protect them against their foes. It is worth noting that the British ploy in Afghanistan touched governing families’ core circles, inciting a ruler against his children, brothers, or cousins. For example, Mahmud Shah Durrani blinded his brother, Zaman Shah Durrani, to “protect his throne.” He also ordered the mutilation and killing of his cousin and vizier, Fateh Khan. Multiple accounts of such brutalities within different courts have been recorded.

Despite undeniable success in exploiting the division among Durrani branches and personalities and inducing their kings not to sway to the Russian sphere of influence, the British did not have an easy task with a highly independent tribal population and exceedingly demanding rulers. It culminated in the first Anglo-Afghan war between 1839 and 1842. Serious disagreement emerged between King Dost Mohammad Khan of the Durrani Mohammadzai clan and the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, particularly on the importance granted to the viewpoints of the Russian Empire, the arrival to Kabul of a delegation from Saint Petersburg, and the fear that Persia would join hands with Dost Mohammad Khan and attack India. Auckland declared his support to Shuja Shah of the Durrani Sadozai clan, the king’s cousin and the former ruler. In December 1838, he dispatched the “Army of the Indus,” which included 21,000 soldiers, to support his claims. Dost Mohammad Khan was defeated and sought protection from the Russian Empire in Bukhara, currently in Uzbekistan. 

However, the presence of foreign troops in Kabul and senior British officers’ “immoral behavior” exacerbated the population’s patience and sentiments. Among others was Alexander Burnes, chief intelligence officer, who also assumed the function of advisor to the king. He was caught red-handed with young girls. It was a straw that broke the camel’s back. Beaten, he was hacked to death by a mob. The event took place just next to the casern of the British troops. At the time, the valiant son of Dost Mohammad Khan, Akbar Khan, who had victoriously returned from Peshawar, orchestrated the resistance against the invaders and Shuja Shah. William Macnaghten, the chief advisor of the East India Company troops, wasted no effort to assassinate him. He miserably failed. In an attempt to accomplish his plan personally in a meeting, Akbar Khan was faster and shot him on 3 December 1841. Subsequently, the entire British contingent came under attack. The tribesmen did not spare the retreating Auckland Army and their family members; only their surgeon was allowed to “return to India and report.” The rest were annihilated. It was a colossal defeat for the British and an enormous offense to their prestige and Queen. Shuja Shah tried to flee to India. However, he was captured near the Bala Hissar castle in April 1842 and killed. Dost Mohammad Khan returned to Kabul and regained his throne. The new British Governor-General of India, Lord Ellenborough, multiplied “kind offers” to the king to “strengthen his power.” In 1847, Akbar Khan, the mighty son of Dost Mohammad Khan, perished in an apparent cholera outbreak. However, the plausibility of his poisoning by the court under the British instigation has always been underlined. 

Meanwhile, Queen Victoria had opted for direct management of India by the Crown and the dismantlement of the East India Company, which came into effect in 1858. This also implied an outright intervention in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. If the king or any senior court member did not comply with London’s views, he faced an uncertain destiny and was immediately replaced by a son, brother, or cousin. Concurrently, the idea of a revenge attack on Afghanistan had emerged in the minds of British political and military strategists to “reinstate the British pride.” Therefore, Lord Lytton, the Viceroy in India known as a man to reverse characters, received the order in November 1878 to march on Afghanistan with 50,000 fighting men. King Sher Ali Khan, son of Dost Mohammad Khan, was defeated. He went to the northern parts of the country to seek Russian assistance. The Afghan side lost their final battle in Maiwand, near Kandahar, in September 1880. Fearing a repeat of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the British troops quickly withdrew from Afghanistan in March 1881, designating Sher Ali Khan’s son as the new king of the country. Several years later, and conscious of a possible Afghan reprisal, the British opted to create their safeguard zone within Afghanistan that already constituted a buffer state between them and the Russians. In November 1893, they signed the Durand Treaty with Abdur Rahman Khan, according to which the Durrani king ceded its territory’s eastern and southern zones to the British Empire. It included Kashmir and parts of the current Pakistan, north of the Indus River. Article 2 of the agreement stipulated that “the Government of India will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of Afghanistan, and His Highness the Amir [king] will at no time exercise interference in the territories lying beyond this line on the side of India.” Hence, the British created an additional protection area between them and the Russian Empire. It is also worth noting that many Pashtun leaders consider the Durand Line a temporary measure with a spirit similar to the Convention between the United Kingdom and China that was signed in June 1898 on the lease for 99 years of Hong Kong by Qing China to the British Empire. This has been a source of great anxiety for the leaders of Pakistan since the creation of this country. 

The Third Anglo-Afghan War that led to the total independence of Afghanistan and the beginning of the fall of the British Empire occurred in 1919. The young King Amanullah Khan did not follow the path of his ancestors. Surrounded by many intellectuals, politicians, and military chieftains who aspired to a free country, he mustered 50,000 men and declared war on the British. It was unheard of for a small country to declare hostility on the mighty empire. With the return of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa to India and his “peaceful war” against the occupation of his country, the British had reached the limits of their controlling and ruling capacity. Gandhi had started the civic resistance in Champaran in the State of Bihar. Millions had been galvanized in India, claiming the departure of the invaders, who seemed powerless. The Afghan king and his close advisors were mindful of the challenges and opportunities. Mahmud Tarzi, his father-in-law, was a fine politician; Haider Khan Charkhi and his sons, particularly Nabi Charkhi and Nader Khan, were smart military officers. Amanullah Khan finally attacked in May 1919 along the Durand Line. The fight did not last long, and casualties seemed minimal, though the British had lost twice as many soldiers. The war ended with an armistice on 8 August 1919, and the subsequent Anglo-Afghan Treaty resulted in the Afghans gaining complete control of their country. 

The new king opted for accelerated modernization of his country. Education, women’s emancipation, independent foreign policy, administrative and political reforms, economic invigoration, cultural innovation, and many other aspects of his policies seemed ahead of time in a highly orthodox country. Puffed up by the emergence of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, with whom he had close ties, the king ignored the necessity to proceed slowly but steadily. Despite growing unhappiness, Amanullah Khan embarked on a lengthy trip abroad at the end of 1927. He toured British India, Egypt, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Poland, and the Soviet Union, the heir of the Russian Empire. Western capitals badly received the last leg of his visit. London was alarmed and decided to bring him down, similar to the revenge of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Nothing seemed more efficient than attacking him on his women’s emancipation endeavors. Propagation of the Queen’s “indecent” pictures in European dress fired up the conservative society. Several religious leaders, who had been brought earlier to Afghanistan from the Middle East, declared that the king had turned “infidel” and organized an uprising in the eastern parts of the country. Amanullah Khan was forced into exile. Nabi Charkhi, who served as his Ambassador to the Soviet Union, tried to muster a resistance and bring him back to power. He failed and was brutally murdered together with his brother about a year later by Nader Khan, who had grabbed power with the assistance of the British. 

Following the independence of Afghanistan, London engaged in at least sixteen wars and battles in the region that diminished significantly its might. According to the Government of India census and data, up to 165 million people were killed during the British occupation of this country. The end of World War II and the independence of India resulted in the extension of the Great Game in the region of West Asia with different actors.

The East-West Rivalry in Modern Period – The Second Great Game in West Asia:

Following World War II and the demise of the British Empire, the United States took over the torch to defend Western interests in the region and faced the mighty Soviet Union. The first ugly phase of the Second Great Game in West Asia began with the partition of India and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947. Up to 18 million people, Hindus and Muslims, were forced to relocate from their homes in the north or south to go in the opposite directions. Approximately one million people died as a result of communal violence. The West stood behind the newly established state of Pakistan, while the Soviet Union backed India. It is essential to underscore that despite its independence, Pakistan was de facto ruled by London for nine years. Governing structures, particularly administrative, military, and intelligence setups, were tailored and established during this period. Afghanistan was in a peculiar situation. Even though neither King Amanullah Khan nor his successors had explicitly put the Durand Line into question, Pakistan never felt comfortable. It dragged its Western protectors into the embracement of its fear. Subsequently, despite Afghanistan declaring its neutral status to remain outside the Second Great Game in the region, Western support was merely for small-scale development aid. Matters became complicated when Daoud Khan, Prime Minister of Afghanistan and cousin of King Zaher Shah, a staunch supporter of the reunification of Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, visited the United States of America in 1958. His request to receive American military equipment was unwisely rejected. In addition, Afghanistan was not welcomed in the West-led military pacts of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), while Pakistan acquired full membership. The worry that an Afghan administration would claim restitution of its territory ceded to the British through the Durand Line Agreement with American military supplies was growing in Pakistan and Western spheres. The Afghan Prime Minister had no choice but to welcome the Soviet Union’s offer to ensure the safety and security of his country. Soviet-made tanks, guns, airplanes, and other military supplies poured into Afghanistan accompanied by hundreds of advisors. Countless Afghans received scholarships to study in diverse civil and military institutions in the Soviet Union.

King Zaher Shah tried hard to redirect his country to its path of neutrality. Under Western pressure, he dismissed Daoud Khan in 1963 to embark on a parliamentarian democracy process that alarmed Moscow. He expected political, financial, and military support from Western countries, chiefly the United States of America. His expectations were quickly overshadowed by the unbending and explicit support of the West to Pakistan. Nevertheless, a functioning democracy with all its odds in a developing country became a reality and a source of serious concern for the Soviet Union. Afghanistan and its king were in between the rock and the hard stone. Numerous political parties emerged. Among them, Khalq (people), a pro-Soviet communist entity led mainly by Pashtun leaders; Parcham (flag), a pro-Soviet communist organization run by mainly non-Pashtun chieftains; Shola-e-Jawed (Eternal Flame), a Maoist communist group, and Islamic Brotherhood of extreme Islamic obedience, supported by Pakistan, organized regular demonstrations to disrupt the functioning of the government. The first such effort consisted of sieging the parliament in 1965. It ended in a bloodbath, providing an opportunity for communist parties to gain more popularity and momentum. The attack by the Muslim Brotherhood on leftist students at the University of Kabul that resulted in many deaths constituted another alarming signal that Afghanistan faced an uncertain future.

Finally, the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev strongly encouraged Daoud Khan to regain power. He successfully orchestrated, in July 1973, a coup with the help of Soviet-trained officers, kicked out his cousin, King Zaher Shah, and declared a republican regime. Pakistan feared the repercussions of Daoud Khan’s perception of the reunification of Pashtuns and a strong alliance with India. For many, Daoud Khan’s return to power represented the beginning of the current abyss in Afghanistan and the intensification of the Second Great Game between the Soviet Union and the United States of America in West Asia.

Conclusion:

Ariana, Khorasan, or Afghanistan existed for over 4,000 years, with a highly complex history and diverse geography. It has been the crossroads of cultures, religions, trade, and conquests. This land has been occupied by mighty powers, which subsequently lost their glory and, at the same time, produced its emperors who conquered others. Its history has been bloody and multifaceted. Its geopolitical and strategic importance in regional and international affairs is undeniable. The country’s current situation has deeply rooted historical, political, and cultural aspects that many ancient and contemporary conquerors did not grasp. Due to its location in the heart of the Asian continent, Afghanistan will remain a key element in the struggle of world powers to assert their supremacy in the future.

Afghanistan – Part II

Genesis of the Current Situation – Fifteen Major Mistakes

By: Saber Azam [*]

Synopsis:

The current situation in Afghanistan did not happen in a vacuum. This country has been the battleground between the East and West for a long time. The takeover of India by the East India Company in the 18th century led to the First Great Game between the Russian and British Empires in this part of Asia (see Afghanistan – Part I). As of the end of the Second World War, it continued to be the arena of the Second Great Game between the West, steered by the United States of America and the Soviet Union. This rivalry ultimately led to the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by the latter and the withdrawal of its troops in 1988 in defeat. The United States and North Atlantic Alliance Organization (NATO) intervention in 2001 ended, too, with their chaotic departure in 2021. 

History will tell us if this country is effectively the “graveyard of empires.” Two decades following their last defeat in Afghanistan, the British Empire ceased to exist. Only three years following their retreat from this country did the Soviet Union dismantle and vanish. Would the United States of America and NATO face the same fate? All would depend on how they managed the regional and international corollaries of their retreat, handled the current global challenges, acknowledged the role of other powers in shaping policies, commerce, and prosperity, and finally engaged in cooperating with them for a better world. 

However, recent developments leave one to think that Afghanistan may become the field of a Third Great Game in the area between the West, on the one hand, and regional powers such as the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even India, on the other. This country will always remain the cornerstone of the region’s stability, peace, and security and the crossroad between Central and West Asia and the Far and the Middle East. Its peace and prosperity depend above all on its sons and daughters and an agreement on a new political, social, and economic coexistence framework among its ethnic and religious groups.   

Genesis of the Current Situation – Continuation of the Second Great Game:

For many experts, the July 1973 coup in Afghanistan, orchestrated by Daoud Khan with the help of Soviet-trained officers, was the beginning of its abyss to another cycle of tragedies and desperation. Despite all odds, the ousted king, Zaher Shah, had been able to stabilize this country for forty years, establish a democratic process that functioned, and allow opposing ideas to compete. Afghans did not need a fake republic. As a matter of fact, during the rule of Daoud Khan, no election of any type was organized to affirm his authority. His obvious disdain for Pakistan, as well as his meandering policies between the West and the Soviet Union, convinced no one within or outside Afghanistan. While the United States of America remained skeptical, the Soviet Union worried. His ambitious economic development programs did not match the country’s income, and foreign aid failed to fill the gaps. His autocratic manner of governance created division within his team. Perhaps Western pressure was the reason for removing powerful pro-Soviet civil and military high-ranked officials. However, this provided the ground for the bloody April 1978 coup against him. The two communist parties of Khalq and Parcham united under Soviet guidance to form the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and rule the country. It was similar to a forced marriage, demonstrating that Moscow did not understand the dynamisms pertaining to the perception and reaction of the people in this country. Since 1709, there have been forty-two times changes of power. Only seven sovereigns ended their reigns peacefully. The remaining thirty-five had been killed, blinded, or ousted forcibly.

The Soviet patronage did not alter the trend. As of September 1979, the killing and removal of leaders began within the PDPA. Meanwhile, the United States of America significantly intensified its engagement in the Second Great Game in the region. Operation Cyclone, the most protracted and most expensive ever Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) campaign, was launched in July 1979. The incomprehensible decision of Leonid Brezhnev to invade Afghanistan in December 1979 offered a golden opportunity for the West to envisage “the death of Marat” and incur the decisive strike on the Communist giant. Perhaps the Soviet Union had no choice. The harsh communist dictatorship, systematic violations of human rights, arbitrary imprisonments, torture, and assassinations had exacerbated the population, forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran. The Second Great Game suddenly entered into a new phase with devastating effects for Afghanistan and much broader ramifications for the peace and security of the world. 

1 – Communist Era and Soviet Invasion (1978 – 1992):

Following the downfall of Reza Shah Pahlavi by the Iranian Islamic Revolution in February 1979, Pakistan remained the only trusted Western ally in the entire South and Central Asia region. To muster and support the Afghan Resistance, the Mujahidin, against the PDPA regime and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) played the pivotal role. All dimensions of CIA-ISI cooperation within the framework of Operation Cyclone are not yet public. However, it seemed that Pakistan kept in hand strategy elaboration, management of funding, and command of the guerilla operations. At the same time, the United States and its allies provided political and humanitarian support. Mindful of eventual disagreements with a strong and united Afghan resistance, Islamabad opted for divisiveness. Seven Islamic Mujahidin groups were created along with ethnic (Tajik, Pashtun, and Hazara) and religious (Orthodox, Deobandi, and Wahhabi Sunni and Shia) diversities. Pakistan’s strategic vision to benefit from the economic corollaries of the Afghan crisis, to push its nuclear program and compete with India, and to “run the future destiny of Afghanistan” and ensure its strategic depth was an open secret. Western capitals had no objection as it was, perhaps, the reward for directing the armed struggle of the Afghan people against the Soviet Union and hosting the resistance and massive number of refugees on its soil. ISI distributed the Operation Cyclone funding among the Mujahidin groups per Pakistan’s strategic ambitions and its predilection. Conceding to ISI to “beat the Soviet Union” was more important than any imperative for the future of the people who bravely resisted the communist giant. This constituted the first colossal mistake!

From the onset, Pakistan’s political and military strategists believed they could turn the Durand Line puzzle to their advantage and restrain the traditional India-Afghanistan ties if they dominated Mujahidin leaders and commanders; as such, Islamabad would maneuver the post-communist Afghanistan or at least manage the destiny of its southern parts. Many ISI officers entered Afghanistan to direct the fight. Mujahidin commanders called them “maqamat” – authorities and Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan became their mecca. Ahmad Shah Massoud, “a moderate Muslim” who fought in the high valleys of the Hindu Kush and northern Afghanistan, and Abdul Ali Mazari, in central areas of the country, were perhaps the only exceptions. Assertive and independent-minded, Massoud was a bright tactician of asymmetrical warfare and soon became the Soviet nightmare. In 1980 alone, the Red Army launched three unsuccessful offensives to capture him in his Panjsher Valley. He acquired international recognition, much to the dismay of the ISI.

Americans did not seem to have recognized Massoud’s vision and valiant efforts. ISI convinced their counterparts that only Islamic extremist Mujahidin groups could rout the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Moderate and open-minded Islamic trends and politicians were ignored. This was the second huge error. The perception that division among Mujahidin groups was based on a “democratic approach to take into account ethnic and religious diversity” could not be sustained. Operation Cyclone’s funding was not distributed fairly among them. Islamic hardliners, one group, in particular, received enormous financial support. In addition, Pakistan authorities did not spare efforts to underline to their interlocutors that only one ethnic group can govern Afghanistan. Ignoring social and political diversities that composed the realities of Afghan society was the third significant mistake. During the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, practically no tangible and concerted effort was sponsored to pave scenarios about the post-Soviet era in this country, an indispensable imperative for the effective usefulness of Western support to the Mujahidin. Meanwhile, ISI acted according to their strategic vision:

  • Mujahidin groups engaged in internal despise.
  • Pakistan’s economic condition improved significantly.
  • Its nuclear weapon development program progressed meaningfully without any action on the part of the International Atomic Energy Agency and without respect for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • ISI officers effectively leashed Mujahidin leaders and most commanders.  

Around the mid-1980s, and conscious that divided Mujahidin groups may not serve its longer strategic objectives, Pakistan opted for an alternative proxy group. ISI determined to create a mono-ethnic, cohesive, destructive, and brutal might. Hence, hundreds of religious madrassas started training the future Taliban. Some of the highest officials in Islamabad openly declared that “Kabul must be destroyed slowly,” demonstrating the new angle of their strategy to create chaos in Afghanistan. The fourth enormous mistake was not categorically opposing the creation of such a vicious force. 

Much has been written about the Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan, the valorous Mujahidin resistance, and the refugee crisis that led to the defeat of the Red Army and its withdrawal from this country in 1988. Operation Cyclone’s efficiency, the ISI’s dexterity, and many other eulogies for the Western approach were highlighted, and countless chieftains were recognized. However, one crucial angle, the struggle, resilience, and sacrifice of the people of Afghanistan, was ignored. In fact, the best reward for over a million sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers dead, over two million mutilated, an entire country destroyed, and millions of lives shattered would have been a peaceful future for their country! In the aftermath of the collapse of the communist regime in April 1992, which coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States of America and its allies “washed their hands from Afghanistan to save East Europe and left to the ISI the future destiny of this country;” and this was the fifth massive blunder

2 – The Mujahidin Government (1992 – 1996):

The apparent plan between the ISI and the Kabul Communist regime to hand over power to a specific Mujahidin group did not materialize. Massoud entered Kabul faster. Soon after, the Mujahidin groups engaged in internal hostilities, using light and heavy weapons. Many “hidden social and political aspects of the Afghan society,” such as ethnic, lingual, and religious divide and discrimination, economic disparity, and alliance with foreign powers, surfaced and played a significant role in the bloody confrontations. To counter the setback and assert its strategic objectives, the ISI structured the Taliban and permitted the establishment of the Haqqani and Al-Qaeda networks in Pakistan. They constituted parts and parcels of the same terrorist seeds, operating in symbiosis. In some circumstances, their leaders had established family ties with each other. The Taliban were trained in orthodox institutions that preached extremely harsh and fanatic doctrines. Their force was impressive, and the operational speed was lightning! Practically all of them had blood relatives or safe havens in Afghanistan’s eastern and southern provinces. This fact offered them tribal protection and invisibility. They finally captured Kabul in September 1996. Massoud and the government were pushed to the northern parts of Hindu Kush. During this period, ISI disposed of the upper hand in Afghanistan, and Western strategy was superficial. Despite significant investment to “beat the Soviet Union” and the subsequent enormous Afghan casualties, no tangible effort was undertaken to press diverse Mujahidin factions to end the violence and resolve their disputes. Nevertheless, the government in Kabul continued to be recognized by the West without receiving the needed assistance for its success over opposing groups! 

3 – The First Taliban Emirate (1996 –  2001):

The sixth obvious mistake of the United States and its allies constituted ignoring the rise of structured extremism and terrorism in Pakistan that took an international dimension in the following years. Was it intentional, as some believed, or a devastating intelligence and political failure? In South, West, and Central Asia, a perception nurtured that as of the 1970s, the hawkish policy of “formulating a coherent strategy for the United States that aimed at dismantling the Soviet bloc” included encouraging religious doctrines to rise around and within the communist superpower’s territories. The surprising election of a Polish Pope in 1978 and the subsequent emergence of Solidarność, the unhindered support of the West to the Afghan Mujahidin, and the Islamic revolution in Iran may provide some ground for such an assertion. However, the lack of social and political understanding about the dimensions that extreme Islamic doctrines presented in mostly orthodox communities and their regional and international ramifications was crystal clear. The outcome of the “let it go” policy was unwise as Islamic extremism and terrorism propagated significantly in the world.

Once in power, the Taliban implemented a religious philosophy that often did not correspond to the teachings of Islam. Their foot soldiers did not even know the basics of a faith for which they claimed fighting! Their actions were brutal, merciless, and contradictory to all fundamentals of human rights, democratic values, and human dignity. The entire population, but mainly women, became the prey of their terror. Public killing and stoning to death as a result of the rudimentary and archaic judiciary process resurfaced. The Taliban’s hatred of centuries-old cultural and social values was a horror. Their bond and unconditional complicity with Al-Qaeda were evident to all intelligence entities. The Taliban regime was Al-Qaeda’s guarantor, and Afghanistan was the haven of its leaders. The August 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam and the destruction of the USS Cole in October 2000 by Al-Qaeda did not seem to have adequately alerted the security apparatuses and long-term strategists about the looming dangers that terrorist organizations posed. At the same time, the United States did not support Ahmad Shah Massoud, who for long had been a potential force to rout the Taliban out of Afghanistan. The leader of the Western World even ignored his warnings about destructive Al-Qaeda operations on American soil. This was the seventh major error. Some influential individuals in the United States appeared to have continued their caring approach to the Taliban, perhaps based on political or business interests. The irony consisted of the West still recognizing the Mujahidin government that had immigrated to the northern parts of Hindu Kush but was still unwilling to support it appropriately. The obvious conclusion of such an absurd policy can only be described by the West’s leniency towards Pakistan’s strategic objectives. 

In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan that figured among the world’s priceless heritages. Many believed that the demolition of these treasures in Afghanistan was an apparent attempt to obliterate all signs of its past cultural diversity and ties with India. The Western dim reaction provided more stamina to Al-Qaeda and their protectors, the Taliban. Soon, Pakistan, as an ideological Islamic state that had harbored them, faced a significant hurdle. The unhappiness of its Pashtun tribes on the eastern and southern parts of the Durand Line increased steadily. Their historic, patriotic struggle under Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan and Khan Abdul Wali Khan for “an autonomous Pashtunistan” had vanished long ago. Many young tribal leaders began to revive it, adhering to the philosophy pursued by the Taliban. ISI embarked on the suppression of unhappiness. They mustered only military might that could not extinguish the magma that boiled underneath the volcano. Furthermore, the growing grief in tribal areas of Pakistan offered an opportunity for Baloch independence movements to restructure and revitalize themselves.

Reported unfruitful discussions between Massoud, who still resisted the Taliban regime, and the Americans on how to face the Islamic extremists and Al-Qaeda, and his shocking assassination on 9 September 2001, have been the subject of significant conspiracy debates. Despite his errors during the Mujahidin government, Ahmad Shah Massoud was an icon who opposed obscurantism and terrorism; the West must have listened to him. Many blamed a well-organized plot. Indeed, he had contested ISI strategy and approach with resolve and countered many assassination schemes. Internal “complicity with foreign services and entities” had been evoked for the “success of his elimination.” 

The airplane suicide attacks on 11 September 2001 in the United States were a poisonous dagger “in the heart of democracy and liberty.” Thousands of articles and pieces have been written about it. Therefore, there is no need to elaborate on their causes. However, for many Afghan experts, they were inevitable. Years of ignorance of the threats posed by international terrorism that emanated from Afghanistan and Pakistan and the lack of a strategic vision on how to fight it offered Al-Qaeda and their Taliban protectors the vigor to commit such audacious acts. The American fury and their decision to invade Afghanistan were understandable. However, their strategy was questionable. Their wiping approach from the north and carpet bombing without sealing the eastern and southern main crossing points was futile and killed mostly innocent villagers and a few Taliban militants. This was the eighth massive mistake. With the help of their staunch ally, the ISI, they could have clinched control of the few borders with Pakistan and “fetched” the Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders who had nowhere else to escape except this country. As a result, all extremist and terrorist chieftains and their lieutenants “vanished” in the tribal zones. The United States neither went into these areas to capture them nor put pressure on Pakistan to apprehend and surrender them. The arrest of a few Taliban figures and their imprisonment either in the region or in Guantanamo did not seem to be of prime importance. The United States of America and its allies secured enormous credit by assisting the Afghan Mujahidin, whose unhindered struggle contributed significantly to defeating the Soviet Union. However, their twisting policies in fighting terrorism and extremism surprised many and were questionable!

4 – Western Presence Between 2001 and 2021:

This phase of Afghan history started with the Bonn Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan, dated 5 December 2001. There were many flaws during the UN-sponsored discussion and its outcome. This accord was based on the old British philosophy and ISI’s policy that only a specific ethnic group could rule Afghanistan. It also totally ignored an existing Mujahidin government that the International Community recognized during the harsh years of the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001. This government had a seat in the United Nations and other regional and international institutions. Its president was not invited to attend the Bonn deliberations. The participant who acquired the most votes to lead the transitional phase of post-Taliban Afghanistan was overruled and replaced by Hamed Karzai, a less-known personality in the local and international arena. The exercising head of state “was forced to abdicate.” In reality, the entire process was hasty. It did not take into account the social and political transformation of Afghan society during the struggle against communism, the Soviet invasion, and the Taliban regime. The Bonn agreement looked like the outcome of a deal among political traders who endeavored only to tailor their fair share of the power cake instead of forging a workable future for their country. The fact that while Afghanistan was a country with defined and recognized boundaries, its inhabitants did not constitute a nation was ignored. Many local experts considered discouraging and unconstructive the repeated rhetoric of American politicians that “nation-building in Afghanistan was not their priority.” This was the ninth huge misstep of the United States of America and its allies. Their political and military interventions in Afghanistan seemed forceful; only what they wanted was implementable based on the undeniable principle that “those who funded decided!” 

The structure of the Afghan constitution with a powerful president was unwise in a country that had an over 85% illiterate population and two decades of bloody conflicts, including ethnic and religious killings. In addition, bringing countless so-called experts of Afghan origin from Western countries, who appeared ignorant to the realities of their country of origin, and giving them a “blank check” to manage the country was considered amateurish. As a result, inefficiency and corrupt practices became the standard modus operandi of governing. A combination of old-fashioned bribery, practiced mainly by the Presidential Palace to “buy the favor of tribal leaders,” and modern embezzlement gangrened the foundations of the newly established state. Many Bonn Agreement dignitaries, other high officials in the government, and family members of the rulers engaged in engrossing their bank accounts with illicit activities or juicy contracts. Friends and Mujahidin-era warlords were appointed to key positions without proper competence or knowledge, including in diplomatic missions. The number of multi-millionaires grew steadily in a country considered amongst the poorest in the world. Ignoring the degree and corollaries of systematic corruption within the Western-sponsored Afghan government was the tenth enormous error. The establishment in 2008 of the Afghan High Office for Oversight and Anti-Corruption and the United States Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction was too late. Neither proved efficient!

While the first democratic election in 2004 seemed fair, the following universal suffrages in 2009, 2014, and 2019 were marred with flagrant irregularities and dramatic political showdowns to the extent that people lost trust in the process. Elections seemed engineered to ensure that those desired ruled the country. In 2009, under tremendous pressure, the “opposition candidate” who claimed victory in the first round had to withdraw in the second round. In 2014, the same contender who had an enormous advance in the first round but was declared a loser in the second phase stood firm. The United States intervened. As a result, an “unconstitutional position” was created for him as if the country had two leaders simultaneously, though the real power remained in the hands of the declared president. It was a step further in the widespread erosion of trust towards institutions. As a result of a shambled process in 2019, the exact so-called opposition figure who had declared a parallel government was forced to abdicate and accept an honorary position. Except for freedom of expression and women’s emancipation in major cities, the remaining pillars of democracy seemed ignored.

No healthy and structured opposition was allowed to grow and judge the wild acts of the government. Parliament members were mainly selected. Many engaged in illicit activities and joined groups of corrupt high officials. Internal oversight did not exist in any public or private entity, and quality control on imported or exported items “was fanciful.” Numerous high officials monopolized lucrative businesses and extracted unlawfully mines, particularly precious and semi-precious stones. Unlike the “old days,” the government did not seem to have a precise political, social, and economic development agenda for the country. The Afghan leadership truly believed it was their absolute right to govern without accountability. Their strategy to acquire the “buy-in of ethnic chieftains without due regard for constitutional pillars” seemed efficient and kept them in power. Many experts did not comprehend why the public generally “remained castrated” in an environment that allowed them to use their force and change policies and actions in their favor. 

There were many versions of the truth about aid provided by Western countries. Government dignitaries claimed that nearly 70% was handled by contractors of donor nations. There was growing unhappiness about the management of multilateral endeavors, too. For example, the road between Kabul and Gardez in the south had to be repaired again after two or three years due to the rudimentary nature of the work undertaken initially or the enormous budget allocated for schools and hospitals that did not exist. 

Amidst managerial anarchy, the political situation nurtured impunity. Some of the most prominent political and military leaders of one particular ethnic group were assassinated in targeted terror attacks. The complicity of the government’s highest officials could not be excluded. None of the investigations was conclusive. During this period and despite the presence of international forces in the country, countless Taliban leaders detained for acts of terror found their liberty under many pretexts. They quickly joined their headquarters in Pakistan to lead acts of violence. 

On the security front, the Taliban, assisted by their protectors, had gathered their forces in Pakistan to the extent that, already in 2005, they were able to commit acts of terrorism within Afghanistan. They pursued mainly a strategy of suicide bombing on foreign troops, government, and civilian targets with devastating casualties. Repeated acts of terror in crowded and diplomatic zones of Kabul and against another particular ethnic group occurred, resulting in hundreds killed and many more injured. Local experts believed that insecurity in Afghanistan was related to corruption, ethnic and religious biases, and/or service to foreign powers. They all led to dysfunctional governments in Afghanistan. Amidst challenges, the decision of the United States to invade Iraq unilaterally in 2003 was incomprehensible. The reasons invoked were wrong, and the timing was inappropriate. This was their eleventh significant mistake, as they had not yet accomplished a convincing job in Afghanistan. It backfired immensely and tarnished the credentials of Western countries irreparably as guarantors of democracy, truth, human rights, and dignity and champions of just cause. With the attention of the United States divided between Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan found more space to maneuver to achieve its interests and strategic depth through the Taliban.

Aware of their growing weakening position in the region and the inability or unwillingness of the Afghan authorities to address multiple state responsibilities appropriately, the United States administration decided to open a communication channel with the Taliban in 2010. As the coalition casualties steadily increased, the main concern seemed to be reducing human losses. It slowly and steadily developed into a political negotiation process. This was the twelfth major error. No rational thinking would have led to believe that the leader of the world, with its rhetoric on the fight against terrorism and extremism, engaged in a dialogue with the most notorious terrorist organization that had harbored those who had committed atrocious acts of terror against it. In December of the same year, the United States and its allies openly supported the “Arab Spring,” a series of attempts to change regimes in the Middle East and North Africa through widespread unrest. While the essence of the idea may seem unquestionable, its selective nature surprised everyone as “some countries were spared.” Furthermore, in Egypt, the elected president through the “Arab Spring” in 2012 was overthrown by a military coup hardly a year later!

Moreover, direct interventions of Western countries to overthrow regimes where unrest had not achieved its objective, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2014, had damaging outcomes, eroding further the prestige and credibility of Western countries, particularly in the Muslim nations, including Afghanistan. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was a massive blow to the stability and security of the region, bringing central international and regional protagonists face to face. The most damaging fact was that no country witnessed an improvement due to regime change or military intervention. The lives of Iraqi, Syrian, and Libyan populations became much more difficult with dramatic security hazards and acts of terror. The perception that Western countries were destabilizing and untrustworthy actors sprouted in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

The killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 by a special United States operation was a huge surprise and shock at the same time. How was it possible that the most wanted man on earth, the mastermind of the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam embassy bombings, the USS Cole destruction, and the 11 September tragedies, could hide for years without any hindrance on the territory of the West’s most trusted ally. Was he protected near the Pakistani capital with the consent of the United States for over ten years? If so, what was the purpose of a theatrical operation monitored online by the White House? If not, it was an unforgivable failure of the CIA and a betrayal of their ISI counterpart. No matter the exact reasons, terrorist acts did not stop; they even increased in number and intensity and became deadlier. Despite the demise of the Al-Qaeda leader, the structure of the organization in Pakistan remained intact, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s faithful deputy, took charge of it. Why the United States of America did not or could not dismantle the foundation of such an atrocious entity seems a legitimate question.

Contradictory statements on the decrease or increase of the coalition troops in Afghanistan and even their withdrawal did not help much. On the contrary, it gave more vigor to the Taliban fighters. As of January 2017, the Doha negotiation process has accelerated. The United States Administration relied on a Pakistani diplomat and a citizen of Afghan origin to tailor its strategy. American negotiators were able to strike a deal, the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, commonly known as the United States–Taliban Treaty or the Doha Accord, on 29 February 2020. This was the thirteenth colossal mistake. Though the full extent of the “contract” remained secret, it was evident that the Taliban would retake control of the country in hand and “ensure Pakistan’s full control over its strategic depth.” The pseudo-inter-Afghan dialogue to form a broad-based government was considered a simple political sprinkling. Many countries in the region that seemed uneasy with Western policies and presence in Afghanistan had already nurtured to “counter-attack” the tie between the United States of America and the Islamic extremists. They invested covertly in the Taliban to acquire their adherence in support of a different regional peace and security scheme that would ensure mutual longevity and root out Western countries. Ultimately, the Afghan authorities handed over the country to the Taliban, who entered Kabul as victors for the second time. The so-called Afghan National Army was nowhere to prevent them. 

The final phase of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan was a catastrophic withdrawal in August 2021! The hopeless individuals hanging to the landing gears and tires of a flying aircraft and then falling on the ground, the chaos at the Kabul airport, the suicide bombing that killed over one hundred seventy desperate Afghans and thirteen United States service staff, and a mismanaged evacuation of those who had assisted Western countries during their presence in Afghanistan will be remembered for long. Today, only a handful of the Taliban leaders still believe in and act in the spirit of the Doha Accord!

There are many questions as to why the United States of America ignored the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed on 30 September 2014 with the government of Afghanistan. Though the BSA was not a defense treaty, one of the key commitments of the United States under it was to “enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter internal and external threats against its sovereignty.” For many Afghan experts, the Doha Accord and the subsequent take-over of the country by the Taliban were noticeable disregard of the BSA.

5 – Second Taliban Emirate (2021 – Present):

The Taliban grabbed power again in a bloodless effort on 15 August 2021, claiming that they “defeated the Americans and their allies.” The collapse of the card-castle-like Afghan government and its security forces, structured, trained, and funded by Western countries for twenty years, was a mystery to many experts. However, the Afghan perception evoked a triangular understanding among the United States of America, the government of Afghanistan, and the Taliban. No matter the credibility of such an assertion, the new Taliban regime instantly demonstrated extraordinary agility in public relations. About eight billion dollars worth of military equipment (some sources claim ten times this figure) was handed over to a group that Western countries still considered terrorists. Even though the Taliban pursued archaic doctrines, there was a belief that “they had changed,” and it was the fourteenth major mistake. The philosophy, politics, and actions of the Taliban have always been modeled on the wrong perceptions and practices attributed to the prime age of Islam in the seventh century, without which they can hardly control their foot soldiers and last. Often, their policies contradict the essence of Islamic principles. However, in traditional societies where the majority has been kept ignorant and illiterate, they can convince the masses. They pursue extremely harsh dogmas within the country. Their war on women and women’s rights is similar to the physical, emotional, and psychological genocide of Afghan women. Their disdain for the Jafari faith in a country where the Shias make up a significant portion of the population is inhuman. Their fight against languages other than Pashtu is unacceptable. Their destruction of ancestral cultural values in art, music, and literature contradicts all fundamental human rights and dignity. Their “security success” may be the result of dictatorship, practiced individually by each Taliban soldier, officer, and higher authority, or collectively by the entire governing apparatuses. Like Daoud Khan’s era, there is no hope for any election to allow the people to confirm their authority and judge their acts. 

Though the framework of the Doha Accord may have been discussed with some or all regional powers, only Pakistan, as an unyielding ally, disposed of the privilege of knowing the details. This has given rise to many conspiracy theories about the “Taliban task to destabilize Central Asia, China, and Iran.” The inexplicable silence about systematic violations of human rights and dignity in Afghanistan, the sustainable financial aid provided to the Taliban government since August 2021, and the lack of support to those who oppose their archaic rules and governance cannot find just explanations. The killing in July 2022 of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, where he was hosted by one of the highest Taliban dignitaries, was not a surprise to many experts. Long ago, Osama bin Laden was protected in similar manners elsewhere. It is assumed that many international and regional terrorist organizations and their leaders are settled in Afghanistan, and innumerable outside structures are inspired by “their success against the evil.”

The facts have changed dramatically on the ground, however. In the initial stages of the Taliban takeover, skirmishes with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan took place. But, the situation altered rapidly. The cautious relationship of regional powers with the Taliban transformed slowly into a more cordial rapport in political, economic, and even security arenas. On the contrary, their association with Pakistan faced a severe chill. The initial expression of delight by Islamabad “had even embarrassed the Taliban.” Yet, Pakistan’s subsequent political and security turmoil cannot be ignored. There is no doubt that leaders of the Tahrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in open war with their government, are hosted and protected mainly in the south and east areas of Afghanistan, similar to the situation years back when leaders of the Taliban were harbored in the tribal zones of Pakistan. “Such is an ancestral value to protect a brother and has nothing to do with circumstantial politics.” The authorities in Islamabad, chiefly the ISI, know it without reserve. The Imran Khan saga, corruption at the government’s highest civilian and military echelons, dysfunctional political system, worsening economy, and interference of foreign powers weakened Pakistan significantly.

Moreover, the recent tension in the Middle East and the game of alliances has put more pressure on this country to constrain itself from Western alliances. Geographic proximity is another crucial factor, giving regional powers the upper hand. After its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States does not possess any strategic backyard in West Asia. With Afghanistan slipping out of their influence and Pakistan facing existential challenges, the United States and its allies can no longer be in the driving seats of political, economic, and social developments in this part of the world. However, international cooperation will be needed to ensure peace, security, and stability that would benefit all. A possible attempt to assert its authority unilaterally in West and Central Asia would be the fifteenth mistake that Washington would commit.

The Third Great Game in West and Central Asia?:

At this stage of history and considering that economic, political, and even monetary multi-polarities are evoked, Afghanistan could become the battleground of a Third Great Game that would be the contest between the United States of America and its allies on the one hand and the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even India on the other. Indeed, the expansion of NATO’s operations beyond its geographic scope in West Asia and the Middle East was considered by many regional experts as a continuation of “the hegemonic attempt to assert unipolarity in the world by which only Western political, social, and economic models ruled.” In addition, military interventions in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, in particular, produced chaos in these countries, raising serious questions about the “hidden intention” of Western countries and their allies. Many African and Asian scholars refer to historic “unacknowledged and unrepaired injustices such as slavery, colonialism, new colonialism, and the opium wars despite the existence of international norms.” Such feelings are also translated at the political level. The creation of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) alliance and its recent expansion to include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran to form BRICS+ is another firm expression of multi-polarity.

The existence of numerous tension spots in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, as well as political disparities on how to solve significant existential challenges such as climate change, support to renewable energy, social and economic development disparities, respect for human rights and dignity and fair application of international standards in all conflicts, world commercial challenges, and many other divisive topics have molded a new game of alliances. Afghanistan will remain a crucial geostrategic field between sets of powers. However, this country can also be an excellent example of future international cooperation.  

Conclusions:

Internal angles

The Afghanistan case study has always surprised political strategists and military experts as their rational thinking has systematically faced challenges. Since 1964, this country had countless “all-inclusive governments;” as of the 1980s, many “peace agreements” have been brokered by foreign forces. None proved realistic, practical, or efficient; the conflict lasted over fifty years with enormous human and material losses. This situation will most likely continue. It is hard to believe that the Taliban regime persists for long. Perhaps one of the main reasons is that multiple small countries exist within this country, with their specific identities, histories, and cultural values. Without sincere regard among the diverse ethnic groups as equal partners, Afghans can hardly constitute a solid nation with common national values and interests. 

Foreign domination attempts have never succeeded and will fail in the future. Above all, the best assistance consists of letting the people of Afghanistan find the basis to form a nation. Furthermore, the fact that power has been vested practically in a single ethnic group since 1709 through a centralized government has not improved the conditions of all. This country needs a new political, social, and economic framework and a governing system that serves all its citizens equally and without distinction of ethnic, religious, gender, or other considerations. Afghans themselves must come together, think, and elaborate on the agenda for the future of their country. There are certainly examples that can help them; Switzerland shares many facts with Afghanistan; it is land-locked, mountainous, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, surrounded by powerful neighbors, suffered many internal and external conflicts, and has a neutral status, for example. The Swiss governance model can undoubtedly be a source of inspiration for Afghanistan’s future structures. 

Another primary reason for the failures of this country has been inefficient, corrupt, biased, and quisling leaders. Nepotism and tribalism have been characteristics of practically all regimes in Afghanistan. Despite enormous resources, it is one of the poorest countries, relying mainly on external alms. Even the leaders between 2001 and 2021 failed their exams of honesty, efficiency, and serving the country. They can in no manner prove reliable in the future. The country needs multi-ethnic, multicultural, young, and dynamic new leaders, mainly from within the country, who can put their nation’s interests above theirs, their families, or ethnic groups. They can contribute to developing the new governance framework for their country, present it to their people, and amend and take it forward. Unless the people of Afghanistan unite to form a nation, its sons and daughters come together to develop new coexistence frameworks, prioritize broader national values, and constitute trustworthy leaders and managers, it will face conflicts, wars, and desolation. 

Regional angles

Among all the countries in the region, Pakistan has been the most influential so far. It attempted to dominate every aspect of life in Afghanistan since 1978. However, the geopolitical situation changed dramatically in the region. India became a superpower, the Russian Federation re-emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic of Iran survived imposed sanctions and is now a significant player, and the People’s Republic of China became a mega power. Since the departure of the American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the wars in Ukraine and Palestine, and multiple other sources of tension in the Middle East and elsewhere constitute absolute priorities for Western capitals. Pakistan now has an untenable situation. Not only does the Afghan Taliban seem to slip out of their hands, but they also face internal threats by the TTP and the Baloch independence armed movements. Its political and economic situations have never been so fragile.

Other neighbors of Afghanistan have so far taken a prudent approach despite the initial provocations and skirmishes. Apparently, they have convinced the Taliban that regional instability would be in no one’s interest. Furthermore, it seems that full implementation of the Doha Accord “has been put aside by the Taliban for the moment.” However, the essential question would be how the Kabul regime could control the many terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, that are settled in Afghanistan with an ambition to destabilize some neighbors. It is worth noting that most of the former Afghan National Army officers and soldiers have escaped to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation, and Central Asian countries. They could constitute important assets in any future conflict in the country. The prime victim of eventual instability would be Pakistan due to its internal frailty and the inability of its traditional external supporters to help appropriately. It is in the best interest of Afghanistan’s neighbors to abstain from interfering in the internal affairs of this country and let Afghans choose the political, social, and economic structures and leaders they deem appropriate. 

International angles

The Bonn Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, dated 5 December 2001, sponsored by the International Community, did not take into account the political and social realities of the country and their evolution in the course of the country’s history to tailor the governing formula that would have better chances to succeed. The efficiency of international military forces (NATO and allies) in Afghanistan since 2001 has been questioned as it did not fulfill the objectives of Security Council Resolution 1386 (2001) and the subsequent rulings by the International Community. In particular, it failed to “take the necessary measures to guarantee the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the non-interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan’s internal affairs ….. [and] combat international terrorism.” Manifold foreign troops in Afghanistan provided an image of international solidarity. However, multiple centers of military command and rules of engagement were severe challenges. Similar to Kosovo over two decades earlier, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy occupied vital strategic areas of the country, bearing the responsibility for the safety of citizens and the security of the country. Others had either a symbolic presence or a limited number of troops. Lack of knowledge about the country’s geography, culture, and profound religious values quickly led to mistakes and violations of war rules. Such avoidable errors provided golden opportunities for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan and assert their authority in villages and towns in the southern parts of the country. Only Australia began to investigate some of the misdeeds of its soldiers in Afghanistan. Whether other countries would follow is a big question mark. In addition, the following unproductive military interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya were enormous errors that led to the attrition of confidence in the morality of Western countries. It is also essential to underscore that geographic proximity has become an enormous factor in defining the winner in any future conflict, at least for the foreseeable future. 

The international bilateral and multilateral civilian presence hardly fulfilled its obligations under broader Security Council resolutions and agency- or country-specific objectives. There are legitimate questions about their efficiency. Mismanagement, corruption, incompetence, and even ignorance marred their actions. Contractors brought in and took out whatever they wished from Afghanistan. Due to insecurity, seemingly created by mafia networks with the help of the Taliban, agencies were not able to undertake their crucial monitoring task. Subsequently, projects were subcontracted many times, significantly reducing the aid’s nature and transparency.  

Afghanistan was a neutral country before falling into war and desolation. The best action of the International Community would be to let Afghans decide about their future, agree on the governance structures for their country, form a new generation of young leaders, and restore their country’s neutral status again. Manifold powers must not act in rivalry but with a spirit of cooperation. History will tell us whether Afghanistan would be a model of neutrality and international cooperation or the unfortunate field of the Third Great Game in West and Central Asia!  

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[*] Dr. Saber Azam is a former United Nations official and author of Soraya: The Other Princess, Hell’s Mouth: A Journey to the Heart of West African Jungles, and many articles on the Afghanistan situation and the need to reform the United Nations [https://www.saberazam.com]. He presents the perspective of an Afghan who has closely followed developments in Afghanistan since 1978.