Afghanistan is not a country the rest of the world thinks much about. Landlocked, remote and destitute, it mostly keeps to itself and influences events in its region only marginally. That all changed in 2001, when the September 11 terrorist attacks in America provoked an international Western invasion. In the years since, Afghanistan has become synonymous with guerrilla insurgency, Islamic extremism and conservative, outdated attitudes. Last year, the curtain finally closed on international military intervention in Afghanistan, as the last NATO combat battalions moved out.
But Afghanistan is still tremendously poor, violent and fragile. Can it survive for long without foreign assistance?
Afghanistan may be a dry, mountainous, remote country, but it’s also located at a vitally strategic crossroads of Asia. To its north lay the khanates of Central Asia, minor principalities and nomads that occasionally built great empires. To the northeast sprawled the Chinese Empire; although its power center was far away, the Silk Roads carrying Chinese products passed through. To the southeast was the Indian subcontinent, which spread Buddhism into the Afghan highlands. This was eventually supplanted by Islam, which swept eastward from Arabia and Persia, probably the cultures that have most influenced Afghanistan. The country was often incorporated into other empires — Persian, Greek, Mongol — but at other times it developed a reputation for toughness and independence.
Modern Afghanistan was formed in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the last classic Central Asian warlord conqueror, and spread across (what is now) Pakistan and parts of Iran and India. By the 1800s, though, it was caught between two expanding empires. Russia expanded south into Central Asia, collecting the old khanates and Silk Road trading posts into its empire. Britain, worried about the Russian advance, began taking an interest in Afghanistan. After a poorly thought-out invasion in 1839 ended in catastrophe, Britain relied more on spies and informants to sound out Russian maneuvers. When Afghanistan seemed to be moving closer to Russia in 1878, Britain decided the risk was too great and invaded again. Afghanistan is defeated, but it had earned its reputation for toughness and independence, and Britain decided to leave it as an independent buffer state between India and Russia, with Britain only in control of its foreign affairs to keep it from drifting towards Russia’s camp.
And so Afghanistan remained an obscure mountain kingdom, cut off from the outside world and the storms of the world wars. Its brand of Islam was strict and its economy and society were rudimentary. Although some of its kings tried to bring Afghanistan into the modern world with infrastructure projects, an education system and a bureaucracy, and reformers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mahmud Tarzi tried to bridge the gap between traditional Islamic society and the modern world, Afghanistan was utterly marginal for most of the 1900s. Hippies bound for India would pass through on their way from Europe; some of them were impressed by Afghanistan’s majestic scenery, rustic lifestyle and hospitality. But mostly it was locked in a bygone era, its provinces far removed from the capital’s (Kabul) control, its ethnic groups autonomous and fragmented, and its economy stuck in subsistence agriculture, vulnerable to famine and drought.
Things began to heat up in the ’70s. In 1973, the king was overthrown during a trip for surgery in Italy. His replacement, the dictator Daud Khan, poured more effort into development, courting the Soviet Union for aid. The USSR was eager to expand its influence in the Muslim world and set up a client state on its southern border, so it built lots of power stations, roads and even mosques. Leery of becoming a client state, Daud Khan also accepted aid from America. That just made the Soviet Union more determined to get another client state, so it fomented a coup against Daud. Afghanistan became a Communist dictatorship and Soviet satellite in 1978.
Unfortunately for the Russians, it turned out Afghans were uninterested in Communism and disgusted by its official atheism. Partially spurred on by an Islamic revolution next door in Iran, a rebellion against the new government broke out in the western city of Herat and gathered steam. The government drowned in infighting and backstabbing. Increasingly desperate to hold onto its position, the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to prop up its puppets. Thus began a long, horrible decade of guerrilla war against the Soviet invader, marked by atrocities on both sides, a huge influx of refugees across the border to Pakistan, and the erosion of whatever credibility the Soviet Union had left as a defender of the Third World. Once again Afghanistan earned its reputation for toughness and independence.
The war ended in 1989 when the exhausted Soviets retreated northward. War did not end, though: instead, a new, even more horrible era of civil war erupted. The warlords that fought off the Soviets now jockeyed for power. Mohammad Najibullah, the Soviet puppet, was ousted in 1992. Control of Kabul was contested between Ahmad Shah Massoud, a redoubtable rebel who had fended off Soviet incursions into his northern stronghold, and the gloriously named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another longtime rebel sponsored by ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
Before long, though, Pakistan tired of Hekmatyar. ISI switched its support to the Taliban, a fledgling political movement under the leadership of the mysterious Mulla Umar. They had Saudi backing as well, thanks to their strict Muslim code and zealous fighting prowess. Astonishing most observers, they swept across the country from their base in Kandahar in the south, overrunning Kabul in 1996. Najibullah, reviled for selling out to foreigners, was castrated, dragged through the streets, and hanged in public. The Taliban imposed their harsh moral code on the country, forbidding music, games, movies, dancing, or other fun things and confining women to their homes. Worst from a Western point of view, they sponsored al-Qaeda, the notorious terrorist group that set off several bomb attacks on American targets, culminating with 9/11.
Thus began the next stage of Afghanistan’s tortured recent history: the invasion in October 2001 by NATO, the Western alliance led by the US. Determined to eradicate the troublesome terrorists and with them their loathsome sponsors, they pounded the country with air strikes, then occupied it by land with aid from the Northern Alliance, the rebel group headed by Massoud (who was blown up shortly before 9/11). Within months, NATO had won — but the Taliban and al-Qaeda merely crossed across the border with Pakistan, out of reach of the Western armies. Within a year, America’s attention had drifted westward toward Iraq, and military focus switched accordingly when Iraq was invaded. NATO forces settled in for a long occupation. Before long, the Taliban migrated back into Afghanistan and fought with the foreigners to win back control (or at least harass them and their supporters).
This long, dreary war dragged on until last year. It was made possible by the support of Pakistan, which assisted the Taliban and gave al-Qaeda refuge through ISI. (Pakistan’s role in this war and Afghan domestic politics in general should really be its own blog post.) NATO propped up a despot, Hamid Karzai, to rule the country and steer it onto the path of something resembling democracy, but he had little influence outside of Kabul and was tarnished by rampant corruption, nepotism, and electoral fraud. The Taliban, while never coming very close to retaking Kabul, gradually made headway and built up support in the countryside. A surge late in the war in 2010 made little headway for NATO; America began to rely on drone strikes, especially in Pakistan, to keep its enemies on their toes.
After 13 weary years of fighting with little progress to show for it, NATO forces (chiefly American, German and Italian) finally left Afghanistan in December. The Western public had become demoralized and uninterested in the war. A remnant force of 13,000 remain to keep an eye on things and continue training Afghanistan’s army, which has borne the brunt of the fighting for the last few years.
Karzai is gone. He had bitterly trashed NATO forces for his last few years, accusing them of brutality and disrespect for Afghan culture and Islam, perhaps in a hopeless attempt to make himself seem like less of a puppet. He still lives in Kabul and will probably continue to influence politics behind the scenes; his lavish estate on the palace grounds seem to be evidence of that.
In his place is Ashraf Ghani, an anthropology professor/World Bank economist/finance minister well-liked and respected abroad. Unfortunately for Afghanistan, despite an inspiringly large turnout in elections last year, Ghani’s rival candidate, Abdullah, alleged massive electoral fraud. After a few months of wrangling, US Secretary of State John Kerry struck a compromise: both guys won. Now Abdullah is the “Chief Executive,” whatever that means, and will head the government underneath Ghani.
Some welcome the change, since the Afghan government is overly centralized for a fragmented, autonomous country like Afghanistan. Others bemoan it, seeing the signs of a future civil war: Afghanistan, like many other countries, is multiethnic. The dominant ethnicity is Pashtun (or Pathan), a warlike people spread across the Pakistani border (and on its other side, to much Afghan annoyance). The Durrani dynasty was Pashtun, Najibullah was Pashtun, the Taliban are Pashtun, Karzai is Pashtun, and Ghani is Pashtun. The Pashtuns see control of their country as their right. Yet the other ethnicities (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras) are tired of Pashtun domination. Abdullah, a half-Tajik, half-Pashtun, was seen as a great chance for ethnic reconciliation, but Pashtuns do not accept him as one of their own and voted as an ethnic bloc for Ghani (or were prevented from doing so by the Taliban). Luckily, Abdullah and Ghani are pretty much on the same page politically. Unluckily, that might not matter; northerners might get tired of seeing the long struggle of the Northern Alliance come to nothing and rebel against Pashtun rule.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan needs to confront its fundamental problem: its broken economy. 60% of the economy comes from foreign aid, which has propped up the government since 2001 and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 30% is devoted to opium, Afghanistan’s primary export and the bumper crop of choice for its farmers. That leaves 10% for “legitimate” economic activity, which is still mostly subsistence agriculture. NATO tried hard to wipe out opium, but to no avail; the Afghan government mostly just tapped into the drug trade for itself. Almost nothing is being done to lessen Kabul’s other addiction: foreign aid. Ghani has grand visions for tapping into Afghanistan’s strategic location and building roads and pipelines across the country, bringing oil from the Arabian Sea to China and shipping… er… minerals (definitely not drugs) to the former Soviet Union. But guess what he needs to build all this infrastructure?
The biggest obstacle to building a more stable Afghanistan, though, is the Taliban. While not a major presence in Afghanistan’s cities, it is still prevalent in the provinces. Encouraged by NATO’s withdrawal, it has pressed its insurgency hard, killing at least 4,600 Afghan soldiers last year. Some analysts, like Barnett Rubin, believe that the Taliban will be weakened by NATO’s departure, since the foreign fighters will be gone and Afghans will be less motivated to shoot fellow Afghans and Muslims and the Taliban’s real aim — to bring down the Afghan state — will be obvious. Others point out that without Western air power and overall guidance the Afghan army will probably lack the will and means to impose central authority around the country. Whatever the eventual outcome, Afghanistan’s war is not over for the Afghans themselves, who are still caught in the crossfire between Taliban and soldier.
Added to all this gunfire is the rise of militia groups in the non-Taliban-dominated parts of the country. Western and northern Afghanistan feel exposed, neglected, and vulnerable, and don’t trust Kabul to save them. Some (especially Shi’ites) are even worried about an eventual emergence in Afghanistan of an Islamic State offshoot — those guys have been popping up outside of Syria and Iraq lately, and terrorists always feed off of poorly governed areas, so it might happen. Mostly it seems to be another attempt to grab power in the wake of a power vacuum and take over the defenses of remote provinces. But what if the government collapses? Will these militia groups turn on it and worsen Afghanistan’s civil war?
Afghanistan is often compared to Vietnam, which destroyed the French and American empires in the 1900s. There are many parallels. Both countries have weak central governments and powerful insurgencies. Both countries were adept at beating much more powerful adversaries and wearing them out over a decade of fighting. Both countries were harassed from abroad — South Vietnam by North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, Afghanistan by Taliban bases in Pakistan. But the prospects for Afghanistan seem more promising. The Taliban lack a Great Power backer, like the Soviets and Chinese. Although ethnic and religious ties (and plain old “side with the strongest” mentality) bind many Pashtuns to the Taliban, their harsh rule in the ’90s makes them much less popular than the Viet Cong were. They also lack the strength to advance on Kabul as they once did.
Still, the experience of the ’90s hangs over Afghanistan like a dark cloud. Even though NATO members reassure Afghanistan that it won’t be forgotten and it will still receive aid, it doesn’t believe them. And indeed, Afghanistan’s marginality and barbarity make it unappealing to outsiders. America supported the anti-Soviet insurgency in the ’80s because it wanted to punish the Soviets. Once they left, it lost interest except for a few dogged CIA agents. Now that Usama bin Ladin, al-Qaeda’s head, is dead and al-Qaeda is diminished in importance, will America still care about Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is in better shape than before. Its president and CEO are both well-qualified, smart and well-meaning. Many Afghans (especially in the cities) are tired of war and the Taliban and mindful of their country’s reputation for barbarity and staunch conservatism. Elections last year were in part a signal to outsiders that they are ready for a more peaceful, democratic future. Pakistan’s mostly malign influence is watered down thanks to increased Indian, Russian, and Chinese interest. But its problems still loom large. It’s given to feuding, riven by ethnic tensions, dedicated to the pursuit of Islam above more worldly concerns, desperately poor, extremely dependent on foreign aid, full of grizzled men toting guns, mostly illiterate, addicted to opium (both economically and physically), and in ruins despite years of development and foreign assistance. It’s been at war for 36 years — more than any other country in the world, at least on such a scale. Foreigners still can’t visit without security guards and armored cars, and even Kabul is still plagued by bombs and attacks. Consider me pessimistic.