A Brief History of Politics and Military Conflict in Afghanistan from 1900 (Parts I & II)


Here’s where the story starts to get good. I believe after reading part II, it should be a bit easier to see some modern-day parallels to this conflict. When I reach the more contemporary history of the country, I’ll begin to explain some other factors that come into play in the ME (oil, opium, minerals, geo-strategic significance, etc.). The last part will contain my sources, data, and recommendations for further research.

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Part I

Afghanistan is a landlocked, hostile, and nearly inhospitable region located at the crossroads of many of the greatest empires in history. Much of its land is arid and dead, and many other regions of the country are split by mountains and other terrestrial formations, hardly making the land any more survivable. Considering the prerequisites of trade and expansion for any civilization to thrive, opposing states often attempted to claim the land in an effort to procure trade or govern its people. Empires from the middle east, the far east, and and the west have often tried to lay claim to Afghanistan, almost all of which have ended in absolute failure. For these reasons, the perilous terrain of Afghanistan has been quite accurately dubbed The Graveyard of Empires. Dominions throughout India, China, and neighboring middle Eastern countries have fiercely battled for claim of the land, but for the sake of contextualizing the West’s current involvement in the region, we’ll begin in the 19th century.

19th Century

Throughout the 19th century, two of the world’s most prolific empires – Russia and Great Britain – made many attempts to claim Afghanistan, and its borders were quite arbitrarily drawn as intermediaries between the two powers. The Russian empire began to engulf the south, and consisted of modern-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The British empire, attempting to spread to the north, held the modern-day regions of Iraq, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, as well as Oman, Yemen, and the U.A.E just across from the Gulf of Oman.

1919 & The Third Anglo-Afghan War

In 1919, a small group of Afghan soldiers attempted to invade British India, but took heavy casualties and were easily repelled by the British. Soon afterwards, the British empire captured the southernmost region of Afghanistan, cutting it off from the Arabian Sea, and seizing what would reinforce Great Britain’s naval and trade superiority. This southernmost region, currently under the domain of Pakistan, makes up the border between modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, and serves as a reminder of the armistice to end the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

The Third Anglo-Afghan war ended on August 8th, 1919 and resulted in a strategic victory for the British. After establishing the Durand line, separating Afghanistan from the British Empire, King Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan an independent and sovereign state. Immediately following his declaration, Khan ordered an end to the country’s traditional isolationism. The king also directed the newly formed state to be modernized, leading to women’s education, compulsory elementary schooling, and the abolition of slavery in 1923. However, Khan became ardently opposed by many of the local tribes after abolishing the requirement of the traditional burqa and eliminating restrictions on women’s education. Moderate political turmoil continued and the king’s commands remained largely disregarded.

1933 – 1973

In 1933, King Amanullah Khan was assassinated and shortly thereafter, King Mohammed Zahir Shah took the throne. Shah’s reign would last from the early 1930s to 1973. Throughout his reign, King Zahir Shah modernized the country even further through establishing elections, enforcing political rights, and stressing women’s education.

In 1973, King Mohammed Zahir Shah was replaced by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, in a bloodless coup. After ascending to office, Daoud Khan abolished the Afghan monarchy, declaring himself the prime minister of Afghanistan. Daoud sought a closer relationship with the USSR, and was sympathetic to the ethnic Pashtun people who’d been displaced by the establishment of the Durand line in 1919. Other ethnic groups in Afghanistan voiced their disfavor over Daoud Khan’s “Pashtun Nationalism,” and in turn, saw the constriction of their personal liberties by Daoud Khan. Massive popular disapproval of Daoud Khan and the state of affairs in Afghanistan culminated in the Saur Revolution of 1978.

Part II

Saur Revolution – 1978

The Saur Revolution, beginning in April of 1978, saw the removal of prime minister Daoud Khan and the installment of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) led by president Nur Muhammad Taraki and funded by the USSR. With full Soviet support, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan began to push radical economic and cultural Marxist reform. The PDPA itself was not short of internal conflict, and two factions within the party would disagree over the nature of their rule. For the sake of brevity, the two main factions were the Khalq – the more dictatorial or dominant faction; and the Parcham – the more liberal or moderate faction.

It is important to note that Afghanistan is a highly diverse landmass composed of several distinct ethnic groups, many of which practice very traditional forms of Islam. These tribal ethnic groups were often separated by the mountainous terrain of the region, and would typically not interact with one another unless in opposition to an invading or occupying force. None of these ethnic groups are a majority.

The PDPA’s cultural and economic policies saw intense backlash from tribal leaders. Amin – relative to his predecessors – proved to be far less accepting of dissent, and often took to imprisoning or executing his party’s critics.

1979

In March of 1979, riots swept throughout the country in response to the PDPA’s radical policies and their treatment of dissidents.

Nur Muhammad Taraki, seeking to quell the rioting and secure his position from the more radical in his party (namely Hafizullah Amin), turned to the nearby Soviets for military aid and advisory. Nur Muhammad Taraki lost what cohesion was left between himself and the PDPA with his requests to the USSR, and was assassinated by his fellow Khalq member, Hafizullah Amin, who then ascended to the position of president.

Hafizullah Amin’s presidency weakened the government and brought further unrest upon the country, as it was now faced with an increasingly powerful public. The riots quickly grew more violent and more coordinated, and a civil war had begun before the year’s end. Fighting between the PDPA, and their new opponents, the guerrilla mujahideen was intensified.

The U.S.S.R.

The Soviet Union sought control over the situation in Afghanistan for two main reasons: to exert dominance over the region and to prevent the spread of Islam into countries to the north under Soviet control. After witnessing the Iranian Revolution, the USSR understood that, with enough pressure, any middle Eastern country in the area could experience their own Iranian Revolution, thus becoming extremely difficult to control.

The Soviets’ solution to the situation – depose Amin, dominate the region, and get its people under control. This culminated in the Soviet-Afghan War.

The U.S.A

In 1979, the United States (the only other superpower in the world) saw the instability in Afghanistan as an opportunity to waste Soviet time and resources and to halt the spread of communism. Though the exact time frame is contested, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency became active in Afghanistan during 1979. The US and Saudi Arabia supported both the mujahideen and foreign resistance fighters from Pakistan and supplied them with thousands of FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles and some (contested) billions of dollars.

Soviet-Afghan War – Soviet Invasion

In December of 1979, the USSR launched a surprise invasion of Afghanistan. Critical communications and systems of transport were seized and halted by the Red Army. In the same month, Hafizullah Amin was captured in Kabul and executed by the Soviets, who organized a replacement – Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal of the Parcham faction.

In January of 1980, both the Islamic Conference as well as the UN General Assembly passed resolutions in protest of the Soviet invasion and demanding swift withdrawal of Soviet forces. The US and Saudi Arabia began to more seriously fund the sale of weapons to the mujahideen, the CIA began covert operations through Pakistan, and the Afghan insurgency received specialized training in Pakistan and China.

Soviet-Afghan War – The Insurgency

The Soviet Red Army operated within Afghanistan’s urban areas, which were less resistant to government control. However, the vast majority of Afghanistan is rural, and the mujahideen used this to their advantage as they operated in small groups, waging guerrilla warfare throughout the countryside.

The different tribes fighting against Soviet occupation, realizing that the Soviets would not soon leave, reinforced their concept of Jihad (“Holy War”) – this is mostly considering that the USSR was a foreign, Atheist union that sought control over the region. The mujahideen’s call for Jihad resonated with much of the Islamic world, and the movement saw foreign fighters and supporters, including Osama Bin Laden, come from abroad.

Though Soviet forces were quite effective in strategic operations, waves of mujahideen continued to pour into Afghanistan, making the war a long, grinding operation for the Soviets until 1985.

Part III

Soviet Withdrawal

As the Cold War took its toll on the USSR, a growing anti-war sentiment led to the election of Mikhail Gorbachev and eventually, a withdrawal of the Red Army. In 1987, after consulting with the Afghan government, Mikhail Gorbachev ordered this withdrawal – ultimately lasting from 1988 to 1989. A small amount of Soviet troops stayed active in the region, but were finally withdrawn in 1992 following the collapse of the USSR.

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