How history transitions to the next chapter surprises or shocks the people of Afghanistan. Afghans were surprised in October 2001 when American commandos, backed by local militiamen in the north and south, drove the Taliban out of the country, but they experienced shock when the Taliban took power in August 2021. How and why history repeats itself in a vicious cycle in Afghanistan is a question that leaves few assumptions to appropriate answers. By and large, however, the historical dynamics in Afghanistan lie in a cause-and-effect chain of local conflict and international geopolitics.
Historically, the nation-state, as it characterizes Afghanistan, was not the result of a genuine development of sovereignty, but rather a creation of geopolitics. In the 19th century, at the height of the power struggle between the Barakzai and Sadozai tribes, the British Raj waged two wars to subdue the Afghan kingdom but failed. Although the British failed to gain control of Afghanistan, the Russian-obsessed British Raj finally succeeded in restoring the Barakzai dynasty to power in 1890, aligning Afghan foreign policy with the British Empire. With subsidies provided by the British, Amir Abdul Rahman laid the foundation for a centralized government that arguably created the first patron-client relationships in Afghanistan. That the establishment of the nation-state in Afghanistan depended existentially on geopolitical shifts became clearly evident after the April coup of 1978. The April coup, triggered partly by itself and partly by external circumstances, put an end to the old rule and marked a bloody beginning: the Cold War.
In truth, the Cold War was avoidable only if the bipolar world – Soviet communism and Western liberalism – had not existed. In Afghanistan, a country already divided into left and right political spectrums, the Cold War was a combination of historical grievances growing under the skin of Afghan society and geopolitical goals developed in Moscow and Washington. Unlike the Americans, who needed political Islam as a weapon to destroy Soviet communism, the Afghan mujahideen needed it to create a polity. The atheistic nature of communism and its historical development in the Russian version, as encountered in the Cold War, gave rise to Islam as an ideology now armed by the American bloc and defended by the mujahideen in Afghanistan. It militarized Afghan society.
But what was interpreted in a crude idealism as the “sacred duty of Muslim brotherhood” during the war against the Soviets turned out to be a disastrous fratricide after the Russians withdrew. Afghanistan was left to its fate when the Russians were defeated and the threat of Soviet communism faded. The country slid into a civil war in the early 1990s, which arose from a local “fearful psyche susceptible to manipulation of power” in a state of anarchy where almost “everyone [had] the capacity to kill” (Hobbes). Afghanistan’s neighboring states, preoccupied with preemptive policies to secure some strategic depth in a war-torn country, also poured oil on the engine of the 1990s civil war. The rapid rise of the Taliban initially surprised many at home and abroad in the mid-1990s. Regional governments, alarmed by geostrategic interests, reacted differently.
If there is any problem between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it lies in the raison d’état and if there is any problem between India and Pakistan, it lies in mountain ranges of the Himalayas: Kashmir. In 1947, when the British withdrew from Sub-Continent of India, they drew the border line between Pakistan and India but left Kashmir untouched. (Ever since, the two states have fought four wars over Kashmir). In the same year, when Pakistan was established, Afghanistan expressed its distrust of Pakistan’s membership in the UN. War broke out between the two countries in 1960, when the Afghan government sent troops across the border to unite Pakistan’s Pashtun population under the name Pashtunistan, but this came to nothing. In the 1970s, the Afghan government harbored Baloch separatists who were fighting the Pakistani state, while Pakistan gave sanctuary to Afghan Islamists fighting the Afghan government.
During the Cold War, India, a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, maintained good relations with the Soviet-backed Afghan government whereas Pakistan served as the main conduit to the United States. With the end of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the conflict between pro-Pakistani jihadists and Indian forces intensified in Kashmir, but at the same time and in terms of a clear opposition in Afghanistan, the Pakistan-India rivalry ended here, with India maintaining relations with the Tajik-dominated government in Kabul and Pakistan supporting the predominantly Pashtun-led Hikmatyar faction of Hizb-e-Islami to overthrow the government. In between, and in a country where ethnic politics is part of a complex response to the nature of access to power, Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Hazara political parties formed a short-lived shaky alliance with Hikmatyar, but when Hizb-e-Islami failed to achieve its goal, Pakistan shifted its support to the newly emerged Taliban, while India continued to help the newly born resistance formed by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras to fight a common enemy: the Taliban. Pakistan today is home to a sizable Pashtun population that is divided on the issue of national identity: some support the idea of Great Pashtunistan, others advocate friendly relations between the states. Successive Afghan governments have refused to officially recognize the border between the two countries, while it is out of the question for the nuclear state of Pakistan.
With a 580-mile border with Afghanistan and strategic location between the Middle East and South and Central Asia, Iran saw the rise of the Sunni extremist Taliban a clear win for rivals like Saudi Arabia. For Russia, a loser of the Cold War, the emergence of the Taliban was something like a tornado that would blow the wave of instability in Central Asia. Therefore, both Iran and Russia supported the resistance group to protect their geostrategic interests. China did not recognize the first Taliban rule, but established relations with the regime after the emergence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Uighur. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE recognized the regime. Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. government, preoccupied with the Balkan War and the conflict in East Africa, cast Afghanistan into the hole of oblivion. Few U.S. media outlets took any interest.
In the aftermath of 9/11 event, the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan when the Taliban refused to hand over the prime suspect behind the bombing. Hamid Karzai, a U.S.-backed man, served in office twice, but things deteriorated for him as the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban insurgents intensified. Karzai, once a loyal U.S. acolyte, became a vocal critic of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. His relationship with the U.S. was like a happy marriage that runs into trouble in the middle and ends in a paranoid divorce.
The optimism that allowed a new political climate to emerge opened something uncertain when the Taliban consolidated control over swaths of territory and disappeared when the Obama presidency withdrew 123,000 U.S. troops. The Taliban had pushed government forces into a defensive position in 2014 by the time Ashraf Ghani came to power. The insurgents, whose leadership was based in Pakistan, recruited fighters to fight the U.S.-backed government. During Ghani’s tenure, internal rifts deepened and corruption reached a peak. In August 2021, when U.S. troops left Kabul, the Taliban seized power. The U.S.-backed Afghan government came into being with the U.S. “war on terrorism” and died with the American peace with the Taliban.
What will happen to Afghanistan in the future is uncertain. So far, no government has recognized Taliban rule, although some countries are doing business with them. In the last two years, the Taliban regime has refused to allow girls to return to secondary school. It has barred women from work and pushed non-Pashtun ethnic groups out of administration. An armed resistance to Taliban rule has formed and is fighting its way. Almost the entire population lives in indigence. Women pay the most. Afghan politicians in exile repeatedly warn world leaders of the risks of caring diplomacy toward the Taliban regime.
As for negotiations on a possible change in the shape and format of the Taliban de facto government, the regime signals no change in its policies. Under the regime, the phantom of the state and the instrument of power remain institutions controlled by extremist mullahs and fanatical military leaders. What helps the Taliban to stay in power, if not entirely, then essentially, is the usefulness of sharia and the means of violence derived from it. Sharia not only provides the Taliban with an advantageous instrument for exercising power, but also with the ability to control all areas of life, since sharia rule exists in its applicability and requires no legal justification. Unlike “a good law, which defines its essence and limits its applicability” (Arendt), sharia is an instrument that facilitates the regime with a tool to run its rule. It gives the Taliban regime the God-given ability to rule under a regime of decrees that is beyond human comprehension but applicable in human society. Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan remains a tragedy.
[Header image — Taliban fighters in a captured Humvee after the Fall of Kabul, August 2021. Credit: Voice of America News, via Wikimedia Commons]
Asad Kosha is an exiled editor from Afghanistan. Asad has worked as chief editor of Kabul Now, an English website affiliated with Daily Etilaatroz. He is interested in local conflict studies in Afghanistan. Asad Kosha writes about current issues in Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.