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Conflict in Afghanistan: a brief historical background

September 6, 2013

Afghan tribesmen, 19th c

By Tim Foxley

Summary: A brief overview of the complexities of Afghanistan’s conflict history

 …a tribe of Persians called Afghans. They hold mountains and defiles and possess considerable strength, and are mostly highwaymen…

Ibn Battúta, Moroccan explorer, 14th century.[1]

As part of my thesis, I took a look at Afghanistan from a historical perspective.  This contextual groundwork is important for understanding the complexity of the conflictual factors still apparent today.  I thought it might be a useful overview for those interested in peace and conflict but without the immediate detailed grounding in this particular part of the world – a situation I found myself facing in late 2001.  If this sparks your interest, I thoroughly recommend Thomas Barfield’s excellent work: Afghanistan – a cultural and political history.

Although Afghans as a people are referred to from as early as the 10th century, it was not until the mid-18th century that “Afghanistan” as a nation came into being.[2]  For thousands of years before this, it was a patchwork of smaller territories existing in a fluid space between three major civilisations: Persia in the west, Central Asia to the north and India to the south east.  Foreign invasions of this region probably began with Aryan tribes in approximately 1,500 B.C., pushing south from Central Asia.[3]

As these empires (Graeco-Bactrian, Seleucid, Mauryan, Kushan, Ghaznavid and Timurid) rose and fell, so was this region culturally, ethnically and religiously chopped, shaped and reshaped (see Annex).[4]  The area now known as Afghanistan had been dissected by several invading armies even before the British Empire tried its luck, most notably (but not exclusively) by Alexander the Great (330 B.C.), the Arabs (652 A.D.) and Genghis Khan (1219 A.D.), whose conquering armies dispelled the myth beloved of Afghans that they have never been defeated and left behind strong linguistic, cultural, social and genetic traces of their presence.[5]  The city of Kandahar is believed to be named after a local linguistic corruption of the ancient Greek name of Alexander the Great, “Iskander”.

The first Afghan state was created in 1747, but internecine strife between tribes and against rulers made the region turbulent.  Afghanistan became the goal in the “Great Game” between the Russian and British empires, as both employed political, military and economic assets in a paranoid struggle for influence in a country which the Russians saw as gateway and the British saw as buffer.  This competition lasted well over a hundred years and saw Britain engaged in three military campaigns (1839–42, 1878–80 and 1919) inside Afghanistan and innumerable skirmishes in and around the ill-defined border areas.[6]

Internecine squabbles, coups, rebellions and uprisings remained a continuous feature in the 19th and early 20th centuries, hampering all manner of state building.  Abdul Rahman, the “Iron Emir”, managed, through sheer brutality, to establish his own dynasty’s central authority from 1880 to 1929.[7]  After another bloody change of dynasty, including a civil war in 1924, Barfield notes that the period 1929 to 1978 “…gave Afghanistan its longest interval of peace and internal stability…”.[8]

This stability was deceptive.  The post-World War II environment saw the emergence of a new competition for dominance between Soviet and American “empires”.[9]  In 1979, the Soviet Union intervened to support Afghan communist proxies who were faltering in their efforts to introduce a high speed socialist “modernisation” highly inappropriate for Afghanistan.  The US covertly supported the armed resistance that arose as a result of the Soviet occupation in December 1979.[10]

The guerrilla-style resistance from a multi-factional “Jihad” became a “bleeding wound” for the Soviet Union, who withdrew in 1989.[11]  The extensive societal and infrastructural destruction was surpassed in the ten-year civil war that was to follow.[12]  The proxy regime left by the Soviets managed, to the surprise of most, to cling on until 1992, before collapsing as the financial, military and economic aid from the Soviet Union dried up when it succumbed in the early 1990s.  The victorious Afghan political factions could not reach agreement and soon Afghans were fighting Afghans in a confused and bloody civil war.  A new group of disillusioned Pushtun students and religious fundamentalists emerged in the south to fight corrupt former Mujahideen.[13]  The group, known as the Taliban (literally “seeker of truth”), under Mullah Mohammed Omar, gained the attention and support of Pakistan military and intelligence elements who were looking for a way to regain influence – if not downright control – in Afghanistan.[14]

The UN had a painful and bruising experience as it attempted and failed to negotiate any credible transitional government or a cessation of hostilities beyond the most temporary of ceasefires.[15]  By mid-2001 the Taliban controlled most of the country, although the civil war – by now a contest between a fluid coalition of northern ethnic groups and the southern, predominantly Pushtun, Taliban, had become a stalemate.  The Taliban were never universally popular in Afghanistan.  Their backward-looking, fundamentalist-driven approach was harshly and strictly applied to all aspects of life: human rights, women’s rights, education, governance and justice.[16]

This stalemate was over-turned.  After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a US-led international military coalition combined with Afghan warlord groups on the ground to attack the Taliban, who crumbled.  They melted away, either to return to their old jobs as Pushtun farmers or to retire to Pakistan to lick their wounds, regroup and reconsider.[17]

In the immediate aftermath, a UN-brokered conference at Bonn in December 2001 laid the groundwork for an interim regime under promising compromise candidate, Hamid Karzai.  This was later confirmed by elections, a constitution and extensive international assistance.  Optimism was high throughout the country: in 2003, a very senior former Northern Alliance official, then highly placed in the Karzai administration, responded to my query that he had failed to mention the Taliban once in a discussion about the future challenges for Afghanistan with a curt and dismissive shake of his head, “the Taliban are gone”.[18]

Well-intentioned international assistance was incoherent and wasteful, causing frustration and resentment amongst the populace.  The Afghan government failed to rise to the challenges of creating an effective, nepotism- and corruption-free central administration.[19]  The issue of what form of governance is best for Afghans is still intensely debated, many favouring a more decentralised vision of the country.[20]  Taliban fighters began to re-emerge in southern and eastern power vacuums, recruitment aided by Afghan unease over the foreign military presence and the flaws of the new regime.[21]  From late 2005/early 2006 a new insurgency was emerging, resembling (in fact, consciously aping), the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad.  Neighbouring Pakistan re-emerged as “bête noire”, regularly accused by the Afghan government and the international community of providing support to the Taliban despite officially committing itself to supporting the Afghan government and international reconstruction efforts.[22]

As the insurgency grew in intensity, international responses were inconsistent, unable to decisively decide which approach to take.[23]  Many nations were unwilling or unable to effectively engage in a coherent fighting campaign, vice the aid-giving, non-conflict, activities they preferred and had planned for.[24]  Military and civilian casualties began to rise.  If the 1990s civil war was decisively ended by international intervention in late 2001, by the middle of the decade, the situation in Afghanistan, by most definitions, again resembled civil war.

General Stanley McCrystal, ISAF commander from 2009 – 2010, ironically (and likely unintentionally) echoed Gorbachev’s 1988 “bleeding wound” assessment of Afghanistan when he described operations against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan as a “bleeding ulcer”.[25]  His pragmatic analysis set the tone for acknowledging the military difficulties involved.[26]  The international combat effort peaked in 2010 – US President Obama resolved to reduce American troop levels from 2011 with Afghan armed forces required to fully take responsibility for internal security from 2014.[27]


[1] Battúta, I., Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, (G. Routledge & Sons Ltd: London, 1929).

[2] Griffiths, J., Afghanistan, (Pall Mall Press: London, 1967), p.7.

[3] Leeming, M and Omrani, B., Afghanistan: a Companion and Guide, (Airphoto international Ltd: Hong Kong, 2005), pp. 30-36.

[4] Emadi, H., Culture and Customs of Afghanistan, (Greenwood Press: London, 2005).

[5] Leeming, M and Omrani, B., Afghanistan: a Companion and Guide, (Airphoto international Ltd: Hong Kong, 2005), pp. 30-36.

[6] Hopkirk, P., The Great Game, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1991).

[7] Barfield, T., Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, (Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 2010), p.164.

[8] Barfield, T., Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, (Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 2010), p.169.

[9] Jalalzai, M., Afghan National Army, (Al-Abbas International: Lahore, 2004).

[10] Barfield, T., Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, (Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 2010).

[11] Feifer, G., The Great Gamble: the Soviet War in Afghanistan, (Harper Collins: New York, 2009), p.191.

[12] Rubin, B., The fragmentation of Afghanistan, (Yale University Press: Yale, 2002).

[13] Rashid, A., Taliban, (Pan Macmillan: London, 2001).

[14] Rashid, A., Taliban, (Pan Macmillan: London, 2001), pp.26-29.

[15] Saikal, A., ‘The UN and Afghanistan: A case of failed peacemaking intervention?’, International Peacekeeping, Vol. 3, No.1, Spring 1996, pp.19-34.

[16] Rashid, A., Taliban, (Pan Macmillan: London, 2001).

[17] Barfield, T., Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, (Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 2010), pp.268-270.

[18] Author’s conversation with senior Transitional Government official, Kabul, 2003

[19] Rosenberg, M., and Bowley, G., ‘Intractable Afghan Graft Hampering U.S. Strategy’, The New York Times, 7 Mar. 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/08/world/asia/corruption-remains-intractable-in-afghanistan-under-karzai-government.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[20] Ahmad, K., ‘Tribal reps call for decentralised govt’, Pajhwok News, 26 Feb. 2012, http://www.pajhwok.com/en/2012/02/26/tribal-reps-call-decentralised-govt

[21] Giustozzi, A., Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007, (Columbia University Press: New York, 2007).

[22] ‘Afghan army chief: “Pakistan controls Taliban”’, BBC News, 3 July 2013,  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23152159

[23] West, B., The Wrong War, (Random House: New York, 2012).

[24] Foxley, T., Faryab notes, July 08, field notes taken in Afghanistan, July 2008.

[25] Nissenbaum, D., ‘McChrystal calls Marjah a ‘bleeding ulcer’ in Afghan campaign’, McClatchy, 24 May 2010, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/05/24/94740/mcchrystal-calls-marjah-a-bleeding.html#.UZ8WkpyK__s

[26] McChrystal, S., ‘COMISAF’s Initial Assessment’, ISAF, Aug. 2009.

[27] Woodward, B., Obama’s Wars: The Inside Story, (Simon and Schuster: London, 2010).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2013 1:39 pm

    Excellent and informative summary, Tim.

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