Mujahideen fighters in Zazi, in the Paktia province of Afghanistan, 1989

Birth of a four decade nightmare

Time and again, Afghanistan has found its future decided from afar


In April 2021, on the day he announced the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan, President Biden walked in light rain along the lines of white gravestones in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery, where those who fell in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried. Pausing briefly to speak to reporters, he said: “I never thought we were there to somehow unify Afghanistan. It’s never been done. It’s never been done.” 

Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan, Elisabeth Leake (Oxford University Press, £25)

This showed contempt for the many millions of Afghans who had worked since the fall of the Taliban 20 years before to build a united republic believing they were one nation, but once again the country found itself defined from outside, framed by others. 

In 1989 another superpower withdrew after defeat in Afghanistan. The Soviet War was half the length of America’s intervention, and its leaders had no better understanding of the country. In this comprehensively researched history of the Soviet War, Elizabeth Leake finds that, like Biden, Mikhail Gorbachev “cared more about withdrawal than Afghan future governance”. 

It was the same for President Reagan, who funded the insurgency against the Soviet invasion. He had no sense of what Afghanistan should look like if he succeeded. The US was trying to reinstall the former regime, not build a new state. The problem never considered, then or in the American intervention of the last 20 years, was that there was no stable former regime, nor Afghan consensus as to what the state should look like. 

Afghanistan’s long nightmare began with a soft coup in 1973, when Daoud Khan replaced his cousin Zahir Shah, who had been king for 40 years. Daoud was ousted in turn by violent revolution in 1978, and murdered with his family inside the Arg, the seat of power in Kabul. Despite the violence, the revolutionaries had not looked like zealots. 

The archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Dupree, who lived in Kabul at the time, characterised their leaders as delivering continuity and professionalism. “Eleven of those named to cabinet posts had held government jobs at the time of the coup … There were three unemployed poets and journalists, two unemployed physicians, two lawyers, two educators, and one person described as a landlord.” 

With his wife Nancy, Dupree was an inveterate collector of newspapers and pamphlets and his archive remarkably survived the long wars intact, to form the nucleus of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, where Nancy worked until her death in 2017. 

Members of the coup were enthusiastic advocates of aggressive land reform

Drawing on this archive among many other sources, Leake found that it was not Marxism but “the model of statehood that the Soviet Union represented that appealed to these educated Afghans”. America was surprised when a mild-mannered former translator from the embassy, Nur Muhammad Taraki, turned out to be one of the leaders of the coup. But, unlike some of his followers, Taraki had radical ambitions to create a communist state, backed by the Soviet Union. He faced a problem. Since Afghanistan was an overwhelmingly rural economy, it lacked a working class. 

In a surreal phone conversation, intercepted by the CIA, Taraki apologised to the Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin for not having the key raw material available to build a revolutionary state — an urban proletariat. When Kosygin asked what had happened to the army trained by Soviet advisers in the 1970s, Taraki admitted that many had left to become “Muslim reactionaries”.

They may not have had a perfect communist revolution, but they were enthusiastic advocates of aggressive land reform — breaking up large estates and making landowners of peasants. Taraki began to believe his own propaganda. One Soviet official described him as “drowning in ecstasy” when he talked about the reform. There were far more technical advisers in Afghanistan than in other countries of what was then called the Third World. Just as in the US-led intervention after 9/11, the scale of involvement robbed Afghans of agency. They became passive players in someone else’s drama. 

The swift pace of land reform, as well as the excesses of Soviet troops after the Christmas Day invasion in 1979, led to growing opposition. The seizure of land impoverished both landowners and peasants as those at the bottom lost access to patronage and loans. That made it easier for those “Muslim reactionaries” to mobilise against the invaders. 

There had been a fundamental faultline in Afghan society since the 1970s. As demands for change grew, after decades when the country was a forgotten isolated rural backwater, two models of potential Afghan statehood had emerged. One was the socialist paradise, promoted by two factions, uneasily drawn together in the Afghan communist party, the PDPA. The other was an Islamist state, drawing on the radical version promoted by Sayyid Qutb in Egypt. 

A number of Afghan scholars were educated in Egypt in the 1950s and 60s, returning to promote a new idea of statehood, organising political parties in the early 1970s and wanting tighter social restrictions just as youth in Afghanistan, as elsewhere in the world at that time, were living more freely. Young women with their heads uncovered faced acid attacks in the street two decades before the Taliban emerged, as a more radical form of Islam was introduced to Afghanistan. 

In a process which has been well described by the French anthropologist Olivier Roy, once the resistance started against the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan’s traditional Sufi mysticism was replaced by a harder line of Islamism, as people turned to faith as a binding social factor at a time of chaos. America backed these Islamist radicals against the Soviet occupation. 

Nur Muhammad Taraki

Donald Rumsfeld, who shares the unique distinction of being both the youngest and oldest US defense secretary, (and in both appointments was involved in war in Afghanistan) was filmed in the north-west frontier in the late 1980s handing a Kalashnikov to a jihadi fighter with the words “Allahu-Akbar”. 

There was no thought of the long term consequences of the support. President Carter’s national security adviser at the beginning of the war, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said, “What was more important in the world view of history … A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

 Pakistan organised the resistance into seven Islamic parties. At one point during the war, 60 per cent of the world’s refugees came from Afghanistan, and the largest concentration lived in vast camps on Pakistan’s north-west frontier. In order to get a ration card, families had to belong to one of the parties, a process which radicalised Afghan society. 

Leake argues that America’s framing of Afghan society as tribal contributed to factionalism. This encouraged a backward-looking society, since “America’s policymakers assumed that Afghanistan’s lack of modernity fuelled the resistance”. Once again Afghanistan found its future decided from far away. 

Leake writes that this is not a military history, which leaves her analysis lacking vital context. Her description of the political background to the resignation of the Soviet-backed government of Najibullah in 1992 ignores the extraordinary violence of the times — with General Dostum changing sides, Ahmed Shah Massoud’s armoured columns bearing down on Kabul from the north, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar setting up rocket positions on the mountain range to the south — a prelude to four years of the worst interfactional fighting the country had seen, laying waste to the capital. It was in reaction to this chaos that the Taliban emerged four years later.


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