Afghanistan is known as the "graveyard of empires." But just why do empires keep sending thousands of their young people to die in Afghanistan? American blood-letting there is generally explained in terms of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but it was U.S. involvement in Afghanistan that led to the emergence of these movements in the first place, not the other way around. Nevertheless, the United States government has used the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to justify foreign invasions and occupations, flagrant war crimes, and its largest military budget since 1945. It has persuaded an influential minority of Americans that their country faces a unique and unprecedented threat that justifies all these measures, not least its savage war in Afghanistan.
A Dutch friend of mine tried to have a rational conversation with an American co-worker about September 11 and the so-called war on terror and was told, "You can’t possibly understand. Your country has never been attacked like this." The puzzled Dutch woman had to ask, "Did you never hear anything about the Second World War?" Of course, it is precisely the relative safety of America that makes us so vulnerable to panic and propaganda when faced with such a limited threat.
The response of the U.S. government to the terrorist attacks has been as Bin-Laden and his colleagues must have intended. They did not expect to defeat the United States by knocking down a few buildings, nor were they motivated by some irrational hatred of freedom. Rather the attacks were designed to provoke a reaction that would expose the hypocrisy of the United States and goad the American empire into using its vast arsenal of destructive weapons in ways that would gradually undermine its own economic and military power. Bin-Laden and Al-Zawahiri understood that this would be a war the United States could not win.
While Americans think of the war in terms of September 11 and terrorism, Afghans are not afflicted with such a myopic view. They see the war in the context of a much longer history that is shaped by their country’s mountainous geography and strategic location between Iran to the West, Russia to the North, and India and Pakistan to the South and East—and of their own ability to defend it against the world’s greatest empires. Or, as noted in the resignation letter of Matthew Hoh, an American diplomat who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan in September: "I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul. The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency."
Fall of the Safavid Empire of Persia, 1722
The first modern empire brought down by the Afghans was the 200-year old Safavid Empire of Persia. Local Pashtun tribespeople rebelled under Mirwais Khan Hotak in 1706 and expelled Persia from Western Afghanistan. Mirwais’s son, Mir Mahmud Hotaki, continued the war and sacked the Persian capital of Isfahan in 1722. The Safavid dynasty was already economically weak, as Dutch merchant ships were sailing away with the bulk of regional trade from its formerly lucrative trade routes. But the Afghans delivered the coup de grace.
As the Russian Empire expanded in the Caucasus and Central Asia in the early 19th century, a weakened Persia gradually lost territory. The British came to see Persia as a Russian puppet and adopted a "forward policy," to keep Afghanistan as a buffer between British India and the expanding Russian Empire. This effectively made Herat in Western Afghanistan the new outer frontier of the British Empire that Britain was committed to keeping out of the hands of Russia and Persia.
A Persian army besieged Herat for 280 days in 1837-38. The failure of the siege exposed the weakness of Persia, which continued to disintegrate. But it also highlighted the vulnerability of Afghanistan, which was ruled at the time by different tribal leaders in Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul, following the collapse of the Durrani dynasty. So the British and their Sikh allies from the Punjab marched into Afghanistan to restore the former Amir, Shah Shuja, who had been deposed and exiled in 1809.
This was what is called the first Afghan war. In a parallel with the present crisis, the British plan was to stay only as long as necessary to leave Shah Shuja in firm control of the country, but this proved to be impossible. He effectively ruled only Kabul where he owed his position to the presence of British and Indian troops and officials. The longer the British stayed, the more they alienated the Afghans. British officials brought their families to Kabul and established a small colony, complete with soirees and cricket matches. Their expenditures caused runaway inflation, which alienated the merchant class of Kabul and a riot there in November 1841 soon grew into a full-blown rebellion against British occupation. Mohammed Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammed, the leader the British had deposed in Kabul, came down from the mountains to lead the rebellion.
The Afghans killed the British commander, General MacNaghten, dragged his body through the streets of Kabul, and put it on display. His deputy, General Elphinstone, negotiated with Akbar Khan for safe passage to Jalalabad for occupation officials and their families. On January 6, 1842, 700 British troops, 3,800 Indian troops, and 12,000 civilians set out for Jalalabad, 90 miles away. At every pass through the mountains they were greeted by Afghan tribespeople waiting in ambush. They were all massacred (some froze to death) long before they could reach Jalalabad. The sole survivor, assistant surgeon William Brydon, rode into Jalalabad with a piece of his skull sheared off by a sword after being rescued by an Afghan shepherd. Asked for news of the British army from Kabul, he replied, "I am the army."
The British sent another expedition to rescue some prisoners and take revenge on the people of Kabul, but they abandoned the effort to occupy or control Afghanistan. The Afghans had established their independence and neither Britain, Russia, nor Persia occupied Afghan territory for the next 36 years. Mohammed Akbar Khan died, but Dost Mohammed and his other sons united Afghanistan and established relations with the British. Ironically, a truly independent Afghanistan served as a very effective buffer between the British and Russian Empires, and the British helped the Afghans to repel more Persian attacks on Herat in 1852 and 1856.
British Invasion and the Treaty of Gandamak, 1879
The second Afghan war began after Sher Ali Khan, Dost Mohammed’s third son, accepted a Russian diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878, but then rebuffed a British one. This resurrected the recurring specter of British insecurity over Afghanistan. Britain invaded again and occupied much of the country. Sher Ali died in February 1879 and the British persuaded his son Mohammad Yaqub Khan to sign the Treaty of Gandamak, which ceded Quetta and the Khyber Pass to Britain and gave Britain control over Afghan foreign policy in exchange for financial support. The British army withdrew, but it left behind a diplomatic mission in Kabul. A few months later, the remaining British officials were all killed during a local rebellion. The British invaded again. After ten months of savage fighting, they defeated an Afghan army under Yaqub’s brother, Ayub Khan, at Kandahar. The British installed Yaqub and Ayub’s cousin Abdur Rahman Khan as Amir and he agreed to the terms of the Treaty of Gandamak. The British finally withdrew—though this time they did not leave a diplomatic mission behind in Kabul to be killed. Afghanistan became fully independent from Britain as a result of the third Afghan war in 1919, which was an Afghan invasion of the North West Frontier province of British India.
Throughout the 20th century, Afghanistan’s people confronted the same existential questions as people in other non-Western countries. What aspects of modern Western technology and culture could they adopt without losing what they valued in their own way of life? As elsewhere, different classes within Afghan society answered this question according to their own interests, and the resulting divisions left Afghanistan vulnerable to opportunistic exploitation and intervention by foreign powers, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Independence and Aid from the USSR, 1919-1978
Amanullah Khan, the king of Afghanistan, who won independence from Britain in 1919, admired the modernist regime of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. He mandated compulsory elementary education, opened co-educational schools, and formally abolished the burqa for women. But conservative tribal and religious leaders rebelled and forced him to abdicate in 1929. The last king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, ruled for 40 years (1933-73) by pursuing a more gradual approach to modernization. Afghanistan was still in the same position geographically, but the world around it had changed. Instead of being sandwiched between the Russian and British Empires, it was now wedged between the Soviet Union and independent Pakistan. Mohammed Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin, was his prime minister from 1953 until 1963. Daoud envisioned a reunification of the Pashtun territories on either side of the British colonial border between Afghanistan and what was now Pakistan. After this initiative was rebuffed by Pakistan, Daoud increasingly turned northward to the USSR for both military and development aid.
In 1973, Daoud seized power from his cousin, but instead of declaring himself king, he abolished the monarchy and became Afghanistan’s first president. He began by renewing Afghanistan’s relationship with the USSR and used Soviet aid to build up the Afghan army. But he soon broke with his Marxist allies in the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), distanced Afghanistan from the Soviet Union, and began to improve relations with Pakistan, Egypt, and other Western-oriented Muslim countries.
In 1978, a leading PDPA politician was murdered, causing the other PDPA leaders to believe that Daoud was planning to have them all killed. They staged a coup, killed Daoud and his family, and formed the new Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. They launched a radical secular reform program, banning burqas and forced marriages, closing mosques, redistributing land, and abolishing farmers’ debts. Anehita Ratebzad, a female member of the Revolutionary Council, wrote in a New Kabul Times editorial, "Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country…. Educating and enlightening women is now the subject of close government attention."
The USSR quickly provided $1.2 billion to build roads, schools, hospitals, and wells. The relatively small urban population welcomed the reforms and new development, but the interests of rural landowners and tribal and religious leaders were seriously threatened and they began to fund and support mujahideen to commit terrorism and resist government forces. The U.S., Pakistani, and Saudi governments began to provide funds, training, and weapons to the mujahideen and a new version of the "great game" was under way.
For the Soviets, Afghanistan had lost none of its value since the 19th century. Their empire extended from Europe to Siberia, but nowhere did it reach southward to ports and the sea-routes to South Asia and Africa. The United States now controlled those sea-lanes and had the same interest as Britain in the 19th century in keeping a buffer between the Russians and the ports of Pakistan. The establishment of a Soviet client state in Afghanistan offered the USSR the tantalizing promise of fulfilling historic ambitions. In funding, supplying, supporting, and training the mujahideen, U.S. policy-makers believed they had found a low-cost means to neutralize a serious geostrategic challenge.
Presidents Carter and Brezhnev began this new "great game" as a proxy war to be fought mainly by Afghans against other Afghans. Soviet forces eventually lost 13,000 lives, but killed at least a million Afghans. The United States and its allies have so far lost only 1,500 dead, but have likewise killed tens of thousands of Afghans. Both the United States and the Soviet Union became engaged in Afghanistan because they had important strategic interests at stake, long before the emergence of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.
The U.S. Begins New Great Game, 1946-2010
Since the end of the Cold War, the two main thrusts of U.S. foreign policy have been to impose military control over every part of the world where oil is produced or shipped; and to encircle Russia with a ring of U.S. allies and military bases from Poland to Georgia to Central Asia. Afghanistan’s position between Iran, Central Asia, and Pakistan makes it a critical part of the pipeline map, potentially supplying Pakistan and India with oil and gas from Western operations in the Caspian Sea via the projected Unocal (now Chevron) pipeline through Afghanistan. A U.S. ally and bases in strategically-located Afghanistan would add an important link in the military encirclement of Russia, China, and Iran.
On the other hand, if Afghanistan was aligned with Russia, it could equally well serve as a route for a pipeline to transport Russian oil and gas to Pakistan and beyond and place Russian military or intelligence bases on the borders of Pakistan and Iran. The United States’ interest in denying the Russians a pipeline route to the Arabian Sea and a client state on the border of Pakistan corresponds closely to Britain’s fears of Russian expansion into Afghanistan in the 19th century. Even an independent Afghanistan that was free from U.S. or Russian influence could link Iran to China via yet another pipeline route.
As in the mid-19th century, a genuinely independent Afghanistan could actually be a stable and effective buffer between the great powers. As the Maliki government in Iraq has gradually slipped the American leash, it has awarded oil contracts to Russian, Chinese, and South Korean companies as well as to Western ones. A future Afghan government could ultimately do likewise, playing suitors for pipeline deals against each other in the traditional fashion. In Iraq, Western oil companies have welcomed partnerships with Asian companies that can supply cheaper labor and equipment and are not tainted by a role in the invasion and destruction of the country.
In fact, as commerce of all kinds has begun to flow again in Iraq, the United States has been delivered a powerful message that aggression and military occupation do not pay. Total Iraqi imports grew from $25.7 billion in 2007 to $43.5 billion in 2008. But even as other countries’ trade with Iraq has grown, exports from the United States to Iraq have remained flat at a meager $2 billion per year, most of that stemming from existing contracts with the U.S.-backed government.
By contrast, Turkey, which refused to support the U.S. invasion, has become one of Iraq’s largest trading partners, with exports of $10 billion to Iraq in 2008. At a recent trade fair in Baghdad, an Iraqi executive explained that his construction company preferred to do business with Turkish firms because costs were lower and the Turks "are not an occupier." Other countries that opposed the invasion, in particular Iran, France, and Brazil, have likewise become major trading partners. On condition of anonymity, a European ambassador to Baghdad told the New York Times that his country’s business relations with Iraq improved greatly once it withdrew its troops. "Being considered an occupier handicapped us extremely," he said. "The farther we are away from that the more our companies can be accepted on their own merits." In some of the largest government contracts awarded since the invasion, the Iraqi transportation ministry recently awarded $30 billion to rebuild Iraq’s railroads to a combination of British, Italian, and Czech companies. The Russian company RusAir has won an exclusive air cargo contract that has forced FedEx to terminate its operations in Iraq.
As in other parts of the world, the U.S. effort to control events by the (illegal) threat and use of military force is the central obstacle to a peaceful resolution for Afghanistan. The escalation of the war in Afghanistan since 2006 can be directly traced to a massive escalation of U.S. air-strikes that year, even as numbers of U.S. casualties remained flat. Only 98 American troops were killed in Afghanistan in 2006, one less than the 99 killed in 2005. And yet the number of air-strikes exploded from 176 in 2005 to 1,770 in 2006—a ten-fold increase. The flat casualty figures make it clear that this was an escalation initiated by U.S. forces, not by the Afghan resistance (2007 saw a further escalation to 2,926 air-strikes).
The successful response of the Afghan resistance to the American escalation was entirely predictable, but it appears to have surprised U.S. planners. As in Iraq, the U.S. reacted to the failure of its puppet government to establish any legitimacy or control over most of the country with a massive escalation of military force, launching a desperate and bloody campaign to bomb and terrorize the population into submission. This brutal escalation was an abysmal failure, leading directly to the brink of defeat, where U.S. forces now find themselves. The so-called "surge" in Iraq provided cover for a similar escalation of aerial bombardment, from 229 air-strikes in 2006 to 1,119 in 2007, and 110 per month through most of 2008. In Afghanistan as in Iraq (and Vietnam), despite endless lip-service to phrases like "winning hearts and minds" and "clear, hold, and build," U.S. military strategists cling to the core belief that their virtually unlimited capacity for violence can ultimately carry the day if enough legal and political constraints are removed. Instead, the failures of U.S. military force and the success of "Anti-Coalition Forces" everywhere have confirmed Richard Barnet’s Vietnam-era judgment that "at the very moment the number one nation has perfected the science of killing, it has become an impractical instrument of political domination."
Gabriel Kolko has been writing for decades about the failure of U.S. foreign policy. Instead of defining and prioritizing its interests like any other country, the United States wreaks havoc in international affairs by clinging to virtually unlimited ambitions that it pursues on an opportunistic basis with no regard for the impact on billions of human beings or the future of the world. This has resulted in unlimited military budgets and a long series of unwinnable wars that it should never have embarked on, even from the amoral "realist" point of view that its deluded strategists aspire to.
Afghans believe that it was they who brought down the Safavids and the Soviets. While the Afghans definitely did their part, the forces that led to the collapse of those empires were really much closer to home in both cases. The real graveyard of the Soviet empire lay in the Kremlin, where absolute power insulated its leaders from the forces at work in the real world beyond its walls. The Afghan war was only one of many causes of discontent and dissolution within the Soviet political and economic system. A quiet underground movement of non-violent popular opposition grew steadily beneath the surface.
Since the 1970s, America’s leaders have consolidated their political and economic power into effective monopolies. Most industries are dominated by two or three huge firms and the political system is controlled by a similar duopoly. Research on economic competition has established that such near-monopolies take on many of the characteristics of actual monopolies, stifling innovation and competition, destroying smaller businesses, exploiting employees, building inefficient bureaucracies, and spending more on marketing than on research and development. The U.S. health insurance industry employs 30 times as many administrative staff as it did in 1970. American firms spend $290 billion per year on advertising, almost $1,000 for every person in the country. And corporate control of politics has systematically dismantled every mechanism that could restore effective management or halt the system’s relentless drive to devour everything, including itself. Looking for solutions from any of the leaders promoted by such a dysfunctional system is pure folly.
However, by learning from the example of popular movements in other countries throughout history, people in the United States can organize politically to elect very different people to public office and to stimulate mass public opposition to war, militarism, and corporate politics. It is the policy of the United States, not that of Afghanistan, that is filling the graveyards, and the great game that can stop the funerals will not be played out in Afghanistan, but in Washington and in local communities all over the United States as Americans begin to organize for a post-imperial, post-corporate, and more democratic future.
Nicolas J.S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq (March 2010, Nimble Books). He is also the local coordinator of Progressive Democrats of America (www. pdamerica.org) in Miami. This article was first published by Consortium News.