Forty years have lapsed since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That event, which followed the takeover of power through a violent coup by a cluster of pro-Soviet communists in Kabul in April 1978, marked the beginning of the bloody conflict that has beset Afghanistan ever since. After a decade-long and very costly occupation, the Soviets were compelled to withdraw in the face of a formidable Islamic resistance by the Afghan people, backed by the United States and its allies. Yet, the defeat of the Soviets and their surrogates also left behind a broken and debilitated Afghanistan, from where al-Qaeda orchestrated its 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, leading the US to invade Afghanistan without learning any lessons from the Soviet defeat.
A familiar phrase about Afghanistan is that the country has historically been the graveyard of invaders. This reputation is evidently undeniable. Great Britain failed three times from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries to subdue the country in pursuit of its imperial interests, and the Soviets faced the same fate in their attempt to achieve a similar objective. The United States, supported by its NATO and non-NATO allies, has now been struggling for two decades to master what the British and Soviets could not accomplish.
Afghanistan is indeed unconquerable, as once US President Richard Nixon (1969-74) remarked, and ungovernable. Afghanistan has been unique in attracting foreign invasions on the one hand, and denying them victory on the other. Yet, it is a country which has had little to offer to outside powers in the way of human and material resources. It has historically possessed a very limited pool of educated people, although this has picked up to a noticeable degree over the last many years, and valuable natural assets. It is only in the last decade that the Americans and their Afghan allies have claimed that $1 trillion worth of valuable minerals are buried under the country’s harsh terrain, with little being exploited largely due to the ongoing conflict and insecurity in the country.
It is essentially the geographical location of the country that has subjected it to major power invasions and also neighbourly interference. Afghanistan is a hub of connectivity between Central Asia, West Asia and South Asia as well as the Far East, given its short border with China. It has traditionally lain on the highway of conquests, and has been invaded for wider objectives than any serious concern for the Afghan people, whose suffering has been incalculable. The British wanted to protect their Indian colonial outlier against Russian imperial ambitions. The Soviets sought to safeguard the sanctity of their ideological disposition. The American intervention was primed by avenging al-Qaeda attacks and fighting terrorism.
None of them can justifiably claim that their actions have been occasioned by sympathy for the Afghan population. They have all come to install favourable governments as their reliable partners on the ground, but none of them have been successful in this respect. The British backed various Afghan leaders against one another, and the Soviets could not unify the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which continuously tore itself apart from within. The Americans have not managed to secure a united and effective government that could provide them with the necessary mechanism of control on the ground. Today, the US-backed government in Kabul is more divided than ever since the start of the US intervention.
A fundamental problem of the invading powers has been their lack of a firm grasp of the complexities of Afghanistan and its region. They have all tried to create a strong central government, though in varying degrees, to rule the country in support of their interests, without paying sufficient attention to one basic fact: the Afghan population is highly mosaic and made up of a number of traditional socio-cultural micro-societies, which are divided along ethnic, tribal, linguistic, cultural and sectarian lines. Each society has extensive cross-border ties with Afghanistan’s neighbours, meaning that whatever transpires in Afghanistan concerns its neighbours and vice versa. The only factor that has had the potential to bind these micro-societies together is the religion of Islam. But even in that case, the mixture of cultural and Islamic traditions as well as sectarian divisions have historically not enabled the religion to unite Afghanistan as a strong functioning state. Rarely has Afghanistan had a government with full control across the country, irrespective of whether or not it has been backed by a major power.
Afghanistan has become not only unconquerable, but also ungovernable. It is currently going through a very difficult period of governability. The preliminary results of the Presidential election of 28 September 2019 have just been announced. The incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, has been named as the winner with a total vote of a little more than 900,000 out of less than 2 million votes cast from 9 million registered voters and a population of some 37 million. All the other candidates, including Ghani’s main rival Abdullah Abdullah, have rejected the outcome as fraudulent, and the president can by no means claim sufficient legitimacy to govern.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump is desperately seeking to end America’s military involvement in the unwinnable Afghan war, preferably through a political settlement. In this, however, he faces a predicament similar to that of President Nixon in Vietnam fifty years ago. Nixon ended America’s Vietnam fiasco by signing a peace accord with North Vietnam in January 1973, but America was humiliated by the fall of its South Vietnam ally shortly thereafter. Trump is keen to avoid the Vietnam experience in relation to Afghanistan. The question is: will he be able to do it, given the tragic Afghan situation?
Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, retd, from the Australian National University, and author of Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival
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