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The Modern Afghan War in Context – 1839-2001

The current War in Afghanistan has been a central facet of international diplomacy for the previous ten years. However, Western intervention in Afghanistan has developed in similar veins for the previous two hundred years. Between 1838 and 1919 there were three Anglo-Afghan Wars, and Western attention towards Afghanistan has been increasing since the 1970’s for reasons astonishingly similar to those which attracted them in the nineteenth century. This article will highlight interesting connections between the Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries with modern conflicts which have escalated since the Afghan coup d’états in 1973 and 1978, through the Soviet invasion during the 1980s, and into the contemporary Invasion of Afghanistan following September 11th, 2001. This article will make connections between 19th and 20th Century Great Power rivalries that set Britain, and later America, against the Russian Empire and her successor state, the Soviet Union, as well as inter-ethnic rivalries within Afghanistan itself; who were often prominent actors in using Great Powers against one another to achieve their own goals.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

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Shah Shujah Durrani: Hamid Karzai 1.0

Map of Asia from the 19th century.

Map of Asia from the 19th century.

Following Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Britain and Russia were left as the two major powers on the European continent, and the most powerful nations in the world. Britain’s imperial prestige was dependent upon British East India Company rule on the Subcontinent before 1857, and on direct British Rule in India following the Rebellion of 1857. Russia had been continually expanding eastwards and southwards for centuries, and Britain was worried of a possible Russian invasion of British India via Afghanistan. The thought of 100,000 angry Cossacks whooping down the Khyber Pass frightened British colonial and political elites so direly that in 1838 they launched an Invasion of Afghanistan preemptively to control this geographically strategic region between Russia and the Indian Empire. The invasion of Afghanistan was relatively swift, and the British quickly occupied the country, installing Shah Shujah Durrani as Emir of Afghanistan. Durrani was a Pashtun, one of the many ethnic groups within Afghanistan, the same ethnic group as the American-installed President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and both men are members of the same sub-tribe, the Polonzai. However, as fighting increased in the hinterlands, and following the destruction of Elphinstone’s army during the 1842 Retreat from Kabul, the public and political outcry against the War escalated and lead to the British withdrawal from Afghanistan; in reference to the Governor General of India at the time, the War was known by some in the contemporary press and political circles as “[Lord] Auckland’s Folly”.

Dr. Brydon was the surgeon for the British army, he was the only survivor. Dr. Brydon at the end of the Retreat to Jalalabad.

Dr. Brydon was the surgeon for the British army, he was the only survivor. Dr. Brydon at the end of the Retreat to Jalalabad.

Following the British military exodus from Afghanistan, Durrani’s emirate collapsed, and the previous leader, Dost Mohammed Khan, returned to power and ruled Afghanistan until his death in 1863; eventually being succeeded by his son. The First Anglo-Afghan War only served to escalate diplomatic confrontations between the Russian and British Empires, this period is sometimes known as “The Great Game”. War between Britain and Russia broke out in the 1850’s, with an Anglo-French invasion in what is now Ukraine, known as the Crimean War. Britain and France’s intentions with this conflict was to thwart Russian ambitions in the Black Sea and prop up the declining Ottoman Empire against Russian expansionism, ensuring Russia would not be able to dominate the Straits of Marmara, and thus threaten British influence in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea; this War ended inconclusively. The Crimean War and resultant peace caused a temporary end to Anglo-Russian political antipathy, until the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878.

Dost Muhammad Khan

Dost Muhammad Khan

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Contemporary political cartoon, Russia, Afghanistan, Britain (L-R)

Sher Ali Khan, son of Dost Muhammad, was now the Emir of Afghanistan. The Russians were trying to increase their influence in the country by establishing a diplomatic mission, subsequently, fearful of undue Russian influence in the region, the British demanded a mission of their own; Sher Ali in an attempt to defend Afghan neutrality, pushed both nations out of Afghanistan. Britain responded with another invasion, and Sher Khan fled the country. His son, Mohammad Yaqub Khan, then signed the Treaty of Gandamak with Britain in 1878, though conflict did not end in the Afghan hinterlands. A rebellion arose in the tribal regions and drove the British from Afghanistan again; Yakub Khan subequently resigned and fled the country. However, the Pashtun homeland remained part of British India, under the formal leadership of the British viceroy, the formal boundary between British India and Afghanistan, the Durand Line, was established in 1893. A Third Anglo-Afghan War broke out in 1919, where Afghanistan sought formal, recognized independence from Britain, which she achieved, and Afghanistan would then enter a period of relative stability, which lasted until the 1970’s, when the country again became a major facet of Great Power politics and caught the attention of the world.

Highlanders at Kandahar.

Highlanders at Kandahar.

Emir Yakub Khan

Emir Yakub Khan

Durand line

Durand line

In 1963, the King of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, approved a new constitution for the country. This document affirmed universal suffrage, a parliament, elections, and women’s rights. However, few economic reforms were achieved, and little changed for the average person in the tribal regions; ten years later the King was ousted by a coup d’état staged by his cousin, the Prime Minister, Mohammad Daoud Khan, who became the first President of Afghanistan, until he was overthrown by a Communist coup in 1978, known as the Saur Revolution.  The USSR backed the new Afghan Communist government, and, at their request, deployed Russian military forces to defend the government against insurgency, beginning in 1979. Tribal insurgencies against the new regime had already emerged in the hinterlands and tribal regions, as they perceived the post-Saur Revolution government as puppets of the Russians, who were deemed enemies of their religion due to Russian policies against the Muslim population in Chechnya.  America was shocked by this development, as they were worried about Russian expansion in Europe and Central Asia due to Cold War politics. The Carter and subsequent Reagan administrations’ reaction to this chain of events has direct implications for modern political issues, and repeats an all too similar story, indicative of the common patterns within Afghan history during the previous century.

Mohammed Zahir Shah

Mohammed Zahir Shah

Contemporary cartoon depicting Leonid Brezhnev.

Contemporary cartoon depicting Leonid Brezhnev.

The operations the Americans conducted in Afghanistan during the late 1970’s and 80’s were among the most expensive in C.I.A. history, the transferal of funds was known as “Operation Cyclone”. The American Government sought to ensnare the USSR in their “own Vietnam”, sucking all the possible resources the failing state had into the military operation, which they deemed unwinnable for the Russians.  Contrary to what transpired during the Iran-Contra Affair, American operations in Afghanistan were public and widely known at the time. Over three billion dollars in munitions, training, and equipment was donated by the American government to organizations in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Invasion, known as the mujahedin, who were deemed Freedom Fighters in the parlance of the time. This equipment and training provided by the C.I.A. included most notably the FIM-43 Redeye, a portable anti-aircraft gun which was used with devastating effect against Soviet helicopters. The Russians eventually withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, during a period when the Soviet Union had been imploding across Europe and Central Asia. However, a Civil War continued in Afghanistan until 1991. The forces which America had supported during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan then formed their own government, known officially as the Islamic State of Afghanistan, or colloquially, the Taliban. The Americans supported a number of minor organizations within Afghanistan committed to fighting the Soviet Union; among these was one lead by a young member of a prominent Saudi family, a man by the name of Osama bin Laden.

Afghan militant with Red eye.

Afghan militant with Red eye.

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Osama bin Laden in 1993

History rarely folds neatly into itself, and there are almost never true conclusions. Western intervention in Afghanistan has often followed some variation of the same trajectory: Intervention, Puppet Government, Eventual failure and withdrawal, collapse of Puppet Government. I fear how tenable the Karzai Government will prove in the long term; Afghan leaders often kowtow to Western influences while maintaining an air of seeming anti-interventionist sentiment. However, American policy of supporting insurrections in foreign nations rarely leads to the intended results, and the results of American and Russian intervention in Afghan affairs is plain to see for anyone who has lived through our contemporary turbulence. Having believed they defeated the great Soviet enemy, the mujahedin then declared War on anyone they deemed enemies of their interpretation of Islam. Eventually, this list included America, and thus a Western army marched down the Khyber Pass once more.

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One comment on “The Modern Afghan War in Context – 1839-2001

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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