Afghanistan: history repeats itself when ignored

The invading NATO forces, in an action allegedly aimed at the defeat of terrorism in a country which had no tradition of terrorist activities, appeared to act with no inkling of the lessons that could have been learned.

Carlo Ungaro
2 June 2014
NATO Secretary General Rasmussen

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen met British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street this February to discuss the upcoming NATO summit as well as the withdrawl of NATO troops from Afghanistan. Demotix/Amer Ghazzal. All rights reserved.

Much media attention has, deservedly, albeit very briefly, been dedicated to the Afghan presidential elections, probably more than what will be attributed to an accurate evaluation of their outcome, after the  final runoff between the two principal contenders.

At this stage, an attempt to analyze the country’s future prospects would be useful, taking into account both the constant erosion of reciprocal confidence between the Afghan government and the remnants of the departing ISAF forces, and the apparent growing assertiveness of the Taleban,who appear, more and more, as an accepted interlocutor in determining the future course of events, as has been shown, among other things, by the recent exchange of prisoners, touted as a triumph by the previously underestimated Mullah Omar.

Any attempt at such an analysis, however, on the part of observers other than the usual pundits, will be handicapped by the curse of Cassandra, which seems to lie inevitably on the shoulders of all those who endeavour to formulate a seriously objective evaluation of the Afghan picture; it must be recalled that the curse which beset Cassandra and finally brought her to a violent end was not that her prophecies did not come true, but that they were all destined to go unheeded. This pattern is extremely familiar to all those who attempt to communicate a glimpse of Afghan realities  beyond the media smokescreen rather deftly laid on by the military.

It is not always a good thing to delve back in history, and in some cases, indeed, an excess of historic curiosity can confuse rather than clarify a situation. It is worth remembering, however, that on the eve of what the British – totally self-centred as usual – insist on calling the ‘First Afghan War’, i.e. in the eighteen thirties, Alexander Burnes, the British envoy to the Amir Dost Mohammed, who occupied the throne in Kabul and who was about to be the target of one of the early western ‘regime change’ operations, wrote the following to his superiors (The East India Company, for the ‘Raj’ was still to come):

“The republican genius (of the Afghans) is unchanged; and whatever power a Sadozai or a Barakzai may acquire, its preservation can only be ensured by not infringing the rights of the tribes, and the laws by which they are allowed to govern themselves”.

This fundamentally sound advice, which was disregarded then by the Governor (Lord Auckland) with the disastrous results with which we are familiar, has continually been ignored in the following decades and still is unheeded today, leaving the Cassandras  secure in their melancholy certitude that their advice will suffer the same fate.

In spite of the risk of being ignored, it appears, however, appropriate to voice doubt and preoccupation at the expressions of delighted, optimistic (albeit cautiously so) satisfaction that have followed the basically successful election campaign which ought to give Afghanistan a new lease of life and a chance to rise up from the ashes of its present state.

When I served in Afghanistan in the early seventies, the King, Zahir Shah, had been in power for over four decades. During his long reign, before he was ousted in a bloodless coup by his cousin Daoud, Afghanistan remained, essentially, at peace, and appeared on its way to development. He, in contrast to his predecessors, was extremely careful and adept at keeping the peace among the many tribes of Afghanistan, especially those Pashto tribes closest to his own, and famed for their readiness to take up arms in defence of their territory, their honour and their liberty. After the ill-fated Soviet invasion and ten-year occupation by the Soviet Union, only the Taleban regime appeared capable of holding the country together, thanks to its ties to those same south eastern Pashto tribes and to the exhaustion of the other ethnic areas, unwilling or unable to resist after decades of warfare.

The invading NATO forces, in an action allegedly aimed at the defeat of terrorism in a country which had no tradition of terrorist activities, which certainly did not engage in terrorism, and which had had no direct connection with the September 11 destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, appeared to act with no inkling of the lessons that could have been learned by a study of Afghanistan’s long and tortured history, especially in the course of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

It is true that one of the positive traits that outside observers found in president Karzai (when he was still ‘our man’) was his rather ostentatious assertion of symbolizing the unity of the country, and it will be remembered that his hagiographers pointed out how this was being done also by his choice of clothing. The system that the invaders imposed on the country, however, was again based on the centrality of Kabul as the capital and the seat of all power. Important local or tribal leaders, haughtily and at times (though not always) wrongly and superficially dismissed as ‘warlords’ were denied access to local power, which was instead granted to persons – some of whom, indeed, quite worthy – appointed by the central government.

The resulting structure is definitely fragile, and would be so even without the specific threat of the Taleban. It will be recalled that when the Soviet invaders left they were able to keep some control over the Afghan situation from across the border (mainly Uzbekistan). The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, brought about the inevitable collapse of the Afghan regime, culminating with the grisly public execution of the President and a long and particularly violent civil war from which the country has not yet fully recovered.

What appears inevitable now is an obdurate insistence on total centralization, as well as  the abrupt dismissal of ‘tribalism’ as the ultimate evil, and the refusal to make use of the indisputable  influence and charisma of some of the former ‘warlords’. It should appear clear that this situation is not ideal in a country known for its ethnic, tribal and religious  diversity, and that the eventual  withdrawal of the last remnants of the invading armies carries with it the real, tangible risk of the country, sooner or later, descending again into the tragic post-Soviet situation of uncontrollable civil conflict.

In the course of the past years, many knowledgeable observers have pointed out these risks, but none of them was successful in convincing the shapers of Afghanistan’s destiny on the need to take history into account. There is a growing fear that, by now, the die has been cast, and all that is left is a strong, even if apparently forlorn hope that the country will be spared further bloodshed at least for some years to come.

At the start of this article I retraced some of the history of the “First Afghan War”, quoting from the reports of Sir Alexander Burnes (who was later massacred in his Kabul residence by an irate mob, at the very onset of the war). It is interesting to conclude with the incredibly prescient remarks made to him by an Afghan tribal leader (Merhab Khan) whose support Burnes was seeking for the forthcoming invasion: “You have brought an Army into the country ….. how do you propose to take it out again?”

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