A POCKET HISTORY OF AFGHANISTAN – Rendevous with Disaster

EMPIRE AFTER EMPIRE, NATION AFTER NATION HAS FAILED TO CONQUER AND PACIFY AFGHANISTAN – GIVING RISE TO ITS NICKNAME ‘GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES’.

There has always been an absolute refusal by the Afghans to be ruled by foreigners or to accept any puppet government perceived as being imposed from abroad for they have had a great deal of practice.

As we  witness the horror unfolding in the botched evacuation, the degree of desperation and terror which drives a parent to hand their infant over to foreign forces knowing they may never see them again is unimaginable. The images mirroring the Fall of Saigon speak louder than words, begging the question

– How much has America learned about how to withdraw in defeat without planning, consultation or information afforded to her Allies. The question so often  posed by US Marines – ‘What are we doing in this God forsaken country anyway?’ could apply equally to Vietnam or to Afghanistan.

WHILE THE REASONS FOR INVADING AFGHANISTAN ARE COMPLEX AND INCLUDE HUMANITARIAN AID, THE GOALS OF EMPIRE REMAIN SELF INTEREST.

Geographical location and terrain determine access, a key consideration in expansion of territory and influence, with mineral wealth an inevitable lure. A glance at Pentagon emails of 2010 might give additional pause for thought:  A Pentagon memo referred to Afghanistan as ‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium’ its reserve is believed to be the largest in the world, this rare mineral, used in batteries for electric cars, smart phones and laptops, underpins technological advantage. A report by US military experts and geologists in 2010 estimated that Afghanistan was sitting on almost $1 trillion dollars of mineral wealth in gold, cobalt, copper, barite, chromite, iron ore, lead, petroleum, natural gas, coal, salt, sulphur, zinc among many other minerals and rare earth deposits.  Precious and semi precious stones include high-quality emerald, red garnet, ruby and lapis lazuli, (illustrated).

Afghanistan has over 1,400 mineral fields and a follow-up report by the Afghan government in 2017, estimated  Kabul’s new mineral wealth may be as high as $3 trillion including reserves of 1.8 billion barrels of oil between Balkh and Jawzjan Province and undiscovered natural gas located in the Amu Darya Basin.

Such potential wealth can not benefit Afghans without mining industry infrastructure and for that the country is reliant on international investors. Already facing a financial crisis after the US froze its access to $9.5 billion in cash reserves, with the international community suspending aid payments, the Taliban will be seeking urgent alternatives partners. China controls 90 per cent of the world’s rare earth processing capability and Beijing’s state-controlled corporations aren’t answerable to shareholders.

HISTORY REPEATS AS ONE MAJOR POWER STEPS INTO A VACUUM LEFT BY THE EXIT OF ANOTHER.

China, Russia, Pakistan and India have been pursuing contracts in energy development of Afghan oil reserves with China and India leading the way.  Tenders for the development of the Afghan-Tajik basin, the biggest oil project in the country, were awarded to Turkish, Kuwaiti, and United Arab Emirates companies. The China National Petroleum Corporation is expected to eventually supply Afghanistan with all its domestic energy needs so it can stop importing oil. Afghanistan offers China a potential overland link to the vital oil fields of Iran; mountainous terrain makes transport incredibly difficult, but piped oil could reduce Beijing’s fears of keeping its tankers traversing the Malacca Straits seaway.  Mining contracts include the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the Uzbekistan-Pakistan-Kabul-Peshawar railway link, while China is engaged in talks over the construction of a new road network connecting Xinjiang to Pakistan.

Afghanistan is located on the main land route between Iran, Central Asia, and India and dominated by some of the highest and more jagged mountains in the world. The country shares borders with Pakistan, China, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan including a small but strategically significant channel between the borders of Pakistan and China.

The country has a rich and diverse history and includes some 14 ethnic groups. Historically Afghanistan was settled by tribes drawn from India, Pakistan and Iran, warlike peoples defending their individual turfs in difficult terrain, mutually hostile to each other and to outsiders. The Pashtun are the dominant ethnic group today, making up an estimated 48% of the population. Many invaders assimilated into the tribal structure of the Pashtuns, adapting their language which originated in ancient Iran. Tribal empires eventually broke up into mini-states, repeated invasions from the time of Alexander the Great, exacerbated tribal tendencies, making conquest and rule extremely difficult.

Before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century a number of religions were practiced in the land, including Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Paganism and Buddhism. Following invasions by various Arab conquerors over the centuries Islam took root in the late 1800s and is today the official religion with some 99.7% adherents. Other small faith communities include Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Baha’i.

INVASION BY EMPIRES

Although never conquered, Afghanistan has endured a long history of  invasion and domination. Darius 1 of Babylonia c500BC, Alexander the Great of Macedonia 329BC and a Persian empire which extended  from Iran to India in the 11th century. Ghenghis Khan invaded in the 13th century and many Arab conquerors followed.  In 1709 Afghanistan reasserted its independence uniting regions to become a single country. The British Army invaded Afghanistan three times during the 19th century, during a period when the British and Russian Empires were attempting to gain spheres of influence in Asia. In 1842 invading British forces were annihilated and withdrew ending the first Anglo-Afghan War. The Second Anglo-Afghan War ended in a Treaty with Afghanistan as a Protectorate, the British given control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs in exchange for protection against the Russians and Persians. In the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 the British gave up control and Afghanistan reclaimed full Independence.

  • Afghanistan was a monarchy for 225 years until the last king of Afghanistan was deposed in 1973, after which The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was formed in 1979. The constitution was devoid of any references to socialism or communism and instead laid emphasis on independence, Islam and liberal democracy but was in fact a socialist leaning regime.
  • Soviet style reforms by the new government, including land reform and changes in marriage customs were not well received by a population deeply immersed in Islamic tradition and were opposed by resistance fighters, the Islamic Mujahideen (holy warriors).
  • The  US opposed to the spread of communistic states ran covert operations in Afghanistan supporting the Mujahideen.
  • The Afghan regime requested the support of the Soviet Union against the covert US operations and Russia invaded in 1979.  (Recently declassified documents show the CIA conducted covert operations 10 months before the USSR invaded Afghanistan)
  • The CIA launched Operation Cyclone, the widespread funding of Afghan Mujahideen militias, in an attempt to stem the Soviet invasion. By January 1980, the CIA was shipping at least 16 tons of guns, grenades and mines to Pakistan’s intelligence service, which delivered them to the Afghan rebels. The Saudis began buying millions of dollars of Soviet-bloc arms from Egypt and the CIA flew them into Afghanistan.
  • China saw the Soviet presence as a regional threat to itself and a threat to its ally Pakistan and responded to the Soviet war in Afghanistan by supporting the Afghan Mujahideen and ramping up their military presence in Xinjiang. … .
  • Afghans viewed the invading American Christian and then Soviet atheistic forces controlling Afghanistan as a defilement of Islam and traditional Afghan culture along with their attempts to contain the radical Islamic revolution emanating from Iran to gain a highly strategic foothold in Southwest Asia.

In 1988 ten years of fighting ended in Soviet failure and Afghan Mujahideen victory.  Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan but continued to provide military assistance to the Communist Afghan government.  At its height, the Soviet military contingent in Afghanistan numbered 100,000 personnel, some 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed, and about 35,000 wounded. About two million Afghan civilians were killed. Resistance fighters  eventually toppled the Afghan communist government.The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan existed from 1978 to 1992 and was renamed the Republic of Afghanistan in 1987.

IRONICALLY THE SOVIET PRESENCE INITIATED US AND SAUDI FUNDING TO ARM THE MUJAHIDEEN FROM WHOM THE EXTREMIST TALIBAN WOULD LATER EMERGE.

TALIBAN are an extremist political and religious faction which emerged in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the collapse of Afghanistan’s communist regime, and the subsequent breakdown in civil order. The faction took its name from its membership,  mostly students trained in madrasahs (Islamic religious schools) established for Afghan refugees in the 1980s in northern Pakistan. In 1992 a coalition built mainly of the Mujahideen parties that had fought the communists, set up a fragile interim government. As rival militias vied for influence, inter-ethnic tensions flared, leaving the economy in ruins. Afghanistan became, in effect, a country ruled by militia leaders and warlords with a people in despair. In 1994 the Taliban emerged as a force for social order and quickly subdued the local warlords and corrupt governors. By late 1996, popular support for the Taliban as well as assistance from conservative Islamic elements abroad, enabled them to gain effective control of the country.

By 2001 the Taliban’s power extended over more than nine-tenths of the country. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates gave formal recognition to the Taliban government but the movement was denied a seat at the UN due to  its extreme views. Under an extremist view of Sharia Law  women  were denied education, required to be veiled and not allowed outside alone with adultery punished by stoning. Human rights violations included public executions and amputations.

In 2000 in a bid to gain legitimacy the Taliban banned farmers from growing poppies. In a country dependent upon growing opium poppies the economy was brought to the brink of collapse. The CIA funded war lords who controlled the opium trade and when the economy collapsed many of the country’s farmers were forced to resort to growing poppies for the export trade. Today Afghanistan produces 90% of the global supply of illicit opium, and Afghans are victims of the global epidemic of narcotic addiction.

2001 Osama Bin Laden was accused of attacks on the World Trade Center by Al-Qaeda based in Afghanistan, the refusal by the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden led to UN sanctions against the regime.  In 2001 the United States and Britain launched an intensive bombing campaign against the Taliban and provided significant logistical support to anti Taliban forces in an attempt to force them to yield to its demands.

  • In July 2006 NATO troops replaced the U.S.-led coalition at the head of military operations, later assuming control of international military operations across the entire country.
  • 2009 newly elected President Barack Obama announced that some 17,000 additional U.S. troops would be sent to Afghanistan in the spring and early summer  The number of NATO troops in Afghanistan peaked in 2010 at nearly 150,000, accelerating a timetable for the training of Afghan security forces and the transfer of security responsibilities from NATO to the Afghan government.
  • In July 2012, President Obama designated Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally.
  • By 2015, the Taliban had control over more than half Afghanistan’s rural areas. In the 1970s poppy production had been minimal, and largely for domestic consumption. By 2016  it was confirmed that Afghan government officials were battling with the Taliban for control of opium profits.

The final collapse of the 20-year western mission to Afghanistan took only a single day,  women and  girls now await  an uncertain   future. The so called ‘new Taliban’ have indicated that hard won female rights will continue yet with an ominous rider ‘within the framework of Sharia Law’.

Built and trained at a two-decade cost of $83 billion, Afghan security forces collapsed completely on August 16th 2021. The human costs of the war are immeasurable, fiscal costs will never be known, however, based on official data the US costs alone are a minimum of $978bn with a further $50bn spent by UK and German allies. It would seem that the ultimate beneficiary of the investment turned out to be the Taliban. We can only hope that they will live up to their current stated intentions and that the reconstruction of Afghanistan can finally begin, yet with so many vested global interests the future does not look bright.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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