From the turbulent 1970s
With its geographic centrality on the Asian continent, Afghanistan has historically become a corridor and civilisational interstice between Persian and Hindustani empires and peoples flowing in from the north. Some were Turkic-speaking, who marked and shaped the ethnic synthesis that today makes up this heterogeneous Central Asian country. Afghanistan, now with a population of more than 30 million, is a multi-ethnic conglomerate whose predominant group is the Pashtuns, followed by the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. There are also minority ethnic groups such as the Baloch, Turkomans, Nuristani, Brahui and others. They hold less demographic weight and are scattered throughout the country, characterised by a topographical diversity of the terrain that has also permeated the identity of these peoples.
Linguistically, Pashto and Dari are the predominant and official languages of the nation, spoken by the majority ethnic groups. Pashto is an ancient Iranian language written in modified Arabic characters. It is spoken by the people of the same name in Afghanistan and the groups that share this ethnic identity on the Pakistan side of the border. Meanwhile, Dari is an Afghan variant of Persian, also known as Farsi, and is the language of several of the country’s ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, Hazaras and other minor groups who have Dari as their mother tongue. There are minority languages such as Hazaragi and Uzbek, and others of lesser weight, spoken among the Afghan population.
In order to make a direct connection with the Taliban phenomenon in Afghanistan’s contemporary history, one must understand the shocking processes of history during the last decades in Afghanistan, mainly from the 1970s onwards. In the seventh decade of the twentieth century, Afghanistan faced the dilemma of modernisation in the context of the monarchical power of former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and some political forces were the repositories of these modernising factions. One of the figures who represented the interest in capitalist modernisation of the country was former president of Afghanistan, Mohammed Daoud Khan, who was related to the monarchy and had held high public office during the monarchy’s rule. His alliance with sectors of the army and other political forces of different ideological persuasions won him the support to stage the coup d’état in 1973.
Progressive forces, such as the People’s Democratic Party founded in 1965 by Nur Muhammad Taraki, initially supported Daoud’s coup, whose modernising projection contrasted with the political forces of the old regime. At the beginning of his rule, Daoud’s discourse was permeated by ideas related to “Afghan socialism” or “national socialism” that reflected the global impact of such a system on some progressive social sectors in Afghanistan. While in power, this regime experienced a bogging down course related to the moderate projection of some of its allies and the complex ethnoreligious landscape in the Central Asian country. Along the way, it moved towards an increasingly conservative outcome that abandoned this initial phraseology, and some of the more progressive measures were abandoned, left on the back burner, or not implemented in the right way. For its part, the Marxist-oriented People’s Democratic Party had become deeply rooted in certain sectors of the army because of its humble origins, because some had studied in the Soviet Union, or because of the party’s own work in this sector. What was certain, was that by 1978, Daoud’s administration was moving towards a repressive policy that triggered the April Revolution, a movement that led the communists to seize power through a coup d’état against Daoud’s government.
Applying socialism on Afghan soil, and taking progressive measures such as land reform, meant not only confronting the large feudal landowner, as might be thought from a traditional conception of Marxism. There were many small tribal interests and traditions in Afghanistan that could interpret any transformation promoted by the central power as an intrusion, even if they were socially progressive measures. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that the Marxist-oriented party that took power in the Central Asian nation was an organisation divided into factions from its very inception. However, these divisions had largely been bridged with the maturation of events that led to the revolution of April 1978. This coincided with the month of Saur in 1357, according to the Islamic calendar, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan came to power.
Thereafter, the Revolutionary Council met and elected Taraki as head of state and Babrak Karmal as vice-president, the two main leaders of the two main factions within the People’s Democratic Party – the Khalq (people) led by Taraki and the Parcham (flag) led by Karmal. With this triumph, intra-party dissent was rekindled, and Hafizullah Amin, the government’s foreign minister who had had a key role in the April triumph, played a fundamental role. But with the People’s Democratic Party in power, Amin began to occupy key sectors of the Afghan state, while at the same time engaging in a centrifugal exercise within the organisation that would deepen the fracture between the two factions mentioned above. Amin began to exalt Taraki’s personality, while at the same time marginalising Karmal and the Parcham members. The result of all this was the creation of a support base of his own that gradually isolated Taraki, while transformations in Afghan society remained pending. At the end of 1978, the “Afghan-Soviet Friendship Treaty” was signed. This materialised the continuity of a principle of Russian policy regarding the security of its borders that had been expressed since Tsarist Russia, however, at that time, with a more aggressive projection of colonialism. Whereas, after the October Revolution, it was expressed through friendly treaties. This agreement made explicit the need to take all necessary measures to preserve the territorial integrity of the two nations. However, the profound process of deviations within the ruling party and towards Afghan society had already begun. This accelerated the growth of opposition, including the expulsion of members of the Parcham bloc, accused of counter-revolution by Amin and his allies, who had the government’s security apparatus in their hands.
When Taraki was alerted to the problems by other states and tried to rectify them, he was assassinated by Amin’s supporters once the Parcham trend was isolated. Simultaneously, a repressive process towards the Afghan people was put in place, undermining the credibility of the People’s Democratic Party government, which had become totally disoriented from its original principles, transforming the revolution into chaos. Amin’s government fell into crisis in the last months of 1979, and in December, there was an uprising led by disgruntled and marginalised sectors of the ruling party itself. This was led by Karmal, who seized power on 27 December and, a day later, decided to ask the Soviet Union for support on the basis of the friendly treaty signed a year earlier. This is the origin of Soviet intervention, which was not only military, but also economic. However, in the military field, it was aimed at containing the advance of the anti-systemic opposition that began to strengthen from Pakistan with the support of the West, turning Afghanistan into a major Cold War scenario. To better understand the opposition phenomenon, it is necessary to consider the regional context of the Middle East, which is linked to the global Cold War scenario. Nearby, Iran’s Islamic Revolution had triumphed, toppling the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Afghanistan at the time of Soviet intervention
During the 1970s, Islamist factions that saw political Islam as a goal to be pursued had re-emerged with renewed strength at the regional level. This came when secular nationalism had declined, especially following the death of Egypt’s former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the region’s foremost nationalist leader. Secularism gave way to Islamist factions, and the most concrete reflection of this was the triumph of an Islamic Revolution in Iran. In Afghanistan, with a government sustained by Soviet support and intervention, the opposition reinforced its Islamic character. The increase and strengthening of the Islamist parties’ confessional bases had the close collaboration of the US, Saudi Arabia and also Pakistan, which, from its side of the border, sustained on its terrain a point of relaunching the Islamic jihadist insurgency towards Afghanistan. This was mainly from the Peshawar area, where a large community of Afghan refugees were raised. At the same time, there was a pole of attraction for international jihadism – not only Afghan. This was accompanied by a concept of Holy War which, on this occasion, was ideologically marked by the Cold War and anti-Sovietism in the face of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ‘s intervention.
The anti-Soviet Islamist insurgency known as the Mujahideen movement comprised a cluster of Islamic organisations, such as those led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani. They had different backgrounds but shared the Islamic and insurgent character with which they imbued their organisations. Others also nurtured this spirit and practice of confrontation against the communist enemy from the training received by the students of Islam in the madrassas of Peshawar. This included military preparation in training camps to confront the enemy occupying Afghan territory – a scenario inspired by the fundamentalist Islamic training received by these students. Their interpretation of Sharia was projected as the model to be followed by Muslims wanting to revive Islam in its original character, paired with a strong Salafist influence of Wahhabi inspiration, in terms of the interpretation of all human and social phenomena. Peshawar was a region with a large population of Pashtuns, the predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, so this worldview was heavily permeated by Pashtunwali, the tribal code of this ethnic group. In the military field, they developed an irregular war in the form of guerrilla warfare. Their advances and retreats were often determined by the greater or lesser presence of the Soviet Army that supported the Afghan forces in the different regions.
The Soviet-backed Afghanistan that Karmal presided over between 1979 and 1986 tried to create a balance of power that would integrate other political forces typical of the traditional Afghan world. It also aimed to incorporate ethnic minorities into the government and other institutional tools intended to strengthen the popular base of the government. However, the increase in military devices occupied the greatest energies of Karmal’s government because of the border issue and the Islamic opposition resistance.
In the second half of the 1980s, global changes took place that again led to a change in the Afghan context as Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, leading to a new strategy towards Afghanistan aimed at the withdrawal of Soviet troops. This situation was mainly faced by the government of former Afghan president, Mohammad Najibullah, the former head of Karmal’s secret police, who headed the Afghan government during the period of socialist collapse between 1986 and 1992. Najibullah attempted to sustain his rule with a set of transformations that set a democratic, multi-party course, the drafting of a new constitution and other measures that did not stand up to the fragility of a state at war, sustained by foreign intervention. The Soviet Union took the lead in negotiations for an exit from the Afghan scenario. In 1988, international negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan took place in April in Geneva, with the support of the USSR and the US. This diplomatic exercise was the direct prelude to the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, a decade after their entry into Afghan territory.
How did the Taliban emerge?
Following Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan remained at war. The country had not been pacified, and the conflict continued to develop internally, including the incursion from Pakistan. During the years of the collapse of the USSR, logistical and arms support for Najibullah’s government continued until 1991, and the West continued to supply resources to the Mujahideen opposition, albeit to a lesser extent. The final collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991 occurred at the same time as the prelude to the fall of the Afghan government. Firstly, the insurgent commanders in Afghanistan had not agreed to negotiate with the government. Secondly, by the time 1992 came, Najibullah’s government was already a caricature, with some of its senior members in the state, police and army having joined various insurgent factions. From this point on, the fragility of alliances between the various insurgent factions, parties, guerrillas and tribes was reflected as never before. Several coalitions jostled for control of Kabul, while in the country’s interior, the so-called warlords reproduced a centrifugal process aimed at obtaining greater levels of autonomy from the central power.Between March and April 1992, the Najibullah government finally collapsed and the various contending factions vying for control of Kabul entered the scene. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, with his Uzbek militia, allied with other generals and joined forces with General Ahmad Shah Massoud, who commanded a military force composed mostly of Tajiks. On the other hand, some members of Najibullah’s government joined other insurgent factions, such as the one led by partisan leader Hekmatyar. Another contending faction was a coalition of Islamic parties that formed a Jihad Council led by Professor Mojadidi, which Hekmatyar did not join. The latter group allied with Massoud and his generals and triumphantly entered Kabul at the end of April 1992. They appointed an interim government headed by Rabbani, also a Tajik, in contrast with the traditional predominance in power of the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. In this spiral of lightning alliances and very fragile consensuses, Kabul became a nest of confrontation between the Mujahideen. Meanwhile, inside the country, chaos was wreaked by local commanders and commanders with tribal and regional roots. The violence in Afghanistan had a dual dimension: the struggle for central power in Kabul by the Mujahideen and their allies, and in turn, the war inside the country for control of regional and local powers, often tribal or ethnically conditioned.
The era of Mujahideen “rule” immediately preceded the creation of the Taliban phenomenon, which emerged within the context of political and ethno-tribal violence in Afghanistan between 1992 and 1994. The Mujahideen failed to mature a central government in Kabul with the capacity to govern and control the country. All this consumed the nation in civil confrontations that wore down any chance of a Mujahideen government. They became demoralised in the violent course of events that seemed to have no end in sight. In pre-Taliban Afghanistan, the country was on the brink of the abyss and disintegration. The Rabbani government had only been able to gain control of Kabul and its environs, as well as a corridor to the northeast of the country. A group of provinces in the western region was controlled by Ismail Khan, operating from Herat. At the same time, the Pashtun region bordering Pakistan was under collegial rule by a council of Mujahideen, with its centre of power radiating from Jalalabad. Another small region was controlled by Hekmatyar to the south and east of Kabul. In turn, we find the Uzbek lord Dostum in the north controlling six provinces, who had dissociated himself from the Rabbani and Massoud government and made a new alliance – this time with Hekmatyar. In the centre of the country, Bamiyan was controlled by the Hazaras, while the south and Kandahar were in the hands of a collection of politically unimportant warlords who indulged in looting and mayhem.
Out of all this violence, the Taliban emerged in 1994 in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, led by Mullah Mohamed Omar. He brought together the efforts of former students of the Peshawar madrassas and former Mujahideen. Dissatisfied with the chaotic situation that had prevented them from continuing their studies, they created this new organisation baptised with the name linking them to their status as Islamic students, whose knowledge was imparted by a mullah. The Taliban began to confront the excesses of the warlords in Kandahar and soon became an operational force capable of getting the population out of great trouble in different local disputes. It is said that Mullah Omar did not demand any economic remuneration from the people saved, only that they support him in the objective of establishing true Islam, free from the deviations of the warlords and the Mujahideen.
Between 1994 and 1996, the Taliban gradually triumphed in the interior of the country until they reached the capital, a process that was not without setbacks and risks in their confrontation with their main rivals, mainly those in the northern region. Gradually, with the support of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban occupied the major cities in the country’s interior, such as Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad. However, their initial success was not due to foreign support, but rather a consequence of the Taliban’s initial advance, controlling strategic smuggling routes between Kandahar and Pakistan. The Taliban created a single system of tolls, unifying the previous fiscal jigsaw puzzle that damaged the smuggling mafias between the two countries. Thousands of young men, many of them students in Pakistani madrassas, joined the new organisation, which by the end of 1994 numbered more than 10,000 Taliban. The Taliban rigorously enforced Sharia law, disarmed the population and reopened the country to smuggling. The years 1995 and 1996 were the years of the Taliban’s journey to Kabul. They consolidated their victories in most of the Central Asian nation and were much more eventful campaigns than those they had initially waged against the small southern chiefs, occupying these territories relatively easily. In the north were the big warlords, and in the capital, the hostile Rabbani and Massoud government faced different actors such as the coalition led by Hekmatyar. The Taliban had to wage tough campaigns to occupy key urban sectors such as Herat and the capital, Kabul. In September 1995, the ancient city of Herat fell to the Taliban, a victory that opened the door to the Taliban’s control of the west of the country. From then on, the Taliban felt they were in a better position to attack Kabul, although they had to retreat on several occasions against Massoud’s forces, who had been very effective in containing the Hazaras, Hekmatyar’s troops and the Taliban themselves.
Internationally, regional powers such as Iran, Russia and India looked favourably upon the Kabul regime of Rabbani and Massoud, fearful of Taliban radicalism. Iran was concerned about the country’s Shia population, while Russia focused on securing its borders with the Central Asian republics and India because of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. Among the international alliances, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the most committed to the Pashtun and fundamentalist cause and showed the most effective results. In this case, the Taliban were crowned with a success to which these two nations also contributed logistical support and infrastructure. By 1996, two major opposing forces seemed to be clearly visible, that of the Rabbani government with its Defence Chief Massoud, who had been active in diplomatic efforts to bring together different warlords and all possible anti-Taliban sectors, and on the other hand, had succeeded in repelling the Taliban’s entry into Kabul. In parallel, there was the fledgling fundamentalist organisation with Saudi and Pakistani support that was advancing and dominating several regions of the country at the same time, and was at the gates of the capital by the summer of 1996. Towards the end of August and the beginning of September 1996, the Taliban took the eastern city of Jalalabad, which allowed them to dominate the entire eastern region and open a corridor from there to Kabul. By the end of September, the Taliban finally succeeded in breaking through the defences of Massoud and his troops, who eventually retreated and left the capital. Meanwhile, the Taliban savagely hanged former president, Najibullah, who had been in power until 1992. The act was widely condemned by the international community.
Taliban in power!
Between 1996 and 2001, Afghanistan witnessed Taliban rule. Harsh campaigns were waged in the direction of the north of the country where the anti-Taliban resistance around the deposed Rabbani and Massoud government and their allied generals, the Northern Alliance, later renamed the United Front, were based. The north was of economic importance to the country because of its mining industries and agricultural resources, so the Taliban were not going to give up the region easily, despite international warnings. In this sense, the longed-for peace that had motivated the creation of the Taliban at its genesis was to be shattered throughout his rule.
Some northern regions also fell to the Taliban due to the treachery of the generals of Uzbek lord Dostum, who eventually fled the country in the face of the exotic Taliban-Uzbek alliance against Dostum in 1997. Dostum would later return and denounce the ethnic killings carried out by treacherous General Malik against the Taliban in the northern provinces controlled by the insubordinate Uzbek senior officer. The United Front inflicted major military defeats on the Taliban in the northern region, and Kabul itself, during 1997. Rabbani and Massoud’s resistance was supported by Iran, Russia and the Central Asian republics, but their main vulnerability lay in the ethno-tribal divisions between Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The civil strife between the Taliban and the resistance in the north often took on a very acrimonious and ethnically-cleansing character between the Pashtun Taliban and the other ethno-tribal groups. It was sometimes ethno-confessional when it involved the Hazaras, the country’s Shia minority, who were also the target of Taliban encirclement and repression. This was a war that not only took on this focus of anti-Taliban resistance, but was atomised within itself along local and tribal lines – a civil war on two levels or two different dimensions.
The deployment of inter-ethnic and Taliban killings towards the other sectors of the resistance and the encirclement of the Hazara region, the Hazarajat, were denounced and rejected by the United Nations (UN). This created a very delicate situation for agencies playing a humanitarian role in the Hindu Kush between 1997 and 1998. The humanitarian problem became even more critical for women who could not receive medical care due to the strict application of Sharia law by the Taliban. In the face of the Taliban’s refusal of restraint, there was a stampede of humanitarian organisations in the summer of 1998. This included UN agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), which then created a more chronic situation of shortages of basic commodities such as water and food. In August 1998, the Taliban again launched a campaign in the north, which led to the defeat of Dostum, the capture of his headquarters in Shibarghan and his second departure, this time to Uzbekistan and then Turkey. The Taliban’s military campaigns and victories in non-Pashtun lands were usually accompanied by indiscriminate killings. Ethnic violence was a constant feature of the Afghan scene, regardless of the government in power.
Osama Bin Laden’s transnational terrorism had taken Afghanistan as its headquarters. In 1998, two major attacks were carried out on US embassies in Africa – Kenya and Tanzania – resulting in hundreds of deaths. The Saudi terrorist had been part of this pole of attraction for international jihadism in the days of the Soviet-Afghan opposition from Pakistan, but in his case, he had drifted towards international terrorist practices with a profoundly anti-Western content promoted by his organisation Al-Qaeda. The Taliban were the continued target of Western and US denunciations in particular, not only for the acts committed by their government on the Afghan scene, but also for their protection of Bin Laden. The northern power carried out direct attacks on alleged Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
The Taliban government’s rampages from 1996 to 2001 included the destruction of part of Afghanistan’s universal cultural heritage, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which had stood for some 1,500 years of Afghan history in territory inhabited by the Hazaras. The encirclement of the region strained diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Iran over the former’s support for the Taliban against the Hazaras, the main Shia population of the Central Asian country. By the end of the 1990s, the only major visible opposition leader was Massoud, after the Uzbek takeover of the region and the offensive against the Hazaras, with the only real possibility of resistance and progress against the Taliban, amid international pressure from the UN and the US. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the US had largely succeeded in identifying its new enemy. The year 2001 was saturated with events that contributed to the US government’s post-9/11 war policy. From the logic of the White House, the Taliban government’s position was heading towards a dead end of any reconciliation with the Western world. The humanitarian situation was becoming increasingly acute. The attack on international organisations and the extreme application of Sharia law seemed to pit two fundamentalist worldviews against one another. However, the results of the climatic, humanitarian, economic and political catastrophes ravaging the Central Asian country had the Afghan population as their main victim, and international sanctions led to a quagmire in relation to structural poverty, deepened by the chaos of decades of conflict and the fragmentation of the country.
US intervention: An epilogue to twenty years of war
After 9/11, the US immediately set its sights on the transnational terrorist network, Al-Qaeda, led by Bin Laden, which had taken over Afghanistan from the Taliban, who had created an Emirate in the nation under the rule of Mullah Mohammed Omar. The aspiration to destroy Al-Qaeda, combined with geopolitical ambitions in a strategic area, was marked by the presence of countries with a degree of ascendancy in the international arena. This did not always cohabit with US interests, which were placed on the immediate agenda of the White House. This situation led to the US’ adventure in Afghanistan in 2001, which, in turn, took place in the context of the global hegemony that the US still enjoyed after the collapse of socialism, thus beginning the War on Terror.
Beyond the initial US intervention, the mission underwent a kind of war mimicry with the passage of time. This aimed to achieve a transfer of the intervening functions to the Afghan armed forces themselves trained by the occupier, passing through an intermediate transition of Security Council or North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) domination over the destiny of the war. However, the White House played a decisive role in every sense. As events unfolded, the application and preservation of this tool were little helped by the development of an insurgency fuelled by the draining of the Afghan government’s own army forces. On more than a few occasions, they became embroiled in corruption scandals and other processes that increased the discredit of a power sustained by an occupying force. The Afghan Air Force was one of the main variables in the construction of the US scheme for the “Afghanisation” of US intervention. If we look at the very midpoint of the war in Afghanistan, we find, in 2011, more than forty countries were part of the NATO coalition in the Central Asian nation. As the human and material destruction resulting from the war intensified, the US government found itself increasingly in a very delicate position. This became the subject of debate during the various administrations regarding a possible withdrawal, especially since the administration of Barack Obama, and was experienced more visibly on the ground since 2014. However, this transfer of power to the Afghan government supported by the intervenor showed large cracks in recent years, when a considerable percentage of Afghanistan’s territory was already under the control of, or in dispute with, the Taliban, reflecting the failure of the US strategy.
The war deepened all the structural and social rifts in the country. The US was forced to spend billions on reconstruction as a result of the material devastation and increased violence, civilian casualties as a result of attacks and other social and economic phenomena, such as the increase in poppy cultivation and drug production in the country. With the arrival of US President Joe Biden to power, the commitment to the definitive withdrawal of US troops was reaffirmed, a process that turned into a flashy stampede in the summer of 2021, which some analysts have described as a resurgence of the Vietnam Syndrome. The abandonment of modern weaponry by the outgoing troops contributed to the consolidation of the Taliban’s advance, a process that had been underway since the country was under US occupation. The international community is now advocating a moderation of the new Taliban government’s policy, based on the need to rebuild the country. For this, it will have to count on the support of those nations that have certain interests, such as China and Russia, but also Pakistan, India, Iran and others. The new Taliban era seems to be opening with this interest in mind, and the new, exclusively Taliban government has shown a certain outward laxity in its fundamentalist behaviour, at least in appearance. This is connected to the need to erase the traces of war from a country destroyed by twenty years of intervention and more than forty years of conflict. However, it must be understood that the variable that completes the peace-making equation lies within the country, and in the Taliban’s capacity for greater permeability in the face of the heterogeneous corpus of identity and traditional fabrics in the nation of the Gardens of Babur.
Historically, the Middle East has played a central role in the regional contexts that have shaped the Afghan conflict. In the 1970s, the emergence of political Islam in the region was linked to the rise of Islamist opposition in Peshawar. But the Afghan domestic and Middle Eastern regional contexts were interconnected with the international Cold War scenario. The Islamist turn in the region, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Saudi Arabia’s influence on regional developments provided ideological backing for the Mujahideen insurgent movements. In the particular case of Saudi Arabia, this support transcended the economic sphere, not only in the era of the Mujahideen, but also in the victory of the Taliban in the 1990s.
The Central Asian country has been impacted by regional dynamics in the Middle East in different ways. Saudi terrorist Bin Laden had been part of the international insurgency that developed during the Cold War in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the Taliban’s victory, he used the Afghan nation as a centre of operations, resulting in events contributing to the Taliban government’s deteriorating relations with the Western world and Saudi Arabia itself. After the events of 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror launched in 2001 by former US President George W. Bush, Afghanistan became an essential variable in US policy and projection towards the Middle East, reflecting US hegemony in the area at the beginning of the 21st century. Over the course of the occupation, this predominance was succeeded by a more heterogeneous balance of power, which resulted from the emergence of other international powers and their influence in the Middle East, such as Russia, China and Iran. The most recent reflection of this new context was the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan, the internal correlate of which was the rise to power of the Taliban.
Afghanistan has acted as a seismograph of international relations in Central Asia, which, at different times from the Cold War to the War on Terror, has placed the Central Asian country in the sights of major international actors. Its strategic position makes this Hindu Kush country invaluable for major nations seeking to consolidate their positions in the region. Within Afghanistan, the predominance of ethno-tribal fabrics, whose customary traditions are combined with the religious traditions of the predominant Sunni Islam and minority Shia Islam, have remained a structural continuity. Together with the geographic footprint and its abrupt civilisational mark, they have historically shaped Afghanistan’s heterogeneous ethnic and national puzzle. The development of forty years of war, and especially the last twenty years of US intervention, has defined the contemporary historical features of an insurgency that has been built on the identity walls of a fundamentalist Islam that has been gradually enhanced according to the requirements of the historical moment. This insurgency has often acquired a stamp of resistance to the occupying force. Combined with extreme violence on Afghan soil, it reflects the fractures of a tribal and ethnically-divided society that seems to have been stuck in time due to the war, in the fusion of its essential elements giving it a definitive national flavour.
Figure 1: Number of US troops during 2002-2020.
Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), 2021. Taken from The US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Vietnam Defeat Syndrome.
Figure 2: Budget costs for the war in Afghanistan, 2001-2021.
Source: The US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Vietnam Defeat Syndrome, with data from The Watson Institute (2021).
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