The Afghan nation has rightly earned recognition as vigorous defenders of their independence and way of life. Many superpowers of their time have attempted to occupy the country for their strategic aims. While they could invade the country, they could not hold it and had to withdraw from this Graveyard of Superpowers after ignominious military debacles. However, each of these victories came at a heavy price, and therein lies the future perils for the Afghan nation.
In 1832, Alexander Burnes, one of the architects of the Great Game, was received at Kabul as an honored representative of the British Governor-General of India. In the next fifty years, by the end of the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80, the Afghans had won two memorable victories against the British; first, the decimation of the British Army during the First Afghan War of 1841-842 and, second, the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80. The Afghans had won glory and enduring fame as Goliath slayers but the British had gained their strategic objectives. The Afghan glory came at a high cost in men lost, women raped, habitations destroyed, fruit orchards cut down, markets burnt, and territory lost. They signed the treaty of Gandamak, relinquishing their foreign affairs to the British and ceding large tracts of borderlands including Khyber and Michni Passes, districts of Kurram, Sibi, Harnai, Loralai, and Pishin, and all fertile lands north and west of Quetta up to the Spin Boldak desert, which lead to the demarcation of the Durand Line. These tangible losses are as enduring as the Afghan glory. The most glorious victory for the Afghans, thus, came at a large price.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-89, another Goliath was slain. Volunteer groups of Afghan and some Pakistani, fighters defeated the superpower and gained glory for their valor and determination. However, these groups became too drunk on their fabulous victory to live peacefully with each other post-Soviet withdrawal. In the next five years, Kabul was destroyed by rival artillery, farmlands destroyed, educational institutions reduced to rubble, trade, and industry denuded of trained manpower, hospitals closed and millions forced into migration to Pakistan. Afghanistan became one of the most backward and poverty-stricken nations on earth. Peace was only restored when the ultra-orthodox Taliban emerged victoriously. The enforcement of their brand of theocracy resulted in diplomatic isolation which provided space for Arab jihadists to anchor their anti-west activities. Most sections of society were reduced to abject poverty. Once again, the ordinary Afghans had paid a heavy price for their fabulous victory over a superpower.
Now in 2021, the Afghans, though mainly the Pakhtun tribes from the eastern and southern part of the country, have slain another invading superpower through two-decade-long tenacious resistance. It is, therefore, not only time for them to count the price they have paid for this victory but also to beware of the diplomatic and political pitfalls that could drag them on a vicious and sanguine track. The Afghan leadership on both sides of the divide needs to concentrate on leading their country to a peaceful future that this proud nation desperately deserves. The war has already cost them a quarter-million lives; disruption in education, trade, and farming for much of the country; countless neighborhoods, villages, and settlements destroyed; and a large increment in drug production. This victory against the combined forces of western civilization has also been earned by the Afghans at a heavy price.
In their struggle against the Soviets, all Afghans, including the Pashtuns, Tajiks, and the Uzbeks had taken part, yet they could not agree on a common political order. In their struggle against US occupation, the situation is more complicated. While the majority of Pakhtuns fought against the foreign forces, the bulk of Tajik and Uzbek leadership sided with the invaders. This could be a trigger for the internal conflict in the coming months. It remains to be seen whether the Afghans rise to the occasion, bury the hatchet, and bargain for common political goals to safeguard their nation.
That, however, demands Solomonic wisdom. In 1842, Shah Shuja Sadozai became King by collaborating with the British. He was beheaded and his body mutilated by the freedom fighters. In 1988, Najeeb was the collaborator of the Soviets and installed as President. He was hung by a rope in Kabul and his body desecrated. This time, it is Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghazni, and Abdullah Abdullah who have collaborated with the US. They should revisit history and plan for their survival. The current Afghan government will have to concede political space to the victorious Taliban to ensure peaceful sharing of power.
It is said that ‘making peace is harder than making war’, and therein lies the difficulties that the Afghan nation faces today.
The writer has served in the PAF for three decades in ATC and Administration branches. He holds degrees of MCS (gold medal) and MS in SE. He has over 125 published articles to his credit on a wide range of subjects including technology, medieval Indian history, Islamic Golden Age, Pakistan movement, music, and poetry. He resides in Islamabad.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the magazine.