Timeline: Stop the War officer John Rees provides a short history of imperialist intervention and local resistance in Afghanistan. Timeline is a series of programmes on political history presented by John Rees and produced by the Islam Channel. http://www.stopwar.org.uk
The lesson of history, taught time and again, is that Afghanistan will always be the graveyard of empires.
John Rees, a national officer of Stop the War Coalition, presents a short video history of imperialist intervention and local resistance, bringing the story up to the present day, when America, Britain and their allies are fighting yet another unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
The 20 minute film is part of the Timeline series produced by the Islam Channel.
Timeline: Afghanistan Transcript
Written by John Rees, Stop the War Coalition
- 1747: Modern kingdom of Afghanistan founded
- 1838: the first British invasion and defeat
- 1878: the second British invasion and defeat
- 1919: Afghan independence
- 1947-1989: The Cold War
- 1973: Mohammed Daoud’s coup
- 1978: ‘Communism’
- 1979: Russian invasion
- 1989: Russian withdrawal followed by civil war
- 2001: US/Nato invasion
- 2008 War spreads to Pakistan
Imagine a barren land of desert and mountain. Its people are among the poorest in the world.
Imagine that feudal lords kept safe behind the walls of their forts have ruled them for centuries.
Imagine too that this destitute scrap of land has been soaked in blood where three major powers~Britain, Russia and the United States~have fought to control it.
The country you are imagining is Afghanistan.
As thousands more US and British troops are again sent to kill and be killed in Afghanistan this edition of Timeline tells the story of a country the west only knows as a battleground.
The modern kingdom of Afghanistan was founded in 1747. In that year the lords or khans of the south, Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group in this multi-ethnic area, elected the adventurer Ahmed Shah as their King.
At that time Afghanistan covered a larger area than it does today. It included the fertile plains of Peshwar and Sindh and the valley of Kashmir~areas all now in India and Pakistan.
These areas provided the surplus on which the new state depended. But a series of dynastic wars tore the empire apart and these areas declared their independence.
In the 1830s the Afghan king, Amir Dost Mohammed, asked the British in India to help retake Peshwar. Nervous that this would cause instability in India, the British refused.
So the king turned for help to the Russians to the north.
The British panicked at the prospect of growing Russian influence. They invaded Afghanistan for the first time in 1838.
The British installed a former king in place of Amir Dost Mohammed and began the practice, current to this day, of handing out bags of gold to subdue opposition from the landlords and local leaders.
It worked at first. But then the East India Company realised it was paying out more in subsidies than it was gathering in revenue.
It cut subsidies to border tribes and local khans. This fuelled resentment at the large British army camped in Kabul and Kandahar.
And although the Afghans were divided ethnically and linguistically, they did nevertheless share an Islamic faith. This bound them together against the British
The khans plotted. The border tribes attacked. The mob in the towns rioted.
The Afghan resistance wiped out all but a few of the 20,000 strong British army during its retreat from Kabul.
The British returned briefly to ‘teach the Afghans a lesson’…that is to burn, sack, loot and rape. But they could not hold the country.
They left and Dost Mohammed re-took the throne.
But although the British army had gone, British money remained.
Dost Mohammed, and his son after him, was paid a subsidy by the British.
But by 1878 the British were again fearful of growing Russian influence in Afghanistan. An Ambassador with 300 troops was sent to intervene.
They were not immediately attacked because the Afghan army, unpaid for months, believed that the British would make good their wages. Some of them marched all the way from Herat to present themselves, unarmed, at the British embassy expecting pay.
The British refused. The soldiers went back to their barracks and got their guns. They then wiped out the British force of 300. The Second Afghan War had begun.
The British invaded with extreme force and brutality. But at a decisive battle near Kandahar they were defeated and left Afghanistan for a second time.
They covered their retreat by leaving a new king, Abdur Rahman, on the throne. As before he received a British subsidy~often amounting to a quarter of the state’s annual revenue. Abdur Rahman used some of the money to restore the presidential palace that the British had razed to the ground.
He also enjoyed the sole right to import new repeater rifles through India, ensuring that he could defeat any internal, musket-armed, opposition. The British loved the ‘Iron Amir’ as they liked to call him.
King Abdur Rahman continued to be paid by the British until he died in 1901 and then his son was paid until he was murdered in 1919.
The next in line to the throne was Abdur Rahman’s third son, Amanullah. He led Afghanistan into its third war with the British. Exhausted by the First World War the British were defeated and ended their subsidy.
Afghanistan was independent. Independent. But desperately poor after decades in which any hope of economic advance had been crippled by the monarchy’s dependence on the British subsidy.
Yet without subsidy Afghan rulers could not pay the army. And as each one reached this crisis they fell to be replaced by another King equally unable to stop himself being toppled for the same reason.
But beneath the Kings the landlord class, the khans, survived each change of monarch. The age-old relations of expropriation in the countryside endured decade after decade into the 20th century.
In the 1930s Afghanistan was almost unique~a country in which there had been almost no significant economic or social development for 150 years.
The Cold War provided a bonanza for the Afghan state, if not for the Afghan people.
Aid poured in from both the Russians and the US. In this buffer state the superpowers were bidding for influence. In the 1950s and 1960s Afghanistan was receiving one of the globe’s highest rates of aid per head of the population.
Aid represented as much as half the country’s budget…even higher than the British subsidy in the 19th century.
And then there was military aid. This sustained an army of 150,000 conscripts with modern tanks and an air force. The planes were Russian made MIGS but the pilots were often trained in Texas.
This level of aid and military assistance created a modernised Afghan state machine more powerful than ever before, more powerful, for the first time, than the local khans. Partly the government did this by favouring one powerful lord from among many, raising him above the other khans.
It was a kind of modernised, state-led feudalism.
So, although there was little economic progress, some things did change. Education was expanded for a layer of the younger middle classes.
And these students joined in the worldwide student revolt of the 1960s, protesting for democracy against censorship and for women’s rights. Some were also looking forward to jobs very different to those of their parents. They looked for jobs in the growing state sector.
But just as the students were demonstrating, the US was getting into to trouble in Vietnam. They cut their subsidy to Afghanistan, leaving the Russians as the largest suppliers of aid.
As ever in Afghanistan, power followed the aid money. Those sections of the ruling elite who were pro-Russian began to gain at the expense of those who were pro-American.
King Zahir’s cousin and brother-in-law, Mohammed Douad was the focus of the pro-Russian elements in the elite. In bloodless coup in 1973 Douad overthrew his kinsman, seen here on an official visit to London at the same time. Douad declared Afghanistan a Republic. But the Russian’s did not reward Douad by increasing their aid and, in a pattern now depressingly familiar, he was overthrown in a coup just five years later in 1978.
Those who came to power in 1978 were from tiny ‘communist’organisations with their roots in the student movement of the 1960s. They were rather less like tightly disciplined mass communist parties and more like circles of like-minded radicals operating in a country where the social and economic conditions could not be more hostile to genuine communist ideas.
They had no social base, no political force that could, for instance, see through the land reform that they attempted in the countryside. Unable to raise a popular movement the new ‘communist’ regime relied on the old police and became increasingly threatened by the old elites.
A civil war began and the government had to rely on the Russian’s for help.
Eventually the Russian’s invaded in order to stop their client regime being defeated in the civil war. The invasion began in December 1979 and by February of the following year an estimated 70,000 Russian troops were in Afghanistan.
The invasion instantly became a Cold War crisis as US President Jimmy Carter condemned Russia’s action.
And Afghans began to resist the Russian invaders just as they had resisted the British almost exactly 100 years earlier.
At first the Afghans fought with captured Russian weapons. But as a directive signed by Carter began to take effect the 10 year war was increasingly fought on the Afghan side with US arms.
Under President Ronald Reagan a massive arms and funding operation mushroomed in support of Islamic Mujaheddin guerrillas.
In the four years between 1981 and 1985 CIA orchestrated US aid to the Mujaheddin rose from $30 million to $280 million a year.
A whole generation of fighters was trained with Saudi Arabian finance and the expertise of the Pakistani secret service, the ISI.
This was how the Taleban and Al Qaeda were created by the Western powers. But for the US it was all worthwhile if it meant defeating the Russians.
As Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, once put it:
“What is more important in the view of world history? The Taleban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Eventually the Russians withdrew and the last troops were out of Afghanistan by 1989.
But it was the Afghan people who were the real losers. In this small, poor country an estimated 1.5 million people had lost their lives over 10 years.
But more bloodshed was to follow. Civil war came hard on the heels of Russian withdrawal.
Again Afghanistan was the object of outside intervention. The Saudi’s favoured Wahaabi groups and Pakistan favoured Sunni groups and sympathetic warlords.
Hundreds of thousands more lost their lives. Some 5,000 are said to have perished in the siege of Jalalabad alone.
Eventually, by the mid-1990s, the Taleban formed a government.
And the Taleban government, far from being made into a pariah by western governments, were wooed by both Pakistan and the US…especially after it became clear that Afghanistan might be an important route for a pipeline carrying oil south from the former Soviet Central Asian Republics.
Taleban leaders were to be seen being feted by US oil executives as they struck a deal for a new pipeline, even though Afghanistan was already a base for Al Qaeda. As a Daily Telegraph headline announced on December 17th 1997: ‘Oil Barons Court Taleban in Texas.’
All this changed on 11th September 2001 when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were attacked.
None of the 9/11 bombers were Afghans. And Al Qaeda, the creation of the CIA, its bases long-known of and tolerated by the US, were already scattered to the winds by the time the US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan later that year.
Indirectly and directly the initial NATO onslaught took 20,000 lives, according to the estimate of the Guardian’s Jonathan Steele.
The Taleban government soon fell to be replaced with a government presided over by Ahmed Karzi and came to include warlord figures guilty of atrocities during the civil war.
Northern Alliance General Dostum, one such figure, claimed that his country was free of the Taleban in 2002. It was a premature assertion.
The government is infact completely dependent on US military and economic support.
Nothing so clearly demonstrates this fact than the biographies of the two US Ambassadors to post invasion Afghanistan.
The first, Zalmay Khalilzad, was previously the chief negotiator for the oil giant UNOCAL in the Afghan oil pipeline deal. In 2005 he was moved to Iraq, replacing John Negroponte as US Ambassador in Baghdad.
The second, Ronald Neumann, was following in his father’s footsteps. Literally. His father had been US Ambassador in Afghanistan over 30 years before. After just over a year in office Neumann told the New York Times that the US could only avoid defeat in Afghanistan by spending “multiple billions” over “multiple years”.
Last year the United Nations Development Report revealed what seven years of war and NATO occupation have done to Afghanistan. Only 3 countries in the world ranked lower on the UN development index.
Life expectancy has fallen since 2003 to just 43 years of age.
6.6 million Afghans, over a quarter of the population, do not meet their minimum daily food requirements.
69 percent have no access to clean water.
Infant mortality has risen since 2001 and is one of the highest rates in the world.
Neither has there been much political progress. In 2002 Karzai brought back the old king as a ceremonial head of state~despite his previous favourable attitude toward Hitler and Mussolini right up to 1945.
Brought back from the Italian Rivera he was enthroned in the restored presidential palace…the very same palace that King Abdur Rahman had restored after the British destroyed it in 1878.
There has only been one election under the occupation, in 2005, organised with the aid of two US PR firms. In that election only a third of those eligible to vote actually did so.
One indicator has risen almost exponentially: opium production. It rose 1000 percent in the first year of occupation.
President Karzai promised to reduce poppy production by 30 percent in 2005 and to eliminate it by 2011. But by 2007 Afghanistan accounted for 92 percent of global heroin production. And now the local warlords are building heroin processing factories as well as selling the raw opium crop.
And foreign occupation has, as it always has done in Afghanistan, met with fierce resistance.
In 2003 The Rand Corporation estimated that a successful occupation requires one soldier for every 1000 civilians. That would mean the occupation of Afghanistan would need 500,000 NATO troops. There is currently less than one-fifth of that number despite the surge of an extra 17,000 soldiers ordered by President Obama.
The Taleban now once more control wide swathes of Afghanistan. Many observers believe that the war is unwinnable.
It is certainly unwinnable without even more widespread killing. And many of those who die will be civilians, especially as NATO has to rely on indiscriminate air attacks to compensate for lack of troops on the ground.
Worse still, the war is spreading to Pakistan where many resistance bases exist. The US military now refer to the area of operations as ‘AfPak’…Afghanistan and Pakistan.
President Obama has ordered both air and ground attacks on Pakistani territory. So now the world’s mightiest nuclear power is launching attacks on Pakistan, another nuclear power.
If the tragedy of Iraq is that it has been cursed by the attentions of the major powers because of what it has under its land it is the tragedy of Afghanistan to be cursed with the attentions of the major powers because of where its land lies.
For the British it was the buffer state between the Russian empire and India, the prize of the British Empire.
For the Russians and the US in the Cold War it was once again a border state that was unlucky enough to caught between two great powers.
Now, once more, Afghanistan is at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Two of its neighbours are rivals of the US~Iran and China. One is an unstable state allied to the US~Pakistan. Others~Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan are Soviet successor states where Russian and Western influences rival each other.
In the minds of those who launched the war in Afghanistan there are clear parallels with the past. Robert Cooper, a key advisor to Tony Blair, wrote at the time of the invasion:
“The opportunities, perhaps even the need for colonisation is as great now as it ever was in the 19th century”.
But such easy certainties are hard to maintain is a country where few things are certain.
One member of the Afghan parliament, Malalai Joya, sees things differently:
“Here there is no democracy, no security, no women’s rights. When I speak in Parliament they threaten me…These men who are in power, never have they apologised for their crimes that they committed during the wars, and now, with the support of the US, they continue their crimes in a different way…”
There are two lessons from Afghanistan’s past.
The first is that ordinary Afghans have never profited from the interference of the great powers. Indeed the dependence on foreign funds~from British subsidies in the 19th century to US aid in the 21st century~has made a small number of Afghans rich and kept most Afghans poor.
The second is that Afghans have never tolerated the occupation of their country. Occupying powers have lost many lives and much money in Afghanistan, but they have never subdued its people.
- J K Cooley, Unholy Wars
- T Ali, The Duel: Pakistan on the flight path of American power
- J Neale, The Afghan Tragedy
- A Rashid, Taliban, Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia
- C Nineham and J Shallice Afghanistan
- J Rees, Imperialism and Resistance
- J Newsinger, The Blood Never Drie