February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The shattered game

By |2018-03-21T18:38:48+01:00December 6th, 2009|Area 51|
Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler: The British in retreat, 1842.

or most of the 19th century, Afghanistan was a pawn for the British and Russian empires. “The Great Game,” it was called, with diplomatic bluster and military barrages designed to keep Central Asia constantly on edge. The two-century narrative has the characteristics of an underworld feud:

  • In 1838, Britain controlled India. At the same time it sought a Pashtun yes-man to guard Afghanistan from Russian influence. The Pashtuns were and remain the country’s largest ethnic group. The British invasion of 1838 was rationalized as an effort to rein in “foreign interference and factious opposition.” The British successfully installed a kowtowing emir, but soon after faced fierce internal resistance, including bomb attacks and ambushes. In 1842, the bloodied British were forced into a humiliating retreat.

  • In 1846, however, the tables were turned. Emir Dost Mohammad Khan, who had been deposed by the British in 1838, was back in power. To consolidate his position, he pledged to help the British in regional campaigns. In 1857 he participated in an attack on Persia. But a Persian counterattack forced him to turn to the British. “We have men and we have rocks in plenty, but we have nothing else,” he told T.E. Lawrence, later mythologized as Lawrence of Arabia. The Persians were ultimately repelled.

  • By 1870, imperial Russian troops were repeatedly massing along Afghan borders. Tsar Alexander II warned of “foreign interference,” this time targeting the British, and urged the latest Afghan emir to accept Moscow’s partnership. In mid-1878, he dispatched uninvited emissaries to Kabul. The British also demanded to participate but were rebuffed.

  • In September 1878, they responded to the menace with a 40,000-troop invasion force. The two-year campaign cost 3,000 dead but established a new pro-British emir and installed a “resident,” a kind of proconsul, to dictate Afghan foreign policy. “Should British troops at any time enter Afghanistan for the purpose of repelling foreign aggression,” read a section of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of Gandamak, “they will return to their stations in British territory as soon as the object for which they entered has been accomplished.”

  • Between 1880 and the end of World War I Britain ruled Afghanistan by proxy, subsidizing leaders who favored its aims. But in 1919, Emir Amanullah Khan, emboldened by the rise of the Soviet Union, turned on the British garrison. The third British-Afghan campaign ended in a stalemate, though Afghanistan gained independence.

  • Beginning in 1919, Emir (and later shah) Amananullah introduced social reforms, interrupted a decade later when Habibullah Kalakani briefly took power in 1929. A Tajik who opposed modernization and styled himself as an anti-Western “messenger of God,” Kalakani was assassinated six months later and replaced by Prince Mohammed Nadir Khan, Amananullah’s cousin. But four years later Nadir Khan was also assassinated.

  • In 1933, Nadir Khan’s 19-year-old son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, became king. An able broker, he first enlisted help from Axis nations, Nazi Germany and Japan, before turning to the Soviet Union after World War II.

  • In 1973, while Zahir Shah was Italy for medical treatment, he was deposed bloodlessly in favor of his nationalist-leaning cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan. Daoud brutalized Islamic dissenters, many of who fled to Pakistan. But his Nasser-like nationalist streak troubled the Soviets, who felt their regional investment threatened. They began supporting the Afghan Communist Party.

  • In April 1978, a Communist coup led to Daoud’s murder, bringing the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan to power. It immediately introduced Stalinist-style land reform, which was fiercely resisted by rural tribes, tens of thousands of whom died in clashes with the new government.

  • Consecutive Communist rulers were in turn bitter rivals, Nur Muhammad Taraki in 1978 and Hafizullah Amin in 1979. The New Revolutionary Council also added a woman, Anahita Ratebzad, who in May 1978 wrote: “By right, [women] must have equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country.” Such emancipation further disturbed rural Afghans.

  • In March 1979, when Taraki turned to Moscow for assistance to quell rising party strife, Soviet Premier Alexy Kosygin expressed skepticism: “We believe it would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people.”

  • By September, Taraki had been murdered, replaced by Amin, who quickly opened diplomatic channels with Pakistan and the United States. Once again citing the risk of “foreign interference,” Soviet commandos had Amin killed in December, replacing him with Babrak Karmal. On Dec. 24, 1979, the Soviet Union, at Karmal’s “invitation,” began its invasion of Afghanistan.

  • Soviet military rule lasted a decade and was at different times opposed by local warlords and foreign-trained fighters, including Muslim radicals (Mujahideen and Taliban) backed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, the Soviet invasion force numbered between 80,000 and 100,000 at any given time.

  • By 1987, with well-equipped insurgent Mujahideen guerillas killing increasing numbers of Red Army soldiers, the Soviets announced they intended to turn the burden of the fight over to the Afghan army, which they promised to equip. Soviet troops left the country two years later. In all, civilian casualties were estimated at more than a million.

  • Mohammad Najibullah, installed under Soviet rule, suddenly faced the twin-prospects of communism’s collapse and a growing Islamic opposition that had been trained to fight the Russians. By 1992, his rule hung by a thread. Moreover, the immediate post-Berlin Wall order cut Afghanistan out of the major-power equation.

  • Between 1995 and 1996, the Muslim insurgency established an Islamic force, the Taliban, which promised to use national religious discipline to bring violence and corruption to heel. Headed by former Mujahideen fighter Mohammed Omar, the Taliban seized control in 1996. Najibullah was killed. By 2000, the Taliban troops not only ran most of the country but had also banned poppy farming, dramatically reducing the country’s dependency on the sale of opium.

  • In 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” to destroy terrorist training camps in Afghanistan’s rural regions, where the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda extremists to train. The invasion force bribed warlords with cash and promises of relief from Taliban opium restrictions. Kabul fell and Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun favorable to the United States, was elected to lead the country.

  • By 2007, a second wave of Taliban insurgency had reacquired clout, this time driven by an opposition to foreign troops. The lifting of the poppy-growing ban made underworld drug funds more readily available. Old tribal fissures also reappeared.

  • In November 2009, President Barack Obama, citing the renewed Taliban threat, announced the United States would send a 30,000 more troops to the country, with NATO also adding up to 10,000. At the same time, he offered a withdrawal timetable set to culminate in 2011. He called the training of Afghan troops to fight for themselves a centerpiece of his strategy, a goal that neither the British nor the Soviets ever achieved, or even necessarily believed they could. The United States failed in a similar strategy directed at improving the South Vietnamese army.

  • On Dec. 5, The New York Times published an editorial that concluded: “Afghans won’t dare to turn against the Taliban until they know that they can trust their government to protect them rather than abuse them.” Taliban propaganda meanwhile focuses on the intolerable ties between the corrupt and self-serving Karzai government and equally corrupt, infidel foreigners.

Little in this compressed and subjectively selective chronology bodes particularly well for U.S. strategy, or for Afghanistan. In 1917, T.E. Lawrence drafted pointers to help guide British officials charged with fighting in the Middle East and Ottoman Empire. Point 15 read: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”

But if 200 years of Afghan history is any guide, outside help, aside from satisfying the helpers, has so far wrought only havoc.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.