Latest headlines say “U.S sends more troops to Afghanistan” . Afghanistan has been in headlines for the last 7 years since 9/11. However Afghanistan has been in a state of war for almost 28 years.

Historically Afghanistan has been the gateway to South Asia. From Alexander the Great to Moghul king Babur occupied Afghanistan before marching into Indus plains. As such Afghanistan has a rich heritage of all the cultures and religions.

In the 18th century Afghanistan became part of the great game between Tsarist Russia and British Empire. British tried multiple times to invade Afghanistan and failed. Famous Hyber pass became grave yard for many British invaders. Fiercely independent Pashtun tribes who are the majority tribe in Afghanistan resisted British for decades with the assistance of fellow Pashtuns across the border in British India. Pashtun part of British India was known as Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and became part of present day Pakistan. Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan maintained very strong links across the border. To an extent North West Frontier is autonomous and contributed to Pathan regiments of British India and later to Pakistan.

After British left India in 1948, Afghanistan remained a monarchy based on Pashtun tribes and stable country. Although India and Pakistan fought multiple wars Afghanistan remained neutral and maintained reasonably good relationship with both countries. However there was an independence movement in NWFP which wanted Pashtuns on both side of the border to unite. Afghanistan also had good relationship with the other neighbor Soviet Union.

However things changed in 1973 when the king Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan. Daoud established a republic and continued the policy of neutrality. He introduced progressive reforms and tried to modernize the country. He came to power with the support of Marxist PDPA which had strong links to Soviet Union. However by 1978 Daoud fell out with PDPA and was overthrown and replaced by Soviet supported PDPA government.  Immediately Afghanistan became a hot spot in U.S, Soviet cold war. Soviet Union in 1980 started sending troops to support PDPA which was under attack from Islamic fundamentalist groups called Mujahedeen based in Pakistan. U.S backed Pakistan and provided arms and training to Mujahedeen. Saudi Arabia another conservative Muslim country provided finances to Mujahedeen and jihadists. One of the jihadist who came to fight against Soviet backed government is now well known Osama Bin Ladin. Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan provided the backbone of Mujahedeen. Islamic schools in NWFP provided fundamentalist training to afghan refugees. Out of these schools emerged the movement called Talaban. Talaban was exclusively Pashtun.

Talaban was the most disciplined and fundamentalist out of all mujahedeen groups. Their leader Mullah Omar lost his eye during the war. CIA and Bin Ladin group supported all the mujahedeen groups. However Bin Ladin developed close relationship and affinity with Taliban.

 Pakistan had three reasons for supporting Mujahedeen

  1. PDPA government was Marxist and considered a threat to Muslim Pakistan
  2.  PDPA government had good relationship with Pakistan’s rival India. Pakistan felt sandwiched between India and Afghanistan.
  3. PDPA government encouraged independence movement within NWFP.

Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI funneled CIA arms to Afghan Mujahedeen. NWFP became the rear base for Mujahedeen operations. ISI had very close relationship with Talaban

War in Afghanistan cost Soviet Union dearly. Its economy could not sustain the long war. This war along with inherent issues in Soviet system led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Shortly before that Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and PDPA government collapsed. Immediately Afghan mujahedeen started fighting among themselves to control Afghanistan. Ultimately Talaban came to power in 1998. Talaban government imposed rigid fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan. PDPA leaders were publicly hanged and basic human rights were trampled.  Internationally Talaban government was very pro Pakistan and quarreled with both India and Iran. In addition it was supporting fundamentalists in ex soviet Muslim republics in Central Asia. It had excellent relationship with Saudi Arabia and U.S governments. U.S oil and gas companies started negotiations with Talaban to use Afghanistan as a conduit to vast gas reserves in Central Asia.

However one of the complications in the relationship with U.S was Bin Ladin. Bin Ladin came to Afghanistan originally as a jihadist to fight Soviet backed government. However once the Soviet backed government fell jihadists in Afghanistan started supported fundamentalism around the world and this came into conflict with U.S. Bin Ladin who was living in Sudan moved back to Afghanistan after Al Qaeda operations against U.S interests in Africa. Due to the close friend ship between Bin Ladin and Mullah Omar, Bin Ladin was allowed to stay in Afghanistan. However Talaban maintained good relationship with U.S. 9/11 however changed the situation. U.S requested Talaban to hand over Bin Ladin and Mullah Omar refused. U.S and allied forces invaded Afghanistan and installed Karzai government. However Talaban who fought a long guerrilla war against Soviet forces withdrew to their former hideouts in Pashtun areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although Pakistan military government supported U.S against Al-Qaeda, it could not take any action against Talaban hideouts in NWFP. This is due to the fear of antagonizing the Pashtuns. However under U.S pressure the Pakistani government has started military operations in NWFP against Talaban sympathizers. This in turn has created a Pakistani Talaban hostile to the Pakistan government. Pakistan military leader Musharaff has resigned and the new Zaddari government will be far closer to U.S and will take more stringent measures against both Afghan Talaban and Pakistan Talaban. It will also show blind eye to U.S operations inside Pakistan.

However the situation inside Afghanistan is getting worse. Talaban is now operating in almost all the provinces. Due to the indiscriminate actions by U.S and allied forces Talaban has gained even the support of non Pashtuns which it never had before. It has grown into a mass resistance movement to U.S. U.S and allied casualties are growing every day. This year allied causalities are more in Afghanistan than in Iraq. In addition U.S nowhere near capturing or killing its No1 wanted person Bin Ladin. In addition Jihadists are flocking to Afghanistan from Iraq.

It is against this background U.S sending more troops to Afghanistan. It feels confident that with the support of new Pakistani government, Talaban and Al-Qaeda can be crushed once and for all. Unfortunately for U.S history has shown than Afghans always defeated any foreign power which has tried to run their country. Although Talaban is very fundamentalist and reactionary it has the support of the majority Pashtun population. This coupled with heavy handed U.S military approach could mean that Afghanistan may become another quagmire for U.S.

Talaban has been undergoing also changes in it's ideology. Recent reports from Afghanistan state that a new breed of Talaban fighters have moved away from the rigid fundamentalist ideology of their leadership due to the nationalist struggle which requires participation of all sectors of the population. 

10th September 2008