Afghanistan: Not Graveyard, But The Battleground of Empires

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Photo taken on July 8, 2021 shows military vehicles abandoned by U.S. forces at the Bagram Airfield base after all U.S. and NATO forces evacuated in Parwan province, eastern Afghanistan. (Xinhua/Rahmatullah ALizadah/IANS)

It would be an exaggeration to say that it is an invincible country as many western intellectuals want the world to believe

Soroor Ahmed | Clarion India

WITH the leaving of the last soldier on the midnight of August 30-31, 2021, the United States became the third super power to retreat from Afghanistan in the last 102 years. The first one was, of course, the British who left the country on August 19, 1919. That was the time when it was very essential for it to hold on to this country and checkmate the emerging Soviet Union after the November 7, 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia and subsequent annexation of the entire Central Asia, which has a common border with Afghanistan.

Today the United States and its western allies left Afghanistan at a time when the influence of China is increasing in the entire region.

About 70 years after the British left, the then Soviet Union made a humiliating retreat from the country following a decade long occupation. The Soviet Union, which sent its forces to Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, did so not to fight any resistance from Mujahideen — which is wrongly projected by many in the international media — but to put to end the internecine fighting among the Communist friends. The Mujahideen emerged as a strong challenger only later.

Thousands of people were killed in intra-Communist bloodbath between April 27, 1978 when Saur Revolution took place with the assassination of the then President Mohammad Daud Khan (whom ironically the Soviet Union had helped come to power by overthrowing King Zahir Shah on July 17, 1973) and December 27, 1979, when the then Communist ruler, Hafizullah Amin was murdered. Two and a half months before that, Amin had got rid of his own President and the hero of the Saur Revolution, Nur Mohammad Taraki. He was brutally killed.

Fed up with the bloodletting within the Communists, the Soviet Union brought Babrak Karmal to power on December 27, 1979 but while leaving Afghanistan about a decade later handed over the country to Dr Najibullah as the two comrades of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (the Communist party) had serious differences. Years later Karmal died in Moscow.

Najibullah was ousted by Mujahideen on April 16, 1992, thus bringing to an end 14 years of bloody Communist era. He was executed after the first Taleban take-over of Afghanistan on September 27, 1996.

True in the last over a century three Great Powers had to run away from Afghanistan compelling many writers to call the country as the graveyard of empires.

But it would be an exaggeration to say that Afghanistan is an invincible country as many western intellectuals want the world to believe — perhaps to cover-up the reasons for their own defeats in the last 150 years. Right from Alexander to Arabs and Mongols — even before they embraced Islam in 13th century — and the Persians (the last time Nadir Shah who came to India in 1739 via Afghanistan) the latter has been conquered several times in history.

The problem with Afghanistan is that it lies at a very crucial juncture. It falls en route the Silk Route to China and on way to Central Asia, Russia, India, Persia and further west.

As in the ancient and medieval periods agriculturally rich land, especially on the bank of rivers were the prize attraction for the conquerors, Afghanistan, a mountainous country lacked this quality and thus failed to attract the foreigners to settle. As the traffic does not stop at the intersection there was nothing tempting in Afghanistan. The invading armies from the west and north of Afghanistan would usually move to the green pasture towards India.

But by the 19th century all this started changing. Instead of India and Silk Routes to China, now the importance of the water of Arabian Sea started growing. The Czarist Russia wanted to go south — that is occupy Afghanistan and subsequently Balochistan, which was then a part of British India. The British did not want this to happen as the Russian presence in the Arabian Sea would seriously jeopardise their presence in India. So to pre-empt any Russian expansion the British tried to occupy Afghanistan and fought three wars. No doubt the British managed to temporarily win these wars but had to beat a hasty retreat after suffering huge casualties.

In the post-Second World War decades the Soviet Union started nursing the Czarist ambition to reach the warm water of Arabian Sea. Though the British had by then left, it was the Americans who replaced them. Their influence in the Gulf Kingdoms and Iran, then ruled by Raza Shah, had increased.

But the Islamic Revolution of February 11, 1979 in Iran and resistance in Afghanistan poured cold water on the Soviet game-plan. The power struggle among the Communists in Afghanistan also did not help its cause.

By the turn of the century the importance of Afghanistan started growing for another reason. The barren and largely mountainous country turned out to be rich in mineral resources.

Besides, the country falls in the midst of the region through which several pipelines from Central Asia and Iran have been planned. The Chinese, who had already reached Gwadar in Balochistan, now want to extend their road and rail link directly to the Persian Gulf via Afghanistan and Iran.

It was more to pre-empt all these developments, rather than really fight terrorism, that Americans with their NATO allies, tried to occupy Afghanistan. But with all might at their disposal the western powers failed to hold on to one of the weakest countries of the world for not even 20 years.

Thus, Afghanistan can be called the graveyard of western powers — British, Russians and now Americans — but not for all the empires in history. Rather then, the region can be called as the battleground of the great empires.

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