The Talibanisation of Afghanistan: A Repeat of History in the Making

The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842, by William Barnes Wollen, painted in 1898. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As events in Afghanistan play out, the country’s neighbours would do well to heed the lessons of history and adopt policies of inclusion and cooperation.

Afghanistan’s neighbours have acted as passive observers, silently watching Ashraf Ghani’s government dissipate within days. In fact, some of them aided the Taliban directly or indirectly in their military and diplomatic campaigns against the Afghan government, and some even celebrated the Taliban victory, characterising it as the Afghans freeing themselves from the ‘shackles of slavery’.

Yet there is ample evidence showing that Afghanistan’s neighbours are not delusional about the Taliban’s past record. They know that the Taliban could threaten most of what has been achieved since 2001. Moreover, they have seen reports in the international media highlighting increasing fear in the capital, the plight of internally displaced persons, the fleeing of large numbers of people across Afghanistan’s borders, the looting of properties, secret assassinations, famine, public beatings, and the horrific scenes at the mismanaged Kabul airport. So, why have Afghanistan’s neighbours remained silent spectators to the dreadful events in Afghanistan?

The history of Afghanistan points to one explanation: that the policy choices of Afghanistan’s neighbours are based on the superficial interpretation of modern-day neorealist thinking. By treating Afghanistan as a battlefield of regional interests, and turning a blind eye to the growing ambiguities within the country, Afghanistan’s neighbours are essentially inviting a repeat of history, a slow-motion playback of which reveals that the images of horror we are now seeing will not just be confined to Afghanistan. Lessons from history suggest that these images will be seen once more across Afghanistan’s borders: in Mashhad and Nishapur in the west; beyond the Bolan Pass in the deserts of Baluchistan and Sindh in the south and southeast; over the Khyber Pass and across the Indus in Punjab, Multan and Delhi in the east; and in the furthest valleys across the Oxus in the north.

The British Experience

To understand why such a repeat of history is a real possibility, one must consider that since time immemorial, attacking Afghanistan or intervening in its internal affairs has always proven dangerous for the region. The history of the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan, interfering in its internal affairs or invading it does not begin with the British aggressions of the 19th century. In fact, it goes back to the seventh and eighth centuries AD, when the Arabs crossed Persia and entered India through the Bolan Pass to establish their rule in Sindh and Multan. Indeed, events surrounding the spread of Islam in South Asia in the 11th century and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate between the 13th and 16th centuries all had their roots in the region today known as Afghanistan.

The British Empire’s 19th-century experiences in Afghanistan offer further clear evidence that plotting against, bullying, attempting to control, or abandoning Afghanistan – as the country’s neighbours appear to be doing today – is unwise and costly. In 1834, the British Empire supported the Sikhs and their puppet, Shah Shuja – a former Afghan king – in invading Afghanistan. The attempt was ultimately a failure, and resulted in a hatred towards the British among Afghans and a growing closeness with tsarist Russia. In 1838, after the conclusion of an illegal tripartite treaty between the British, the exiled Shah Shuja and the renascent Ranjit Singh, the British promulgated the Simla Manifesto, which led to an outright invasion of Afghanistan. The result was that Dost Mohammad’s reign was briefly interrupted, and the Afghans permanently lost Peshawar. Nonetheless, within four years of the invasion, the British retreated in complete humiliation, losing most of the recently decorated ‘Army of the Indus’, styled after ‘Napoleon’s bulletins’. This disaster is unequalled in British history.

History repeated itself in 1878 when the British attempted to depose Shir Ali Khan, the Afghan king. Although they initially managed to oust Shir Ali and place the weak Yaqoob Khan on the Afghan throne, from whom they extracted the illegal treaty of Gandumak, the final result was another major defeat for British forces. Between 1881 and 1882, British troops withdrew from Afghanistan in the same state of shame and dishonour as they had in 1842.

The Russian Gambit

Precisely a century later, in 1979, history repeated itself yet again when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets seemingly drew no lessons from their own history regarding the country. In 1717, Peter the Great dreamt of conquering India through Afghanistan. He sent a heavily armed expedition to Khiva under the command of Prince Alexander Bekovich, an officer in the elite Life Guards regiment. Bekovich’s party consisted of ‘4,000 men, including infantry, cavalry, artillery and some Russian merchants, accompanied by 500 horses and camels’. The khan of Khiva killed most of the senior Russian officers, including Bekovich himself and Major Frankenburg, the second in command. The Khivans systemically slaughtered the Russian troops and sold some into slavery. After this incident, Peter never again dreamt of opening up a golden road to India through Afghanistan.

While Catherine the Great heeded Peter’s experience and did not attempt to make a move on India, in 1801 her son, Paul, sent an army of 20,000 Cossacks to invade India via Afghanistan. The army met with disaster at the Volga River. Some decades later, in reaction to the 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan, the Russians mounted a campaign against Khiva. Due to freezing weather, ‘after three months, and not halfway to Khiva, the Russians abandoned the expedition... having lost over 1,000 men and 9,000 camels’. Despite all these incidents, the Soviets ignored history and invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The result was a devastating 10-year war in which ‘the Soviets suffered some 15,000 dead and many more injured’. Ultimately, in 1989, they left Afghanistan in a manner no different to that of the British in 1842 and 1882. The numerous burnt Russian tanks in the villages of Afghanistan still mark the Soviets’ embarrassing departure.

The Pakistani Incursion

History repeated itself once more in 1996 when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Although most of the Taliban were Afghan in origin, Pakistan provided much of their training and support. Pakistan was not a benign actor; on the contrary, it deprived Afghans of their basic human needs by imposing a brutal Taliban regime on Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. In addition, Pakistan pursued a policy of strategic depth, ‘turning Afghanistan into a client state that is beholden to Pakistan’ and using it as a training camp for its military operations worldwide, including against India in the case of a future war. Ultimately, like the British and Russian invasions, Pakistan’s incursion into Afghanistan via its proxy force, the Taliban, ended in 2001 when the US toppled the regime. The final outcome was also a disaster for Pakistan’s army, as thousands of the defeated Taliban returned brokenhearted to their military bases and religious madrasas in Pakistan.

As we are now seeing, Western military and economic aid has also proven ineffective in ending the Afghan war. Since 9/11, the war has cost trillions of dollars and the lives of thousands of US and coalition forces. Likewise, more than ‘100,000 Afghan civilians have been injured or killed’ in this period. The withdrawal of US and NATO forces marks the end of the West’s campaign in Afghanistan. However, if the Taliban pursue intolerant polices and deprive the public of basic rights compatible with 21st century life, or play into the hands of regional powers who have historically used Afghanistan for their proxy wars, then another repeat of history is inevitable.

More than ever before, Afghanistan’s neighbours should heed the lessons of history and adopt policies of inclusion and cooperation with Afghanistan. Otherwise, a blanket Talibanisation of Afghanistan will mean anarchy for the region, in which case Islamabad, Tehran, Moscow, Delhi and Beijing should not be surprised to see the emergence of a modern-day Mohammad ibn Qasim, Mohammad of Ghor, Mahmod of Ghazni, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Babur, Nader Shah or Ahmad Shah Durrani. Some of these historical giants originated from Afghanistan, and some used the country as a military base and as a crossroads to redefine the entire character of the region spanning Central, West and South Asia. In the past, many thought that a repeat of history was impossible because they had developed cannons. Today, some believe the same thing because they have nuclear bombs. Nevertheless, these calculations were and remain wrong.

Al-Qa’ida and several of its affiliate groups have already issued statements congratulating the Taliban on their victory in Afghanistan. Will the Taliban prioritise the safety and societal progress of Afghans, or will they still engage with groups like Al-Qa’ida and potentially risk alienation from the international community, thereby reversing all that has been gained since 2001?

In the same manner, Afghanistan’s neighbours who remain passive in the face of the country’s potential regression and who continue to engage in proxy wars on Afghan soil would do well to draw lessons from history and adopt a genuine policy of cooperation and development in Afghanistan – one that sees the country as a regional hub for connectivity and trade, not as a battlefield of conflicting political interests. Supporting Afghanistan in such a positive direction is not only the right thing to do, but it would also ensure that the war-torn country finally has a chance to live in peace and, most importantly, to become a partner in regional growth and stability. But if history is ignored and the same old game of using Afghanistan as a theatre of military and political competition continues, the result could be unprecedented chaos. In this context, Afghanistan’s neighbours would be wise to reflect on the words of a British military commander in the 19th century, who warned that ‘however successful an Afghan operation can be from a military point of view, it would not fail to turn out to be politically useless’.

Nabi Sahak is a Fulbright Scholar at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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