Afghanistan – Unending Outside Interventions

Commentary No. 386, October 1, 2014

When does this story begin? It is difficult to decide. The modern story began in the nineteenth century, when the British and the Russians fought the “great game” competing to influence and control Afghanistan. They struggled directly and via Afghan proxies. The British thought they did better, but it was largely an illusion. I would call the contest a draw.

In the 1960s, the game was resumed with the coming to power of a ruler who sought to institute a new “liberal” constitution. He failed but opened the way for the emergence of parties of the left and right. His successor, Mohamed Daoud, was overthrown in 1978 by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), actually a Communist party. The PDPA established a totally secular regime, with full equality for women. The great game had resumed. The Soviet Union supported the PDPA regime and the United States (successor to Great Britain), supported the mujahidin who struggled against it and in favor of an Islamist regime.

In 1979, the Soviet Union sent in troops to assist the PDPA regime to stay in power. The Soviet intervention backfired and they eventually withdrew the last of their troops in February 1989. Nonetheless, the PDPA managed to hang on until 1992. For four years thereafter, various groups that had opposed the PDPA regime fought each other. One group that emerged in strength called themselves the Taliban and sought to reunify the country under strict shari’a law in a regime led by Mullah Omar. The Taliban rule was especially harsh concerning women, virtually imprisoning them in their homes and closing down all educational opportunities.

September 2001 was a fateful moment. The Taliban were able to assassinate their major remaining internal opponent two days before the al-Qaeda attack on the United States on September 11. The worm had turned for the United States. Having aided the Islamist mujahidin to become a major force to fight the Soviet influence, they now found themselves with this group in power in Afghanistan, and sheltering Osama bin Laden, the presumed perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

So once again major outside intervention, this time by the United States, and against the Taliban. The geopolitical situation now became quite complicated. The major U.S. allies in the region – Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – were supporting the Taliban. The major U.S. opponents in the region – Iran and Russia – were aligned with the United States in their opposition to the Taliban.

The U.S. strategy was to help install Mohamed Karzai as the interim ruler and then elected president of a new regime. Karzai’s major virtue was that he was Pashtun in ethnic terms, hence of the same region as the heartland of Taliban forces. The problem, once again, was that the worm would turn. As the years went by, Karzai became increasingly uncomfortable with the U.S. role and in particular their military methods. By 2012, he was openly very critical of the United States and talked of political negotiations with the Taliban.

U.S. President Barack Obama had come to power in 2009, calling the intervention in Afghanistan a “good war” (by contrast with that in Iraq). However, he also promised to withdraw all (or most) U.S. troops by the time he left office. This turned out to be a vain promise as the Taliban forces grew steadily in strength and the Afghan government and army were not strong enough to contain the resurgent Taliban. The U.S. wished to leave behind troops for “training” but Karzai refused to sign the protocol that would enable U.S. troops to remain.

Karzai however did step down at the end of his second term in office in 2014 and permitted elections between Ashraf Ghani (seen as Karzai’s preference as successor and a Pashtun) and Abdullah Abdullah (whose mother was ethnically Tajik, the ethnicity with which he identified). Abdullah had been a fierce opponent of Karzai. The results of the presidential election were highly contested. But Ghani and Abdullah finally entered into a shaky compromise of shared power, with Ghani as president and Abdullah as the equivalent of prime minister. Most observers are skeptical that the accord will last very long.

Ghani promised to sign the protocol with the United States that Karzai wouldn’t sign, while at the same time taking some small distance from the United States as well. Ghani himself has spent long years in the United States, has U.S. as well as Afghan citizenship, and worked for many years at the World Bank. He is scarcely a radical in any way.

Ghani did immediately call for negotiations with the Taliban, as had Karzai. The Taliban promptly rejected them, their spokesperson saying: “Ashraf Ghani was appointed by the Americans in the U.S. Embassy. He is a puppet and isn’t entitled to invite us for peace talks.”

Afghanistan has continued for two centuries to reject the outside interventions, in ways open and covert. Whenever the outside interveners seemed to win for a while, it soon became clear that they had not. Worse yet, their interventions seemed to turn the very Afghans they supported against them. There is little reason to assume that the outsiders will be any more successful now than in the past. But do the outside interveners realize that?