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Afghanistan - An Historical Overview

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To understand the present war that is taking place in Afghanistan, one must take into consideration the factors that have shaped the history of this tragic land. Doctor Zayar gives an overview of the history of Afghanistan from the middle ages to the present day.

To understand the present war that is taking place in Afghanistan, one must take into consideration the factors that shaped the history of this tragic land.

Afghan history has passed through many vicissitudes, invader after invader conquered Afghanistan. Some integrated and merged themselves with the local population, while others came and went. Afghanistan was the gateway to South Asia. The early twentieth century British viceroy of India called Afghanistan "the cockpit of Asia", while the famous poet Iqbal described Afghanistan as "the heart of Asia".

Aryans, who came in waves from the west and the northwest wiped out the old culture and civilizations and laid down the foundations of a new culture. This was a land where first ancient religions of Zoroastrianism, Manicheeanism and Buddhism flourished.

By 654 AD Arab armies had swept through Afghanistan and arrived at the Oxus River carrying the message of Islam. The reasons for the rapid success of the new religion are not difficult to see. Despite the glittering achievements of the Sassanid empire which ruled Persia and Afghanistan, it was characterized by extreme oppression of the downtrodden masses.

In the last 2500 years, at least twenty-five different dynasties have ruled Afghanistan. Genghis Khan and his Mongols were preceded by Persian, Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Indians, White Huns and Turks, all of whom incorporated part or all of present day Afghanistan into vast but often short-lived empires stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent or from India to the steppe lands of Central Asia.

Each new invasion or migration left behind its own ethnic deposits in the form of settlers, who either interbred with the inhabitants or forced them to retreat deeper into the mountains, creating over the centuries an ethnic mosaic of bewildering complexity.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country roughly the size of France. It is divided north and south by the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges. The first-ever census, taken in 1979 (after the Soar Revolution) placed the total population of Afghanistan at 15.5 million. They speak twenty languages though most of them understand two: Pashto, and Dari which is a special dialect of Persian.

The dominant ethnic group, the Pushtuns inhabit the southern part of the country. In the north of the country there are three main ethnic groups, which link with others of the same ethnic affiliation in Central Asia. The tiny Turkmen population in Badghis province is thus related to Turkmenistan, the much larger Uzbek population in the north central region, centred on Mazar-e-Sharif to Uzbekistan and the Tajiks of north Afghanistan to Tajikistan.

By the early eighteenth century two prominent local powers emerged from Southern Afghanistan, the Abdalis and Ghazalis. For 200 years the tribes and sub-tribes had been kept more or less in check by their own bitter feuds and by three powerful foreign empires which met and fought Afghanistan; the Mongols, the Persian Safavids and Uzbek rulers of central Asia. After 1747 when the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah was assassinated all three empires had run out of steam. To fill the political vacuum created by Nadir Shah's death in October 1747 a Jirga (assembly) of tribal chiefs was held in Kandahar to decide on a king of their own. The Jirga chose Ahmed Khan, a young warrior who had served in Nadir Shah's army. He was crowned king with an ear of wheat placed in his turban. He took the name Ahmed Shah Durrani. Ahmed Shah was the founder of the modern Afghan state and his conquests included the Pushtuns as the foremost power. After his death his empire disintegrated into fractional tribal wars.

By 1780 the Durrani Empire had concluded a treaty with the Central Asian rulers, which designated the Oxus (Amu Darya) river as the border between Central Asia and the new state of Afghanistan. In the next century the Durrani emperors lost their territories east of the Indus River.

Feuds between various Durrani clans dissipated their power. However one or another Durrani clan was to rule Afghanistan for over 200 years until 1973, when King Zahir Shah's cousin Daoud Khan deposed him and declared Afghanistan a republic.

It was European imperialism, more than anything, which eventually gave Afghanistan a semblance of national cohesion. Not long after Ahmed Shah's conquest, in India, Clive's victory at Plassey started Britain's relentless march to include Afghanistan in its domination.

In Europe, Napoleon was at the zenith of his power. He and Tsar Alexander I signed the treaty of Tiltist in 1807 and the two planned a combined invasion of India. This danger induced the British to come to a friendly agreement with the Afghan rulers. A mission led by Elphinstone met Shah Shuja at Peshawar to discuss ways and means of actual defence and a treaty was signed on June 7, 1809. But before the ink was dry Shah Shuja had lost power. Shah Shuja managed to escape and fled to Lahore where he took refugee with the British.

In 1821-33 a British officer A. Barnes visited Afghanistan, Bukhara and Turkmenistan. He had earlier come to Maharaja Ranjit Singh's court in Lahore. This Barnes was actually given the mission to study the topography and other related aspects of military duty. In May 1836 Dost Mohammed, King of Afghanistan sent an envoy to Russia. On his return he was an accompanied by Russian officer Lieutenant Yan Vitkerich, who brought a message of Tsar Nicolas I regarding cooperation between Russia, Persia and Afghanistan. When Dost Mohammed had sent his envoy to Russia, there appeared a British envoy in Kabul. He was none other than Lieutenant A. Barnes whose task was to win over Dost Mohammed.

The Afghan-British negotiations ended without any agreement. Dost Mohammed accepted the offer of Nicolas I. This annoyed Britain and once again they started to support Shah Shuja to attack Afghanistan. The agreement was signed between Britain, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Shah Shuja. British imperialism and Ranjit Singh promised to put back Shuja on the ancestral throne. The British forces assembled at Firozpur began marching towards Kandahar on November 2, 1838. Karl Marx noted: "Palmerton [the British prime minister] had undertaken war without the knowledge of the parliament. The Afghan war, mitigated and justified by forged documents."

On April 25, 1839 British troops captured Kandahar after intense fighting and installed Shuja as the king. But British troops faced severe resistance in Kabul near Chaikar, Jalalabad. Afghan people attacked them from every corner. Out of the 15, 000 British troops only one reached Jalalabad. On January 13, 1842 the sentries spotted a man in a tattered English uniform on a miserable pony - horse and man desperately wounded. It was Dr Brydon, the sole survivor of the 15,000 who had left Kabul three weeks before. He was dying of starvation - Karl Marx wrote in his famous notes on Indian history.

Afghan forces laid siege to Kandahar. In April 1842, Shuja was captured at the Bala Hissar fort. British forces were badly defeated in first Anglo-Afghan war. The lessons of history though are notoriously hard to learn. Even the British quickly forgot the outcome of their first disastrous intervention in Afghanistan. For the next fifty years, British policy vacillated between two extremes. One school of thought favoured leaving the turbulent people on India's northwest frontier more or less on their own.

The other argued that India would never be secure unless its frontiers were advanced northwards to the Hindu Kush. The resumption of Russia's southward drive in the 1860s strengthened the forward policy in 1878. This was further provoked by the arrival of a Russian diplomatic mission to Kabul, on November 21, 1878. The British army invaded Afghanistan for the second time. But the Afghans once again defeated the second British invasion. The people were roused once again and there was a general uprising in Kabul; Major Cavagnari and the staff of the British army mission were killed. Ironically the man who became Kabul's new ruler, Abdul Rehman Khan, arrived straight from Russia, wearing a Russian uniform and with offers of military aid. Though the 1878-80 war, the second Anglo-Afghan war, could not bring Afghanistan under British control, it at least established to some extent a friendly regime in Kabul.

Abdul Rehman Khan harboured no illusions about the delicacy of his country's position. How can a small power like Afghanistan, which is like a goat between two lions, or a grain of wheat between two millstones of the grinding mill, stand in between the stones without being ground to dust? He wrote in his autobiography. The only answer he could offer his successors was to follow a careful policy or neutrality, to avoid antagonizing either of Afghanistan's giant neighbours and prevent them from intervening in the country's internal affairs. The British did not give up their aim to subjugate the Afghan people. Within a few years a huge British force arrived at Afghanistan on its eastern and southern borders. And a secretary of foreign affairs of the British government in India, Henry Durand, arrived on November 12, 1893. Amir Abdul Rehman Khan had to agree to a new frontier of Afghanistan. The new border was demarcated by what is called the Durand line and it deprived Afghanistan of about one third of its population. The Durand line artificially divided the people of Afghanistan and gave it an unnatural boundary. For the next forty years, until the third Afghan war of 1919, Afghanistan remained a British protectorate.

The Russian revolution of 1905 also had an effect on Afghanistan. A movement of reforms was initiated in Afghanistan and Turkey. King Habibullah, brother of Nasirullah Khan took an active part in the Tarsi group, which in 1901 began publishing the newspaper Siraj-ul-Akber. This became very popular among progressive elements and patriotic officers. It became the voice of the young Turks. This was really the period of Asia's awakening as Lenin described the process: "From India so many radical groups migrated to Afghanistan to form an anti-imperialist front. In November 1917 came the epoch-making event in Russia, the October Revolution that shook the entire world, especially Asia. A new era had begun and Afghanistan, like many other subject countries, was tremendously influenced."

The Bolshevik revolution had aroused hopes among the masses of Asia. King Amanullah was inspired so much by the Bolshevik revolution that he declared the independence of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union recognized the government of Amanullah.

The Bolsheviks through their deeds showed they were the friends of all toiling masses, especially of the east. But the Afghan independence was not really accepted by British imperialism. The Afghan envoy to India was called by the foreign secretary, Henry Dobbas, and asked why was Afghanistan allowing a Bolshevik ambassador to arrive in Kabul? When the Afghan envoy said that this was because Afghanistan was independent, Dobbas pointed out that America, France and Italy were independent, but they did not permit Bolshevik envoys to go there! Dobbas pointed out that Amanullah's flag was red in colour and that was also the colour of the Bolsheviks' flag. On February 28, 1921 a friendship treaty between Afghanistan and Soviet Russia was signed. Very soon Amanullah was popular in Asia.

After signing the Afghan-Turkish friendship treaty in Moscow the Afghan envoy moved to the West. On April 28 he signed an Afghan-French trade agreement in Paris and on June 3 a treaty with Italy regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations. On June 22 a friendship treaty was signed with Iran at Tehran.

Afghanistan for the first time in its history was no longer isolated in its mountains ranges by British duplicity, and it was all due to the October Revolution. On November 22 the treaty between Afghanistan and Britain was signed in which Afghanistan's complete independence was recognized including foreign policy. The subsidy was abolished but the 1893 border (Durand Line) was reaffirmed.

Amanullah carried out progressive reforms in Afghanistan. He declared Afghanistan a secular state. The role of the clergy in state affairs was reduced, mullahs and tribal chief's lands were limited. Taxes were imposed on some tribes that were immune from taxation before. A banking system was introduced. Slavery was banned, education reforms were started as well as women's liberation. Amanullah began a six-month tour of Europe in 1928. Amanullah in his visit made trade agreements as well as getting new economic packages from the West.

These reforms shook the entire traditional tribal society. The most affected were the mullahs. Their Waqf lands were confiscated, their supremacy was reduced and separate courts were established. The spread of women's education threatened their social position too. They together with the feudal lords formed the nucleus of reaction with the support of British imperialism that ultimately brought about the downfall of Amanullah.

The man who took advantage of the anarchic situation was a Tajik Bandit from one of the valleys north of the capital, nicknamed Bacha Saqa ("son of a water carrier"). Saqa was at least for Tajiks something of a Robin Hood figure with the reputation of robbing wealthy travellers and royal officials and distributing a share of the loot to the poor. He captured Kabul and declared himself King of Afghanistan.

Amanullah fled and settled in Rome, a precedent followed 40 years later by another ousted king, Zahir

Shah. Early in 1929, Nadir Khan arrived from Paris to India and sought British backing for an attempt to retake Kabul. For the British it was a good opportunity. By mid October, Nadir Khan collected a sufficiently large tribal army and defeated Bacha Saqa and occupied Kabul and became king. His first step was to co-opt the support of religious leaders who had played such an important anti-reform role fuelling the anti-Amanullah agitation. He put the Imams of the capital mosques on the government pay roll.

In November 1933 a young student shot him dead in the grounds of his own palace, probably as a result of his blood feud with Amanullah's family. Nadir Khan's 19-year old son Prince Zahir Shah became a king on November 8, 1933. But Zahir Shah was no more than a figurehead who for the next twenty-five years reigned in the shadow of his uncles. Prince Zahir Shah and his cousin Daoud, who was later to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic, were barely out of their teens when Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933. The two cousins were brought up together. Both got their schooling in France, and they continued their education as classmates in Kabul's Afghan Military College. Overthrown by his cousin Daoud with the help of the Parcham faction of the PDPA in 1973, Zahir Shah went into exile in Rome.

Soar Revolution

The Stalinist regime installed by left-wing army officers in 1978 carried out a series of reforms, including land reform and progressive measures in relation to women and education, in an attempt to drag Afghanistan into the 20th century. This was a mortal threat not only to the interests of the Afghan landlords, usurers and mullahs but to the reactionary monarchy of Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring states, particularly Pakistan and Iran. For this reason and because of its proximity to Moscow (which had in fact played no role in the 1978 revolution), US imperialism was implacably opposed to the new regime in Kabul which, albeit in a distorted way, stood for revolution. That is why US imperialism deliberately armed, financed and incited a coalition of the most barbarous reaction against the Afghan Revolution.

Without the betrayal of the Russian bureaucracy the Mujahideen would never have been able to take Kabul or any of the major cities, which they had failed to capture in fourteen years of fighting. The fall of Kabul represented a victory for Islamic fundamentalism. American imperialism spent billions of dollars and provided generous military aid to the Mujahideen in order to overthrow the Kabul regime. However even when Moscow withdrew its troops, Najibullah's forces still managed to defeat the attack of the reaction. But withdrawal of the aid put the regime in an impossible position. The removal of Najibullah by a coup planned by the CIA and the ISI prepared the way for the capture of Kabul by the Islamic fundamentalists. The new regime liquidated most of the progressive reforms of the previous government. But the new government was very unstable from its inception.

Immediately fighting erupted between the forces of Hiz-e-Islami, led by Gulbadin Hikmatyar and the Jamat-e-Islami of Ahmed Shah Masood. These rival bands of counter-revolutionaries fought each other mercilessly so that by 1994 when neither side had succeeded in wining a decisive victory over the other, the field was open for the new wave of even more extreme fundamentalist reaction in the form of Taliban. The Taliban were the creation of the Pakistan military and intelligence establishment with the active support of the CIA. It was America that poured sources into the counter-revolutionary movement in Afghanistan in 1979 at a time when girls could still go to school and women could work. US imperialism is directly responsible for the Taliban reaction in Afghanistan.

America's role as world policeman is now affecting America in a very direct way. For the last 21 years we have witnessed the brutal mass slaughter of men, women and children in Afghanistan. Now hungry, war-ravaged, drought-stricken Afghanistan is in a truly horrific situation. The American-imposed sanctions have enormously intensified the distress and misery, and the deteriorating conditions have added a tragic dimension to the situation. Widespread starvation and malnourishment is aggravated by the continuation of a barbarous proxy war in which foreign powers vie each other for control of Central Asia and its vast oil wealth where Afghanistan occupies a strategic position as a possible route for an oil pipeline. As a result Afghanistan has been turned into a wasteland. When the Taliban finally took Kabul they took frightful revenge on their enemies. Najibullah the former president was hung from a lamppost with his genitals stuffed in his mouth. By such methods the "Civilized West" and its paid agents achieved their main objectives. Many people have been shocked at the media pictures of the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime unleashed a reign of terror with ethnic cleansing in Bamiyan and Mazar-e-Sharif and severe repression against oppressed religious minorities and nationalities. The smashing of the statues of Buddha, the public execution and whipping of women in Kandahar shows the real character of this vicious Taliban regime. The question is who is responsible for this bloody civil war - all these deaths, hunger, ethnic cleansing and sheer barbarism? It was American imperialism that reduced Afghanistan to the level of the dark ages and destroyed civilization there.

Their own creation (the Taliban) has now turned against them. The Americans badly burnt their fingers and this is reflected in the events in New York and Washington. Ousting the Taliban regime would probably require a ground invasion leading to the capture of Kabul and other major cities. That would still leave the rugged countryside where the fundamentalist base camps are located beyond the American military control.

It is extremely difficult for the American forces to win a war in Afghanistan. Mere control of Kabul has never given any occupier mastery over the rest of Afghanistan. The Afghan people are well trained in guerrilla war tactics as a result of the last 21 years. Fighting is continuing between the Northern Alliance and Taliban forces. Now the Americans are trying to forge an alliance of the Northern Alliance parties with ex-king Zahir Shah. On the other hand they are trying to split the Taliban.

The Taliban have two main factions that are covertly supporting King Zahir Shah. There could be open war between these two factions of the Taliban. It is fact that the Taliban have lost considerable mass support since 1996 when they captured Kabul, their peace slogan soon converted to massive brutality against the masses. American military action and support of the Northern Alliance and instalment of Zahir Shah as king will strengthen the hardcore of the Taliban. The Taliban will start a guerrilla war and will not be immediately disappearing from the scene.

Iranian-backed Shia fundamentalists in the Northern Alliance are against King Zahir Shah and there is Hiz-e-Islami of Gulbadin Hikmatyar which also does not fit into this equation of imperialist strategy. Hence the idea of a "broad-based" regime under Zahir Shah is a non-starter. It is possible that the Americans will install King Zahir Shah but it will not last for long, nor will they control the whole of Afghanistan, nor will it be able to end the turmoil.

Without ground forces it will not be possible for America to install Zahir Shah and military intervention in Afghanistan will need permanent deployment of troops in Central Asia as well as in Pakistan. In this scenario even Moscow will not be pleased to see the USA taking control of Afghanistan and strengthening its influence in Central Asia. There are powerful interests at stake here connected with oil and gas and the thorny question of the building of a pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

Russia, India, Iran, now America, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Turkey are all behind the united front supported by the Northern Alliance but they all have their own naked interests - each one shaking hands but holding a sharp knife in their other hands. The new war will soon turn to severe anarchy and probably Afghanistan will disintegrate between different warlords representing different nationalities and ethnic groups of Afghanistan. Then the allies under the anti-terrorist umbrella will come forward with their sharp knife hands towards each other and another new great game with bloody consequences will begin. The disintegration of Afghanistan will be a nightmare for the people of the entire region - the impact of which will be catastrophic further disintegration of the region on national lines. The entire region will be plagued by horrible war.

The 120-member executive committee is to convene a Loya Jirga (assembly of tribal chieftains). The executive committee proposed that the Jirga would be held in Southern Baluchistan near the Afghan border, where Zahir Shah has got some support.

In the executive committee the dominant element are nationalists, particularly Pushtuns. They will probably raise the question of the Durand line. That will be the only reason that Pakistan may refuse to allow a Jirga to take place in Pakistan.

The irony is that without the soil of Afghanistan the importance of the Jirga will be not effective. Maybe the Americans will put pressure on the military regime to give complete security to the Jirga but this Jirga will open a new crisis for the already-weak state of Pakistan. There is no solution to the Afghan civil war, poverty and mass migration under the existing system. On a capitalist basis the whole region is heading towards the dark ages; civilization is in peril, barbarism is knocking at the door of Asia. The Taliban are the manifestation of barbarism. In a broader sense the Taliban and Osama bin Laden is the saviour of the present rotten and bloody capitalist system, which plunged the entire region into war, terrorism, deaths and hunger.

On the other hand, the Afghan masses need bread, houses, clothes, medicine and infrastructure to live. And this need cannot be achieved unless we overthrow this rotten system. The alternative to fundamentalism is not liberalism but Socialism. The entire history of Afghanistan is the history of struggle and resistance against invaders and foreign puppet masters. The memory of what happened to the British and Russian is still fresh in the minds of the American military. The Americans must remember one thing, which is a concrete fact that the masses of Afghanistan will rise against the aggression of American imperialism and the brutalities of the Taliban with a vengeance. But to achieve victory they need the support of the oppressed, above all the working class of Pakistan.

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