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Afghanistan: the graveyard of empires or of democracy?

The US army is withdrawing from Afghanistan after twenty years, as the Taliban regain control of the country at a shocking speed.The capital city of Kabul has surrendered and the fate of the population is uncertain, with thousands of refugees. Afghan women are particularly vulnerable: they have been the first victims of this return to the past, which is already showing restrictions and violence.

What is currently happening in Afghanistan is the most recent development of a conflict that has been plaguing the country for decades, and that has involved Italy as well as the US and other allies since 2001. We have asked Professor Simone Cristoforetti, an expert in the history of Islamic countries at the Department of Asian and North African Studies, to help us understand the situation from a historical perspective. 

From the beginning to Osama bin Laden and the US intervention in 2001

Afghanistan, which has been called “the graveyard of empires”, is a country that arose in the mid-18th century, as the Persian Empire of Nadir Shah was falling apart and the Mughal dynasty reduced its control over its Western territories. From that moment onwards, the Afghan Kingdom, which from the start aimed to expand towards the fertile plains of present-day Pakistan, was held by monarchical regimes that were connected with powerful clans in the context of Pashtun tribalism. 

During the 19th century, Afghanistan faced pressure from the British Empire and the Russian Empire, which at the time were major forces in Asia fighting for supremacy over the area. Tensions between the Afghan people and the British arose multiple times and resulted in three wars, the third of which ended in 1919, along with the British protectorate. In the following period there were significant attempts to modernise the country — “left” and “right” political movements typical of 20th century bipartisan politics developed. In 1973, internal issues of the dynasty caused the Afghan monarchy to end, and Zahir Shah was exhiled to Italy.
The leader of the coup was Zahir Shah’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Daud Khan. He tried to establish a democracy by declaring Afghanistan a republic with himself as president. However, his efforts were unsuccessful and around the end of the 1970s the country was engulfed in the Soviet block. The successive communist regimes tried to reform the country but had to deal with its challenging geophysical characteristics, as well as with the massive funding that the US sent to the internal opposition — which was rooted in religious and traditional views — in order to challenge the Soviet Union. 

The ensuing conflict led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to support the local communist government and armament of the local polulation, which resulted in a wide-spread civil war that the country experienced during the last 20 years of the 20th century. The outcome of this process was the emergence of the Taliban movement and the establishment of the Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996, led by Mullà Omar. Mullà Omar’s refusal to extradite Osama bin Laden — who was believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, though this has never been proven — to the US led to the US military intervention in 2001.

The rise of the Taliban

The Taliban gained power mainly thanks to economic factors. In fact, they initially were a militia with strong connections with Pakistan and an extremely simplified, fundamentalist ideology. Afghanistan had been plagued by years of battles between rival armies and various warlords; it was deeply fragmented into autonomous districts in which anyone could set up a checkpoint and request tolls. The Taliban received large sums of money from Pakistani trasportation companies to escort trucks to the northern borders with the Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tagikistan).

The revival of lucrative trading by land between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia allowed the Taliban to gain the means they needed to subdue local warlords one after the other, and consequently to form a new Islamic state under the central government of Kabul. 

Afghanistan’s geophysical characteristics 

Afghanistan is a country whose geophysical characteristics are particularly challenging. The most obvious borders are created by the Hindy Kush Himalayan mountain range, which crosses the centre and the north-eastern areas of the country, while deserts and semi deserts characterise the southern and estern areas. From a geophysical perspective, high mountain ranges divide Afghanistan into four separate regions.

This peculiarity makes Afghanistan a country whose political borders are often much easier to cross than its natural internal barriers. This has major effects on the control of the territory. In fact, while it is relatively easy to travel to Pakistan by navigating the many rivers that cross valleys, or to Iran by crossing vast semi desert plains, it is much more difficult to travel from Kabul, the capital city, to Mazar-i Sharif or Herat, becuase one needs to climb steep mountains which are covered in snow in winter.

Afghanistan’s geography tends to “isolate” a great part of the country’s internal areas: this explains the incredible variety of ethnicities and languages of the country. In addition to the two official languages, Pashto and Dari, there are plenty of other languages, spoken by minorities which can be quite numerous, such as the Hazara people.

This situation, which poses great challenges in terms of internal communication, is absolutely advantageous for people who detain local power, especially in areas which have tribal traditions. Local representatives often belong to powerful families of land-owners and tend to negotiate deals with the central government that can offer the greatest benefits on a local level with minimal economic investments. 

The Taliban’s new advance 

This process is evident in the recent advance of the Taliban, which does not seem to have encountered much local resistence, but rather appears to be a sort of agreement among these new, bellicose political figures and the “local authorities'', who are not the people who collaborated for 20 years with the coalition of foreign forces led by the US. Rather, they are the chiefs of the most influential tribes in each district. This grip has been tightening around Kabul, which has recently been “conquered”. 

At this point, the world is facing the distressing issue of the safety of thousands of families that were involved in the opeartions led by the US and its coalition with NATO members, all of whom wanted to establish a democratic, presidential and constitutional government in Afghanistan. The strong resistence posed by the Taliban, who starting in 2001 had to face the international coalition of occupying forces, has led Afghanistan to the umpteenth civil war. It is estimated that over 150,000 people have died, evenly distributed among civilians, military people and the Afghan police, and members of the opposition, excluding the victims of the war state.

The massive economic and military efforts employed by NATO with the support of a range of international NGOs focused mainly on the major urban centres. Italy was responsible for Herat, in the north-eastern part of the country, with a maximum of 800 soldiers, 145 land vehicles and 8 planes, to be divided between the personnel based in Kabul and the military contigent based in the Herat headquarters.
This situation partly explains why the central Afghan government that was supported by the international coalition forces did not manage to stop the Taliban’s resistance, who tried to gain the favour of people in the countryside — although this process was not always successful. In fact, in Afghanistan over 70% of people live in rural areas. Their isolation is due to the geographical features of the territory, which allow for the control of the main communication channels only during the day and only at certain times of the year. In rural areas there is also a high percentage of illiteracy, which contributes to making these areas the bastions of traditionalism, which can be easily manipulated for political purposes.

The Taliban — most of whom belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, which has historically been the dominant group in the country — have a thorough knowledge of the territory, solidarity links with local tribes, and operating bases in Pakistan. This has enabled them to exploit the logistic difficulties that hindered the Afghan government and the coalition forces. 

Twenty years after the beginning of an extremely costly war which had become chronic, in February 2020 the US were forced to face the representatives of various Taliban militia in Doha (Qatar). The US signed an agreement for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan (the date currently set is 31 August 2021), in exchange for the Taliban’s promise to refrain from threatening US safety in any way. The Afghan government, which was not involved in the Doha Agreement, refused to recognise the Agreement and in particular the promise to release prisoners of war. However, the progressive withdrawal of military support to the country by the NATO coalition, which is rapidly dismantling its bases in Afghanistan, prompted the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to flee the country on 15 August 2021.

In addition to the urgent security threat for Afghan collaborators, which will probably lead to an exodus of refugees towards Pakistan, there is also the issue of how non-Sunni minorities will be treated, as well as the issue of the condition of women. During the last twenty years, women in Afghanistan have gained, especially from a legal perspective, a more positive treatment, especially with regard to the gender inequality that characterises the Afghan society. 

Author: Simone Cristoforetti / Editor: Federica Scotellaro