Afghanistan – the Graveyard of Empires,
The Crossroads of Central Asia
The British, Russian and American Empires have tried to govern, pacify, rule or dominate Afghanistan with not very much success. The Persians, Indians, Mongols, Greeks, Arabs and others experienced difficulties as well. Part is the geography of steep mountains, and part may be the warring tribal nature of the culture. Some of the current difficulties are the proximity of India, Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran – each with their own distinct and competing agendas and tribal loyalties. Another difficulty is the local farmers’ dependence on poppy growing and the opium trade for their livelihood and the embedded criminal gangs that facilitate and depend on the profits from the drug trade.
The genesis of current events began in the mid to late 70’s when the Soviets backed a revolution overthrowing the Afghan king. The US in the early 80’s backed the holy warriors, the mujahedeen, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and eventually forced the Soviets to withdraw in defeat as the Soviet Empire collapsed. A horrific civil war ensued among the Afghan warlords. The Taliban, a Pashtun based religious insurgency, emerged as the victors.
The Taliban gave shelter to Al Qaeda, an offshoot of the holy warriors that the US had trained, the Saudis had financed, and the Pakistanis had sheltered. Al Qaeda developed an Islamic insurgency challenging Arab rulers and their US allies, eventually resulting in the attack on the US known as 9/11. The US, under President George W. Bush, then invaded Afghanistan and threw out the Taliban, who found shelter in Pakistan. Al Qaeda as well escaped into Pakistan and metastasized, then became the quarry of a global manhunt by the CIA and Special Forces.
The Bush Administration, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld, then made a terrible mistake and historic miscalculation and invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, and took their eye off the ball of Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. This allowed Al Qaeda fertile recruiting ground throughout the Middle East and Europe and Asia. It allowed the Taliban to regroup and make a comeback in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. The botched occupation of Iraq led to the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is now ISIS, which was just defeated on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but has morphed into an underground guerilla movement, which among other things is now back in Afghanistan fighting the Afghan government.
The Obama Administration supported a surge in American troops in Afghanistan to beat back the resurgent Taliban, particularly in the Southern Pashtun regions and the mountainous provinces next to and within Pakistan. They then in 2014 dialed back their ground troop commitments and turned the heavy fighting over to the Afghan government and its armed forces, which are suffering heavy casualties in the stalemated civil war with the Taliban.
Donald Trump has just decided to cut the US troops, numbering 14,000, in half and bring them home against the advice of his generals and security advisors. It’s unclear what his thinking and rationale is. The Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda are now all on the ground fighting the Afghan government troops and their US and NATO trainers. It is likely that the Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, Iranians and Russians will vie to seek to fill the vacuum being left by the US precipitous draw down from this strategic and volatile region.
The Pakistanis share a border, the Sunni religion and the Pashtun ethnic heritage; like the Afghans; they are plagued by and harbor militant religious extremists that pose a threat to regional stability, and to India, China and Russia. They also possess nuclear arms. The Chinese have the most economic resources and a geo-strategic interest in recreating the Silk Road as their land trade routes with Europe and the Middle East. The Iranians share a long border with the Afghans, but are Shia adherents and have been more interested in Shia expansionism in the Middle East. The Russians have economic interests in the region as a conduit for their oil and gas. The Indians see the Afghans as a counterweight to the Kashmiri militants and have had longstanding regional interests as well.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin