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The Roots of the Taliban

By Colonel ANIL A ATHALE (retd)
Last updated on: August 07, 2021 12:57 IST
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Internal strife and tribalism is endemic to Afghanistan, notes Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

IMAGE: Abdul Latif Mansoor, left, Shahabuddin Delawar, centre, and Suhail Shaheen -- members of the Taliban political office -- at a news conference in Moscow, July 9, 2021. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

The American withdrawal from the Bagram air base on July 6, 2021, almost 20 years after the US entered Afghanistan to hunt for al-Qaeda, brings the clock back full circle. It almost seems like the re-make of an old film where the villains -- the Taliban -- remain the same while the losers change from the Soviet Union to the US, an erstwhile 'sole superpower'.

Of course, the potential victims -- ordinary Afghan citizens -- again are common to both tragedies. If any modern episode proves the adage 'History repeats itself' correct, it is the events in Afghanistan over the last three decades.

Before one can realistically assess what the global/regional impact of the forthcoming events would be, it is necessary to understand the similarities and differences between the situation that emerged after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the current American actions of vacating Afghanistan.

Most analysis has focused on the immediate political or military aspect in isolation. It has been somewhat like the exercise by blind men trying to describe an elephant.

The Afghanistan issue has several dimensions -- global, regional and internal and a military aspect that deals with insurgency and counter-insurgency. The roots of the present troubles lie in the nation's past, its history and sociology.

A background to all these aspects is necessary to understand the present events as well as map out the possible future course of events.

Historically, Hindu/Buddhist Afghanistan has been used as the staging post or route for invasion of the fertile plains of North India since times immemorial. The first known use was by Alexander in the 4th century BC. Alexander was later followed by the Huns, the Mongols and Iranians.

All these invading armies passed though present day Afghanistan and left a population of mixed ethnicity that congealed into constantly warring tribes who jealously guard their ethnicity.

Afghan history is similar to the Balkans and has similar consequences of constant strife and disunity. This fundamental fact pervades the Afghan social scenario to date even in the 21st century.

Internal strife and tribalism is endemic to Afghanistan.

Stable nation States are formed when there are ethnic, religious, linguistic and historical commonalities.

On this matrix, modern Afghanistan is more an accident of history. It has barely existed for 300 odd years and has repudiated its own Hindu/Buddhist past.

Pakistan, its neighbour, founded on a single factor of religious identity found that a nation cannot remain united based only on a single factor and broke into two 50 years ago. This fragility of Afghanistan's nationhood is a factor to reckon with when studying the present situation.

IMAGE: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, the Taliban's lead negotiator, and other delegation members attend the Afghan peace conference in Moscow, March 18, 2021. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters

Modern Afghanistan took shape in the 18th century under the redoubtable Ahmed Shah Durrani who unified the warring Afghan tribes. Afghanistan owes its independence to the geopolitics of the 19th century when it was coveted by the expanding Russian empire and the British empire in India.

After prolonged strife and two invasions later, both the British and Russians agreed to keep Afghanistan as a buffer State.

To secure its Indian empire's Western borders, the British annexed the Pakhtun tribal dominated areas east of the Khyber pass, the so-called Durand Line. This effectively divided the Pakhtuns between British India and Afghanistan.

The British, and later Pakistan, kept an open border and the Pakhtuns were free to move across the border till 2010 when Pakistan fenced the border. Owing to the difficult mountain terrain, cross border movement continues.

Irrespective of who rules Afghanistan, the Durand Line and the division of Pakhtun dominated area is not acceptable to any Afghan regime, Taliban or no Taliban.

Afghanistan's remaining independent from European colonial rule in the 19th and 20th century is a result of Anglo-Russian rivalry and not any special qualities of the Afghans, but has nevertheless given birth to the notion of Afghan exceptionalism.

Till 1979, Afghanistan was ruled by a monarchy that was modern and liberal in its orientation. But the modernity of Afghanistan remained confined to its major cities while the countryside remained deeply conservative and followed tribal practices.

In that year (1979), as the Islamic revolution in Iran saw the overthrow of the pro-West Shah of Iran, Russia saw its opportunity and decided to exert direct control over Afghanistan.

Afghanistan had always had strong Socialist parties -- the Khalaq and Parcham who stood for a modern Socialist Afghanistan.

In 1979, as Soviet forces entered Afghanistan to support the Left-leaning government, the US saw an opportunity to do a 'Vietnam' on the Soviet Union. Unlike the earlier King Daud regime, the Communist regime led by Babrak Karmal decided to extend its sway into the rural hinterland in order to modernise Afghanistan. Here, it came into direct conflict with the entrenched conservative tribal leadership.

The US and Saudi Arabia teamed together and decided to support the revolt of religious conservatives against the 'godless' Communists

Pakistan enthusiastically joined the fight and received US arms and Saudi money in return. Pakistan also used this period to build its nuclear weapons as the US turned a blind eye to this proliferation as a price for Pak support for the 'Good' Jihad.

The US designed special courses (at Wisconsin university) to radicalise Afghan refugees and actively promoted Islamic fundamentalism at school levels to create an army of young fanatic recruits, later known as the Taliban, the Urdu meaning being students.

One Saudi, Osama bin Laden, was one of the participants in this jihad or religious war.

The Afghan mujahideen, with bases in Pakistan, with the latest American arms fought a guerilla war against the leftist Afghan government for over a decade, 1979 to 1989.

The combined Soviet and Afghan forces began to lose once the US supplied 'Stinger' anti-aircraft missiles nullified the Soviet advantage in air power. After suffering heavy casualties and in dire economic straits, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated in 1992. The Afghan regime, then led by Dr Najibullah, was left to fight alone with no support from the Soviet Union.

Military historian Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a former Chhatrapati Shivaji Chair Fellow at the United Services Institute of India.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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Colonel ANIL A ATHALE (retd)