For the last three-quarters of the century, the city of Kabul takes the center stage in world politics and media coverage regularly. It is not a surprise, as being the capital of the most war-stricken country in recent times, it often changes hands and begins a great change in the world’s power dynamics.
Today, as yet another power change is as imminent as the setting of the sun this evening. President Ashraf Ghani is rumoured to be preparing an escape, while the city is filled with immigrants and news channels with curiosity. It has different repercussions for every regional and international power, but what it holds for the Afghan people, we can only predict by looking at the turn of events in the last century.
Independence from the British (1921)
Popularly called the Graveyard of Empires, it also has its history with the most important power of the 19th and early 20th century, the British. Though their first attempt was disastrous (see First Anglo-Afghan War) the British ultimately got hold of the country and ruled it for 40 years. The Afghans resisted the rule and got full independence in 1921, having full control of its foreign policy. Amanullah Khan was the ruler of the country at that point, called the Emir of Afghanistan.
Communism and Saur Revolution (1973-1978)
After the Second World War, the global spectrum got divided into two blocks, with the US and Soviet Union leading the rest. Ideologically also, the world got divided into capitalist democracies and communist regimes. Of the many wars and conflicts that happened during that Cold War era, the Soviet-Afghan war was the last and most decisive one, especially for the Soviet Union. Before discussing the end, let’s first see how communism made early inroads in Afghanistan, a country generally contested between Islamist and Pro-West Ideologies.
Like everywhere else, the rise of communism was preceded by corruption, dynastic rules and bad politics. Making people believe that a new ideology is needed for better and peaceful lives. The King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, passed a new constitution in 1964, which was seen as an attempt to keep his cousin, Prince Daud Khan (then Prime Minister) out of the power struggle. The government under the new Prime Minister, Abdul Zahir, was an unpopular one and greatly marred by the famine of 1971-72, which killed thousands of people across the country.
This brought an opportunity for Daud Khan to cease power. He founded The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which followed a Marxist-Leninist ideology and was supported by the Soviet Union. With further help from a faction of the Afghan National Army, Zahir Khan successfully managed a coup, called the Saur Revolution or the 1973 Afghan coup d’état. The new government was formed with Nur Muhammad Taraki becoming the head of state in 1978.
The country was renamed the Republic of Afghanistan, causing unrest among the country’s noncommunist sections and the power corridors in the west, as another important country fell into Soviet influence.
USA, Pakistan and the Soviet-Afghan War (1980-1989)
Several important events lead the way for the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The PDPA was already divided into Khalq and Parcham factions, with the former being led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin. There was a further division within the Khalq Faction, which ultimately got Nur Muhammad Taraki killed on Hafizullah’s orders. Prior to that, the government had denied its communist ideology publically, but its practices pointed otherwise, which included the changing of the national flag in communist colors.
With all these events, the US was concerned about the Soviet’s growing influence. The latter Soviets was unhappy about Tariki’s killing and exile of most Parcham faction leaders. The ultimate invasion brought Pakistan into the equation, a US ally who saw this step as a threat to its sovereignty, dreading further Soviet progress towards the Arabian Sea. The Islamists in Afghanistan were against the current government and also the invasion, completing the recipe for the long 9-year Soviet-Afghan War. The Afghan Mujahideen, supported by the US and Pakistan, took part in Operation Cyclone, resulting in a Soviet Defeat in 1989.
Afghan Mujahideen and Rise of Taliban (1994-2001)
Afghanistan is a land of distinct ethnicities and religious sects. Though most came together to oust the Soviet Union, they never got along peacefully and threw the country into an internal struggle for power. In this period, the Kandahar born Mohammed Omar, popular known as Mullah Omar, laid the foundation of a Jihadist movement named Taliban in 1994. The Taliban, literally meaning “students”, is a predominantly Pashtoon and Sunni group, making it the representative of the largest ethnic and sectarian faction of Afghanistan. Their ascend to power was quick, taking most of the country and its capital in 1996 and forming their own government.
The country was named the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with Mullah Omar taking the top position as Amir Al Mu’minin. Although this brought the most peaceful five years in Afghanistan’s recent history, the Taliban rule was criticized for its hardline ideology and strict rulings. The country also became home to Osama Bin Laden, which later became the main cause of the US invasion in 2001 and another 20-year long war.
US War on Terror and New Afghan Governments (2001-2021)
Since 9/11 and the US invasion, the events are quite well-known among the public as the media became more vibrant and the rise of internet made information much more easy to access and consume. The US-led offensive, which also included a coalition of over 40 countries, quickly took over the country from Taliban in 2001. Since then, there have been regular skirmishes between the militant group and US/Nato forces in the country, with influence and control greatly contested in most territories.
The US helped a new local govt., led by President Hamid Karzai, who remained in power till 2014. Since 2014, President Ashraf Ghani has served as the official head of state and also getting re-elected in the 2019 Presidential Elections.
The US-Taliban Treaty and Another Siege of Kabul (2020-2021)
As this article is being written, the Taliban, ousted in 2001, have re-entered Kabul and President Ghani has left the country. This historical event has its roots in the US-Taliban Peace Deal or the Doha Accord, signed in February 2020 between the US govt. and Taliban. The treaty broadly consists of four points, which include:
- Taliban’s guarantee to not allow Afghan soil to be used against the US or its allies.
- The US guarantee to announce a plan and timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
- Carrying out of intra-Afghan talks to create a new government and power setup in Afghanistan.
- A complete ceasefire during intra-Afghan negotiations.
As this deal was signed between the US and Taliban, it did not have the consent of the current Afghan government, which refused any formula for power-sharing. With the US effectively out of the war and preparing for departure, the Taliban made rapid territorial gains, taking up most of the country and its major capitals within a few months.
The Ghani govt. and Afghan forces failed on two accounts, in stopping the progress militarily and mustering enough support from the population. Elected with a vote of less than 2% of the Afghan population, it was always going to be a tough task, amidst reports of massive administrative corruption.
Lessons to Learn and Future of Afghanistan
Looking at this brief history, we can understand that Afghanistan is a war-torn country, with people dreaming of peace which has eluded them for many decades. As seen with other countries and regions that have gone through similar turmoil, we can expect it will take some time to cool down and people of the country deciding their own future.
It happened in the sub-continent, China, Russia, Yogoslavia and many places. An internal war can lead to peace if people are left to decide their fate, without any foreign intervention. We can only hope that the people of Afghanistan can get peace and prosperity, which they richly deserve just like all other people in the world.