Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
If there was an angel sitting on top the Hindu Kush mountains looking down on Afghanistan, he would shed a tear for each of the last three thousand years and each tear would be an ocean large enough to cause flooding in both the Kabul River and the Amu Darya. Afghanistan is a land of sorrow, invaded time and again over the centuries, ravaged by mighty conquerors and ruthless destroyers. Necessity has made the people of the land valiant warriors, resisting the writ of foreigners. Today, they stand at a point in history when the destructive force of technological warfare unleashed by nations thousands of miles away threatens to overwhelm them and drag Pakistan into the consequent whirlpool.
The history of Afghanistan is dictated by its geography. It sits on a mountainous plateau at the intersection of axes connecting India, Central Asia, Mesopotamia and China. Ancient caravans plying their goods between these great centers of civilization passed through its valleys. Mighty conquerors, in their grandiose schemes to extend their sway over other lands, were forced to scale its mountains and negotiate its narrow passes. Sitting as it does at the cross roads of trade between Central and South Asia, it was fought over time and again by invading armies who were almost always resisted and ultimately expelled by the Afghans.
The term “Afghan” has been used for at least a thousand years in Farsi. Al Baruni mentions it in his book Tareek e Hind (1031CE). The celebrated world traveler Ibn Batuta who passed through Afghanistan circa 1332 CE uses the term Afghan in his Rehla to refer to the people around Kabul. Although different explanations are offered to explain the term, the word probably has its origin in “fughan” meaning echo, or wailing. It perhaps connotes the multiple echoes that resound from the valleys that are surrounded by mountains. The song of a farmer, the ballad of a mendicant or the adhan of a muezzin echoes many times over and comes back to you in degrees of amplification and subsidence. In modern times the term “fughan” most aptly describes the wailing of its women and children caught in the gristmill of invasions from Russia and the United States, and its unending and brutal civil wars. In any case, the term Afghan is a matter of identity. The Pashtun speaking people refer to themselves as Afghan. Today, it connotes a nationality within the broadly agreed upon boundaries of the modern nation of Afghanistan.
The strategic location of Afghanistan, its isolation and its checkered and turbulent history have subjected its people to multiple tensions. The mountainous and harsh terrain has fostered a culture where the tribe and family provide cohesion and support for survival. Over the centuries, invading armies have intermingled with the local populations and have left their traces on the ethnic makeup of different tribes who are often at loggerheads with each other for turf and booty. The constant threat of invasion has made the people tough and resilient who value valor and courage and has molded the men and women of Hindu Kush into warriors who value valor and courage. Sandwiched between mighty empires, Afghanistan has been squeezed from all sides and perforce must accommodate or fight off the foreign pressures. The story of Afghanistan is one of continuous resistance to foreigners. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timurlane, Safavid Iran, Mogul India, Czarist Russia, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States all had a taste of Afghan resistance. In modern times, its strategic location has increased as sits astride potential oil and gas pipelines from the Asian heartland to the ports of the Arabian Sea. The mad rush for energy resources puts Afghanistan squarely in the midst of the strategic competition between the United States and China.
Afghanistan has also been an ideational caldron. Traditional Islam flourished for a thousand years. More recently, fundamentalism and extremism, part home grown, part imported from Saudi Arabia have taken hold. Hence, a modern Afghan is torn apart between tribalism, traditional Islam, fundamentalism, modernism, ethnic discord and great power rivalry. The tensions induced by these multiple pulls have made it impossible for these valiant people to seek their own soul and renew themselves from within.
The invasions and the ideas have left their traces on the land. The present boundaries of Afghanistan were carved out in the 19th century between the British and Soviet empires who were competing for political and economic advantage in Central Asia. The modern history of Afghanistan is a search for a transcendental idea which supersedes the ethnical, linguistic and national pulls. The task would be difficult under any circumstances. But the interference of the neighboring countries and of the global powers has made the task well neigh impossible. Monarchy, communism and Islam have been tried as the transcendent ideas to cement together a modern nation, but each has proven to be inadequate in a matrix largely dominated by feudalism and tribalism.
Afghanistan was one of the earliest lands to attract human settlement and civilized habitation. Between 2000 CE and 3000 CE the Aryans, migrating out of Central Asia, settled the land. The kingdom of Aryana (land of Aryans) straddled the plateau between the Indus and Amu Darya and included Afghanistan, Tadzhikistan, eastern Iran and western Pakistan. The Indus Valley civilization thrived between the lower Indus delta and the Hindu Kush Mountains between 2500 CE and 1900 CE. The Rig Veda, one of the Hindu classics, was composed in Afghanistan (2500-1500 BC). Some scholars maintain that the Sanskrit language may have been born in this region.
In the 7th century BC, Darius of Persia extended his empire into Afghanistan. Cyrus the Great consolidated the empire and Persian influence grew. Zoroastrianism and Aramaic were introduced as was centralized administration. The Persian Empire was cosmopolitan and included Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Central Asians and Indians. The extent of the empire facilitated the flow of ideas and great scholars such as Panini graced the period.
Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire (332 BC). Despite heavy resistance which lasted more than three years, Afghanistan and the eastern provinces of Persia fell to the advancing Greeks. Alexander’s armies reached the Indus and then turned south to march back to their homeland through the Makran desert. After the death of Alexander (323 BC), his extensive empire split and Kabul and Peshawar were absorbed into the empire of Seleucus. The Greeks left their mark on the language, art and sculpture of the land. Intermarriages were common and some of the tribes in the region trace their lineage to Alexander.
As the Greek empire disintegrated, eastern Afghanistan and modern day Pakistan were incorporated into the Maurya Empire based in north India. The third Mauryan emperor, Ashoka converted to Buddhism circa 250 BC after he was revolted by the bloodshed in the battle of Kalinga. He sent Buddhist emissaries to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Greece and Egypt. Buddhism spread throughout central Asia, Tibet, Western China, India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
In the first century AD the Kushan Empire incorporated Afghanistan and Northern India in its fold. At its height the empire included Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Sinkiang, Eastern Iran, Afghanistan and northern India. It produced a synthesis of Buddhist and Greek culture, art and sculpture. King Kanishka, circa 130 AD, was its greatest king. He was a devout Buddhist. He is known to have convened a World Conference of Buddhists in Kashmir and to have erected a monumental tower, 700 feet tall, in Peshawar.
In the third century, the Kushan Empire disintegrated. Invasions from the north followed. The white Huns, descending from Central Asia overran all of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Sinkiang, Kashmir and the Punjab. In the 6th century, they were defeated by the Persians and Afghanistan once again became a province of the Persian Empire. It was during this period, even as the Buddhist influence in Central Asia waned that the giant statues of Buddha, revered by Buddhists all over the world, were carved out in Bamyan and the surrounding hills.
In the 7th century, Arab armies burst out of the Arabian Desert and rapidly overran the Persian Empire which included a major portion of Afghanistan. Kabul fell in the year 674 CE. The Arabs did not force their religion on the local population and it was not until the 10th century that Islam spread in the mountains of Hindu Kush through Muslim migrations from Central Asia.
In the 10th century, the Turkic Ghaznavis captured Afghanistan and made Ghazna their capital. Mahmud Ghaznavi (d 1030) was the most powerful of the Ghanavid sultans. He ruled over a kingdom stretching from Amu Darya in Uzbekistan to Gujarat in India, from Lahore in Pakistan to Tabriz in Iran. He is best known for his many raids into India which brought him extensive riches but which also left a bitter legacy of ill will among the Hindus of India. Mahmud was a patron of literature, art and architecture. He embellished his capital with many fine buildings. The celebrated historian Al Baruni graced his court. Some Afghans consider the Ghaznavid period to be their historical golden age.
The Ghaznavid Empire weakened after the death of Mahmud and was overrun by nomadic Turks from beyond the Amu Darya. One of these tribes, the Ghorids captured Ghazna and went on to conquer northern India (1192 CE) and paved the way for successive Muslim dynasties who ruled for more than five hundred years.
In 1219, Genghis Khan descended upon Central Asia and ravaged Khorasan, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Great cities were razed, libraries burned, scholars impaled and dams were destroyed turning fertile valleys into deserts. The destruction was so complete that many of the ravaged lands never recovered from the destruction. The Afghans resisted the Mongols and paid a heavy price for it. In one of the battles near Bamyan, the Mongols suffered a reversal and a grandson of Genghis Khan was killed. In retribution, Genghis razed Bamyan and the surrounding areas to the ground, killed the men and enslaved the women and children. Even the Mongol historians referred to Bamyan as the city of sorrow. Genghis advanced up to the Indus River, and then turned around in 1223 CE leaving behind a trail of death and destruction in vast swaths of Central Asia.
The Ghorids briefly reclaimed Afghanistan in the following century but the country was almost continuously fought over by the Uzbeks, Turkomans, Persians and the Afghans. Timurlane advanced through Kabul (1397 CE) on his way to Delhi destroying it once again. In the year 1509 CE, Babur, an Uzbek prince and a great grandson of Timur, captured Kabul and briefly made it his capital (1509-1526). In 1526, he defeated the Lodhis of Delhi and founded the Mogul dynasty of India. For the next two hundred years, Kabul and the Pashtu speaking regions of Afghanistan were a part of the Mogul empire. The northern areas were controlled by the Uzbeks while Kandahar in the South was wrested from the Moguls by the Safavids of Persia (1622CE). Afghan uprisings against the foreign dynasties continued but it was not until 1708 under Mir Wais that the Afghans were finally successful in retaking Kandahar from the Safavids and establishing their own rule. The Persians returned under Nadir Shah (1738 CE) but the Afghans reasserted themselves under Ahmed Shah Durrani (d 1773). Ahmed Shah expanded the Afghan domains to include all of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, eastern Iran, and portions of north India. Durrani is celebrated as a hero of Afghan resistance. However, in the 18th century, the implosion of the Mogul and Safavid dynasties rapidly took over Afghanistan too and it fell into disarray and internecine warfare. Peshawar was occupied by the Sikhs and Herat by the Persians.
In the 19th century Afghanistan became the prize in the “great game” played between Czarist Russia and the British Empire. Russia coveted Afghanistan because it was a possible outlet to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. The British interest was to contain Russia and advance its own economic interests. After the Anglo-Sikh wars (1845-49) and the fall of the Sikhs in the Punjab, the British made several attempts to capture and control Afghanistan. The Afghans were triumphant in the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1939-45. However, the British returned during the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80 and forced the Afghans into accepting British supervision over their foreign affairs. Meanwhile, the galactic advance of the Russian armies swallowed up Samarqand, Bukhara, and the Fargana Valley (1868-73) while the British occupied Baluchistan (1858) reducing Afghanistan to a landlocked kingdom completely dependent on external powers for access to the outside world. The Treaty of 1878 fixed the borders between Afghanistan and Russia but did not end the rivalry between the two great powers. The British invaded Afghanistan once again and forced the Emir of Kabul to cede the areas east of the Khyber Pass. The Durand line separated British India from Afghanistan but was not recognized by the Afghans. It became a bone of contention between the modern states of Afghanistan and Pakistan and is currently a hot spot in the ongoing American led war against the Taliban.
Afghanistan was neutral during the First World War. Despite enormous pressures from the Turks and from some of his own people, Emir Habibullah of Kabul stayed out of the war. In the later stages of the War, the Turks contemplated an attack on British India through the Turkoman regions of the Russian empire and Afghanistan. The calculation was that the predominantly Muslim populations of Southern Russia, Afghanistan and northwest India (today’s Pakistan) would rise up against the Allies and help the Turkish war effort. It was a strategic calculation which if successful would have turned the tables against the Allied powers. The temptation to be responsive to such an overture from Turkey was enormous. Istanbul was at the time the seat of the Caliphate and the spiritual center of Sunni Islam. But the Ottomans were militarily too week to successfully conduct such an audacious campaign. For the Afghans, the neutrality paid off and Afghanistan emerged with its prewar boundaries intact, an outcome notably different from those of Ottoman territories in the Middle East that were carved up between the British and the French.
Scanning the decades since the First World War, a few milestones that shaped the destiny of Afghanistan stand out. First, it was the ascension of King Amanullah in 1919 and his success in evicting the British. Second, the dethroning of King Amanullah in 1929. Third, it was the coupe against king Zahir Shah by his own brother in law Dawud in 1973. Fourth, it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Fifth, it was the rise of the Taliban in 1995-96. And lastly, it was the American bombardment and invasion in 2001. Each of these milestones stand out in succession, each contributing to the tragedies that have enveloped this hapless land.
Shortly after the First World War, King Habibullah was assassinated (1919) and Amanullah ascended the throne of Kabul. This marks the beginning of the modern phase of Afghan history. Amanullah organized armed resistance against the British and after a decisive military campaign forced the British to relinquish their hold on Afghan affairs.
King Amanullah was a far sighted monarch. He desired to take Afghanistan out of the middle ages and into the modern age. An open admirer of Ataturk, he travelled to Istanbul to observe and learn from the Turkish experience. Ataturk had banned the wearing of the beards and the fez, forbidden women to wear the hijab, discarded the Arabic script and had adopted the Roman script for the Turkish language. Amanullah contemplated similar reforms for Afghanistan. Ataturk advised him against it saying that the experience of each country was different and what works in one culture may not work in another. Amanullah did introduce a few reforms. He built schools, universities, roads, hospitals and encouraged intellectuals to participate in the modernization of Afghanistan. The noted journalist Mahmud Tarzi was among those who answered the call and started journalism in Kabul.
In 1929 King Amanullah was overthrown by a warlord Bacha Saqaw in a coupe which many Afghans suspect was engineered by the British who would not tolerate a modernized Afghanistan next door to a colonized British India. This was a tragedy for Afghanistan from which it never recovered. It took the Afghans away from gradual, sustained reforms towards escalating chaos, alternating between extremist religion and anarchic communism. Bacha was the son of a water carrier. Upon usurping the throne, he took the title of Habibulla Kalakani. He was an illiterate and incompetent man who surrounded himself with similarly illiterate men. He nullified the reforms instituted by Amanullah and installed a fundamentalist regime. Intellectuals were banished. His excesses were too much even for the normally conservative Afghans. Within a short time this corrupt regime was overthrown by General Nadir Khan. His rule, however, was short lived and he was murdered in 1933. His son Zahir Shah became the king. There was no change in the tribal structure of Afghan society during Zahir Shah’s rule and he depended on his immediate family to oversee the affairs of state. Zahir Shah had the good sense to keep Afghanistan neutral during the Second World War. Things changed after the war and the departure of the British from the subcontinent. The new nations of Pakistan and Afghanistan were embroiled in the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The West touted its free markets and personal freedoms while the Soviets emphasized social development and class harmony. These slogans meant little to the emergent countries who were struggling to find their way out of colonialism, and the principal issues they faced were forging national identities and laying the foundation of economies that would help alleviate poverty, disease and hunger.
As long as the British were the masters of India, Afghanistan was too weak militarily to press its case on its borders with the Indian empire. When Pakistan emerged as a new nation, Kabul sensed an opportunity. In 1949 Afghanistan declared its support for an independent Pakhtoonistan embracing the Pashto speaking areas of NW Frontier and formally demanded negotiations with Pakistan on this issue. Pakistan, which was itself a composite of four ethnic groups, and had received an enormous influx of refugees from India saw in the demand for a Pakhtoon state an attempt at its own dismemberment.
Meanwhile, the new nations of India and Pakistan were embroiled in their dispute over Kashmir. Sensing its own weakness, Pakistan turned to the United States for support. The support did come but at a price. Pakistan joined the American sponsored Baghdad Pact (CENTO) and the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and agreed to base American U2 planes in Peshawar. Afghanistan also appealed to the United States for support. But Pakistan was a much bigger prize than Afghanistan. After an assessment from the then Vice President Nixon, the request was turned down. A frustrated Kabul turned to Moscow for help which was more than willing to oblige. Moscow saw an opportunity to extend its influence beyond its borders and realize its age old dream to reach warm waters. With Afghanistan in its camp, there would only be the deserts of Baluchistan between the southern borders of its influence and the Arabian Sea. There were disgruntled elements within Baluchistan, on all sides of the Iran-Pakistan-Afghan border who could be used by Moscow to gain access to the sea. Thus began the long march of both Afghanistan and Pakistan towards big power involvement in their national destinies.
In 1953 Daud, a brother in law of King Zahir became the prime minister of Afghanistan. An ardent supporter of the Pashtuns, he pushed the dispute over Pakhtoonistan both on the political and military front. He was supported in these efforts by the Soviet Union and India, each of whom had their own interests in the Pakistan-Afghanistan dispute. Afghan cadets were sent to the Soviet Union for military training where they received a heavy dose of communist ideological propaganda. Upon their return to their native land, they formed the nucleus of a power base oriented toward Moscow. This was the beginning of Afghan flirtation with the Soviet Union which was to result twenty years later in outright invasion and occupation from its northern neighbor.
Across the border, Pakistan was increasingly drawn into the American embrace. The die was cast with Pakistan in the American orbit and Afghanistan in the Soviet orbit. Both countries stuck to their feigned non-alignment but their cooption into the spheres of influence of contesting cold war superpowers was apparent to any outside observer. Foreign arms flowed to both sides of the border until the two nations almost went to war in 1961 but had the good sense to step back from the brink and seek peaceful discourse.
Power is the arbitrator of politics. Equality in a political alliance is possible only between nations of equal power. A political pact between a great power and a weak nation is like an alliance between a giant and a pigmy. The pigmy must necessarily follow the giant. When they fight on the same side, the giant gets all the glory and the pigmy ends up with a lame foot. It is like water pressure. When a giant tower is connected by a pipe with a bathtub, water must necessarily flow from the tower to the bathtub. During the cold war many a nation tried to play off the Soviet Union against the United States. In almost every case, the result was predictably the same. The weaker nation ended up as a satellite of one of the great powers.
The Pakhtoon dispute cost Daud his job and he was fired by King Zahir in 1963. The new prime minister, Mohammed Yusuf steered the kingdom towards constitutional monarchy. Political parties, previously banned, were now allowed and elections were held for a democratically elected parliament. The chief beneficiaries of the liberalization of political process were the Marxists. The communist party of Afghanistan, PDPA, was organized in 1965 by Taraki, Amin, Najibullah and Babrak Karmal. There were other political parties as well, some claiming to represent Islam. But the principal difference was that while the other parties were political, PDPA was a political as well as an ideological party which believed that the ends justified the means. Its fatal flaw was that it sought its cues from Moscow and was beholden more to international interests than national interests. Some communists were elected to the parliament but continued to instigate riots to discredit the elected government and pave the way of a violent overtake of the kingdom.
Fresh elections in 1972 brought in a new Prime Minister Mohammed Musa. But the communists were impatient. They incited Daoud, a cousin and brother in law of the king, to overthrow the monarchy. In a coupe organized jointly from inside the palace by Daoud and outside the palace by the communist party, the king was overthrown. Daoud declared himself president of a new republic and promulgated liberal reforms to bring women into public life and encourage education. But he was no more than a show boy for the communists who were biding their time to take over the country. A series of attempted coupes and counter coupes followed, often with the connivance of the Soviet Union. Finally Daoud was killed in 1978. Instability follows and after several move coupes and counter coupes, Karmal became the prime minister and signed a “Treaty of Friendship” with the Soviet Union. The Afghan hug with the Russian bear got tighter.
History is witness that a civilization must seek its renewal from within. Reforms that are imposed from without are resisted and are ultimately thrown out. The Marxist movement in Muslim Asia failed time and again because it was perceived as a foreign element imposing its methods, its processes and its philosophy on the local populations. The history of Indonesia and Afghanistan bears witness to this observation. During the 20th century, the communists built up considerable influence in both Indonesia and Afghanistan. In both cases, they failed because their methods of disruption and sabotage were unacceptable to the people. Karmal was a communist and man in a hurry to transform his country. When he was in the Afghan parliament he encouraged disruption so that the legitimate government would be unsuccessful. When he seized power he imposed changes on a traditional culture that was not ready for change. Resistance was inevitable.
The resistance of the Afghan people to communist rule invited brutal repression. The Karmal junta engaged in mass killings and torture to force the population into submission. The result was the opposite. Resistance escalated and a coalition of Mujahedeen was born. The Soviet Union, sensing a historic opportunity to enlarge its sphere of influence around its borders, at first provided material assistance to contain the resistance movement, and when that did not work, invaded outright with tanks and troops in 1979 to prop up the communist regime.
The forward advance of the Red Army alarmed Washington which was hitherto preoccupied with the Khomeini Revolution in Iran (1978) and the overthrow of the Shah. President Carter made a decision to send military assistance to the Mujahedeen through Pakistan. Financial help flowed in from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. The struggle attracted a large number of volunteers from the neighboring countries as well as from the Arab world who felt it was their religious obligation to free their Afghan brothers from the godless communist Soviets. Among those who made his way to Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden. Osama was the scion of a Saudi billionaire family. His first stated objective was the expulsion of American troops from Saudi soil. As time went on, he expanded his objective to include reform of the Saudi political system. Expelled from Saudi Arabia, he first sought refuge in the Sudan. The Sudanese government buckled under American pressure and asked him to leave. Osama found refuge in the mountains of Afghanistan. There he married the daughter of Mullah Omar, one of the firebrand mullahs who rose to notoriety in later years. This marriage of convenience was to prove fateful for Afghanistan in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11.
The Soviets tried trading their satraps. In 1986 Karmal was replaced by Najibullah. The arrival of stinger missiles neutralized any advantage that the Soviets enjoyed in the air. After losing tens of thousands of men and spending billions, the invaders realized they could not hold Afghanistan and they withdrew in 1989 leaving the communists to their fate.
Fighting continued between the Mujahedeen and the forces of Najibullah culminating in the victory of the Mujahedeen in 1993. However, victory did not bring peace to the hapless Afghans. The warlords who had temporarily buried their differences under the umbrella of the Mujahedeen were soon at each other’s throat, fighting for turf and terrain. Rabbani took over the northwest. Dostum controlled Mazar e Sharif. Hikmatyar was the chieftain in Herat. Yunus Khalis held sway over Jalalabad and Pashtun areas. Much of the country was destroyed. Thousands perished. Children died and women were abused. Agriculture suffered. Schools were closed. The infrastructure was in ruins. The flood of refugees into Pakistan and Iran which had started during the occupation by the Soviets increased. Afghanistan became a macabre theater of war in which a suffering, hapless population was held hostage.
The instability was a matter of concern to the ruling circles in neighboring Pakistan who were host to over three million Afghan refugees. As successive waves of refugees poured in across the Durand Line to escape the violence in their native land, they were cared for by a host of Islamic organizations in the NW Frontier Province of Pakistan. Since there were no schools for children, the Jamaat e Islam and other Islamic organizations set up madrasas to provide a modicum of education to the refugee children. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries provided much of the funding for this education. These madrasas became the focus of official Pakistan attention. Without the benefit of a modern syllabus, the madrasas produced graduates imbued with rigid doctrines that viewed all non-Islamic influences as alien that had to be fought and expelled.
Pakistan saw an opportunity to use the graduates of the madrasas for a jihad in Afghanistan. Besides the obvious benefits of a stable backyard, Islamic Afghanistan would also provide strategic depth to Pakistan in its military confrontations with India. The students and some of the faculty of the refugee madrasas provided the backbone of the Taliban (literally, student) movement that considered it a religious duty to wage a jihad to liberate Afghanistan from all alien influences and bring in stability in accordance with a rigid and unbending interpretation of Islam. In this endeavor they received covert and overt assistance from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and a tolerant nod from Washington.
The Taliban, joined by many erstwhile mujahideen and idealist youth, made rapid gains against the warlords. In 1996 they captured Kabul. The warlords were pushed into a small enclave in Northern Afghanistan around Mazar e Sharif.
The Taliban brought stability to the country and controlled the opium trade. However, the price for this stability was the imposition of a rigid, extremist regime in Kabul. The participation of women in public life was banned. Women were compelled to wear head to toe chadurs and shrouds, and men to grow their beards long. Television was banned and cinema houses closed. Magazines were censored for their pictures and their content. Vice squads were organized to patrol the streets. Violators of the rigid behavioral code were severely and publicly flogged. In 2001, the Taliban, at the orders of Mulla Omar, dynamited the famous Buddha status of Bamyan. These statues were carved out of sandstone in the 6th century CE and were the finest examples of Gandhara Buddhist sculpture. They were declared UNESCO world heritage sites. The demolition of the statues drew worldwide condemnation and vehement protests from the Buddhist world.
The extremist ideology of the Taliban was matched only by their political naïveté. The increasing competition for the dwindling energy resources of the world put Afghanistan squarely in the midst of oil politics. The discovery of oil and gas in the Caspian Sea region increased the strategic importance of Afghanistan. There were only two routes available to transport the oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to the oil thirsty nations of Western Europe, United States, India and China. One was through Iran but the participation of Iran in any oil venture was opposed by the United States which was at loggerheads with the Iranian regime since the Islamic revolution of 1978. The other route lay through Afghanistan and Pakistan. A proposal for such a pipeline originating in Turkmenistan and passing through western Afghanistan and Baluchistan to Karachi was presented to the Taliban government by UNOCAL, a US-Saudi consortium. It was rejected in favor of an alternate proposal from the Argentine corporation Bridas. The hardliners in Washington bridled at this rejection. It provided an added excuse to get rid of the Taliban and have them replaced by a more pliant government.
On September 11, 2001, the twin towers at the World Trade Center were attacked. The horrendous attack took the lives of almost 3,000 people and caused billions in economic loss. In its sheer mendacity, the attack was comparable to that on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The United States accused Al Qaeda of carrying out the attacks and demanded that the Taliban in Afghanistan turn over Ben Laden and his cohorts to the US. The Taliban, inexperienced in global affairs, demanded proof for Al Qaeda complicity. A diplomatic standoff ensued. Despite the advice of their friends in Pakistan, the Taliban did not budge. Within a month, the United States commenced its bombing of Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the Northern Alliance was provided arms and encouragement to break out of its enclave and take over the country.
The sustained, intense bombing obliterated the military infrastructure of Afghanistan. Destroyed were the mountain hideouts and caves so carefully prepared during the Soviet occupation for a long guerilla war. The Taliban reeled under pressure of aerial bombardment from the United States and ground attacks from the Northern Alliance. Thousands died. Civilian casualties were enormous. The Northern Alliance overran Kabul and on the way committed atrocities to avenge of the humiliation of earlier defeats.
The United States installed a new government in Kabul. Hamid Karzai became the President of Afghanistan in 2004 in an American backed government. The presence of foreign troops fueled an insurgency backed by the former Taliban. As resistance increased, so did the military presence of the United State and its NATO allies. And the war continues with increasing intensity fueled by the obscurantism of the Taliban and the fears of an obdurate, overcommitted superpower run by neocons.
Meanwhile, the suffering of the Afghan people continues with no end in sight. Refugees rot in camps in Pakistan and Iran. Children die from land mines. Famine threatens millions. Education and culture have come to a grinding halt. Women continue to bear the brunt of the tragedies and are exploited and abused both inside and outside their land. The war threatens to spill over into Pakistan and place it squarely in the bulls eye. An unstable Afghanistan poses a grave risk to all of its neighbors. A neutral Afghanistan, allied neither with the United States nor with Russia or China, with open frontiers for the passage of oil and gas, and respect for the traditions of its ancient people and its Islamic heritage would be in the best interests of all. Whether this comes to pass will depend as much on the actions of the Afghans as the regional intentions of the United States.