Robert Crews of Stanford University’s Department of History has penned an unusual narrative about Afghanistan, dispelling the negative portrayals of it—as an anachronistic, unchanging, primitive, and ethnically divided ‘graveyard of empires.’ From a rugged, variegated transit territory, it was cobbled into a country two and a half centuries ago. Its sense of nationhood has remained strong (it has not had a secessionist movement in recent memory), even if its state structure has been weak. Contrary to the current western discourse, Crews sees Afghanistan as ‘an expansive space that accommodated varying kinds of networks that crisscrossed the region and the globe, rather than a static collection of tribes and ethnic groups.’
After intervening ineptly during the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42) and paying a heavy price for it, the British imperial design was to keep Afghanistan weak and isolated. For a century thereafter, Afghanistan was sequestered and turned into a buffered enclave. When Pakistan was created in 1947, according to Crews, in the face of considerable resistance from the Pashtun elites, it was seen then ‘as an instrument of British imperialism.’ Pakistan carried with it the legacy of ‘its colonial origin’ and, with it, of the contested Durand Line. Western Pakistan straddled an area that was ruled historically either from Delhi or Kabul. For the Pashtun ethno-nationalists, writes Crews, ‘the proposition of ultimately drawing all Pashtuns into a single state’ became a matter of primary importance—they wanted to get back their territory, wrested by the British. Pakistan, as a new state, became excessively sensitive to Afghan aspirations. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan were, therefore, fraught from the start.
Pakistan became for many Afghans, writes Crews, a rivalrous state, with its ‘universalist claim to be homeland for the Muslims anywhere.’ In retaliation against Afghanistan’s reluctance to recognize Pakistan and opposing its United Nations membership, Pakistan impeded the transit of goods through Afghanistan’s trade lifeline from Karachi, and banned the entry of Afghan petrol trucks into Pakistan in 1949. Their rivalry played out unequally. Pakistan leveraged its geography and resources to build itself militarily, and soon joined the Manila and Baghdad Pacts—the U.S.-led anti-Chinese and anti-Soviet security arrangements. Muhammad Ludin, the Afghan Ambassador in Washington DC made a fervent but losing pitch to promote Afghanistan’s case with the State Department, warning that the strengthening of Pakistan and Iran at the expense of Afghanistan risked ‘a political and ideological vacuum’. He warned, quotes Crews: If Afghanistan should succumb to an economic and political collapse, and an ideology foreign to its history and tradition should overtake it, partly because of the cataclysmic events over which we have no control, and partly because of the lack of interest in its fate by the free world and its leaders, that will indeed be a dark day in the history of Asia. It will be a great blow to the free world and to humanity as well.
Ludin’s plea fell on deaf ears. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was convinced that ‘the strong martial spirit’ of the people of Pakistan would be ‘a dependable bulwark against Communism.’ In contrast, Afghanistan had ‘no intrinsic strength, no economic resources, and no military power,’ said President Ayub Khan to President Eisenhower, as quoted by Husain Haqqani in his 2013 book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding. Ayub Khan added that ‘Afghans were not Muslims as much as opportunists,’ suggesting that Afghanistan would be both unreliable and ineffective as America’s partner. From the start, Pakistan became a perennial source of Afghanistan’s destabilization.
Crews presents in graphic detail the recent evolution of Afghanistan’s interaction with the external world. After the Second World War, the United States occupied the space once Great Britain had within Afghanistan. Morrison-Knudsen, the firm that built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, began construction of a canal network in Helmand. French doctors and nurses flocked to Kabul. By 1960 a suburb called ‘little America’ had sprung up in Kandahar. The Russians too came, competing with the Americans. A visiting U.S. journalist noted their different deportment—Afghans found the Americans aloof, he wrote, while the Soviet expatriates ‘mixed with the locals, living and shopping among them’.
Two decades later, first when Soviet, and then American troops and advisors came to Afghanistan, the Russian families lived in the mixedpopulation Mikrorayon complex in Kabul and sent their children to Afghan schools. Afghan children sometimes clambered on Russian tanks positioned at Kabul’s prominent intersections. The Americans were sanitized from local contact, confined within compounds surrounded by Dannert wires and Hesco bastions. The heavily helmeted and body-armoured U.S. troops kept a distance between themselves and the Afghan populace.
Social and economic change in Afghanistan accelerated with the Five Year Plan of 1956–1961. Its focus areas were energy, education, and roads. An American firm built the modern-looking Kandahar airport with its nine arched domes, and Pan American Airways invested in creating Ariana Afghan Airlines, which soon connected to Europe, India, Iran, and the former Soviet Union. The Russians built the Salang tunnel under the Hindu Kush, reducing the distance between the northern provinces and Kabul, and the port of Termez on the banks of the river Oxus, in Uzbekistan, to provide Afghanistan an alternate access for its external trade. The Americans built the Kabul University campus, and the Russians constructed the Polytechnic Institute.
During his short reign, King Amanullah Khan had initiated reforms inspired by his father-in-law and Foreign Minister, Mahmud Tarzi, including reduction of taxes and institution of private property in land. The state opened its first school for girls in 1921. Following the partial emancipation of women in 1959, women professionals were inducted in the local and central governments. In six years, there were 5,680 women working in Kabul, over half of them in public services. By the late 1960s, government estimated that almost half a million women had joined the workforce throughout the country.
Besides architects, engineers, doctors, and teachers, a connected Afghanistan attracted European and American hippies, who flocked there for the ‘psychotropic pleasures’ of hashish and heroin. Global narcotics suppliers and merchants soon followed, making Afghanistan, by far, the leading illicit opium providor of the world—currently accounting for 90 percent of global supply—and the world’s largest hashish producer.
Meanwhile, with easier access, the intellectual elites of Afghanistan were exposed to Marxism and Islamist ideologies. Nur Muhammad Taraki, one of the founding members of People’s Democratic Party (PDPA) of Afghanistan, and the first President of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan following the Saur Revolution of 1978, learnt about socialism and anti-colonialism while working as a clerk in Bombay in the 1930s for the Pashtun Trading Company, owned by the expatriate Afghan capitalist, Abdul Majid Zabuli.
The rise of Islam-passand parties in Afghanistan did not follow the Saur Revolution, but preceded it. Crews describes how, in reaction to the demand for Pashtunistan, Pakistan launched a propaganda campaign through its Pashto language print media and radio, decrying ‘the autocratic rule of the royal family’ and suggesting that Afghans ‘would be better off under an Islamic republic.’ Support to Islamist leaders and organizations in Afghanistan from the Pakistan authorities became more readily available after King Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 by his cousin, Muhammad Daud, in a republican coup. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the founders of Hizbe-Islami and Jamiat-e Islami, respectively, relocated to Pakistan the same year. They were accused, along with Ustad Abdul Rab Sayyaf, of planning Daud’s overthrow. Sayyaf too joined them in Pakistan, as did Maulawi Jalaluddin Haqqani, who began to organize subversive activities against Daud from 1975 from Miramshah in North Waziristan. Rabbani was then Professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Kabul University and became President of Afghanistan in 1992. Hekmatyar twice served as his Prime Minister.
Daud was overthrown, not by the Islamists nurtured by Pakistan, but by the PDPAled Saur Revolution, which catapulted Afghanistan into a vortex of violence and instability that has lasted close to four decades. Taraki did not own up to the ‘Communist’ label for himself of the PDPA, and insisted on being described as ‘radical reformers and progressive democrats.’ His killer and successor, Hafizullah Amin, in turn, was killed by Soviet forces three days after they entered Afghanistan, on Christmas Eve, 1979, on the suspicion that Amin was close to the Americans. The Soviets, mouse-trapped in Afghanistan, pulled out of it a decade later. Deprived of food, fuel, and firepower following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in December 1991, the PDPA regime headed by President Muhammad Najibullah fell four months later. The Mujahideen Government that followed was forced out by the Taliban by 1996.
The Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 again brought Afghanistan to the centre of global politics. After the overthrow of the Taliban regime, writes Crews, Afghans became ‘the object of a beneficent humanitarianism,’ though not by design. U.S. and UN officials both initially advocated a light footprint in Afghanistan. State institutions were developed as ‘almost an afterthought,’ and were ‘both sustained and undermined by international patrons.’ Large parts of the Afghan economy, including the narcotics trade, were tied to global financial flows. ‘Foreign aid departed as quickly as it landed,’ adds Crews, ‘diverted not just by Afghan elites’ but by the foreign nationals attached to NGOs, ‘and government institutions that had provided that aid in the first place.’
Crews ends on a sombre, yet not an altogether pessimistic note. Notwithstanding U.S. and NATO assertions about the war in Afghanistan having ended, since last year the ‘fighting has actually intensified,’ writes Crews. The western project, in his words, to ‘introduce enlightenment’ and to ‘eradicate poverty, ignorance, and disease,’ has had limited success. Crews decries the false narrative created to cover up these failures, which occurred not because Afghans are moored in medievalism and a culture of corruption, but because of the consistent underestimation of the strength of the Taliban, its external sources of support, and the faulty assistance delivery system that ‘enriched so many Afghans and Americans alike.’
Despite their disillusionment, and in the words of Crews, ‘the looming sense of betrayal at the hands of retreating foreigners,’ the resilient Afghans are holding on to the promise of renewal. This stems from their ingrained conviction that their country occupies ‘a pivotal place in the highly interconnected world,’ and that the international community might still forge a common intent to build a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. While the portends for such an outcome might not be reassuring, for anyone interested in contemporary Afghanistan, Robert Crews has authored an indispensable account.
Jayant Prasad, a former diplomat who has served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, is Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.