If you can believe it, I once made a serious go at becoming a historian. I wanted to go to history grad school, but I hadn’t taken any coursework as an undergrad. Feeling extremely self-conscious and very far behind, I set out to get caught up. I took classes, first at U.Mass and then at Boston College. I went to AHA meetings and lectures at local universities. I read tons of book reviews. It was simultaneously enrapturing and terrifying.
But it was not to be. It’s hard to make up that much lost time, and I didn’t really have the mindset for researching in original sources, a skill that my “catch up” survey classes didn’t push. Now that I know better and have no serious desire to be a professional history, I would really love to do some original research (which probably explains why I’m so fascinated with tombstones these days).
And more than anything, I’m prone to scratch at an itch until I’m satisfied that I know enough about it to be able to define its key features, its edges, its historiography, and the why (not just the when and what). Since I finished my class early this month I’ve been reading voraciously about Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: the crossroads of the world, the graveyard of empires. Its recorded history extends thousands of years — Alexander of Macedonia lent his name to Kandahar, for goodness sake, and there’s another four to five thousand years in the archaeological record before he showed up. I’ve been reading a bit about that history recently, and I’d like to share it with you; but there’s way too much for one dispatch.
Its modern history intersects many of the 20th century’s historical themes: empire, globalization, the Cold War, and transnational terrorism. I think I was like most people who could only briefly describe Afghan history by giving a few keywords: Soviet invasion, mujahideen, Taliban, al-Qaeda. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot more to it than the plot of a Rambo movie. Since Sunday marked the round-number anniversary of the beginning of what might euphemistically be called the “Afghan’s troubles,” let’s take a closer look at the last thirty years of Afghanistan’s history.
Important note: Be sure to see the “Important Note on Sources” at the end of this dispatch.
The last thirty years in Afghan history trace an arc that began with instability and war and continued downward to disaster intermingled with stability through totalitarian theocracy before the reemergence of a fragile civil society in the midst of war. It’s fair to say that Afghans have endured one insurgency or another since 1978. Here are some of the key dates for future reference:
- April 27, 1978 — Communist coup
- December 24, 1979 — The Soviet Army invades
- February 15, 1989 — The Soviets withdraw
- April 1992 — The communist government falls to the Mujahideen
- September 1996 — The Taliban take Kabul
- December, 2001 — The Taliban flee Kandahar
The Saur Revolution
Picture it, Kabul 1978. King Zahir Shah had been living in exile for five years since a mostly bloodless coup led by President Mohammed Daoud Khan. Afghanistan was a poor developing country with powerful neighbors. Its western neighbor, Iran, was close to theocratic revolution in 1979. Pakistan, to the east and south, had seen General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seize power in a coup the year before. And the Soviet Union loomed large on its northern border. Though nominally unaligned, the Soviets poured billions of rubles of influence south over the preceding decades in the form of economic and military aid.
The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) split into two factions in the 1960s. These two groups reunited in April 1978 following the assassination of a PDPA politician by Daoud’s forces. Fearing for their lives and seeing the chance for a socialist uprising, they initiated the Saur Revolution (or April Revolution) on April 27.
Nur Muhammad Taraki became the Prime Minister and packed the government with members of his own faction. Meanwhile rural Afghans were opposed to the secular regime and its anti-tribal policies: more rights for women, land and debt reform, an end to forced marriages, literacy campaigns, wage reforms, and policies aimed at reducing the influence of mosques. Meanwhile the PDPA attacked those who had formerly been part of the elite; most of those who were not killed fled the country. The government also imprisoned or killed many tribal leaders and mullahs. Over the next two years, the PDPA would kill more than 27,000 political prisoners. At all levels the state’s social and political institutions were in shambles.
A grassroots insurgency — which had started as an anti-Daoud movement in the Panjshir Valley in 1975 — gained strength and took inspiration from Zia-ul-Haq’s recasting of Pakistan as an Islamic republic in 1977. It’s important to know that from the beginning the Afghan mujahideen reflected rural tribal structures and were ideological diverse. Resistance against an out-of-touch government intermingled with jihad in favor of redefining Afghanistan as a nation with an essentially Islamic character. In addition, the PDPA targeted “disloyal” members of Daoud’s military infrastructure, which led to a high rate of military defections to the resistance.
The insurgency was disorganized but still capable of disrupting the functioning of the state. Pakistan aided the rebels, worrying that the new government would attempt to reunify “Pashtunistan,” which straddles the rather arbitrary Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The PDPA government repeatedly requested Soviet military assistance, which slowly started arriving in the form of logistical support and training in June 1978. US President Jimmy Carter worried that the communist coup was the harbinger of a Soviet power play for Middle Eastern oil fields. In July, he authorized the CIA to start giving military assistance to the mujahideen in the hopes of eventually drawing the Soviets into their own costly Asian land war. Thanks to foreign involvement and the tenacity of the insurgents themselve, by the middle of 1979 the PDPA-run People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was near collapse.
Meanwhile back in Kabul, the two factions of the nominally reunited PDPA struggled for control over the levers of government. In September 1979, internecine ideological battles erupted into partisan violence whne Hafizullah Amin led a bloody coup against Taraki. Over the following months, the Soviet military already in the country became increasingly weary of Amin, his allegiances, and his competency.
In addition, Moscow saw the February 1979 Iranian revolution as distracting the US from the region. At the same time, the Soviets were worried that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed in March 1979 threatened to draw the region closer to the USA. There was evidence that the US sphere of influence was extending over nonaligned nations that had previously leaned eastward: namely Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iraq.
The Soviet Occupation
Worried about the stability of the Afghan government, trying to bolster their waning influence, and convinced that the US was distracted, on December 24, 1979, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan en masse. They quickly seized Kabul, killed Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal as the new head of state. International reaction was swift but hollow and proved incapable of directly countering the Soviet intervention.
The mujahideen insurgency stepped up the ferocity of their activities in a nationalist backlash against the invasion. And Karmal quickly induced the Soviet army to take on the mujahideen throughout the country. Instead of executing a quick display of overwhelming force that would lead to stability, the Soviets found themselves fighting urban uprisings, tribal forces, and mutinous Afghan army units. The fighting quickly settled into guerrilla warfare, with the resistance armed mainly by the US CIA via the Pakistan intelligence services (ISI) due to the covert nature of US aid and in order to keep Pakistan stable. The mujahideen was also partly funded by the Saudis.
The PDPA never really gained unity or independence during the Soviet occupation. The government was fractured along regional, social, linguistic and ideological differences and disagreements. The new Gorbachev government in 1985 publicly expressed its displeasure with the state of the war and the direction of the Karmal government. In particular, he knew Soviet citizens were tired of war, and he didn’t want the Afghan situation to get in the way of a broader resolution to the Cold War. In May of the next year, Mohammed Najibullah took over leadership of the government, and Moscow was looking at him to increase internal security and set the stage for a Soviet withdrawal. He succeeded in integrating some non-Marxists into his government and sent out offers of a ceasefire to over 40,000 insurgents. These actions had limited success, and Najibullah was primarily strengthening his post-withdrawal situation.
The UN-brokered 1988 Geneva Accord between the USSR and Pakistan was a face-saving agreement that stipulated a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviet forces started leaving on May 15, 1988, and the last troops left on February 15 of the next year. At the time of their departure, there was no political agreement among the various Afghan factions. The minority Shia groups and the refugees were not included in the de-escalation process. And the opposition thought that with the Soviets gone they might be able to win outright. Pakistan’s foreign policy was too fragmented for the ISI or General Zia to broker a solution. Ten years of war had increased tribalism and the role of warlords while killing over 15,000 Soviet and Afghan troops, an unknown number of mujahideen, and more than a million Afghan civilians. Throughout the war, five and a half million Afghans fled to Iran, Pakistan, and other countries.
The Post-Soviet Civil War
Throughout the Soviet occupation, the Mujahideen took aim at both military and civilian targets. When the USSR departed in 1989, they turned their attention to Najibullah, who held on much longer than anyone suspected. The mujahideen were hindered by their inability to coordinate tactics and logistics and had little political cohesion, despite the formation of the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen (IUAM) in 1985 and the declaration of the Interim Islamic State of Afghanistan two years later. So who were the leaders of the anti-Soviet war who now set their sights on finishing off the so-called Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA)?
- Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — Pashtun, favorite of the ISI, political Islamist affiliated with Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) party, IUAM.
- Ahmad Shah Massoud — Tajik, led the Northern Alliance, affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami. He was closely aligned with Rabanni, Bimusllah Khan, Mohammed Fahim, and Gul Haider.
- Mohammad Yunus Khalis — Pashtun, hardline fundamentalist political Islamist affiliated with Hezb-i-Islami (Khalis) party and IUAM. He eventually supported the Taliban and was supported by Abdul Haq and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
- Burhanuddin Rabbani — Tajik, led the Jamiat-e Islami and supported the Northern Alliance, member of IUAM.
- Abdul Rasul Sayyaf — Pashtun, led the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, a political Islamist, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and IUAM with Hekmatyar and Rabbani, received a lot of aid from Arabs, worked with and later betrayed Massoud.
- Pir Syed Ahmed Gailani — Pashtun, a leading traditionalist figure among the royalist expatriates, led the National Islamic Front for Afghanistan, member of the IUAM.
- Sibghatullah Mojaddedi — Of Arab origin, the traditionalist leader of the Afghanistan National Liberation Front. He was a moderate figure and largely marginalized by the ISI despite being selected the titular head of Interim Islamic State of Afghanistan in 1987.
- Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi — Pashtun, traditionalist leader of the Revolutionary Islamic Movement and member of IUAM.
- Abdul Rashid Dostum — Uzbek, leader of National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, allied with the Northern Alliance and funded by Turkey.
Hekmatyar, Massoud, and Sayyaf were the most powerful mujahideen leaders and each sought to topple the government in Kabul. The USSR still hoped to prevent the collapse of the DRA, while the US worked to inflect more humiliation on the Soviets with Najibullah’s defeat. Each superpower continued to pump money into the civil war, which quickly devolved to rocket attacks on urban areas.
In 1989 Najibullah’s nationalist forces repelled the mujahideen at Jalalabad in 1989, which strengthened the central government. But a year later following a failed coup, the president purged the army, hastening defections to the mujahideen; and he governed more through personal alliances, which deepened divisions within his government and weakened the state. The final blow to the DRA came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Russian and American presidents Boris Yeltsin and George H. W. Bush agreed to suspend aid to both sides of the conflict on January 1st, 1992. Militia loyalty sagged, and desertions rose. Provincial officials had been making deals with mujahideen fighters with whom they shared common ethnicity, and when Dostum defected to the insurgency in March 1992, many others followed him. On April 17, 1992, Najibullah dissolved his government and fled to the UN compound in Kabul, where he remained for four more years.
Following the fall of the PDPA, the Jamiat organized to take Kabul with Mojaddedi as president, with Massoud and Sayyaf in the cabinet. Most of the remaining PDPA members fled the country or joined forces with Hekmatyar, who started artillery and rocket attacks on Kabul in an attempt to dislodge the Jamiat government. Shortly after Rabbani took over in June 1992, the alliance started to crack. In particular, Dostum wanted more influence in the government. The Kabul administration had little control over Kandahar, which suffered tribal violence. And external forces (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia) further destabilized the country via proxy armies. Several peace attempts failed for personal and ethnic reasons.
The rise of the Taliban
By 1994 Afghanistan had endured more than 15 years of instability and violence. Following the Soviet withdrawal, more than 25,000 civilians had died in Kabul alone due to indiscriminate violence between factions trying to control the destiny of the nation. During the same period, more than five million Afghans sought refuge in Iran and Pakistan, mostly in the Pashtun tribal areas.
At the same time that the US provided money and weapons to the insurgency, many Arab nations provided their own funding and mujahids. Yet more funds went toward creating schools that mixed strict, fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran with paramilitary training. Pakistan’s ISI trained an estimated 100,000 mujahideen at these madrasas during the civil war.
Mullah Mohammed Omar was one of the mujahideen at the center of all of these forces. He admired the Saudi Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who issued a fatwa urging men to fight in Afghanistan, set up a logistics service in Peshawar, and inspired Osama bin Laden to found al-Qaeda. With ISI support Mullah Omar began organizing tribal commanders and other mujahideen during 1994, capturing Kandahar in November 1994 and Herat in September 1995. A year later, his forces took Kabul and formed the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Following the Taliban takeover, the United Islamic Front (better known as the Northern Alliance) coalesced around a half-dozen mujahideen groups. Rabbani was the putative leader, but Massoud was the driving force along with Mohammed Fahim. The various NA groups were aided by Iran, Turkey, and India; and they included many Shia Afghans. They captured Bagram in October 1996 but couldn’t take Kabul. In Mazar-e-Sharif, a key defection caused Dostum to flee to Uzbekistan, allowing the Taliban to retake the city in August 1998. The Taliban persecuted the Shia Hazara, killing eight thousand. At the end of 1999, the Taliban controlled 95% of Afghanistan.
Despite their success at capturing territory, the Taliban were not very interested in government. They combined sharia law with Pashtun social codes and strict, punitive interpretations of Islam. The Taliban replaced most national bureaucrats with (frequently) unqualified Pashtun loyalists; the central government effectively ceased to function. At the local level, Taliban loyalists replaced ethnic and tribal leaders and frequently couldn’t even speak the local language. The new Afghanistan was a failed state from the very beginning.
The lingering fall of the Taliban
From 1978 to 2001, Afghan political history was characterized by a steady state of instability punctuated by rapid changes in political control. Throughout these years foreign involvement acted as a major catalyst. First the Soviet influence and invasion, followed by American covert aid through Pakistan, who went on to be the major external force. So it shouldn’t be surprising that following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States would be capable of quickly transforming Afghan politics. Nor should it be surprising that six and a half years later Afghanistan is still has an active insurgency, with the government pointing the finger of blame at one of its neighbors.
I’m not especially interested in military history; for me, wars and battles are the lacunae between the political and social causes of wars and the reconstruction and reconciliation that follow. So I’m not going to go into tremendous detail about the dozens of military operations that have happened since 9/11. But I would be delinquent if I didn’t provide a sketch.
The combined Afghan-American rout of the Taliban was unprecedentedly swift. The CIA was on the ground coordinating Northern Alliance operations in September 2001, several weeks before the US declared war on the Taliban on October 7, 2001, starting with air strikes around Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar. On November 9, the Northern Alliance took Mazar-e-Sharif in one day. The next day the Taliban completely collapsed in the north, retreating southward. On November 12, the Taliban fled Kabul; the Northern Alliance entered on the 13th. A day later, all of the Taliban governments in the provinces bordering Iran collapsed. Only Kunduz and Kandahar were still under Taliban control. Kunduz collapsed after nine days of siege on November 25, and when the Qala-i-Jani fortress was retaken on December 2, the war in the north was effectively won. On the same day that Kunduz fell, the US Marines arrived, the first regular troops in the country. Mullah Omar infamously fled Kandahar on December 7, 2001.
Taliban and al-Qaeda forces regrouped in Tora Bora, a mountainous area near the Pakistan border. By mid-December the senior leadership of both groups had fled across the mountains into Pakistan’s tribal areas, eventually making their way back into Afghanistan in 2002. Since that time the NATO-led coalition has waged dozens of operations against the Taliban insurgency, and the violence has spread east into Pakistan in the so-called Waziristan war, greatly destabilizing the Musharraf government.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Hamid Karzai, a mujahid in the traditionalist strain, quickly became the West’s favorite for political leadership. He became the first chairman of the governing committee after the Bonn Agreement of December 5, 2001. The political agreement was just one of four competing loya jirgas held after the start of the war. Another loya jirga in June 2002 appointed Karzai the transitional president, and he later was elected president of the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in October 2004.
And that’s more or less where history meets the contemporary. And now I will follow the lead of Thucydides and bow out until a sufficient period has passed for us to be able to clearly see the outcome of uncertain events.
Important Note on Sources
This is not an original work of scholarship. Most of this article is recreated from notes that I took reading a warren of articles linked to the much-better-than-average Wikipedia series on the Civil War in Afghanistan. It is entirely possible that I have inadvertently lifted passage wholesale. Furthermore, despite the high quality of several of these articles, some are flagged for bias, incompleteness, and accuracy. If you are doing academic research, you should consider this article an overview with a rather basic level of analysis. You certainly must go to the original Wikipedia articles for context, attribution, and original sources (if they are given).
With that said, I try not to spout nonsense. The Wikipedia details (for the most part) match those in three very good sources. For the period between 1978 and 2001, see Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001; it’s the best source currently available. For details on the “Afghan Arabs” and their links to the anti-Soviet insurgency and the Taliban, see The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which I previously reviewed here. And for first-person account of the CIA war in Afghanistan after 9/11, see the infuriatingly redacted Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo.
For background on the Taliban, see Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.
I undertook to write this article because after seven years of casually following Afghanistan, I was still deeply confused about why there was still continuous fighting. During the height of the US- and NATO-led war I primarily listened to NPR reporting and read articles in the New York Times and The Economist. Sarah Chayes, the NPR reporter who reported much of the news, stayed in Afghanistan and has written a book about life after the invasion: The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban.