Human face painted with flag of Afghanistan. Image:iStock
Human face painted with flag of Afghanistan. Image:iStock

The Soviet Union intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 and the US declaring “war on terror” in 2001 trampled on the Afghan desire for neutrality and independence and thereby not only acted against their own interests but contributed to regional instability, with a resultant surge in fundamentalism and radical Islamism.

The costs resulting from the violation of Afghan neutrality after the Soviet intervention could be gauged from the strengthening of Islamic forces in the region. The US resolve and the Afghan desire to drive the Soviet forces out led fighters from all over the Muslim world to join the jihad in Afghanistan, resulting in a huge loss of human lives, sapping Soviet economic and military strength, and promoting an illegal economy in the mujahideen-controlled Afghan-Pakistani border areas.

Militancy and the drug trade became transnational, and the groups involved continued to make money from the trade of arms and drugs even after the US stopped aiding the Islamist groups following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The US committed similar mistakes to those of the Soviets and became entangled in the long-drawn Afghan quagmire. What the intervening powers failed to notice was the Afghans’ distaste for foreign occupation and their desire for independence.

Going by history, it is evident that Afghan rulers assiduously maintained the state’s independence and did not hesitate to play one power against another to secure that objective. While on the one hand, the British Empire failed to extend its sway into Afghanistan even though the imperial power invaded the country twice in the 19th century, the Russian Empire was prevented from sabotaging Afghan independence until the Soviet Union intervened in 1979.

To secure the state’s independence toward the end of the 19th century, the Afghan ruler, Abdur Rahman, did not introduce modernization and left Afghanistan impassable, offering little of value to external powers. He believed that so long as the country remained poor and inaccessible, it would be unattractive to those with imperial ambitions.

Similarly, at the beginning of the 20th century, when there was considerable pressure on Rahman’s son, Habibullah, to join the Central Powers in their war with Britain and Russia, the ruler chose to maintain neutrality throughout the war in order to maintain the state’s independence, as he was well aware of the geographic distance between Afghanistan and the Central Powers and the immediacy of his borders with the British and Russian empires.

After Habibullah’s assassination, when his son Amanullah came to power, he declared war against the British in 1919, probably feeling confident of Soviet backing. However, Amanullah cut himself off from an annual subsidy of more than 1 million rupees that the British were providing to Afghanistan and thereby indicated that the Afghan desire for independence outweighed any material gains.

It is evident that Afghan rulers assiduously maintained the state’s independence and did not hesitate to play one power against another to secure that objective

Amanullah went further, to the extent of pitting one power against the other in order to secure Afghanistan’s independence and neutrality. He supported the pan-Islamic groups in Soviet Central Asia aimed at weakening Russian abilities, and he remained silent in the face of British activities stirring up pan-Islamism. At the same time, he did not object to the passage of men and arms from the Soviet Union through Afghanistan on their way to stir up trouble in the North West Frontier Province of British India.

Amanullah persuaded the Afghans to support and aid the Basmachi – a pan-Islamic movement – in order to resist Soviet control in the Central Asian region. He also opened diplomatic relations with Bukhara and Khiva with the objective of granting them legal recognition as sovereign states so they would act as buffers against Russian encroachments.

Since World War I and continuing into the inter-war period, the Afghan state, wanting to maintain its independence, viewed Germany as a possible counterweight to both Russia and Britain. The family oligarchy around Zahir Shah looked primarily to Germany for industrial and technical assistance. However, Russia and the British developed cooperative strategies to ensure that Germany’s influence in Afghanistan ended.

The Afghan desire for independence and neutrality was not only witnessed in its observance of strict neutrality during the two world wars but was also underlined by its formal association with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the Cold War. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan violated the policy of neutrality and mutual non-aggression that was agreed to on June 24, 1931, and extended in December 1955.

The Soviet Union did not have any ideological or governmental obligation to protect the communist government in Afghanistan, as the latter was neither a member of the Warsaw Pact nor of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon). The Soviet intervention also ignored the internal political dynamics in Afghanistan, which gravitated toward a desire for independence.

For instance, Mohammed Daoud Khan became the first president of Afghanistan in 1973 with the assistance of Afghan communists and adopted a pro-Soviet policy line and facilitated the Soviet Union extending its influence into the country through its bureaucrats and military advisers. However, during the concluding years of his rule, Khan diversified aid from different countries and asked Soviet personnel to leave the country, and also jailed many members of the Afghan communist party.

The violation of Afghan neutrality and independence in the US-led “war on terror” has contributed to complex and volatile atmospherics within Afghanistan. Not only has there been a scramble for influence among state actors, it has also created a power vacuum where non-state actors such as the Taliban and Islamic State (ISIS) are pursuing their objectives. Civilians are falling victim to incessant war between the Taliban and the Afghan government supported by the coalition forces on the one hand and to the jostling for influence between the Taliban and ISIS on the other.

Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.

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