USA’s Sordid Role in Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan remains bleak. In late April 2021, US President Joe Biden announced  an apparent withdrawal from the Central Asian country. However, the facts on the ground indicate that America’s longest war has merely been downsized. 16,000 military contractors and more than 1,000 US troops will stay in Afghanistan; aerial bombardments, drone strikes and Special Forces missions will continue.

Meanwhile, Taliban has been intensifying its attacks on provincial capitals, districts, bases and checkpoints across the nation. In the period of June 4-10, 2021, 263 Afghan security forces and 56 civilians were killed by the Taliban; at least 11 districts were captured by the group. The Pentagon is already considering seeking authorization to carry out airstrikes to support Afghan security forces if Kabul or another major city is in danger of falling to the Taliban.

Amid all the bloodshed and chaos, a central question arises: how did Afghans get caught between two exceedingly lethal military forces – one that uses suicide bombers and the other employing pilotless, heavily-armed drones? Responses to this issue are fraught with historical amnesia. People generally ignore the fundamental role of the American empire in giving rise to the current reality in Afghanistan.

Communist Revolt

In 1964, King Zahir Shah attempted to contain growing resistance against his monarchical rule with a constitution, initiating a process called “New Democracy.” This gave rise to three different political actors: (1) the communists, organized in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which split into two factions in 1967, Khalq (masses) and Parcham (flag); (2) the Islamists, with Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-i-Islami becoming the main organization from 1973; (3) constitutional reformers (such as Muhammad Daoud, cousin of Zahir Shah, whose coup of July 1973 abolished the monarchy).

Daoud’s repression of theocratic elements pushed them into exile where they collaborated with the Pakistani Jama’at-i-Islami and the Saudi Rabitat al-Alam aI-lsiami, to topple Afghanistan’s secular regime. Domestic instability, corruption and an unwillingness to implement land reforms led to a communist coup in 1978. The immediate trigger was the police’s decision to act against a huge protest march; left-wing officers in the military – on the asking of the PDPA – stopped the police and turned over the government to Noor Mohammed Taraki, a communist professor who became the President of the Revolutionary Council of Afghanistan. These developments – which were extensively supported by USSR – came to be known as the Saur Revolution.

Imperialist Destabilization

The communists’ policies of secularization and economic modernization soon incurred the wrath of reactionary mullahs and feudal landlords. The anti-communist revolt that began at Herat in western Afghanistan in March 1979 originated in a government initiative to teach girls to read. The fundamentalist Afghans opposed to this were supported by a triumvirate of nations – the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In July 1979, Jimmy Carter administration decided to aid forces fighting the Soviet-backed government, with the goal, as National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, of “giving the USSR its Vietnam War.”

Pakistani weaponry and training, Saudi financing and American political backing strengthened the mujahedeen attacks. By midsummer 1979, the PDPA government controlled perhaps no more than half the country. Growing territorial loss was exacerbated by the resurfacing of the longstanding split within the PDPA between the Khalq (led by president Taraki and his minister of national defense, Hafizullah Amin) and the Parcham (led by Vice-president Babrak Karmal). Prominent Parchamites were sent as ambassadors to various far-flung countries, and many lower-ranking ones were shot.

Throughout 1979, the Afghan government repeatedly requested the USSR to intervene militarily to save the communist government from a reactionary, US-backed uprising. The Soviet leadership was not keen to get directly involved since this would have meant a significant loss in diplomatic clout. The turning point came when an intense power struggle erupted between the leading Khalq members, Taraki and Amin.

Amin gained the upper hand, removing Taraki from power and ordering his death on September 14, 1979. This instance of infighting within the Left forced to Soviets to reassess their strategy vis-à-vis Afghanistan. They had considered Taraki more reliable than Amin, and were justifiably afraid that the internal fragmentation of the PDPA was damaging the efforts to defeat the jihadist insurgency. Thus, on December 25, 1979, the first Russian troops crossed the border into Afghanistan. This was exactly what Brzezinski had been hoping for.

The Russian leaders fell headlong into the trap. The entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan transformed an unpleasant civil war funded by Washington into a jihad, enabling the mujahidin (“holy warriors”) to appear as the only defenders of Afghan sovereignty against the foreign, infidel army of occupation. Brzezinski soon appeared posing for photographs in a Pathan turban on the Khyber Pass and shouting “Allah is on your side”, while Afghan fundamentalists were being feted as freedom-fighters in the White House.

Rise of Taliban

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the alliance of states that had backed different factions of the mujahedeen fragmented. Islamabad did not want any socially representative government of reconstruction, preferring – with US and Saudi support – to impose its own pawn, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, on the country. The result was a cycle of civil wars, punctuated by ephemeral ceasefires. Hazaras (backed by Iran), Ahmed Shah Masud (backed by France), and the Uzbek general Dostum (backed by Russia) resolutely opposed Pakistani plans.

When it became obvious that Hekmatyar’s forces were incapable of defeating these varied forces, the Pakistan Army shifted its backing to the students it had been training in religious schools in the North-West Frontier since 1980. These students eventually became the Taliban. Formed in 1994 under the tutelage of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (lSI) and General Naseerullah Khan (Pakistan’s Interior Minister), the Taliban comprises southern Pashtun tribes who are united by a vision of a society under Wahhabism which extols a form of Islam (Tariqa Muhammadiya) based on an ultra-dogmatic interpretation of Quran.

On September 26, 1996, the Taliban conquered Kabul. The Clinton administration endorsed its takeover as the best prospect for restoring “stability.” The next day Taliban killed the communist President Mohammed Najibullah, expelled 8,000 female undergraduate students from Kabul University, and fired a similar number of women schoolteachers. As the mujahedeen closed in on his palace, Najibullah told reporters: “If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.” His comments prove all too accurate today.

By the time the American establishment woke up, at the end of the 1990s, Taliban had established its government in Kabul. Recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, it granted Osama bin Laden – himself funded and supported by the CIA in the 1980s – freedom of action and offered him protection from American efforts to capture or kill him. Angered by Taliban’s insubordination, the US invaded Afghanistan and then occupied it for decades, resulting in the current situation.

The US’s partial pullover from Afghanistan forcefully foregrounds the futility of imperialist interventions. In its quest to mold Afghanistan according to its own desires, America has left a murderous legacy – the creation of a jihadist Frankenstein, the conversion of an entire country into a charnel house, the rising toll of civilian casualties and the imposition of a government of thieves, embezzlers, and neoliberal functionaries. A decisive end to these brutalities does not seem to be on the cards for Afghanistan.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.