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  • Aaryan Gadhok, Soham Agarwal & Kumar Harsh

Afghanistan: The Subservient Tale of a Sovereign Nation

“Easy to invade, hard to conquer and impossible to rule over”, Afghanistan, a landlocked country at the crossroads of central and south east Asia, is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, embraced with  Hindu Kush Mountain ranges and beautiful valleys. What once used to be the major tourist attraction for the world has now become the centre of world politics.

Afghanistan: A graveyard of Empires

This multi-ethnic country, lying on all the important trade routes has been a prize sought by the empire builders, and since time immemorial, great empires from Alexander to Arabs and from Soviets to USA with its NATO allies, have tried to subdue it; leaving traces of their efforts in great monument now has fallen to ruin. This country, owing to this, is often nicknamed as “Graveyard of Empires”. But why has it been so difficult to rule over this country? And why has this beautiful country been the heavenly desire for the great armies, which ultimately resulted in their destruction? The answer lies in the history of this country.

Afghanistan, as mentioned earlier, lies on an extremely important strategic location along with the famous Silk route, which helped the country to be in connection with the cultures of Middle Asia and other parts of Asia. This land also witnessed various military expeditions by the time, including those by Alexander the great, Mauryas, Muslim Arabs, Mongols, British, Soviets and USA with its NATO allies. But none could manage it properly. It has always proved extremely challenging for these armies.

Being a landlocked country, bordering present day Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China as well, it has always been easy to invade this country. Moreover, emperors from the middle-east found it as a door to enter South East Asia and vice-versa. Mughal conquest to India also began from this when Babur firstly captured Kabul from the Arghun dynasty in the early 16th Century. But it has never been easy for anyone to control it as a whole. This can be guessed by this fact.

The region was a patchwork of small but tough princes when the Arabs came in the early eighth century. Attempts to conquer the Zunbils (an Afghan royal dynasty) of Kandahar failed miserably, marking the Arabs' first major loss after their great conquests began. A 20,000-man expedition deployed against the Zunbils returned with only 5,000 individuals. The islamization of Afghanistan from west to east took about 200 years, and it was only nearing completion when Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar, a Persian blacksmith born in Zaranj, Afghanistan, captured Kabul. Even after this, the Hindu Shahi dynasty held out in the easternmost regions of modern-day Afghanistan for another hundred years until being captured by Mahmud of Ghazni (also in Afghanistan) around 1000 AD.

The fact Afghanistan is extremely difficult to occupy and govern is because of three main reasons. Firstly, the territorial conditions of Afghanistan make it arduous for a central administration to control it. The country is rugged and mostly mountainous, dominated by some of the highest and jagged mountains in the world. These include the Hindu Kush which dominates the country and runs through the centre and South of the country, as well as the Pamir Plateau in the east. The Pamir Knot- where the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Tian Shan, Kunlun and Himalayas all meet is also situated in the Badakhshan in the north-east of the country.

Secondly, Afghanistan, as mentioned earlier, is located between the mainland route between Iran, Central Asia and India and it has experienced various military expeditions and this country has been used as a battleground for many conflicts. As mentioned earlier, the reason for Afghanistan being in a state of turmoil lies in its geographical location coupled with the fact that its different ethnic groups and minorities have been in conflict with each other, creating convoluted, twisted and complex situations over the centuries, thus inviting wars.It resulted in the plethora of tribes settling down in the country. These tribes were and still are hostile to each other as well as outsiders. Ethnic groups in Afghanistan are not subjected to one region and in many cases, overlap, weaving a colourful tapestry of a multitude of languages and cultures that in many ways intricate the pattern of the Afghan rug.

Third reason is the prevalence of tribalism in the area. Owing to a multi-ethnic country, Afghanistan becomes challenging for rulers. Tribalism has further exacerbated the lawlessness and violence in the country. The Minority Rights Group published a report in the form of a book called "Afghanistan: A Nation of Minorities" in 1992, claiming that no ethnic group accounts for half of the population. It is often said that every village here acts as a fortress, or Qalat (a fortified place), where local tribal leaders govern the region.The script of Afghans is written in Pashtunwali, which has become a barrier, and Pashtuns asserts that Afghanistan is populated by Pashtuns, inflaming nationalist sentiment among them. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Balochis, Turkmens, Nooristanis, Pamiris, Arabs, Gujars, Brahuis, Qizilibash, Aimaq, and Pashai are among the 14 ethnic groups represented in Afghanistan's national anthem. Ethnicity is an unavoidable component in Afghanistan, and if the country is to escape the ethnic quagmire, it must address rational ethnic representation in weak democracies and end ethnic depoliticization.


The history of Afghanistan is geopolitical & the root cause of Afghanistan conundrum was its proximity with Soviets. It was located south to the erstwhile USSR & as a result of this the USSR had vested interests in Afghanistan and wanted a pro-Soviet regime there. USA became wary of the communist influence in the newly independent state. America’s doctrine of containing communism made Afghanistan the bone of contention between two major superpowers.

In recent times, Afghanistan’s fate has been closely tied to the USA but this phenomenon of overarching dependence on foreign actors is not relatively new. During the 1950s USSR provided military and economic aid to Afghanistan. In 1978, USSR and Afghanistan signed a friendship treaty to bolster the communist government under President Nur Mohammed Taraki and Deputy Prime Minister Babrak Kamral that aimed to establish a 20 year long period of friendship and cooperation in Afghanistan. The left wing government introduced land reforms, domestic purges and began a series of modernization programmes but a country where Islamic authority was strong changes such as equal status for men and women were perceived as an affront to Islam. Opposition was rife and eventually the government began to falter. The USSR, fearing an Islamic revolution similar to the one in Iran in January 1979 invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. Almost 30,000 troops invaded Afghanistan that sowed the seeds of an 11 year long Afghan War between the communist government and the Islamic guerilla forces. The Mujahideen (urban groups which engaged in Jihad) resented Soviet presence in Afghanistan and garnered support from Afghan civilians as they claimed to be the nationalists who longed for self-determination in Afghanistan. As a response, the Soviet bombed the rural areas to eliminate Mujahideen’s civilian support base. The civilians became wary of the tactics adopted by the USSR as the entire country plummeted into despair. By 1982, almost three million Afghans were driven out of Afghanistan and forced to settle as refugees in Iran and Pakistan. The USSR expected a short campaign but the US government treated it as a part of the Cold War and sent extensive aid to mujahideen. By 1986, they were receiving large amounts of weaponry from the USA and China via Pakistan, the most important of which were ground-to-air missiles, which had a devastating impact on Soviet air forces. In 1985 the USSR had undergone a leadership change and Mikhail Gobrachev came to power and very soon he realised that the Afghan War could not be won. In 1988 Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement in Geneva in the presence of the USA and USSR (both the superpowers acted as guarantors) providing for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan by 1989. Finally, by February 1989, USSR under the leadership of Gorbachev withdrew all its troops from Afghanistan marking an end of the “Russia’s Vietnam” war.

The Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) kept on fighting against the then US-backed Taliban for the best part of 5 years after the Soviet Army left Afghanistan.

Left to fend for itself The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) managed to remain in power until 1992 when it was finally overthrown. The mujahideen formed a coalition government with a specific power sharing arrangement, but the country soon fell into chaos as the rival factions fought for power. After 1992, a transitional government proclaimed the Islamic Republic. It was being sponsored and supported by several rebel factions of Mujahideen. Eventually, the government failed when President Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of Islamic society (Jamʿiyyat-e Eslāmī, a major mujahideen faction) refused to leave office if the power-sharing arrangement made by the transitional government continued. The rival factions became wary of Rabbani’s response and started to barrage Kabul and the neighbouring cities, leading to an almost four-year long civil war. Taliban, a former rebel faction of Mujahideen, became the sole victor of the Civil War. Being led by Mohammad Omar, it managed to capture Herat and Kabul by 1995 & 1996 respectively. Very soon, they controlled a majority of areas in Afghanistan except for the northwest, where they were opposed by the Northern Alliance. By 1998, the Taliban was controlling almost 90 percent of Afghanistan. Although the Taliban’s extreme policies aroused international disapproval, it managed to gain early popularity as it succeeded in curbing lawlessness, dismantling the network of warlords and stomping corruption. But, the Taliban also implemented their version of sharia law and as it happens, they started to disseminate quick and swift Justice. The measures adopted by the Taliban, to say the least, were grotesque and inhumane. Music, cinemas, dance, television & radio were banned. Harsh criminal punishments were introduced. Women were often publicly beaten for showing their ankles. Public execution became common. Those who were found to be guilty of theft & adultery were amputated & beaten to death respectively. Women were excluded from public life and forced to wear head to toe burqas. They were allowed to step out of the house only if they were being accompanied by their husband or any male family member. Girls were not allowed to attend school after the age of 10 and men were forced to grow beards.

Above all, the unholy nexus between Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Iraq grew stronger with each passing day. It provided sanctuary to Al-Qaeda for operations including the mastermind behind 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1267, creating the so-called al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee which placed an embargo on their funding, arms, travel & arms shipments. Meanwhile the alliance between ISI and Taliban became more and more evident. The commander of the Northern Alliance (Taliban’s rival ethnic group), Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated by Al-Qaeda operatives on September 9, 2001. Many experts believe that his assasination assured Laden protection by the Taliban after the 9\11 attacks. On September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda operatives coordinated a series of suicide bombings and hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing them into the World Trade Center in New York, Washington DC killing almost 4000 people on the American soil. The USA built on world wide sympathy and forged a strong rhetoric of right to self defence. The member states of NATO shared America’s concerns as all of them believed that an attack on any one of them was an attack on all 19 members. President George W. Bush stated that countries were ‘either with us or against us’ removing the option to remain neutral. He also spoke about ‘an axis of evil’ which had to be dealt with and the evil states were Iraq, Iran and North Korea. He also signed a joint resolution which authorized the USA to use military force against the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks. Then, USA released an ultimatum to the Taliban demanding to hand over Osama Bin Laden which Taliban rejected. The scene was set for a military offence. A joint military operation against the Taliban under the aegis of the USA began, officially launching the Operation Enduring Freedom on 7th September 2001. Al-Qaeda camps were bombed and later American long range bombers carried out raids in Kabul. The Taliban also faced opposition from the Northern Alliance in the north-west. On 14 October the Taliban offered to hand Bin Laden to an intermediary state, though not directly to America. The only thing they wanted in return was for America to stop the bombing. But, President Bush refused to negotiate. At first the Taliban presented a strong defence but they eventually succumbed to US forces by the end of the month. The Taliban surrendered Kandhar on December 9, 2001 marking the formal collapse of the Afghan militia. Even though US forces defeated the Taliban, they were not able to fulfill their primary objective as Bin Laden fled to Pakistan on horseback on December 16, 2001. Meanwhile, the United Nations aimed to establish relative peace and stability in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1378 in November 2001 looking to establish a transitional administration and inviting member states to send peacekeeping forces to promote stability and delivery. The United Nations invited major factions of Afghanistan, notably Northern Alliance and a group led by the former king (excluding Taliban) to sign the Bonn Agreement in Germany. Hamid Karzai was installed as the interim administration head and established the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. The period between November 2001 and May 2003 was a period of stability and peace. The USA harped on their rhetoric of reconstructing Afghanistan. According to an estimate, The U.S congress appropriated over $38 billion in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009. The transitional government of Afghanistan was constituted under the presidency of the incumbent head of the interim administration, Hamid Karzai. Although he was blamed for tolerating corruption by the members of his clan and the government, he managed to bring some positive changes. The parliament was now responsible for all the major authorities and was given the power to veto senior official nominees and to impeach a president. In 2003, U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. Tommy Franks stated that America has already moved from major combat to reconstruction in Afghanistan. At that time, there were only 8000 U.S troops in Afghanistan and it seemed that the period of instability was over. NATO assumed the control of ISAF expanding their role across the country. The number of ISAF troops grew accordingly from five-thousand to sixty-five thousand troops in 2006. A constitution was formed establishing a strong presidential system intended to unite the country’s various ethnic groups. In the historic elections of 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected as the President with almost 55 percent of the vote share. Amidst this Bin Laden resurfaced, releasing a video message on the Arab television network Al Jazeera October 29, 2004 in which he taunted the Bush Administration and took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. Soon after that, President Bush and President Karzai issued a joint declaration that pronounced their respective countries strategic partners. The alliance’s goal was to prosecute the war against international terror, strengthen the U.S-Afghan ties, establish a stable democratic government in Afghanistan and to train and equip the Afghan soldiers. The period of relative peace came to an end in 2006 as the violence increased across the country. The number of suicide bombings quintupled from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006, while remotely detonated bombings more than double, to 1677. Cracks in the coalition force started to appear as the US criticised NATO countries in late 2007 for not sending more soldiers. Collateral killings started to mount. For instance, Afghan and UN investigation found that errant fire from a U.S gunship killed dozens of civilians. The people of Afghanistan started to feel alienated from the USA. The new American President, Barack Obama recommitted to Afghanistan and decided to send seventeen thousand more troops to the war zone. With the advent of the new presidency America changed its approach in Afghanistan. The U.S Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the original mission in Afghanistan as “too broad” and called for establishing limited goals such as preventing and limiting terrorist safe havens. The New American strategy linked success in Afghanistan to a stable Pakistan. They aimed to dismantle and disrupt Al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan and to prevent them from returning to Pakistan or Afghanistan. By 2009, the USA called NATO to start supplying non-military assets to Afghanistan and training Afghan military forces. Meanwhile the USA escalated its mission in Afghanistan by announcing to deploy an additional thirty thousand troops, on top of the sixty five thousand troops already in place. Obama hoped that the U.S forces would create the conditions required for the US to withdraw its troops. Obama set July 2011 as the start of the troop drawdown and NATO too signed an agreement to transfer the full responsibility of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Bin Laden was killed by U.S forces in 2011 in Pakistan. The efforts to withdraw the troops from Afghanistan continued but there were serious doubts on Afghan’s government’s capacity to maintain authority. The tensions between Taliban and U.S started to flare up but this did not dampen Obama’s will to withdraw the troops. Afghan security takeover was completed by 2013 and on May 27, 2014 Obama announced to withdraw most U.S forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Ashraf Ghani and chief opponent Abdullah Abdullah signed a power sharing arrangement in which the former assumed the position of the President whereas the latter became the Chief Executive. The USA underwent a leadership change and Trump came into power. His attitude towards Afghanistan was completely antithetical to Obama’s approach. He refused to enact any pre-set deadline for the drawdown. US attack on Nangarhar province in Afghanistan in 2017 made it clear that Trump was vying for a prolonged Afghan War. The Taliban retaliated by conducting a series of terror attacks in Kabul. The Afghan-US peace talks proved to be futile. Amidst numerous uncertainties and the ensuing chaos the current president of US, Joe Biden announced to withdraw all the U.S troops from Afghanistan by September 2021.

Taliban back in control 20 years after 9/11.

After enduring a turbulent 20 year insurgency, the Graveyard of Empires, has finally brought down the curtains on Washington's military and hegemonic overreach post 9/11. Kabul has fallen, and with it the American foreign policy disaster stands exposed yet again ( keep in mind the Fall of Saigon). The US military miscalculation augmented by an unnecessary intervention has caused major setbacks to a nation gripped with civil war and factional infighting, becoming a breeding ground for extremist ideologies to flourish. The US fought a war it never should have entangled itself in. No configuration of military assets or counter-insurgency operations can find success as long as the Taliban's supply routes and top command receive direct blessings from Islamabad. The war on insurgency was, in reality, a proxy war waged by Pakistan against the US, Afghanistan and NATO forces, using an organisation trained, funded and radicalized by the ISI : the Taliban. Pakistan’s tendency to push islamic militancy as an instrument of foreign policy can be traced back to the 70’s during the tenures of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq. The enforcement of western oriented cultural-religious norms and institutions in a hitherto tribal, ethnic bottom-top society was a major blunder which got ‘corrected’ as soon as Kabul fell.

There is visible ruckus in the Islamic Emirate government of Afghanistan, between the leadership. The top shots of Taliban, as of August 2021, are Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban's Supreme Leader since 2016. Then there is the co-founder ; Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar succeeded in a hierarchical order, by two deputies under the supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Mullah Baradar and the Pakistani pithu Haqqani network have become the center of controversy under the Talibani leadership. There is distrust between two deputy leaders as well. One faction of the bifurcated Taliban has camped in Kabul, while the other has taken over from Kandahar. In this, the Kandahari faction is led by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar. Whereas, in Kabul the Amir-ul-Momin or supreme leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is sitting on the throne.

Pakistan's support to the Haqqani network signals how, through its intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani military establishment intends to control and seize power. Carved by the British, the Durand Line, created a distinction between identity (ethnicity) and sovereignty (state boundary), dividing a hitherto supra tribal land (Pashtuns), with people of a collective culture spilling into 2 different states. Colonial blunders resulted in a major security threat to the national integrity of Pakistan : internal separatist movements by ethnic minorities mainly in the Baloch region. There has also been distrust between Tehrik-e-Taliban, also called the Pakistani Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban. A reunification in Afghanistan between TTP and certain splinter groups from December 2019 to August 2020 included the Shehryar Mehsud group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) Hizb-ul-Ahrar, the Amjad Farooqi group and the Usman Saifullah group (formerly known as Lashkar-e Jhangvi). It was Al Qaeda that was involved in the moderation between the groups.

Let us now circle to India which has always been a stealth player in the ‘Great Game’ of Afghan geo-political influence. In the 90s we aligned our foreign policy with that of Iran and Russias’. The trio achieved a congruence in goal and vision : 1) mutual deterrence against islamist terror and 2) aversion to US overreach and intervention. Russia in their concern against islamic separatism in Chechnya, Iran in their concern against a Saudi-backed Sunni regime and India in their concern against Pakistan's terror funding, found common ground to unite and form a possible trilateral regional partnership (keeping the US out of the equation).

The Indian foreign policy in Afghanistan meant dealing with soft issues of economic activity like infrastructure and investment, leaving the security - military aspect to Iran and Russia. Not developing a direct communication channel with Taliban, closing down the Indian embassy in 1996 and backing only the Ahmad Massoud led Northern Alliance in Afghanistan resulted in New Delhi having little leverage during the 1999 IC 814 plane hijacking, which brought home this stark reality. Similarly in the current scenario, we relied too much on the US security feeding Kabul, that any possibility of a hostile takeover was officially neglected. The pluralistic norm in International Relations advocates that a nation's foreign policy is a result of the interaction between its domestic needs and the ecosystem in which it resides. The domestic needs of India can be centred around economic development, foreign investment as well as our security concerns stemming from the Beijing-Islamabad bonhomie. The ecosystem we reside in puts the geo-political flashpoint of Kashmir in direct crosshairs of the new dispensation. A good opportunity arises for Pakistan to amplify terror funding by inciting the Mujahideen to wage another 'holy war ', this time for the liberation of "India occupied Kashmir". Thus, the most viable option for India would be to engage with the Taliban through direct diplomatic channels asserting our legitimisation of an Afghan Led - Afghan Owned regime. The Taliban has various power factions within its own organisation : Pakistan backed Haqqanis, ISK sympathizers and Mullah Baradar led ‘political moderates’. The onus lies on India to secure its strategic influence and security assurance by backing the politically dominant faction with control over its ground cadre. The Chinese have done the same, by leveraging their dominance over Pakistan as an extension onto Afghanistan. The CPEC and the Belt & Road Initiative will keep the engines of the Pakistan-Afghanistan economies running while simultaneously establishing Chinese hegemony in world trade. Potential Chinese offshore bases in Afghanistan (note Bagram) will form a direct linkage between their entities in South China Sea, Balochistan and bases in Djibouti. This brings the Arabian Sea, currently under Indian influence, into China's kitty. Whether or not India ramps up security measures on its periphery by way of increased troop presence will directly relate to our ability or inability in successfully dealing with the Taliban through the lens of Afghan self-determination, free from the clutches of its masters sitting across the Durand Line.

A U-turn by Russia and Iran, who now actively seek to engage with the Taliban in accordance with their own interests, goes to show that India should reconsider its Afghan Policy to suit its current security and domestic needs. The Chinese control over Afghanistan, a country located at the crossroads between the “West” and “East” is a major threat to US foreign policy which believes in “hegemony or survival”. Propping up of QUAD to stabilize the Indo-Pacific region can also be extended to the Central Asian heartland and South Asian sea routes, with India playing an active role in the same. India's official stance at the recent UNSC meeting to continue their investments in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, is a good step in this direction.

However the US decision of not inviting India to join the new central-south Asian QUAD (US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) is a cause of diplomatic concern, creating noises in the chambers of the MEA.

Check out the August edition of the Probe!

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