Fifty years ago, on July 17, 1973, Daoud Khan, the strongman of the Afghan royal family, who had also served as the country’s Prime Minister for a decade beginning 1953, staged an almost bloodless coup d’état, with the support of sections of the army and the communist party, against his close cousin King Zahir Shah who had occupied the throne since 1933. Abolishing the monarchy, Daoud made Afghanistan a Republic and became its President. Zahir Shah, who was convalescing in Italy, renounced the throne and remained in exile.
The Daoud coup broke the country’s political structure and society and created a milieu of violence and instability. That may not have been evident in the immediate aftermath or even a few years later, but today, with the advantage of hindsight, it is clear that the coup damaged the social structure and led to chaos, civil strife, and the eventual exile of 20 per cent of Afghans. The processes that began then exploded when, along with several of his family, Daoud was killed by his erstwhile communist allies in 1978, and the communist party, People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), sought to establish a communist state.
In the decades since Daoud’s killing, Afghanistan has seen two failed superpower military interventions; the collapse of attempts to impose foreign-inspired systems, both communist and democratic; and the retreat of traditional Islam and the ingress of rigid theologies of the Arab peninsula. Afghanistan’s territory, often with the assistance of local elements and groups, has been used to harbour and sometimes nurture regional and international terrorist organisations. And, from the 1990s onwards, Afghanistan has become the world’s largest producer of illicit opium. The continuing opium trade and the presence of international terrorist groups since the Taliban re-takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 impact India, the region, and the world.
The continuing dislocation and destruction of the past five decades may be better appreciated if considered in the context of the country’s social order and how the Afghan state was established. Some impulses of the old political and social characteristics continue to impact Afghan national life.
Afghans, particularly the Pashtuns, trace the foundation of their state to 1747 by Ahmed Shah Abdali, a Popalzai Pashtun. When he was anointed as Amir, he was proclaimed Durr-e-Durran (pearl among pearls) and his tribe and cognate tribes became known as the Durranis, of whom the Mohmmadzais became the most powerful. The Popalzais are part of the Mohammadzais, as are the Barakzais from whom the Amirs were drawn from the first half of the 19th century. This is significant, for real political power vested in the Mohammadzais, in particular the Barakzais, till Zahir Shah remained king.
The Pashtun dominance
Of course, great political changes took place in Afghanistan in the 226 years between Ahmed Shah (reviled in India as the adventurer who defeated the Marathas in the third battle of Panipat in 1761 but revered by the Afghan Pashtuns as “Baba”) and Zahir Shah. The monarchy, however, provided an over-arching framework within which the political drama, generally violent and bloody, played out and society evolved. Afghan ethnic groups jostled among themselves and with each other within accepted hierarchical parameters under Pashtun political and social dominance.
By abolishing the monarchy and removing the calming personality of Zahir Shah, Daoud provided ground to both non-traditional Islamic theologies and communist ideologies to aggressively seek greater space, especially in the minds of the urban elite and educated youth. The brakes, even if inefficient, put on these movements by the constitutional monarchy established by Zahir Shah in 1964 were removed. With the possibility of gaining influence through the old order gone, Islamic and communist forces looked to other and violent means to promote their interests. Besides, Afghan rural society, especially Pashtun, lost its royal anchor.
It is noteworthy that the 50th year of the Daoud coup marks the 130th year of the Durand Line that partitioned the Pashtun lands between Afghanistan and British India. Amir Abdur Rehman Khan, the Iron Amir, in whose time the present contours of Afghanistan almost emerged, had agreed to this division with Sir Mortimer Durand, British India’s Foreign Secretary, who negotiated the agreement. However, all Pashtuns believe that the Amir who bore the brunt of the Great Game between Britain and Czarist Russia that played out in Central Asia, and particularly in Afghanistan, had no choice but to accept this injustice.
No Afghan government has ever accepted the Durand Line as the southern and south-eastern international border either before or after 1947. In fact, for many Pashtuns, removing the Durand Line and extending the Afghan border to areas now in Pakistan where the Pashtuns are in a majority is a sacred cause. Daoud was devoted to it and publicly stood for incorporating all the land of the Pashtuns into Afghanistan, a Greater Pashtunistan. Naturally, this led to tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan when Daoud was Prime Minister and later when he became President.
The Greater Pashtunistan idea did not resonate among the country’s other ethnicities. The Pashtuns claim to be a majority in Afghanistan and believe that since the time of Ahmed Shah Abdali they alone have the right to lead the country. This is contested by the other ethnicities even as they acknowledge that the Pashtuns are the biggest group. According to most scholars, Pashtuns constitute 40-45 per cent of the population and mainly reside in the south and the south-east and have close kinship with Pashtun tribes across the Durand Line. Afghanistan’s second most important ethnic group is Tajik, while the Uzbeks and Shia Hazaras, in the Afghan Highlands, are largely looked down upon by the others.
Ethnicity, a fundamental feature of Afghan national life, impacts all aspects of its functioning, historically and in present times. Many Pashtun intellectuals seek to downgrade the significance of ethnicity in the country’s affairs, but Afghanistan’s history and current conditions belie this. The turbulence of the past five decades has not eroded the significance of ethnicity. Indeed, the basic division in the PDPA was largely because of ethnicity, and the mujahideen groups that formed against it were on ethnic lines too. The Taliban is essentially a Pashtun force even though it has sought to co-opt other groups, something that was also seen during the monarchical period. Neither could the Afghan Republic, established after the Taliban was ousted from the country in end-2001, following US intervention after 9/11, transcend ethnicity, either politically or socially.
Even President Hamid Karzai, a Popalzai like Ahmed Shah Abdali, opted to act like a traditional tribal chief, sowing discord among the leaders of other ethnic formations. While in the past, non-Pashtun ethnic groups accepted the Pashtun dominance even while resenting it, today they do not. One aspect of how ethnicity plays out is that while non-Pashtuns may not publicly oppose the abolition of the Durand Line, they certainly do not want an increase in the country’s Pashtun population and hence are content with it being a ‘border’ between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When Daoud raised the issue of Pashtunistan after 1973, Pakistan, led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, responded by courting Afghanistan’s Islamic forces who had been inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi doctrines. A number of these, who later became major figures in the Afghan jehad, including Gulbuddin Hekmetyar and Ahmed Shah Masood, went to Pakistan for arms training.
Later, Daoud mended fences with Pakistan and sought to distance himself from the Soviets with whom he had built a close relationship from his days as Prime Minister. This angered the Soviets who were closely aligned with the PDPA and sought unity between its two factions, Khalq and Parcham. There was communist influence in the army too.
In April 1978, the PDPA coup against Daoud was precipitated by the murder in Kabul of Mir Akbar Khyber, a Parchami leader. PDPA leaders attributed the act to Daoud and considered it a prelude to his acting against them all. Khyber’s funeral turned into an anti-Daoud demonstration, who responded by arresting prominent PDPA leaders. Of these, Hafizullah Amin, leader of the Khalqi faction, was put under house arrest. He ordered communist-friendly sections of the military to move against Daoud. They did so, killing Daoud, his family, and close supporters on April 28. A new chapter in Afghan history began.
The two factions of the communist party joined together to form government under Nur Mohammad Taraqi, which was recognised by the Soviet bloc, many non-aligned countries, and the US. Ideological, personality and ethnic differences, however, did not allow the government to function smoothly. The Khalqis were in a great hurry to take the deeply religious and conservative country down a Marxist-Leninist route. The Parcham leaders suggested caution but lost out in the intra-party struggle and were sent off on diplomatic assignments abroad. Ideologically driven changes in land laws and intervention in gender issues and religious practices were made. The Khalqis also imprisoned and killed thousands of opponents. The Afghans rose up in small groups to oppose these brutal measures and many left to live in exile in Pakistan and Iran. The more prosperous sought asylum in the West.
The Khalqi leaders then turned against each other; Amin had Taraqi killed in September 1979 and became President. But the Soviet leadership considered Amin dangerous and incapable of handling a country that was slipping into anarchy. Moscow’s alarm was heightened by other events in the neighbourhood in 1979: The Khomeini revolution threw out the Shah of Iran, and 52 US diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage. That crisis continued for 444 days and cost President Jimmy Carter his presidency. In Makkah, the Masjid al-Haram, Islam’s holiest site, was besieged by Islamist militants who believed that the Saudi royal family had turned away from its compact with Mohammad ibn Abd-al Wahhab. And in Pakistan, the military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq had Bhutto executed.
The Islamic world was in ferment and within Afghanistan the cry of jehad against the communists was raised, with Islamist forces in Pakistan and Iran, supported by their governments, ready to support it. Many members of the Politburo felt that the Soviet Union had no alternative but to militarily intervene in Afghanistan, remove Amin, guide the communist revolution. That, they believed, would safeguard USSR’s Central Asian states.
On Christmas eve of 1979, Soviet forces crossed the Amu Darya into Afghanistan while its special forces landed in Kabul. Amin was killed and Babrak Karmal, a Parchamite, was installed as President with a horde of Soviet advisers. But the jehad against the communists intensified and the flow of exiles also increased. In the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the US quickly saw an opportunity to even scores for its Vietnam defeat.
The Soviet occupation lasted till February 14, 1989, when the last Soviet soldier retreated across the Amu Darya signalling the defeat of its Afghan enterprise. While it was an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan and the Soviet Union (playing a role in its demise), a significant fallout was to let loose Islamist forces that deeply impacted the region and the world. Within Afghanistan it led to social and political instability that has continued to date. And it played no small part in creating the course that led to 9/11.
In Afghanistan, the Tajiks and Hazara ethnic groups formed militias while the Uzbeks, who largely sided with the communist government, began to be recruited into the army in large numbers. This meant that the Pashtun could no longer claim a monopoly on force. Besides, Pashtun groups continued to be divided on tribal, regional, and theological lines, as demonstrated by the formation of jehadi groups in Pakistan, while the other ethnicities had greater solidarity amongst themselves. They asserted themselves against Pashtun dominance, but it did not diminish the latter’s determination to cling to power. This became a factor in the unfolding of events in Afghanistan.
There is little doubt that the Soviet leadership realised its mistake very soon after sending its army into Afghanistan but it took Gorbachev to decide that the “bleeding ulcer” had to be staunched. The Soviets had to eat humble pie in the negotiating process but succeeded in ensuring an orderly withdrawal. Meanwhile, in 1986, they had replaced Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah, a charismatic but not prominent Parchamite leader of Pashtum Ahmedzai origin as President. Accepting the Afghan people’s religiosity, Najibullah sought to focus on an inclusive Afghan nationalism, but the dice was loaded against him because the jehadi tail was up, and the Soviets were losing heart. Besides, the USSR was in its death throes by now. What is remarkable is that Najibullah survived everything that Pakistan and the jehadi groups threw at him after the Soviet withdrawal, and it was only the end of the Soviet Union that sealed his fate.
As Najibullah’s army generals defected one by one, he too tried to flee Afghanistan but did not succeed. The US had lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, and there was no one to ensure the creation of an orderly post-Najibullah system in which all ethnicities could be adequately represented. Pakistan- and Iran-based groups negotiated under Pakistan’s aegis, which the Afghan groups deeply resented.
An interim agreement was reached in April 1992. Power would be initially exercised by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the leader of a Pakistan-based jehadi group, and thereafter by the Tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose group had a military leader in the charismatic jehadi Ahmed Shah Masood. The agreement fell through almost immediately. Masood, the Shia Hazaras, and the Hizb-e-Islami head, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, clearly Pakistan’s favourite, fought mercilessly to win Kabul, reducing it to almost rubble.
Meanwhile, the rest of Afghanistan became even more chaotic from 1992 onwards, with power exercised locally by different commanders who owed loyalty to regional bosses. The people’s suffering continued.
With Mujahideen rule, civil strife fully engulfed Afghanistan, and Afghan groups began looking for patrons abroad. The central Afghan government was only nominal because there was no ‘national’ military structure to back it. Instead, its coercive apparatus was Masood’s militia. The regional powers—Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, and so on—did not want one country to have decisive influence in Afghanistan.
A special mention has to be made of Pakistan, which considered that its support of the Afghan jehad and its deep Pashtun connections gave it the right to control Afghan policies wherever its interests were involved. All Afghan groups resented Pakistani interference but Masood rejected it outright. Hekmatyar was Pakistan’s chosen instrument in Afghanistan, but he was unable to capture Kabul from Masood, who turned to India, Iran, and Russia for support.
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As chaos reigned between 1992 and 1994, a new group called the Taliban emerged in south-west Afghanistan, led by traditional clerics who accepted a little-known figure—Mullah Mohammad Omar—as leader. It was initially encouraged by elements of Af-Pak truckers and narco traders, but soon enough Pakistan, frustrated by Hekmatyar’s inability to defeat Masood, threw its weight behind the Taliban. The Taliban was Pashtun, theologically rigid and socially obscurantist. With Pakistan’s support, directly through military advisers and indirectly through Pakistani seminaries, the Taliban gained control of southwest Afghanistan, including Kandahar in 1994.
The very next year it defeated the legendary jehadi leader Ismail Khan to get Herat and finally, in September 1996, it succeeded in pushing Masood from Kabul into the Shomali Plains and the Panjshir valley. The same year Omar declared himself as Amir-ul-Momineen and the country as an Islamic Emirate. By 1998, the Taliban had gained control of 90 per cent of Afghanistan.
Masood, the Hazaras and the Uzbeks formed the Northern Alliance to resist the Taliban. They secured India, Iran, and Russia’s support to deny full mastery to the Taliban over the country. At the same time, the Taliban’s regressive Islamist policies, especially on gender issues and the application of Shariat laws in full measure, including public executions, denied it legitimacy. Only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—accorded it diplomatic recognition; the UN seat continued to be with the Rabbani government.
In its initial years, the Taliban was for the US an “authentic” Afghan group. Later, its obscurantist gender policies caused disquiet but not alarm in Washington. That only happened when it became clear that Osama bin Laden, who had relocated to Afghanistan in the summer of 1996 had, through Al Qaeda, decided to target US interests.
The relationship between Mullah Omar and Osama is the subject of much debate among scholars and there is no certainty yet about its precise nature. What can be said is that even if exasperated with Osama’s activities, Omar was unwilling to throw him out of Afghanistan, even after 9/11. Two days before 9/11, two Al Qaeda operatives had assassinated Ahmed Shah Masood. Omar’s unwillingness to give up Osama forced the US to attack Afghanistan to eliminate Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power.
- Afghanistan’s geopolitical significance can be traced back to the 1973 coup when Daoud Khan dethroned his cousin King Zahir Shah, abolished the monarchy and became President of the new Republic. A society of multiple ethnicities virtually collapsed into violence and instability.
- The decades since 1973 saw two failed superpower military interventions, the rise of Islamist and communist ideologies, the emergence of the Taliban, a flourishing opium trade, and the arrival of international terrorist groups.
- The Taliban, which emerged in the early 1990s, took control of more than 90 per cent of Afganistan by 1998, and came under the influence of Al Qaeda. Then the 9/11 attacked in the US happened and the US took the war on terror into Afghanistan where it was trapped in a two-decade-long war.
The US and the Taliban
Not surprisingly, by December 2001, the US and its allies succeeded in throwing out the Taliban and Al Qaeda with the support of the Northern Alliance ground forces. However, the US made a fatal mistake from which it never recovered. In its initial attack, it did not fully eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, which enabled them to retreat into Pakistan and gain protection.
Meanwhile, the US and the international community met under the UN aegis at Bonn to work out an interim arrangement led by Hamid Karzai, a Popalzai and part of Mojaddedi’s group at one stage. The aim was for Afghanistan to become an integrated democratic republic where internationally recognised human rights would be respected. There was optimism that peace and stability would return after three decades of civil strife. But it was not to be, even though in 2004 a constitution was adopted declaring Afghanistan an Islamic Republic.
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Some political groups and a series of US blunders ensured that the Republic never stabilised, trapping the US in a two-decade-long ‘forever’ war that ended in its strategic defeat in August 2021. The Afghan Republic collapsed, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country. With Pakistan’s assistance, the Taliban, without Mullah Omar who had died in 2013, was back in power. Unlike the 1990s, now all of Afghanistan was in their control, with no real opposition. The Taliban-Pakistan success over the US and its allies in the 20-year war is a remarkable strategic achievement by any standard.
What contributed to it was the confused and even contradictory US military and political strategy. Added to this was the apathy and political failure of Presidents Karzai and Ghani; the fraudulent presidential elections which robbed Dr Abdullah Abdullahof victory in 2009, 2014, and 2019; and the sheer lack of courage of the Pashtun leadership to take on the Taliban politically and ideologically.
Through this period, ethnic considerations continued to govern the polity, which sought to re-establish centralised Pashtun hegemony even though the Pashtun diaspora, on whom the US greatly relied, was cut off from the Pashtun heartland and from rural Afghanistan. And, through these years, Afghanistan remained a narco-state, but this was overlooked by all political actors, inside and outside.
Afghanistan remained, by far, the world’s largest producer of illicit opium. But from around 2016 it also began to produce methamphetamine from the ephedra plant which grows wild in some arid provinces bordering Iran and in the Afghan Highlands. Methamphetamine production has dangerously increased in recent years and affects India too. This January, Indian authorities seized 2.5 tonnes of Afghan-origin methamphetamine valued at over $2 billion off the Kerala coast.
Finally, in February 2020, the US and the Taliban reached a deal under President Donald Trump. The US agreed to withdraw its forces in exchange for a Taliban assurance that it would not allow terrorist groups in its territory. The deal was also premised on a power-sharing deal between the Taliban and the Republic. In the end though, from June 2021 onwards, the Taliban moved in swiftly and the Republic’s army, trained and equipped by the US, virtually gave up without a fight.
All through the two decades of the Republic, the Afghan economy did not stabilise, remaining dependent on external support. Even the little progress on gender issues, limited to urban centres, was moved back by the Taliban who also began to impose the Shariat strictly.
Two years after the departure of US forces and the re- establishment of the Taliban Interim Administration, diplomatic recognition eludes it. The humanitarian situation is barely holding up and Afghans who can are leaving the country. Poverty is grinding while theological and tribal battles continue to plague the country.
Interestingly, Pakistan’s assistance to the Taliban has not given it control over extremist Pashtun Pakistani groups; the Taliban are now using them as diplomatic aces. At the same time, the Taliban is not inclined to limit its interaction with India based on Pakistan’s dictates. Pakistan’s great fear has always been that it will have to face a hostile western front in addition to its self-created tensions in the east with India.
Over the past five decades, all ruling parties in Kabul have sought relations with India. The Taliban wish to do so now. It was India which refused to do business with the Taliban in the 1990s, an attitude that was consolidated after the IC 814 hijack of December 1999. Now, too, India is going slow with the Taliban. Indian assistance to the Afghan people continues but its restrictive visa policies for Afghans need to change. It is leading to a loss of goodwill.
In a globalised world where social media makes isolation of societies and polities impossible, will the Taliban be able to use Islamism to deny progress to a people who have endured generations of instability? And will the region not be able to jointly combat the narco-terror and extremism that plague Afghanistan?
Answers to both questions are, unfortunately, in the negative. Afghanistan’s instability that began with the Daoud coup continues.
Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer. He served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan from March 2002 to January 2005.