Australia’s Turn at a Recurrent Mistake: History Tells Us that Foreign Occupation only Consolidates Opposition in Afghanistan


by Darcy Mildenhall

Executive summary

  • Afghani history over the last two centuries has shown a tragic lack of agency meaning the Afghani people have been unable to control their own political destiny.
  • The presence of foreign forces in their country only serves to unite what are traditionally deeply divided sectors in Afghan society. The removal of foreign force subsequently opens up divisions again, leaving implemented governments vulnerable.
  • The coalition and their supported IRA regime has not made significant or permanent developments towards their aims, and Australia’s involvement is wasteful and its achievements to date are reversible.

Afghanistan’s geographical position historically has been both a blight and an advantage. Afghanistan has been saddled with the misfortune of lying in an area connecting east and west, presenting a trade route between the Middle East, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and the central Asian mass along with the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf. As a result this location has been traversed and militarily occupied by foreign, whereby its geography becomes an advantage to the ever defiant and resilient Afghani people. The Afghanis have resisted many large, powerful nations of leaders and armies who have ambitiously sought to win control of the country from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to modern powers Britain, the Soviet Union, the US and its coalition. Each power has discovered the impossibility of successfully implementing effective rule in Afghanistan. Thus, despite historically ingrained fragmentation and uncertainty, Afghan society (and Pashtun society especially) has been able to form armed resistance to any external intervention through tribal mechanisms. Division is an ingrained element of the tribal and ethnic fabric that makes up Afghan decentralised society. Afghans see themselves as belonging to different tribal and ethnic groups but within a singular milat, or nation. As much as, if not more so, than Islam (to which 99.7 percent of Afghanis subscribe), it is this sense of nationalism that prevents the ever present ideals of separatism from taking root despite three decades of more or less continual conflict. Nationalistic insurgency is evoked by foreign intervention, while the bitter divisive infighting may be awaiting yet again post coalition withdrawal.

In modern history (nineteenth century onwards) Afghanistan has proven to be considerably difficult to influence to the extent that would have appeased an anxious Britain, who saw Afghanistan as a potential liability should Russia make an attempt to bring British India within their sphere of influence. In what arguably commenced somethnig of a trend, the British attempted to gain effective control over Afghanistan by implementing a puppet government in Kabul. First in 1839 through to 1842, British (mainly British-Indian) troops were present in Afghanistan. In ensuing precedent-seeting events, the British seized control of Kabul, assisted with the installation of a highly sympathetic leader, Shuja Ahah Durrani, whose reign survived only while a significant British military contingent remained in occupation. The longer the British military presence remained, the greater Afghani discontent became. Discontent was expressed through escalating brazen tribal revolt and the murders of senior British officers occupying logistic posts. Harassment increased until it became unsustainable for the British to remain in the region, and shortly after their retreat Shuja Ahah Durrani was assassinated. A chaotic political climate preceded the British withdrawal, where change in central authority was only achievable through violent seizure.

The British found themselves embroiled in Afghanistan once again some thirty years later. The Afghans were passive players of what became known as the ‘Great Game’, a term describing Russian and British rivalry in Central Asia from the beginning of a Russian-Persian alliance through to the beginning of the twentieth century. British relations with Afghanistan had deteriorated somewhat since 1842, and when the Russians sent a diplomatic envoy to Kabul who were received and a following British envoy was refused this diplomatic stoush led to the second Anglo-Afghan war in 1878. Again the British invaded, capturing Kabul and a majority of the country, the Shah fled leaving his son to concede to the British. A treaty was signed allowing Britain total control over Afghanistan’s foreign affairs, with Afghanistan receiving a British subsidy annually and vague assurances of support against foreign aggression. The British left a representative in Kabul, Sir Pierre Cavagnari, who was murdered along with all his staff and guards including numerous Europeans once the British had withdrawn. This instigated the second phase of the second British invasion, Kabul was occupied yet again and Mohammad Yaqub Khan, implicated in the murder of Cavagnari that was carried out by disenfranchised tribesmen demonstrating the consolidated opposition to the foreign presence in the capital, was replaced by a relative of choice of the British, Abdur Rahman Khan. Britain exercised considerable influence over Afghanistan for the remainder of the 1800s, controlling its foreign affairs. Afghanistan then engaged Britain for a third time in northern India for several months in 1919. An armistice was declared after sustained British aerial bombing, including on Kabul, the British sustained greater casualties in this conflict and Afghanistan effectively became a fully independent sovereign state for the first time in about half a century. The extent that foreign interference has politically structured modern Afghani affairs is staggering, though it was always Kabul alone that the British had the capabilities to totally control. British occupation never extended to every province of the nation and British forces were never safe remaining in Afghanistan. The British did not have a social agenda in Afghanistan beyond domination (though this aim was never achieved), and after three conflicts they won some political control in Afghanistan’s foreign affairs but never control of the country itself, whilst paying dearly in blood and sterling.

A more influential conflict on Afghanistan today, and a more effective historical comparison, especially regarding the issue of withdrawal of occupying forces, to the current ongoing war between the US-led coalition and Afghani insurgents is the Soviet-Afghan war. Until the recent ten-year anniversary of the coalition’s war in Afghanistan, the decade-long (1979-89) conflict between the then superpower Soviet Union and Afghanistan was the most drawn out occupation in the country’s history.

In a bloodless coup, former prime minister Mihammed Daoud Khan overthrew his relative and Shah of the long ruling monarchy in 1973 to form the Republic of Afghanistan with himself serving as president. He was assisted by Afghani communist party members in his initial play of power, though he lessened national ties with the Soviet Union in the years of his rule. Unsettling the image of Afghanistan as a neutral state with Soviet sympathies, Daoud sought aid from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran instead of remaining dependent on the Soviet Union. In the lead up to the Saur Revolution, the two separate factions of Afghani communism—the Parcham and the Khalq—united as one in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). In April 1978, the united PDPA initiated a bloody coup, which they dubiously labelled the Saur ‘Revolution’ and has come to be known as such. In the Saur Revolution, Daoud and almost his entire family and network of senior colleagues were eliminated by members of the armed forces co-operating with the PDPA. The coup was led by Khalq faction members of the PDPA Mohammad Nur Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, who became the heads of the new government. Taraki served as president and Amin—the ‘strongman’ of the party—assumed the roles of deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister. It did not take long for the Khalq communists to turn on the Parchams, imprisoning, exiling, and executing thousands of their internal rivals. Shortly thereafter, the Kalq government turned on itself when, in October 1979, after a number of disagreements between the two heads of state, Amin had Taraki strangled and he took power himself, operating the state in a Stalinist, violently oppressive fashion.

The PDPA was a Marxist/Leninist ideologically-driven political movement that aimed to rearrange Afghanistan along ‘traditional’ communist reforms. Policies of land confiscation and re-distribution, collectivisation, nationalisation of resources and a restructuring of social institutions such as marriage and women’s rights were hastily introduced by the PDPA. The obtrusion of the state into the lives of Afghani regional peasantry deeply disturbed the usually self-governing rural communities and caused severe opposition after initial apathy to the communist coup. The rhetoric of a dictatorship of the proletariat and the building of a socialist utopia was fully understood only by a relative few elitists and intelligentsia, not even all party members let alone the majority of the populace who immediately rejected communism on the basis of its ‘godlessness’. Before the Saur Revolution, the PDPA’s membership numbers didn’t eclipse 12,000 and it was not well equipped to run a nation like Afghanistan. Nor did it represent a significant enough proportion of the population to lend it legitimacy, while Moscow displayed far too much faith in the Afghani communists. The Soviet Union propped up the new regime with funding and arms, also sending increased numbers of advisors (2000 in 1979 alone), working in every strata of the government and military.

The resistance to the PDPA regime was widespread and resistance fighters from every region in Afghanistan and members of a variety of ethnic factions joined forces in a loose alliance to wage jihad together against the communists. They were known as the mujahideen. The mujahideen were fundamentalist islamic guerilla soldiers, recruited heavily from across the Iranian and Pakistani borders where a vast number of refugees had fled Amin’s extremist regime. Towards the end of 1979, furthermore, Amin’s troops regularly defected to the mujahideen taking their weapons with them.

Responding to Armin’s pleas of assistance, the Soviets deployed some 75,000 troops with aerial support, tanks and artillery. The Soviets assassinated Amin in a KGB (Soviet special forces) operation and replaced him with the more moderate Parcham communist leader Babrak Karmal. Much like the British before them, the Soviets reshuffled local leaderships to their advantage. The Soviet presence extended to over 100,000 personnel. With the Soviet invasion the situation in Afghanistan became a concern for other members of the international community, including the US who feared Soviet control of Afghan oil reserves, a winter route to warm waters and an unbalancing of the region’s status quo. Thus the war morphed into a Cold War proxy conflict whose similarities with the Vietnam War were obvious with the roles simply reversed.

A coalition of islamist nations including Saudi Arabia also formed an alliance that gave funding and weapons to the mujahideen. By the end of the Afghan-Soviet conflict, the Americans had distributed billions of dollars and countless arms to the resistance, CIA operatives trained members of the mujahideen in operating the more sophisticated weaponry that was donated to them along with tactics in engaging the enemy. The CIA also reportedly assisted Osama Bin Laden in getting into Afghanistan to aid the mujahideen with his wealth and influence. Most significant in its impact to the war was America’s massive inundation of stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the mujahideen, which contributed greatly towards the cost and difficulties of waging the war for the Soviets who initially underestimated their hardened opponents. International supporters of the resistance operated through neighbouring Pakistan, who actively participated in the conflict with their secret service.

At times during the war against the Soviets, the mujahideen controlled up to two-thirds of the country. In 1985, the Soviet administration, displeased with Babrak Karmal, supported Mohammad Najibullah, former leader of the KHAD (the Afghan secret security service) in his election as the last ever president of the Republic of Afghanistan. Gorbachev described the crisis as a ‘bleeding wound’ in early 1986, by which time the Soviet Union was looking for a strategy to cut their considerable losses including: some 60 billion roubles for the conflict; and around 15,000 soldiers killed and a further 37,000 wounded. The Soviets began to attempt to unify the PDPA under Najubullah and to ‘afghanise’ the war and administration, building up the numbers, training, and equipping of the Afghan army and training elite imperial guards and special forces units so that the Afghanis could hold their own against the mujahideen. This mirrors the process of the current US-led coalition, of which Australia is a participant, now being attempted in preparation for their withdrawal in 2014. In February 1989, the Soviets withdrew all forces from Afghanistan, effectively leaving a nation in civil war that remained in relative stalemate until 1992 due to substantial ongoing sponsorship from Moscow.

When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, local loss of life from the war was over a million people, with millions more (mostly civilians) left wounded. About two million Afghanis were displaced within the country and a further three million sought refuge in Pakistan and up to two million in Iran. Huge swathes of land were left littered with deadly land mines, and infrastructure and institutions such as education were in disarray. In what must serve as an ominous warning to the US and its coalition colleagues hoping that an improved Afghanistan will validate their efforts, clearly the circumstances worsened considerably following the Soviet withdrawal.

Najubullah shed the Marxist ideology of his regime despite receiving Soviet support in funding and weaponry that enabled him to maintain an increasingly self-serving rule. The US largely lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal until the next millennium, and their support of the mujahideen dwindled to nothing. The divided nature of Afghanistan came to the fore once the Soviets left, the nation falling apart into ethno-linguistic and religious segments led by warlords condoned by Najubullah in return for the safety of Kabul, with their own forces funded by the opium trade and often outside supporters. Najubullah never had the support or even control of a majority of Afghanistan and was eventually disposed of by the mujahideen after his Soviet support ended. A governing body was appointed, but general infighting erupted among warlords and former elements of the mujahideen were at odds without a common enemy. General anarchy prevailed before a former anti-communist resistance group with many former members of the mujahideen emerged as a solid, unified and extremely fundamentalist islamic group, the Taliban. Within four years, the Taliban gained control of 90 percent of Afghanistan becoming the effective government by 1996 (although they were not recognised by the UN). Defeating almost every warlord and enforcing strict Shari’ah law that included flogging, stoning, and dismemberment, the Taliban outlawed bearing arms and introduced conservative social restrictions. Many Afghans inside Afghanistan saw the Taliban’s islamic agenda as a brutal but necessary end to ongoing chaos and an addressing of Afghani problems that was not an effort by outside powers to balance their world interests, as Afghanistan has been continually plagued by external priorities dictating its internal affairs.

Currently, the Australian commitment in Afghanistan is 1,550 troops and another 100 personnel, and according to the Australian Minister for Defence their aims are: ‘to deny sanctuary to terrorists; to help stabilise Afghanistan; and to support our alliance with the United States’. Barak Obama recently announced the deployment of 30,000 new troops and a withdrawal date on 2014, making to total of 90,000 in a bid to establish greater stability before leaving. The ongoing occupation of Afghanistan has once again unified and polarised extremist opposition and the Taliban are more prevalent now in 2011 than they were before the 2001 invasion.

This year has witnessed the most bloodshed since 2001, and the Americans’ total of 1,700 casualties continue to climb with August 2011 the worst month since occupation began with 66 US deaths. Australia has lost 29 service people, which, according to Hugh White, former senior Defence Department advisor, believes is in vain:

I think there is a serious policy failure in Afghanistan because we are proclaiming objectives that we have no serious prospect of achieving. I don’t think we are going to change the kind of country Afghanistan is. I don’t think we are likely to prevent the Taliban taking a prominent position in Australia.

Similarly, Amin Saikal, the director of the ANU’s Centre for Islamic Studies, believes:

Australia has made some useful contributions to improving Afghanistan, however this has been at a very high financial cost and is reversible in the wake of Australia leaving the province.

As recently as September 2011, the Chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council Burhanuddin Babbani has was killed along with several other people in a Taliban bomb attack. He was the head of Taliban negotiations. The murder is the latest in a string of assassinations of senior politicians and security officials: current President Karzai’s brother was killed in his home in the north in July; in May, General Daud Daud, the top police commander in northern Afghanistan, was killed in a suicide attack; and earlier in the year the governor of the Uruzgan province Mohammad Khan was assassinated. Also in September this year, there were several co-ordinated insurgency attacks with heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades on US and other embassies in the most secure area of Kabul, which also is home to the presidential palace and ministry buildings. The Hamid Karzai Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government has not effectively provided basic services outside of select urban areas and it has failed in improving security and limiting Taliban insurgence. Australia’s involvement in this conflict represents a failure in policy and a tragic continuation of Afghani history.

Selected further reading:

Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan a History of Struggle and Survival, I.B Tauris & Co, London, 2004

Lieutenant Andrew Wegener, A Complex and Changing Dynamic, Afghan Respnses to Foreign Intervention 1878-2006, Land Warfare Studies Centre, Canberra, 2007

E. R. Wittkopf, C. W. Kegley Jr, J. M. Scott, American Foreign Policy, Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont USA, 2003

Glenn P. Hastedt, American Foreign PolicyPast, Present, Future, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2006

Peter Thompson, The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts and the Failures of the Great Powers, Public Affairs, New York, 2011

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