Since the late 1970s, Afghanistan has suffered a series of devastating wars that have taken their toll on the country. Several forms of government have been attempted in Afghanistan since its independence from the British in 1919, from constitutional monarchy to republic, to democratic republic with a communist touch, to a totalitarian Islamic emirate, and finally to American imported democracy. However, these governments have not been able to rule the multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural State without resorting to war, infighting and atrocities. With the parties involved in the present day Afghan war ready to sue for peace, a sustainable, inclusive governance plan has to be set in place, in order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
Unfortunately it would seem that, to this date, conflict, political turmoil and instability have become the norm in Afghanistan. A multitude of actors have arisen, both national and international, and reaching any type of consensus in the short term would be nearly impossible. As each actor promotes and propagates its own agenda, the battle for control and influence continues, leaving nothing but continuous state of confusion in its wake.
Coup d’état, Revolution and Foreign Invasion
The Saur Revolution and the assassination of Afghanistan’s first President Mohammed Daoud Khan is considered the starting point of the country’s contemporary troubles. When Daoud Khan bloodlessly overthrew the Afghan monarchy in 1973, he installed a republican regime that was seen as reformative and progressive, yet frictions with the communist parties eventually led to his assassination by members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Following this, the PDPA came to power but conflict within the party prevented any type of advancement and local insurgencies led to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan to protect its strategic ally government in December 1979. Subsequently, this invasion led to Mujahideen factions taking up arms against the Soviet invaders. Not only did the Red Army of the Soviets prove to be no match for the Mujahideen’s knowledge of the terrain and sheer tenacity, in addition the latter had the financial and material support from countries such as the United States (US), Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. By the time peace accords were finally signed in 1988 and the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its troops, approximately 9% of the Afghan population had been killed, between 1 and 1.5 million, half of which were civilians. By 1986, 5 million Afghans had fled and were living as refugees in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran.
The accords signed by Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, the US and Pakistan may have ended one conflict, but soon the country was engulfed in another. The puppet government set in place by the Soviets, led by Mohammad Najibullah, the former director of the Afghan Intelligence Agency, struggled to stay in power. The Mujahideen, who had vanquished their common enemy, had now fragmented and Mujahideen commanders-turned-warlords gained strategic advantages and control over territory, owing to the widening power vacuum. When Najibullah resigned and the PDPA’s regime disintegrated, an interim government was set up following the Peshawar accords, signed by the various Mujahideen parties. However, this government was doomed from the start, as infighting persisted and later on a civil war erupted when one of the interim Presidents, Burhanuddin Rabbani of the Jamiat-e-Islami (JeI), refused to step down after his three-month term, followed by the invasion of Kabul by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Mujahideen and leader of the Hezb-i Islami (HiI) who had refused to sign the Peshawar accords as he felt his group was being sidelined in the agreements.
For four years, the divided Mujahideen would fight each other over Kabul, firing rockets into civilian areas, looting homes, raping and killing civilians. Hekmatyar became known as the Butcher of Kabul, as his group was responsible for a large part of the war crimes and atrocities committed during the 1992-1996 civil war. A prominent opponent of him was Ahmed Shah Massoud, branded the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud had risen to prominence as a tactical genius fighting the Soviets in the 80s, and then became Minister of Defence of the interim government. These two groups were key players in the first few years of the civil war, fighting again on ethnic lines, JeI consisting of a Tajik majority (Tajiks being the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan) and HiI consisting of a Pashtun majority. India, which had steered clear of the Soviet-Afghan war, had strengthened relations with Rabbani’s interim government. India, along with other international democracies, supported the Northern Alliance, formed by Massoud to fight against the Taliban. Massoud, alongside leaders from all ethnicities of Afghanistan, addressed the European Parliament in Brussels in 2001, asking the international community to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan and stated that without the support of Pakistan and Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban would not be able to sustain their military campaign for up to a year. Pakistan supported Hekmatyar and the HiI, drawing upon their Pashtun brotherhood – 15% of the Pakistani population is ethnic Pashtun, living mostly in areas alongside the Afghan border – and later on kept funding, training and supporting the Taliban.
Taliban and US invasion
While the HiI and the JeI, alongside with few more former Mujahideen factions, were fighting each other, a new threat arose across the border in Pakistan – the Taliban. Recruiting former Mujahideen fighters and students from Pakistani madrassas, the majority of which being ethnic Pashtun, Mullah Mohammed Omar would form and lead one of the most radical Islamic groups in modern history from 1994 until his death in 2013. The primary aims of the Taliban were to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law in Afghanistan, and remove all foreign presence from the territory. This movement attracted numerous Afghans, fed up with decades of wars, foreign interference and ineffective Afghan governments. In the midst of the civil war, the Taliban, receiving backing from the Pakistani military establishment and its intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), started capturing Afghan territory until it finally captured Kabul in September 1996. The Taliban established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was recognized solely by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Massoud was forced to retreat to the north of Afghanistan and continued the resistance against the Taliban under the flag of the Northern Alliance. The cruel treatment of civilians under the Taliban’s radical constitution, especially the condition of women, received global condemnation. However, it wasn’t until the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that immediate action was taken against them. After the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, founder of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks that claimed almost 3,000 lives, the US invaded and overthrew their regime. Another interim government was then set in place, but the US’ war against terror in Afghanistan did not end there. While the Taliban is no longer seated in the capital, it still controls around 50% of the territory. As of today, in some regions of Afghanistan, the Taliban is perceived as the legitimate ruler since it offers social services that the government in Kabul has failed to provide. The Taliban has set up religious courts to resolve disputes and has also allowed schools for girls, which use religious texts, to operate. Paradoxically, the Taliban still conducts acts of terror on a nearly daily basis, victims of which are mainly Afghan civilians, in order to consolidate its power against the Afghan government, while also holding close ties to other radical groups operating in the country. Despite the Taliban’s continuous use of terror tactics, the US, which is eager to end this 18-year long war, has started discussions directly with them in order to negotiate a peace deal. This has many analysts wondering whether after four decades of war and devastation, the Taliban holds the key to peace in Afghanistan?