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Afghani Idealism and the Games of the Great Powers

Vladimir Pachkov, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Oct 5th 2021


July 4th –  United States Independence Day – could have become an important date in Afghan history as well. On the previous Friday night, July 2nd, the Americans abandoned Bagram airport without notifying their Afghan allies, leaving behind a pile of military equipment that they had intentionally destroyed. They also cut off the electricity supply, among other measures.[1] It had been known that the Americans would shortly withdraw and it became absolutely certain after President Biden’s speech on April 14, 2021, but no one imagined they would do it in the way they did. The number of foreign soldiers in recent times had been greatly reduced – 2,500 Americans as of January 15, 2021[2] – but their support for the Afghan army (particularly air support) was essential for the government to maintain control of some important cities, even though the countryside was largely controlled by the Taliban.[3] As soon as they left, the Taliban announced that they had won the war.

History of Afghanistan

Knowing the history of Afghanistan is important because it helps us understand what happened. It gives us a clear picture of the ethnic diversity in the country – Pashtuns 42 percent, Tajiks 27 percent, Hazaras 9 percent, Turkic populations, such as Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Kazakhs, 12 percent[4] – and allows us to get to know the Hazaras (Shiites, unlike all the other inhabitants of Afghanistan), who have lived in these lands since the time of the Mongol conquest.

But let us start with what happened during the Cold War.

The traditional conflict between colonial powers, such as Russia and Britain during the 19th century, was replaced by the ideological conflict between the USSR and the United States. After the Second World War, both the Soviets and the Americans sought to maintain their  influence in Afghanistan. During that period they did so only through economic aid and training: both sides built factories, roads and canals, and also schools and universities. In 1954 when the US entered into a pact with Pakistan, Afghanistan, then still a monarchy, turned to the Soviets for support.

Zahir Shah, the then monarch, was ousted in 1973 by his cousin, Muhammad Daud, who had allied himself with the Marxist-Leninist Parcham (“The Flag”) Party. The alliance lasted until the party decided to break the agreement and stage a coup, seizing power on April 27, 1978. The radical reforms that were introduced – education for all, women’s rights, etc. – were accompanied by repression of  all those who were against the new rulers, and there were many of them in a country that is mostly Islamic and conservative.

Resistance to the new government’s policy grew, particularly in the provinces. The new political order began to crumble as dramatic internal struggles arose over the division of power and the situation seemed to be getting out of control. The USSR interpreted this as a serious threat to the stability of its southern border. Its leadership decided to intervene, ignoring the objections raised by the military and political experts. What was supposed to be a short-term operation of 12 months lasted 10 years.

The Jihadists, thanks to the support of the Americans and their Muslim allies – the Mujahidin – were able to force the USSR, which at that moment was going through a profound crisis, to withdraw its troops in 1989. The Kabul Government, thanks to the material support of the USSR, maintained power until the beginning of 1992. The Mujahidin were able to occupy the capital only after the dissolution of the USSR. What followed was a war among the Mujahidin themselves. This firstly was an attack on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i Islami faction. This dramatic clash reached Kabul, a city that for the first time recorded material damage and a significant number of deaths: it is estimated that in 1994, 25,000 civilians were killed in Kabul.

In other parts of the country, it was difficult to distinguish those in power from criminal gangs. Those who arrived as saviors soon began to show their violent side. Kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering, demands for bribes for protection, robbery and homicide was what the Afghans had to suffer from their “liberators.” It is not surprising, therefore, that resistance forces slowly emerged, the most active of which were the Taliban[5] (former madrassa students), who were later joined by members of the Pashtun political and military movements. From October 1994 they were supported by Pakistan, and this “friendship” has continued uninterrupted until now.

The Taliban’s program was simple: an order based on Islamic law. Thanks to Pakistani support, they managed to occupy Herat and Kabul by September 1995 and 1996 respectively. In 1997, the Taliban renamed the country the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and their leader, Mullah Omar, gave himself the title of amir-ul mominin (“commander of the faithful”). The established order was based on one of the strictest interpretations of Islam and was particularly harsh toward women.

Resistance to this new government was short-lived: only in the north of the country was the old older maintained until, in 1998, the Taliban succeeded in conquering Mazar-i Sharif. This saw appalling bloodshed among the civilians, in particular among the Hazara Shiites: there is talk of 2,000 victims. Shortly after, the Taliban also occupied Bamiyan – in pre-Islamic times this was one of the most important centers of Buddhism – in the mountainous region dominated by the Hazaras.

Pakistan took this territorial expansion of the Taliban as a pretext to recognize them as then official government. They were also recognized by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Only Ahmad Shah Massoud with his Tajik allies managed to resist in a small area in the north, but on September 9, 2001, he was assassinated, depriving the opposition of its best commander. It seemed then that the Taliban had finally succeeded in bringing the whole country under their control. But then came September 11, 2001.[6]

When the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the US intervened militarily. The efficiency and speed with which they and their allies defeated the Taliban was truly impressive.

But what happened after the military victory and the installation of the new government is now described by many as a catastrophe, not least because the consequences of that policy are now right in front of our eyes.

A good book on this subject is by Indian-born American journalist Anand Gopal, entitled No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. The contents of the book are described as follows: “Told through the lives of three Afghans, the stunning tale of how the United States had triumph in sight in Afghanistan—and then brought the Taliban back from the dead.”[7] This is an account that offers an in-depth look at the events following the fall of the USSR-backed government and the flare-up of resistance under American occupation.

In Gopal’s opinion, after the events of 2001, there were no Taliban in Afghanistan. But since the Americans were waging a war against terror, they obviously needed terrorists. And the Mujahidin, whom they had brought back to power, handed over to them the “terrorists” they were looking for: anyone who disagreed with the Mujahidin or who refused to pay protection money could be handed over to the Americans as a “Taliban.” This practice did nothing but bring the population to despair, until some decided to resort to the help of the Taliban, hidden in Pakistan.

This is how the Taliban were reborn

The latest conflict in Afghanistan can be seen, in part, as the result of an inter-ethnic and power-sharing dynamic. Many clans and tribesmen were not only removed from the central government, but were also deemed enemies. Distrust grew even more because of the many civilians killed in the course of NATO operations. The Afghan central government and the occupying forces failed to gain the trust of many of the local inhabitants and therefore lost control of many regions. This allowed the Taliban to regenerate. The corruption and arbitrariness of the government, and the warlords close to the government, pushed more and more people to the Taliban side, which many now perceived as a way out. At the same time, the Taliban formed an alliance with drug traffickers and their sympathizers in Pakistan, which earned them a lot of money and many adherents.

But the roots of the latest success of the Taliban not only lie in the dissatisfaction of the population with the occupation and the government installed by the occupiers, but also in the dynamics of Islamist resistance against foreigners. These are the same dynamics that, in the past, the Americans themselves had exploited against the Soviets.

* * *

Another great power is already ready to fill the space that has been left. Almost immediately after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, China signed an agreement with Pakistan and the new Afghan Government to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.[8] However, China itself did not intervene directly in the events, but did so through its de facto ally, Pakistan.[9] We observe, once again, that when Islamists want to use a great power against their rivals, they have their own agenda and, in turn, great powers quickly find reasons to become involved.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.10 art. 3, 1021: 10.32009/22072446.1021.3

[1].    See “US left Bagram airbase at night with no notice, Afghan commander says” (, July 6, 2021.

[2].    See “Afghanistan: Background and the U.S. Policy: In Brief”, in Congressional Research Service (, June 11, 2021.

[3].    See “In Conversation with Rory Stewart” ( “????????? ??????? ??????? ????? ? ??????????? ???????? ?? ??????? (Hundreds of Afghan Soldiers Flee Taliban into Tajikistan)” (, July 5, 2021.

[4].    See A. Hadi Olam, Afghanistan. History and Political System (

[5].    R. Roohullah, Afghanistan: Exploring the Dynamics of Sociopolitical Strife and the Persistence of the Insurgency, Ottawa, Peacekeeping Centre, 2008.

[6].    “Backgrounder on Afghanistan: History of the War” (

[7].    A. Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2014.

[8].    See J. Gordon, “China makes its move on Afghanistan: Beijing prepares to fill the vacuum left by Biden’s premature military exit from the nation with $62B investment plan for its ‘Belt and Road’ program”, in Mail Online (, July 5, 2021.

[9].    See “What next for Afghanistan? Taliban on the offensive ahead of US withdrawal” (

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