Invaded many times throughout its history, Afghanistan has been a major battleground for successive empires. The Russians and the British used it as a buffer zone in a 19th-century geopolitical contest popularly described as the “Great Game.”
On a map, Afghanistan appears inhospitable, but each encroaching empire used it for geopolitical purposes. More broadly, the map of Afghanistan could be seen as a metaphorical pond, stocked with “fish” and some valuable minerals. It could also be seen as a connecting route between other countries or as a convenient backyard for its neighbors.
Empires have come and gone and now the US is the latest to find itself in this unfriendly terrain largely because of its ignorance and arrogance.
A country riven by four types of war
Currently, Afghanistan faces four types of wars, all of which feature either a local, regional or global context. The first war entails terrorism. After the attacks on the US on Sept. 11, 2001, a “global war on terror” was begun with an international alliance led by the US and targeting radical groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The second type of war is regional with the involves parties fighting for a piece of the pond and intensified by the support of one ethnic group over another.
The third category is a war within the entire country waged on religious or ethnic grounds among Afghans. This type of conflict has always existed in Afghanistan and remains ready to erupt when there is no dominant party to control all the country’s ethnic groups.
The Afghan government has the responsibility to control country territory and provide for its citizens, although that seems a difficult task without external support. When external support stops, ethnic groups fight among themselves for their survival.
The fourth category is a global war, in which multiple powerful entities are involved, such as the US, Russia, China, India and the EU. It’s a sort of cold war but larger and multi-faceted.
Briefly, the current Afghan war started in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded. The US helped organize the Afghan mujahideen with the assistance of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. Western money, weapons, and ammunition flowed to the mujahideen who were considered freedom fighters, liberators of Afghanistan and defenders of Islam in South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
When the Russians left, a young generation of Afghans grew up in refugee camps and madrassas where they became indoctrinated as radicals
The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, driven out by the mujahideen backed by the US and its allies. When the Russians left, a young generation of Afghans grew up in refugee camps and madrassas where they became indoctrinated as radicals.
Internal strife started, and it led to wars among different ethnic groups — a war within Afghanistan. The Taliban emerged to fill a leadership vacuum.
Unlike the mujahideen, whose members were clean shaved, the Taliban had turbans and beards and ascribed to Deobandi (strict revivalist Sunni Islam) thoughts. Most of them were victims of the 1980s war and members of the young generation.
About three million refugees fled to Pakistan, tired of the civil war in Afghanistan. Taliban control in Afghanistan during the civil war was comparatively better than living with ethnic conflict among different mujahideen factions. But it was an oppressive regime — no women’s rights, no schooling, but the country was somewhat peaceful. The Taliban established their emirate in 1994, which ended in 2001 when the Americans invaded and toppled the regime.
Many people celebrated Operation Enduring Freedom. The oppressive Taliban regime disappeared, but they were only waiting across the border in Pakistan.
Nato fails to establish a viable economy
The US began nation-building projects. Nato helped the Afghans but failed to establish a viable economy. It was not an Afghan economy; it was a war economy.
Money flowed in, people were hired in different government sectors. Companies came in, roads were built, linguists hired, more military bases were established. A large number of people made money because of the war economy. But common Afghans failed to benefit from this war economy.
Enter the Taliban, version 2, which began its offensive against Nato and the US in 2003. Many of the rebuilding projects were disrupted, and thousands of Afghans and Pashtun Pakistanis were killed.
Afghanistan’s neighboring countries have a huge impact on the country. Historically Indians have had close relations with Afghanistan, but the Pakistanis and Indians are not friendly with each other. So, Pakistan is stuck between two hostile governments, Afghanistan on one side and India on the other.
Different outcomes for the various players
Four different wars with multiple parties involved on different sides – does it mean a favorable strategic outcome for all parties or a muddled future? Iranian and US strategic outcomes are separate; the US and Russian strategic outcomes vary, and the Indian and Pakistani strategic outcomes are different. This is why conflict continues in Afghanistan. A Russian victory is an American defeat, and an Iranian victory is a defeat for the Americans, and a Pakistani loss is a victory for the Indians.
The Afghan government must focus on creating an independent economy and strong military. If the US pulls back, the fragile Afghan government will not be able to stand alone. The Americans have to stabilize Afghanistan with help from its neighbors.
If building trust between neighbors and confidence-building measures work, then peace is possible. The Taliban should be given a power-sharing formula to ensure stability.
Finally, the world powers and regional countries must help institute a balanced policy in Afghanistan to prevent a broader regional catastrophe.