The Graveyard Grows: Afghanistan Post-Coalition ‘Future’ | Nathan Wilson
Perhaps one of the most ironic quotes that is attributed to the nation of Afghanistan is that it is ‘the graveyard of empires’, or simply put by an Ex-Yorkshire Regiment friend of mine, “Afghanistan is Mordor with AK 47’s”. Since 2001, Coalition forces (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany etc) have fought in Afghanistan, in part due to the ‘War on Drugs’ (Opiates from poppy production, for which the region is famous for), 9/11 and the Taliban harbouring Osama Bin Laden (OBL), who it was known used the nation as a base of operations.
For many centuries many different nations have fought over and against Afghanistan and nearly every time they have failed, the British Empire, Tsarist Russia, Soviet Union and now the United States has joined its ranks.
Perhaps one of the best books ever written about this certain topic has been by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, ‘Afghansty’. In the book he perfectly outlines the causes for the Soviet-Afghan War and Afghanistan’s history and is a must read for any International Relation scholars. The idea of it being ‘easy to get in, yet hard to get out’ is best demonstrated by the Soviet Union and its intervention into the nation. In contrast, the book ‘The outside of the mountain’ by Ali Ahmad Jalali, is also fantastic at presently the other side of the conflict, that being the Mujahadeen.
Since 2001, Coalition forces have fought against the Taliban within the nation of Afghanistan and now after nearly twenty years, the West has finally admitted defeat (they will not call it that but no nation has either the stomach or political capital in continuing their presence there. Like Nixon in 1968, realising that Vietnam was a hopeless endeavour, both the Trump Administration (under the mantra of ending the ‘endless foreign wars’) and now finally the Biden Administration targeting a full removal of all troops by August this year (just before the twenty-year anniversary of 9/11).
The news of which has only increased the Taliban’s attacks and actions within the country, knowing that the Afghan National Army (ANA) cannot stand on its own without Coalition support. It has been no surprise that the nation has collapsed so fast, with many billions of dollars’ worth of Army equipment and kit having been left. After the Soviet-Afghan War, the Taliban after a period of Civil War took over the nation, only to lose control after 2001, now after twenty years things look like they have returned to normal. During their time in charge, the Taliban banned multiple things like kite-flying and owning birds as pets. This was in part to do with their strict enforcement of Islamic Sharia Law within the nation.
A brief history of Afghanistan and the Taliban could denote many different things, the word Taliban is the plural for students in Arabic and maybe that is the best way of explaining their origins. In the 1980’s during the Soviet-Afghan War, some ninety thousand Afghans were trained in Pakistan by the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistani Security forces). After which, they returned to Afghanistan and dominated the nation from the inside out. When they returned the Taliban were just as foreign as the Soviets, being educated in a different country and speaking different languages.
Another point worth mentioning is that of the Mujahadeen, who operated and fought against Communism and the Soviets in Afghanistan throughout the 1980’s. The funding of the Mujahadeen (The Anti-Soviet Big Tent Islamists) by the CIA was most notably depicted in the film, ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’. Although, the real history was more insane. The CIA gave the Mujahadeen something close to two billion dollars in munitions and armaments, for which afterwards got into the hands of the Taliban which formed soon after.
It was when a Soviet Colonel of ‘Zenit’ (Soviet Special Forces, most elite of the Spetnaz) had described Afghanistan as a place of “legalised insanity”, mirroring the images of the US’s involvement in Vietnam or best a scene out of Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’. I guess after the Coalition forces finally leave, the condition of the nation can finally become clearer than what has been depicted previously.
For those who do not know, I would recommend looking up some key terms to explain this ‘legalised insanity’, like ‘Green Parrot /PFM-1’, ‘Bacha Bazi’ and ‘Mohammad Omar’. It is hoped that these terms and figures can shed some light on the mentality and mindset of the nation and what happens within its borders.
Overall, this begs the question of ‘what future does Afghanistan truly hold?’ and ‘Why is Afghanistan such a blackhole?’.
Why Afghanistan is a blackhole
Afghanistan is a geographical nightmare (so are its neighbouring nations), to build any form of basic infrastructure is practically a nightmare. The nation is mountainous at minimum and extreme at best, with rugged terrain and deep river basins, the ability to construct critical infrastructure becomes nearly impossible. The best chance that the nation had was in the 1950’s to 1960’s when the United States constructed several major dams throughout the country. As much as most NGOs will never admit within the Aid Industry, the most basic thing for a nation to function is infrastructure (aid work is good virtue signalling but realistically not the best, find Dambisa Moyo’s ‘Dead Aid’ for context), if a nation lacks it, it lacks everything. It is of no surprise that Afghanistan due to its geography has formed its negative feedback loops. The Himalaya’s start in the nation, if that sums up the true altitude of fighting in Afghanistan, something which has been both an advantage and nightmare depending on your perspective. Or even more unexpectedly, the nation size is the same distance as Atlanta in Georgia, to Rhode Island’s Providence.
Afghanistan holds many different racial and ethnic groups within its borders. Although religiously the nation remains firmly Islamic (Sunni), it is these different ethnic groups which has led to the nation continuing to be fragmented and splintered. With Pashtuns making up the bulk and Tajik’s making up mostly the rest, has led the country in being a place lacking social trust and cohesion amongst its citizenries. Nations need to have social cohesion to function, nations that do not simply struggle to be nations.
Perhaps one of the most striking things that defines the nation of Afghanistan, but understated is that of its neighbours. Pakistan, Iran, China and Uzbekistan to name a few. All these countries have very distinct and strong identities and cultures, alongside both supporting and attacking each other. These are countries that in the past have helped fund various extremist groups within the nation.
Overall, it is those three things that have helped place Afghanistan into the hole that it is in. In conclusion, with the most recent twenty-year stint coming to an end and the Taliban looking to stay as the returning power, one must wonder several different things: was it all worth it?
Absolutely not, for all the money placed in the country and all the lives lost. Liberals often struggle to understand that their vision of the world is not universal and that nations will not share their vision, Afghanistan is one such nation.
If I was a betting man, I would take a solid guess that the Coalition forces will not remind in some form, they will just outsource the fighting to contractors instead. I am in no doubt that the US military industrial complex can find an ‘Executive Outcomes’ for Afghanistan and some work will still continue, outside of the public eye. However, what will remain interesting will be the answer to the question of ‘what future does Afghanistan truly hold?’. For many the answer will be in China and how they decide to take the US’s place. If they can learn from the lessons of the past or merely join this ever-growing graveyard.