By: Amin Saikal
It is so tragic to see Afghanistan drowning in long-term structural instability and insecurity, savaged by bloody conflict, Covid-19, poor governance and poverty—and betrayed by outside actors. The population is bitterly traumatized, with little hope of recovering in the foreseeable future.
This is not the Afghanistan that once was—a functioning state in which peace and security prevailed despite its underdevelopment, and whose policy of neutrality in world politics was widely respected.
By the start of the 1970s, and after nearly four decades of stability, the capital Kabul exuded peace and tranquility that was reflected across the nation. One could move freely and securely across the city, limited only by the majestic mountains surrounding it. Cyclists peddled around the country and visitors toured it on bus trips from Kathmandu to Munich.
While predominantly Islamic but with a mosaic make-up, traditionalist and mainly poverty-stricken and a very slow pace of modernization, Afghanistan stunned with its natural beauty and its people’s hospitality.
Women’s emancipation, modern education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels for both boys and girls, and the arts and theatre and print and electronic media had become measures of its progress. The country stood as a model of neutrality and founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement in world affairs. Its ambassador, Abdul Rahman Pazhwak, was elected as the president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, and its capital was named as a possible site for the Vietnam peace conference in 1969. Many young Afghans had reason to envision a bright future for their country. Yet that future never came.
On 17 July 1973, any expectation of a more promising future was shattered, marking a turning point in Afghanistan’s destiny and aspirations. There was a coup in Kabul, ending the 40-year reign of King Zahir Shah and bringing a republican phase. The king had presided over the longest period of stability and security in the landlocked nation’s modern history, but his rival cousin, Mohammad Daoud, was impatient with the pace of modernization and angry about the king’s constitutional exclusion of him from any ministerial positions.
Daoud took power in an almost bloodless event, declaring Afghanistan a republic with close ties to the Soviet Union but with a major difference with Pakistan over the Durand Line, the border between the two countries and a point of dispute since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. His invocation of the border dispute partly aimed at generating national unity in the diverse population, especially among the ethnic Pashtuns as the largest minority, with ties to their kin in Pakistan.
Daoud acted with the help of a small pro-Soviet communist cluster in the military, which had been largely trained and equipped by the USSR since the mid-1950s. Yet, his personal autocratic and patriotic stance could not allow him to be dictated to by anyone.
When he’d been prime minister from 1953 to 1964, Daoud was the architect of Afghanistan’s friendship with the Soviet Union, and of the dispute with Pakistan in the context of the Cold War. But once he was confident that he’d consolidated his power as head of the new republic, he sought to reduce his dependence on the local communists and the Soviet Union.
In the process, he improved relations with Pakistan and found it expedient to forge close ties with such Soviet detractors as Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. He also solicited support from the United States, though without success as Washington was happy at the time to let America’s major regional ally, the Shah, handle Afghanistan’s vagaries.
His political twists and turns left Moscow and its Afghan protégés distrustful of him, and Islamabad rebuffed his claim in the border dispute. With the Shah failing to provide a promised US$2 billion aid, and Sadat able to give not much more than political support and encouragement, Daoud’s plans came unstuck.
His domestic political shake-up seriously disrupted the triangular framework of relations that the monarchy had generated with the Islamic religious establishment and local powerholders, or ‘strongmen’, as the foundations of stability.
He couldn’t replace that framework with anything more effective, paving the way for the Soviet protégés in the military to stage a bloody coup in April 1978.
They killed Daoud and most of his family and entourage and declared Afghanistan a democratic republic with fraternal ties to the Soviet Union. The incompetence and inexperience of these revolutionaries made them increasingly dependent on Moscow’s support, leading to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 20 months later.
That generated an Afghan resistance, led by several Islamic groups (the mujahideen), reflecting the socially divided nature of the Afghan society. The invasion also provided a unique opportunity for the US to pay back Moscow in kind for the Soviet assistance to North Vietnam that had resulted in America’s defeat a decade earlier.
The US support of the mujahideen through an unreliable ally in Pakistan enabled America to win the Cold War on the back of such Afghan resistance leaders as the moderate Islamist and nationalist, legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who valiantly fought the Soviets and later the Pakistan-backed Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.
However, the Americans abandoned Afghanistan in the belief that the Soviet defeat meant their mission was over and that there was no need for their involvement in the post-Soviet transition of Afghanistan. That proved costly, as the warring mujahideen turned their guns on one another, with Pakistan the main outside catalyst.
Massoud’s assassination by al-Qaeda agents two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US brought American military intervention. Washington’s specific objective was to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban who harboured it. The failure of the US and its Afghan allies to achieve that objective and put Afghanistan on a viable course of change and development has confronted it with a multidimensional crisis whose magnitude and ferocity cannot be underestimated.
The pre-conflict peaceful and serene Afghanistan is lost. The US and allied forces have left in defeat, as they left Vietnam, and the neo-fundamentalist theocratic Taliban are closing in on some major cities.
The militia’s opponents, most importantly women, fear for their lives. There’s a brain drain and capital flight; the ranks of internally displaced people and the flow of refugees to the outside world are daunting for a country that was once stable and envied in the region.
No one should expect the conflict to end soon. The Taliban have the momentum, but the Afghan people, if not their political leaders, have repeatedly proved to be resilient in the face of adversity. They now must defend themselves against medievalist fundamentalist impositions.
Amin Saikal is adjunct professor of social sciences at the University of Western Australia. He was born and raised in Kabul, and is the author of Modern Afghanistan: a history of struggle and survival (2012) and co-author of The specter of Afghanistan and the security of Central Asia (2021). This article first appeared in The Australian Strategic Policy Institute web portal.