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Roots of Terrorism
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Afghanistan: Recent History and Politics Today
By Larry P. Goodson © 2002

Larry P. Goodson is an associate professor of international studies at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. He is the author of Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban (University of Washington Press, 2001).

Early History

When the Soviets Intervened

Afghanistan Today

Repairing a Country


Early History

In 1747, the ethnic group known as the Pushtuns united under Ahmad Shah Durrani into the kingdom of Afghans. Until the early 20th century, Afghanistan primarily was a buffer state, caught between the expansionist Russian and British empires and the contracting Safavid Dynasty in Persia. Afghanistan's present borders and national identity took shape gradually, as Afghan monarchs fought wars and negotiated boundaries with British and Russian conquerors.

The Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) brought full independence for Afghanistan, but conflicts over modernization and political power prevented any single monarch from establishing a stable or long-lasting reign. For most of its history, Afghanistan has had a central government that could not intrude very heavily into the countryside. Rugged topography and geographic isolation, combined with deep ethnic, linguistic, tribal, racial, and regional cleavages, created a country that was unified by Islam while it was divided by hundreds of variations on its practice. Qawm (the group to which the individual belongs, e.g., a sub-tribe, village, valley, or neighborhood) identity and emphasized allegiance to the local over central authority guaranteed a difficult time for any leader who took on the task of state building.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, leadership shifted back and forth between ministers who established cordial relations with the Soviet Union and those who favored Western notions of democracy. By the 1980s, Islamism (Islamic fundamentalism or radical Islam) had enjoyed a great resurgence throughout the Islamic world, from the Khomeini Revolution in Iran, the attacks of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Hamas-led Intifada in Palestine, to the social welfare activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

When the Soviets Intervened

Communists seized power in Afghanistan in a 1978 coup. The secular and centralized approach of Communist rule sparked a rebellion in the countryside. As the rebellion grew in strength, the U.S.S.R. decided to intervene in order to help defend the new Communist regime. In December 1979, when the Soviets finally intervened, it transformed the rebellion into a war of national liberation that drew on a tradition of rural resistance to the impositions of the central state.

Because the Soviet Union sought to replace Islamic rule with secular rule, the war of national liberation from the Communists also became a jihad (holy war). Meanwhile, the United States, motivated both by Cold War politics and Saudi Arabia, which was eager to see a strong Islam state emerge in Afghanistan, led an international effort to support a squabbling band of resistance groups (known as the "mujahedeen") based in Pakistan. Thus it was that the U.S., in arming anti-Communist fighters, found itself arming and supporting a movement whose leaders often railed against the very things the West stood for and, increasingly, against the West itself.

-- The Soviets Withdraw; A Power Vacuum Ensues

Unable to eliminate the mujahedeen, the Soviets withdrew their troops from Afghanistan in February 1989, though they continued military and economic support until the U.S.S.R. collapsed in January 1992. The end of the Cold War wrought profound changes in the region. Once the Soviet threat was gone, Washington turned away from Afghanistan and Pakistan, shifting its political and military might toward the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and its economic attention toward India's much larger consumer market. The resulting power vacuum opened the doors to a regional power struggle, as neighboring states intervened in Afghan politics for their own ends. Especially important was a three-way struggle between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, all of which wanted access to the markets and Muslims of Central Asia, and to deny those things to their rivals. In the chaos that ensued, Afghanistan descended into factional fighting and regional fragmentation.

In 1994, the Taliban, a movement of Islamist religious students, emerged in reaction to widespread lawlessness in the south. Trained primarily in the religious colleges of Pakistan, the Taliban gained control of almost all of Afghanistan. When the Taliban gained Jalalabad in 1996, they began a partnership with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. Over the next few years, the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus became more puritanical and intolerant of Afghanistan's northern minorities. Large numbers of Pakistani "volunteers" joined the movement. During the 1990s, Al Qaeda became increasingly aggressive, targeting the U.S. in several high-profile operations, culminating in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. response to those attacks led to the implementation of an interim government in December 2001, headed by moderate Pushtun tribal chieftain Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan Today

Afghanistan today is once again a country defined by localism. Afghanistan's ethnic mélange, reinforced by varying Islamic practices and terrain so rugged that dialects can change from one valley to the next, has produced a country where Pushtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and 20-odd other groups tend to live in separate areas and reinforce their differences in numerous ways (religious practice, dialect, facial features, dress, etc.). The Northern Alliance, for example, can be understood as a collection of militias primarily constructed along ethnic lines. The militias, in turn, have several factions. In other words, the Northern Alliance is made up of hundreds of small groups of armed men who share local qawm identity and who are affiliated with one of the larger factions (not always permanently).

It is difficult to find Afghan leaders today who do not make a virulent blend of radical Islam, gratuitous violence, and control of some portion of the illicit economy the foundation of their authority. More traditional elements of political authority -- such as Sufi networks, royal lineage, clan strength, age-based wisdom and the like -- still exist and play a role, but it is unclear how potent or resilient these sources of authority are. Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, is relying on these traditional sources of authority in his challenge to the warlords and older Islamist leaders. He embodies this struggle for the soul of Afghanistan.

As for sentiments toward the U.S., Islamists in Afghanistan have questioned Washington's involvement in the region. While the U.S. government claims that its interest is to foster democracy, its actions often seem to be more about preserving market access for American companies. Islamists see those market interests as counter to their religious beliefs and resist the potential undermining of Islamic economic, political, and cultural interests. They also question U.S. support for Israel and for the so-called moderate Arab regimes, which have tended to be corrupt, un-democratic, and, therefore, unacceptable as leaders of the Arab or Islamic world.

Repairing a Country

-- Damage Assessment
It is hard to overestimate the degree of destruction wrought by 25 years of unbroken, high-technology war. The impact on Afghanistan can be tracked in seven major areas:

  • Physical infrastructure
    Afghanistan's physical infrastructure has been demolished. The country's only major road now consists of broken pavement or merely dirt and gravel, and travel is arduous and uncomfortable. Factories, power grids, water supply infrastructure, and irrigation systems are largely inoperable. Orchards, fields, and villages have been destroyed. To make matters worse, combatants have left an estimated 30 million landmines throughout the country, most completely unmarked and unmapped.

    The destruction, coupled with Afghanistan's rugged topography, magnifies the distance between Afghanistan's people and their government. Afghanistan is defined by some of the world's most forbidding terrain, especially the Hindu Kush Mountains (average elevation 14,769-19,692 feet), which descend from the Wakhan Corridor and the Pamirs to bisect the country. The Hindu Kush broadens out into the high Hazarajat plateau in the center of the country, which descends and disappears into the western deserts on the Iranian border (Registan, Dasht-i-Margo, Dasht-i-Lut). Although passes through the Hindu Kush and Hazarajat make movement between different regions possible, harsh winters and high altitudes have made inter-regional mobility difficult. Only the completion of the Salang Tunnel in 1964 made overland traffic between Kabul and northern Afghanistan possible during winter months. Many remote valleys remain virtually inaccessible to the outside world.

  • Population
    Fully 50 percent of Afghanistan's prewar population has been killed (2 million), injured (600,000 to 2 million), or driven into exile (6 million). Another 2 million Afghans have been internally displaced. The Afghans who fled to Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere constitute the first Afghan diaspora population in history. Two generations of Afghans have now been raised in the destructive circumstances brought about by the long war.

  • Economy
    Robbed of its natural resources, including natural gas reserves plundered by the Soviet Union, war has resulted in the complete collapse of Afghanistan's formal economy. By the end of the 1990s, Afghanistan's chief export was opium. In 1998, it surpassed Burma as the world's leading producer of heroin. The funds from drug sales provide many warlords with the means to arm their followers.

  • Political structure
    In the absence of a central state, local authority came to dominate. The strengthening of these local allegiances remains a significant obstacle as Hamid Karzai and his Western backers attempt to establish a new central government. There are no structures in place to conduct elections, trials, or most basic government functions.

    Further, the struggle between communism and Islamism swept aside the traditional system of political leadership by tribal elders (in the tribal council, or jirga) and the social system that supported them, which was based on a dominant role for prominent men, often large landowners, or khans. New political elites emerged (mujahedeen and Taliban) in a movement that was founded on an important role for the youth and Islamist ideologues, neither of which is traditional.

  • Education
    The education system and other modernizing sectors of Afghan society were completely disrupted. Under the Taliban, secular schools were closed and girls were not permitted to attend schools at all. Boys might have attended schools run by Islamist religious leaders. Intellectuals were marginalized or killed, and no independent media was allowed.

  • Religious tensions
    Afghanistan is a Muslim country, with about 85 percent of the population Sunni and the remainder Shia. The Hazara are Shia, as are some Tajiks, Farsiwan, Qizilbash, and Pushtun. Afghanistan's Islam is basically a non-literate blending of basic Islamic beliefs with local practices, such as those found in the Pushtunwali. Tensions remain between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims, though most Afghans reject the repressive approach of the Taliban that included destruction of ancient monuments like the cliff Buddhas of Bamiyan. Tensions also remain between modernity and traditionalism. Though the current government rejects the Taliban's extreme restrictions on women, the role of women in Afghanistan is still in question. Expressions of popular culture (such as music), which had been banned by the Taliban are beginning to return.

-- Challenges
The problems spilling out of Afghanistan and into the regions -- and the broader world -- will require significant attention and creativity. Key questions remain, including:

  • To date, Afghanistan has been a kingdom, constitutional republic, Communist dictatorship, and an Islamist theocracy. What kind of political system should Afghanistan adopt?

  • Should the traditional political framework of Pushtun national dominance be altered, and if so, how should the interests of all Afghan groups best be protected?

  • What kinds of government structures can be created to preserve the balance between a central government and local loyalties?

  • How can the warlords and militias be induced/compelled to give up their weapons?

  • Should the warlords and other local leaders be integrated into a central government?

  • What role should women have in Afghanistan's future?

  • What should be done with Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and other Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders if they are captured by U.S. or other forces in Afghanistan?

  • Can Afghanistan's economy be rebuilt, and if so, how?

  • How can Afghanistan's drug traffic be controlled or eliminated?

  • What role should Islam have in Afghanistan's new school curricula?

  • How can the physical infrastructure of Afghanistan be rebuilt and who will fund that effort?

  • How can other nations remain involved without imposing their own cultures or interests?

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