As Biden bids farewell to Afghanistan, the mask of American hypocrisy on a host of issues ranging from women’s rights to democracy falls from grace, but how did a fringe ideology that thrived in the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province (now known as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) take over the Great Game?
The Great Game was a phrase popularised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim. The phrase describes the rivalry between the Russians and the British; both wanted to inject their influences into Afghanistan. Throughout the 19th and the 20thcenturies both the empires wanted to extend their geopolitical influence in Afghanistan by any and all possible means.
After years of fighting and lobbying the British East India company won with the help of the then global alliance of Gorkhas and Scottish Highlanders. Having won, they deposed the rightful Afghan leader, Dost Mohammad Khan, because they could not bend him to their will. Instead, they propped up Shah Shuja Durrani, a weak leader, to suit their purpose and to rule Afghanistan. Naturally, Shah Shuja was perceived as a puppet by the tribes so more years of fighting followed and despite a decisive victory in 1879 the British were forced to allow an ally of the Russians, Abdur Rahman Khan, to rule over Afghanistan. History, they say, repeats itself. Allowing Abdur Rahman Khan to return to Kabul back then is equivalent to now leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban before exiting.
The trouble was – and remains – that the West (or more specifically the western powers) undermined the resentment of the Afghans towards a foreign presence on their soil. The peoples of Afghanistan have a long history of rallying against forces external to their region. In 1839, veterans of Waterloo were given a thrashing by Afghan tribes; in 1879, kilted highlanders were bashed so hard, they lost their bagpipes; in 1979, Russia invited the fall of the Berlin Wall by marching into the region; and in 2001, America took its turn to invade the region only to leave defeated and dejected 20 years later.
If we were willing to learn from history then the Retreat to Gandamak in 1842 should have taught us that the Afghan tribes might allow people to enter their lands but the exit route has always been bloody. The British may have finally got some control by 1879, but not without conceding large chunks of lands to the Afghan tribes; seven agencies were born and were allowed autonomy. These seven agencies have never been under the law of any country. They are governed by elders and follow the Sharia and their interpretation of it.
By 1947 the British partitioned and exited India, leaving behind the legacy of the Radcliffe Line, McMahon Line and the Durand Line, the last of which made the seven agencies the new borders of an infant Pakistan. The fact that these agencies were autonomous and were isolated made them the perfect destination for Islamist organisations. It was in these obscure lands that the al Qaida and other Islamists groups were allowed to thrive in order to combat the ‘atheist’ Soviets. It was here that thousands of fighters -backed by the CIA – answered the call to Jihad (holy war) against the Soviet invasion in 1979, and it was here that al Qaida and the Taliban forged their alliance. Their narrow interpretation of the Quran was allowed to thrive because in the eyes of the Americans, Islamism and Islamists were less dangerous than communism and communists. An extreme interpretation of Sharia was pumped into the region with the help of Saudi-funded mosques, madrasas (Islamic schools) and American weapons. America did not bat an eyelid when the women of this region were sacrificed in order to stop communism from taking a stronghold in the region.
In 1978, Afghanistan saw the rise of communism not as an external force, but as an internal choice for their future. Nur Mohammad Taraki published his ambitious manifesto of secular education and equality for women. He also predicted that the mosques would be empty within a year, but the seven agencies and rural Afghanistan were not ready for an atheist revolution. When Taraki turned to Russia for help, despite their fears, they intervened. Of course, the Afghan tribes have always perceived the presence of a foreign army on their soil as a call to Jihad. America threw ample fuel onto the fire by funding Islamic fighters from all over the world to crush communist Russia. Muslims from all over the world were called to take a stance and President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzeziński, personally visited the terrorists and baptised them as freedom fighters or Mujahedeen (asserting a positive connotation) as opposed to Jihadis (implying a negative connotation today)
It was during the Soviet-Afghan War that Osama Bin Laden and thousands of Muslims travelled to Afghanistan from all over the world to take part in Jihad. They dug the famous caves of Tora Bora and established camps across the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Osama would hatch his plot for the 9/11 attacks. The Soviet- Afghan War also saw the birth of Pakistan as an intermediary that would help America route its weapons to the Afghans through shady routes of the Pakistan Intelligence Services (ISI). The weapons were not to be traced back to America and General Zia-Ul-Haq of Pakistan was entrusted with this task. Predictably Pakistan kept a good share of the weapons from the Americans for themselves. General Zia had seized power in Pakistan and already begun an official program of Islamising Pakistan. The Americans were well aware of this, but preferred Islamists to atheists. At its peak, The United States Congress approved colossal funding to combat communist Russia and conscientiously back Islamist terrorists. Fanatic Christians from Texas, like Joanne Herring, lobbied through anti-communist Texan circuits, which included her boyfriend Charlie Wilson, a Texas senator who lobbied hard for the covert operation budgets with virtually no knowledge of the peoples of Afghanistan. The CIA covert operations budget went from a mere $5 mn to $9 bn to fund the Mujahedeen against communist Russia. American hatred for the Soviets funded the rise of Islamists terrorists. During the Soviet-Afghan War Pakistan not only siphoned CIA weapons, but used almost every terror outfit as its weapon of national security against India, and Kashmir in particular.
One must bear in mind that the Mujahedeen were not a homogenous fighting force but thousands of factions that had come together under the banner of Jihad. Many of them were from Europe, America and the Middle East. Armed with stinger missiles and other anti-aircraft missiles from the Americans, they were able to bring down Russian helicopters with ease. Thousands of Russians ended up dead because they were brainwashed into fighting for their greater communist cause, and their bodies were delivered in the dead of night to their families in sealed and unopenable zinc coffins.
Eventually the Russians decided to pull out of Afghanistan , but by the time they did, the region was swarming with armed Mujahideen, and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) led to the disintegration of the USSR. Whilst Central and East Europe freed themselves from the chains of communism, Afghanistan and the porous borders of Pakistan became a Jihadi stronghold. The entire weaponry was left to random Jihadi factions, the Pakistani army and the Pakistani Intelligence service.
The bored Mujahideen needed infidels or Kuffars to sort out, and Pakistan used the situation to their advantage. Armed with their Quranic concepts of Jihad, they unleashed Jihadi groups in Kashmir, and the Kashmir valley saw a marked rise in young men inspired by the culture of Jihad. By 1989, in an attempt to cleanse the Kashmir valley of Hindus, Muslim militias backed by Hizbul Mujahideen and other Jihadi outfits first targeted the Kashmiri Hindu elite, and for days the mosque played tapes warning the Hindus to leave or face certain death. As many as 500,000 Hindus fled Kashmir, but America and the West refused to react. During the cold War, India had remained non-Aligned so America was only too eager to teach India a lesson and ignore the plight of the Hindus in Kashmir.
In the ’90s the mainstream media turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s role as a training centre for Jihadis. In fact, the Pakistani narrative was played around portraying Pakistan as a victim of terror and America poured aid into Pakistan. Almost 80% of all Pakistan Aid went back to America to buy weapons. The Frontier Corps was given the full backing of the CIA and America, ignoring the reality that it is one of the strongest Jihadi forces in Pakistan. They fought with the Mujahideen in the ’80s and the Taliban in the ’90s. They had been training the Taliban in the ’80s, and yet, tanks, helicopters and ammunition were given to them without any conditions.
But things went south of American when their own fighters of God turned against them; 9/11 was planned in the caves of Tora Bora by Osama Bin Laden (a Saudi citizen) and Khalid Sheik Mohammad (a Pakistani national). The Hamburg cell consisting of a Yemeni (Ramzi bin al- Shibh ), an Egyptian ( Mohammad Atta), and an Emirati (Marwan al-Shehhi) went on to become key operatives of 9/11. Then as now, the world failed to see the global Islamic alliance and the West failed to understand the attachment of the wider Islamic world or the Ummah (Muslim community) to issues that barely scratched our conscience.
Today’s Taliban that has stormed into Afghanistan claims they control almost 90% of the country. The Taliban is an army of armies, mercenaries and talibs , meaning , the seeker of truth. Many of them have nothing but contempt for democracy and the West, and a good number of them want Northern Pakistan under the Taliban too. The current leadership includes the infamous Haqqani Network that the US had sworn to wipe out, the Quetta Shura that is based in Pakistan, and other veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. Their victory has delivered a blow to American hubris and has exposed their terrible legacy of hindering democracies leaning towards socialism.
But why does America see itself as a gatekeeper of democracy and the development of society purely through the prism of its national security?
After WWII, Britain was forced to give up her colonies and her geopolitical influence faded away, but that vacuum was quickly filled by the US who struck the destroyers for bases deal and grabbed military bases around the world. Over the years, America has acquired 800 bases across the globe by bullying or bargaining through what it has defined as ‘national security’. These American bases are a constant source of friction and have been used to push an American vision of the world. Throughout the ’50s , ’60s and ’70s, communist pockets of the world clashed with American capitalism. Anyone who tilted towards the socialist model was quickly declared as communist by the Americans. In 1953 Mohammad Mossadegh’s government in Iran voted to nationalise oil, but the CIA orchestrated a coup to overthrow him and put Fazlollah Zahedi in power in order to ensure the British and the Americans would get the lion’s share of Iran’s oil. Natural resources of other sovereign nations are wilfully declared an American national interests and the world has come to accept this as fair and just. This reality has galvanised the Muslim Ummah as a force against America, which has translated to the West because the rest of us sleep walked into a battleground where we have nothing to gain but terror. Iran, as we know, chased the Shah of Iran out and went down the road of an Islamic Revolution.
Like the Iranians, the Afghans have had moments in their history when their rulers have wanted to modernise. In 1919 Amanullah Khan ascended the throne and harboured grand ambitions of parliamentary democracy, education for women, and modernisation. From shopping for weapons to bringing in Rolls Royces, he was in a hurry to usher in the latest to his people, but the British opposed his sense of modernity and contributed to the negative press he received.
King Amanullah tried to modernise the clothing of the tribal elders just like Peter the Great had done in Russia. However, things went south with the publication of photographs of his wife in a plunging neckline and uncovered head. He was forced flee to Italy or face the wrath of the tribes. He received no backing or help from the British. That was then, but today the Taliban and all its factions claim to control over 90% of Afghanistan.
For his part, Ashraf Ghani showed great promise to modernise Afghanistan; he managed to appoint a new generation of Afghans to leadership positions, breaking from the chain of elite figures and patronage networks. He was a vocal critic against foreign aid, in particular, money from the US, which he saw as operating in a ‘parallel state’ that hired the best Afghans to service foreign offices in the capital Kabul, rather than building effective Afghan institutions. Ironically Ghani was named by Foreign Policy as among the world’s ‘top 100 global thinkers’, but global thinkers have a history of failing to impress the Taliban. Despite their talks in Qatar, where the Taliban wanted to open an office in Doha way back in 2012, the moderate Afghan government failed to reach a compromise.
Afghanistan is now in the hands of the Islamist fundamentalists who have pledged peace and an Islamic version of women’s rights. While the rest of the world is dumbfounded, China has already brokered a deal with the Taliban in order to secure its Belt and Road Initiative.
Biden’s speech read, “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,”; while this implied the cowardice of the Afghans, in reality, it further exposed American impotency in the face of the terror groups they harnessed for decades. The truth, however, is that the US left the key Bagram air base without any notice.
And so, innocent women and girls in particular have been willingly sacrificed to the Taliban whilst the Americans and the Her Majesty’s Kingdom are, in reality, desperately begging and brokering their deadline to exit. Their denial is perfectly depicted in the British comedy, Carry on up the Khyber, where the last scene shows the Governor’s palace surrounded by the tribes who riddle it with bullets; while he continues to enjoy his fine meal, one of the characters screams “Encore”!
As for the Afghan Taliban, they have been given the moral backing of Pakistan and their ‘liberal’ Prime Minister, Imran Khan, even praised the Taliban for breaking the shackles of slavery; that perfectly sums up the reality of Islamic spheres and their societies today and a landslide victory to America for successfully steering Muslims away from socialism and safely into Jihad.