The American-led war in Afghanistan, in the period from 2001 to 2014, has cost countless lives, billions of dollars and destroyed much infrastructure in an already impoverished country. Included in the losses are 41 Australian soldiers killed and 261 wounded. More than 450 British troops died in Helmand between 2001 and 2014. To what end? Is the country more stable now than it was in 2001? Are we more secure from terrorist attacks now? Were there any winners?
Theo Farrell appropriately entitled his recent book on Britain’s war in Afghanistan “Unwinnable.” US president, Donald Trump, appears to agree, given that last year he announced the US military would stay in the country indefinitely. This is worrying for us, given that the Australian government is considering a request from the US government to recommit Australian troops to Afghanistan.
Before our government agrees to such a request, let’s hope that they review the history of Afghanistan and the Taliban. After all, it was an invasion by a Western superpower that created the Taliban in the first place.
The origins of the Taliban can be traced back to the Fall of Delhi in 1857. Delhi was the seat of the Mughal Empire, which was in decline by the time that Bahadur Shah II, commonly known as Zafar, a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, became its last emperor. The Moghuls were Moslems who, at that time lived in a peaceful and harmonious state with Hindus in India. Delhi was a jewel in their crown, a centre of culture and learning. However, British Colonialism, under the driving force of the British East India Company, took more and more of the emperor’s power, finally laying plans to remove the Mughals all together.
Then one May morning in 1857, 300 Indian infantry privates and cavalrymen, in the employ of the British East India Company, mutinied and rode into Delhi… “and massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and emperor. Now Zafar was no friend of the British, who had shorn him of his patrimony, and subjected him to almost daily humiliation. Yet, Zafar was not a natural insurgent either. It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an uprising that he strongly suspected from the start was doomed.” (From: “The Last Mughal,” by William Dalrymple)
Neither side could back down, and Delhi was placed under siege by the British. Finally, on the 14th of September, 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees, assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital, and massacring a large proportion of the population.
Though the royal family surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor’s 16 sons were tried and hung, while 3 were shot in cold blood. Zafar himself was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and was exiled to Rangoon, where he died in 1862. With the loss of the Mughal court went much of the city’s reputation as a centre of culture and learning. All this exacerbated the sudden shift of power from the Muslim elite, who had dominated the city before the uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterwards.
“For the British after 1857, the Indian Muslim became an almost subhuman creature, to be classified in unembarrassedly racist imperial literature alongside such other despised and subject specimens, such as Irish Catholics or ‘the Wandering Jew’.” (Dalrymple) The profound contempt that the British so openly expressed for Indian Muslim and Mughal culture proved contagious, particularly to the ascendant Hindus, who quickly hardened their attitudes to all things Islamic.
In the years that followed, as Muslim prestige and learning declined, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims grew gradually apart, as British policies of divide and conquer found willing collaborators on both sides. The rip in the fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, caused by the 1857 uprising, widened slowly into a great gash, and ultimately the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947.
Following the crushing of the Uprising and the slaughter of the Delhi court, Indian Muslims themselves also divided down two paths. One group, under the Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to the West. The other group took the approach to reject the West completely and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots. This second approach founded an influential but narrow-minded madrasa at Deoband, 100 miles north of the former Mughal capital.
One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged, “to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.” (Dalrymple)
The hardline Islamic Taliban movement swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996 after the civil war that followed the Soviet-Afghan war, and were ousted by the US-led invasion five years later. In power, they imposed a brutal version of Sharia law, such as public executions and amputations, and banned women from public life. Men had to grow beards and women to wear the all-covering burka; television, music and cinema were banned. They sheltered al-Qaeda leaders before and after being ousted – since then they have fought a bloody insurgency that continues today.
The combination of the Taliban and the country’s geography make the war in Afghanistan unwinnable. Indeed, Afghanistan has a fearful historical reputation as ‘the graveyard of empires.’ (Theo Farrell) The British invaded the country 3 times before and were kicked out 3 times. The first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42) was the result of ill-informed scheming by the British East India Company. The British invaded the country under the guise of returning the deposed Afghan King (Shah Shuja ul-Mulk) to the throne. The crass insensitivity the British forces showed to the local customs fuelled a growing Afghan hostility to the British occupiers, and a revolt that drove the British forces to a retreat, where their army was completely destroyed by the Afghani tribesmen with only a handful of British troops making it back to their base in India. It was the greatest military humiliation of a world power in the 19th century.
The second Anglo-Afghan war took place from 1879-82. It too was caused by the incompetence of British diplomacy, which gave Russia an opening to interfere in Afghanistan and triggered a British invasion to prevent further Russian encroachment. As before, the British installed a new ruler and left behind a diplomatic mission that was duly massacred by the locals. Britain suffered further humiliation when its army was thoroughly defeated by a larger Pashtun force at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880.
The third war began when Afghan forces seized a number of border posts and towns along the North-West Frontier in May 1919, due to growing Afghan agitation for full independence from Britain. British forces mobilised and drove the Afghans back across the border. By August, both sides had reached an equitable agreement: the British recognised Afghanistan as having full sovereign rights, and the Afghans recognised the (till then disputed) border between Afghanistan and British India.
It is important to note, however, that throughout the centuries and into the present time, Afghanistan was not a unified people, but rather has been a volatile and deeply divided tribal country. The only time the people put aside their differences is when a foreign power attempts to interfere. The Afghans then unite to fight the common enemy. Each time the invading force has been defeated.
The Russian defeat that ended the 1979-89 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan contained the same lesson. The Russians were determined to control the country and threw everything they had at the Afghanis. However, it ended in humiliation for the Russians and the defeat is likely to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Is the country more stable now than it was in 2001? Months of research across the country by the BBC has found that Taliban fighters, whom the US-led forces spent billions of dollars trying to defeat, are now openly active in 70% of Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban now control or threaten much more territory than when foreign combat troops left in 2014. The BBC research also suggests that IS has become more active in Afghanistan than ever before, although it remains far less powerful than the Taliban.
The BBC study shows the Taliban are now in full control of 14 districts (that’s 4% of the country) and have an active and open physical presence in a further 263 (66%), significantly higher than previous estimates of Taliban strength. About 15 million people – half the population – are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks.
In the areas defined as having an active and open Taliban presence, the militants conduct frequent attacks against Afghan government positions. These range from large organised group strikes on military bases to sporadic single attacks and ambushes against military convoys and police checkpoints. Violence has soared since international combat troops left Afghanistan four years ago. More than 8,500 civilians were killed or injured in the first three-quarters of 2017, according to the UN. The vast majority of Afghans die in insurgent violence but civilians often suffer as the military, with US backing, fights back, both on the ground and from the air.
Although much of the violence goes unreported, big attacks in the cities tend to make the headlines. Such attacks are occurring with greater frequency and the Afghan security forces appear unable to stop them. During the period during which the BBC did its research, gunmen stormed the headquarters of Kabul’s Shamshad TV, leaving one staff member dead and 20 wounded. IS said it carried out the attack. There were other attacks in Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad. In the last 10 days of January three attacks left the capital reeling, with more than 130 people dead. Last May, Kabul experienced the deadliest single militant attack since 2001. At least 150 people were killed and more than 300 injured when a massive truck bomb was detonated in what was supposed to be the safest part of the city. No group has said it carried out the attack. The rising toll of violence has left the capital’s residents feeling increasingly vulnerable.
So are there any winners? Well, yes, the American armaments industry has done very well financially from the conflict.
(Thanks go to my friend, Tony Swords, who explained all this in detail to me and passed on to me his research into the history and current situation in Afghanistan, a country he himself has visited where he feels a great affinity for the people and the culture, along with his concern of their future given this unwinnable war.)