Through sheer grit and a fierce commitment to their tribal and Islamic values, the Afghans have frustrated a series of imperialistic attempts to dominate them. Between 1842 and 2021, the British, Tsarist Russia, Soviet Russia and the US had tried occupying Afghanistan to derive benefits from its strategic location in South and Central Asia. But their attempts had failed miserably.
The first major foreign debacle was in the first half of the 19th.Century. In 1839, the British, afraid of Tsarist Russia’s bid to take over Afghanistan, invaded the latter, deposed the pro-Russian King, Dost Mohamad, and put their proxy, Shuja Shah Durrani, in power. Thereafter, the majority of troops returned to India leaving about 16,000 to mop up resistance by Afghan tribesmen. By 1841, the British felt that they could not afford the campaign and stopped payments to local warlords, their henchmen. The cheated warlords promptly joined the insurgency led by Dost Mohammad’s son, Mohamad Akbar Khan.
In November 1841, the British political agent, Sir Alexander Burns, and his staff were killed by a mob in Kabul. Another senior diplomat, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, and three aides were killed while trying to negotiate safe passage for British imperial forces to India. The commander of the Kabul garrison, the elderly Maj.Gen. Lord Elphinstone eventually negotiated an agreement on January 1, 1842 with Akbar Khan. Khan guaranteed safe passage for the British-Indian force. Elphinstone agreed to leave most of his gunpowder reserves, the majority of his canons and a large number of muskets behind.
On January 6, 1842, a force comprising 3,800 Indian soldiers, 690 European cavalries and infantry, and 12,000 camp followers set out on a 140 km retreat through the snow-covered mountains of eastern Afghanistan to the town of Jalalabad, which had British troops. On setting out the troops and civilians came under sniper fire. Many of those who weren’t killed, wounded or captured by the Afghans froze to death. Furthermore, an entire Indian regiment defected to Akbar Khan.
Elphinstone again tried to renegotiate safe passage with Akbar Khan and had two officers turned over as hostages. But again to no avail. “The mountain pass, jammed with troops and camp followers, became an abattoir,” writes Franz-Stefan Gady in The Diplomat on January 2020. “The enemy not only poured in a murderous fire from every rock and cave in the heights on each side, descended but also into the Pass and slew man, woman, and child,” he adds.
Elphinstone then decided to hand over all the British women to Akbar Khan, who again pledged to protect them and also children and wounded officers. Two men, eight women and nine children were turned over to the Afghan leader. An almost all British force entered the Tezin Pass but only to be subjected to another ambush by a “barbarous and bloodthirsty foe” in Elphinstone’s words. Only 200 hundred men remained. At night, Akbar Khan invited Elphinstone and the other remaining high-ranking officer, Brigadier Shelton, for talks. But they were arrested on arrival.
On the night of January 12, the remaining 200 continued their march but were stopped by a barrier and fired upon. Only eighty men managed to make it across alive—20 officers and 45 soldiers of the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot, British artillerymen and a handful of Indian troops. Their last ditch stand on the Gandamak hill was futile. The Afghans took only nine prisoners, and only one, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, was allowed to go. He arrived in Jalalabad on January 13 on a wounded horse. The British defeat was total. Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India, and the architect of the invasion, suffered a stroke on hearing the news.
However, in 1842, the British sent an “Army of Retribution” to Afghanistan, and recaptured key towns including Kabul. The army returned to India with 90 odd hostages. But given the bitter experience the British vowed not to intervene in Afghanistan’s internal politics again.
The British blunder was followed by the misadventure of Soviet Russia in December 1979. The USSR intervened in support of the Afghan communist government in the latter’s conflict with anti-communist Muslim guerrillas. In April 1978, Afghanistan’s government headed by President Mohammad Daud Khan, was overthrown by left-wing military officers led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. Power was thereafter shared by two Marxist parties, the Khalq Party and the Parcham Party. But the leftist and pro-Soviet government had little popular support in Islamic Afghanistan. The leftists were also ruthless.
Tribal insurgencies, so typical of Afghanistan, arose which the regime tried to crush ruthlessly. As the regime promoted non-Islamic tendencies, the opposition styled themselves as Mujahideen (Jehadis).
The Soviets propped up the Parcham party leader Babrak Karmal, but Karmal was unable to attain popular support. Backed by the United States, the Mujahideen rebellion only grew in strength. To counter this, in December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan with 100,000 troops. These controlled the cities but the countryside was with the Mujahideen. The constant fighting led to 2.8 million Afghans seeking asylum in Pakistan, and another 1.5 million in Iran.
However, by 1988, the Mujahideen had neutralized Soviet airpower with shoulder-fired missiles supplied by the US. 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in ceaseless fighting. In 1988 the Soviets decided to withdraw and did so by February 15, 1989. Thus, another bid to impose alien rule and an alien set of values on Afghanistan failed miserably.
Rise of Taliban
The Mujahideen filled the vacuum. But the Islamic groups failed to stick together. From the melee emerged the Pushtun-dominated Taliban as the strongest group. Founded in 1994, it was wedded to strict Islamism and it had Pakistan’s firm and active support. In 1995, the Taliban took control of 12 Afghan provinces. On September 27, 1996, it entered Kabul and announced the establishment of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. By 1998, it controlled 90% of Afghanistan the rest being with the Northern Alliance led by tribal warlords and supported by the US.
What particularly angered the US was theTaliban’s giving shelter to the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Weeks after the September 11, 2001 attack on New York by Osama bin Laden’s men, a powerful US-led coalition force invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban retreated from Kabul on October 13, 2001 and its leaders fled from the country.
But the Taliban regrouped and started guerrilla warfare. Through ambushes and guerilla attacks in the rural areas, and suicide attacks in cities, the Taliban gained control over parts of the country from 2006 onwards. The US-led coalition had to deploy 140,000 troops, 100,000 of them from the US.
However, the going proved to be too tough for the Americans. The US tried to talk to the Taliban in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 but failed. In 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he was ready for unconditional talks with the Taliban. He also promised to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party and release its prisoners. But the Taliban said that it would talk only to the US.
The US initially rejected the proposal but later agreed to talks in Doha. After several rounds of talks, a peace deal was signed on February 29, 2020. But it was not worth the paper it was written on, as fighting continued. America’s last ditch but half-hearted effort to put together a coalition of its proxies and the Taliban failed because the Taliban was hell-bent on acquiring monopoly over power.
Back in Washington, a decision had been taken to withdraw from Afghanistan by August 31, 2021. The 20-year war had cost the US 2.6 trillion dollars without giving any returns, except ignominy. And in the third clash with the titans in recent history, the small and ill-equipped but doughty Afghans had prevailed.