You may have been wondering why I haven’t been posting much lately. I have been in school and I have had a pretty heavy course load with much on my plate outside of school. But I figured I would share with you one of the numerous papers that I had to write as part of my course work. This one was for my Honors History classes. It’s about Afghanistan. I’ll warn you, it’s long.
Afghanistan is a swirling eddy at the confluence of the rivers of history. It is known for its harsh deserts, towering and impassible mountain ranges, and lush, fertile river valleys. It broils in the summer and freezes in the winter. Its people are farmers, herdsmen, nomads, and merchants with physical features that vary from the dark hair and eyes of a long lost Turkic forbear to the blond haired, blue-eyed remnants of some dwindling Scythian line. Because of its geographical location at the crossroads of Central Asia, Afghanistan has been the unwitting host of foreign invaders since the time of Alexander the Great and because the various invaders failed to raise a foreign standard above Afghanistan that has endured until the present day, people erroneously refer to Afghanistan as the “Graveyard of Empires” (Jones xxxiv). The aforementioned moniker is true, but only insomuch as Italy is the Graveyard of Empires, China is the Graveyard of Empires, France is the Graveyard of Empires, and so on and so forth. If only the title of “Graveyard of Empires” was absolutely true then no leader would voluntarily choose to lead his armies into what would be certain doom, but it is not. While Afghanistan is not the roach motel of every invading army that comes crawling its way, neither is it an easy target rife with a soft, white underbelly ripe for the picking. If Afghanistan were either an easy mark or an absolute impossibility the predicament facing the United States and its embroilment in Central Asia would be an easy thing to explain. It is not. In order to even begin to understand the incredibly complex conundrum in which the United States finds itself, there must first be at least a rudimentary understanding the country, its people, its history, and the context of our involvement there.
The Afghan people are made up of myriad various ethnic groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkomen, Hazara, and Uzbeks as well as several others but they identify themselves more by their ethnic, tribal, and religious affiliations than they do by their national identity. Descended from the survivors as well as the purveyors of thousands of years of conflict and hardship they are inured to misery and as patient and accustomed to brutality as Americans are impatient and accustomed to comfort. Fiercely independent they treasure their liberty and revel in their fragmented, tribalistic warrior society. Their way of life has not changed drastically for thousands of years. Today, as in the past, they still live in adobe homes built using dried bricks consisting of mud, straw, cow dung, and water and then covered in more layers of mud after the walls are complete. Although rudimentary in structure, these walls are incredibly sturdy and can withstand a direct hit by a 20mm cannon. The homes are built as compounds that surround a central courtyard where livestock is often kept. In the mountainous regions these homes are often built right alongside the mountains and adjacent to mountain roads and are so strong that they can support the full weight of any up-armored HumVee full of soldiers and equipment that inadvertently drives onto one in the middle of the night (St. Jacques).
By and large the vast majority of Afghans just want to be left alone but as history has shown, it is not the fate of the people of Afghanistan to be left to their druthers in quiet solitude. Archeological evidence of the practice of agriculture and pastorialism suggests that the history of the people of Afghanistan stretches back 10,000 years (Ewans 15). Early interrelations with other peoples are evident as lapis lazuli was being exported from Afghanistan to India as early as the sixth millennium BC and to the Aegean with regularity as early as the second millennium BC (Ewans 15). The sixth century BC saw the first major military incursion into the land of the Afghans as the armies of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great marched across the arid landscape and extended their influence to the Indus River (Ewans 17). Cyrus’ son Darius the great established numerous satrapies (the Persian equivalent of a province) and brought in Greek colonists to bolster their numbers but Persian influence in large part was lost to the south and east of the Hindu Kush (“Killer of Indians”: the central mountain range in Afghanistan) by the fourth century BC as the native populaces rose up against the satraps (regional governors) and regained their independence (Ewan 17). This is not to say that Achaemenid influence was completely lost to insurgent forces in Afghanistan because they still held sway over many areas west and northwest of the Hindu Kush. This sway would not last as it would be wrested away from the Achaemenids not by an Afghan leader, but by a Macedonian.
In the year 330 BC a young and charismatic Macedonian crossed into Afghanistan carried by the momentum of his own daemon. Alexander the Great rode into the lands that now constitute Afghanistan in pursuit of the satrap of Bactria and Achaemenid usurper Bessus who had dared to defy Alexander by not only declaring himself King of Persia and renaming himself with the royal “Artaxerxes” but by having the gall to face him militarily and then the cowardice to run when he failed to defeat Alexander in Persia (Tanner 33). Artaxerxes, however, was playing a cat and mouse game wherein he hoped to lure Alexander into the unforgiving land of the warrior horsemen with whom he had a much greater affiliation and wherein the effectiveness of the tactics and strategies employed by Alexander would be mitigated. Artaxerxes gravely miscalculated how much the odds are stacked against the mouse.
Alexander gave chase to Artaxerxes and pursued him relentlessly across the breadth and width of Afghanistan, establishing city after city in his own name along the way. Artaxerxes, however, did not just run like a rabbit but fostered support for himself and his forces along the way by employing the aid of the local populace and charismatic and competent military leaders such as the Sogdian nobles Spitamenes and Oxyartes. Like many a failed military commander in Afghanistan, however, Artaxerxes did not understand the people and the culture of the country that he was using for his own purposes. His misestimating of their support for him would prove to be his downfall as Spitamenes and Oxyartes sold him out to Alexander (Tanner 43). After being handed over to Alexander in 329 BC (Tanner 43) Artaxerxes, now clearly the less regal Bessus, was tied naked to a post with a wooden shackle around his neck on the march route of Alexander’s army and flogged. When the demonstration of his humiliation was sufficient in Alexander’s mind, Bessus was sent to Balkh where his ears and nose were cut off and then on to Ecbatana where he was executed in a similarly brutal fashion.
Alas Alexander’s appetite for acreage in Afghanistan was anything but abated. Having vanquished his foe Alexander set out to conquer the remaining remnants of the Achaemenid Empire which ended in the north at the Jaxartes River. This move brought him in direct conflict with Spitamenes who had handed over Bessus with the intention of avoiding just such a conflict. The ensuing fighting lasted for two years and in the interim thousands of lives were lost, both military and civilian. Wherever Alexander had a victory and wrested control of an area from Spitamenes, Spitamenes would loop back around and lay waste to the cities and fortresses that Alexander had built. Soon Alexander adopted a scorched earth policy and became as, if not more, savage than his enemy. Where a stronghold of Spitamenes was taken, the survivors were put to death. Where civilian assets could be used by Spitamenes, they were put to the torch by Alexander. Where the local populace aided Spitamenes or his troops, they were put to the sword. In short, it became a severe liability to either be with or help Spitamenes. By 327 B.C. the Massagetae who had been aiding Spitamenes had seized him, beheaded him, and presented the severed trophy to Alexander as an olive branch (Tanner 48).
Alexander shrewdly married into the Afghan culture by taking a Bactrian princess by the name of Roxanne for his bride in 327 B.C. (Ewans 18) before completing his conquest of Afghanistan and embarking on his foray into India. By 326 B.C. Alexander’s troops had had enough and made it clear that it was in Alexander’s best interest to return home. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C. but the Greek influence in Afghanistan would endure for centuries to come.
The next several hundred years would see the comings and goings of various invading armies ebbing and flowing like the tide. The Mauryians invading from India in the east were next but that incursion ended with Asoka’s epiphany that perhaps slaughtering people by the tens of scores of thousands simply to increase one’s real estate holdings wasn’t exactly the nicest thing to do. Once the Mauryians ceased their advance and took up pillar building instead of empire building it was time for the horse cultures to come stampeding through the plains, passes, and valleys of Afghanistan. The waning Indian influence in Afghanistan was followed by a back and forth undulation of Parthians, Sythians, Selucids, Persians, Greco-Bactrians, Kushans, Sassanids, and White Huns that fought and died over the hard scrabble land that more resembles the landscape of Mars than the rest of the face of the Earth. Meanwhile the indigenous people of Afghanistan watched on as the wars were waged around them. Some locals, mostly nomads and mountain people, joined in the battles as mercenaries but most of the farmers and herdsmen tried to stay out of the fray. In the end, whatever the local warlord wanted was what the local people did.
The goal of the next invasion of Afghanistan would not be the mere conquest of land nor would it be in pursuit of fealty, but for the very hearts and souls of the people. The next invasion wasn’t based on nationality or ethnicity, the next invasion was based on ideology. While previous conquerors had demanded homage and tribute, the next wave of conquerors demanded absolute submission; not to themselves, but to Allah. At the end of the seventh century (Tanner 75), Arabs bearing the Five Pillars of Islam came stampeding across the plains of Afghanistan and the land, its people, and the world would never be the same again. For the next three centuries the role of Islam would spread and take root in Afghanistan. Although not the only religion in the land, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad were widely being accepted by the people on both a voluntary basis and a very involuntary basis. Although many of the mountain tribes, nomads, and more remote peoples kept their pagan religions and Zoroastrianism, the majority of the people were converting and the spread of Islam became very evident in everyday life. Elaborate palaces in the Islamic style and beautiful mosques were springing up in every major city across the country. In addition to architecture, Muslim influence could be seen in metal working, pottery, poetry, and art. Combined with the influences of previous cultures the results must have been stunning.
By 977 A.D. a new empire was in its seminal stages in Ghazni, a city just south and east of the Hindu Kush. The leader of this upstart empire was a former Turkic slave named Alptigin who had tried to stage a coup against his Sammanid masters in the north but failed and escaped to Ghazni. The Ghaznavids, converts and rabid adherents to Islam, rapidly spread their influence from their base in Ghazni across the country in all directions like a supernova. Under Alptigin the Ghaznavids extended their influence all the way to the Caspian Sea. By 998 A.D. Mahmoud, the third Ghaznavid king, had taken the throne and begun a career that would make the exploits of Alptigin look like child’s play. Mahmoud had what historian W.K. Fraser-Tyttler called “the iconoclastic zeal of Islam and the predatory instincts of a highland chieftain” (Tanner 77) and set out to invade India to punish the unfaithful there with a fervor. To this day, “at Ghazni’s main mosque the steps [consist] of rows of Hindu idols, their marble sides visibly worn by Muslim feet” (Tanner 77) as a chilling reminder that Islam in the hands of the fervent is not a force to be ignored. Mahmoud constructed two massive minars (victory towers) just outside of Ghazni to commemorate his numerous victories for eternity but as with all empires, his was not meant to be eternal and succumbed to forces internal to Afghanistan when King Ala-ud-din of the Ghorids sacked the capitol city of Ghazni and set it ablaze (Tanner 77). By 1186 the Ghorids had found the last Ghaznavid king seeking refuge in Lahore and ended his life along with the last vestiges of the Ghaznavid Empire.
As has been demonstrated thus far, Afghanistan is less of a “graveyard of empires” and more of turnstile for luckless armies and their politically masochistic leaders. Hell bent on misery in a land that was quite possibly created by God himself for the sole purpose of testing the resolve of the faithful, marauding armies came and went over the centuries but for the most part left the general populace alone as long as they were offering no resistance. The next guests in Hell’s annex were to show the inhabitants of Afghanistan that, despite all of the bloodshed, privation, and abject misery they had endured from the beginning of history until 1221, they really did not understand the meaning of the words “agony” and “suffering”. A peerless master of the infliction of pain on a massive and merciless scale, Genghis Khan came to Afghanistan to teach them.
As the head of the largest faction the ruler of Afghanistan at the time was, ostensibly, Khwarazm Shah. He didn’t stand a chance. The Mongol army that poured over the Jaxartes River into Afghanistan has been described by one historian as “the atom bomb of its day” (Tanner 81) with one resounding difference: despite the massive loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of Japan was able to escape the wrath of the atom as harnessed by the Americans and once the island nation capitulated, further loss of life was avoided. The victims of the Mongol Horde were not so lucky. In fact, to compare Genghis Khan’s horde to an atom bomb is to excessively underestimate the destructive power of the Mongols. It was common practice for invading Mongol forces (usually under the command of one of Genghis Khan’s sons) to offer besieged cities to surrender. The surrendering populations were then summoned outside the city walls for the alleged purpose of conducting an impromptu census, the artisans and those women and children that they chose for slavery were then separated from the hoi poloi, and then the rest of the entire population was slaughtered and the city was razed to the ground. Some cities and towns were spared this fate due either to their strategic importance, their economic importance, or just dumb luck. One such city was Herat.
With a population of 1.2 million inhabitants (Omrani/Leeming 60), Herat was a thriving commercial center on what would become the Silk Road. After Jalal-ud-Din, son of Khwarazm Shah took a stand against the Mongols at Ghazni in 1222 Geghis Khan was so infuriated that he ordered Herat to be wiped off the face of the map. At the end of the seven days that it took to destroy the city only forty people survived. Herat very slowly but eventually recovered over the course of the centuries but some cities never did. Many other population centers suffered similar fates due to the Mongols. Bamiyan, a quiet, peaceful city nestled in a valley in the central part of Afghanistan and known for its rich Buddhist heritage was brought under heel by the Khan and in the course of the siege his favorite grandson was killed by an arrow fired by one of the defenders from the city wall. Neither the city nor any of its inhabitants survived the grieving Khan’s wrath.
The Mongol Horde swept through Afghanistan like a plague of wrecking balls destroying anything in its path that refused to yield and much in its path that did not refuse to yield. The irrigation systems (“juis”) that brought life giving water to the fields and pastures of Afghanistan were laid waste. This destruction was not just for the purposes of cruelty but for practicality. Many of the irrigation systems at the time were underground tunnels (“karez”) that could not only be used for irrigation but for transporting men and arms from one place to another in secret. It did not take long for the armies of the Khan to realize how dangerous these subterranean supply routes could be and their destruction didn’t take much longer. By the time Genghis Khan died in 1227 and his sons and grandsons took his place, Afghanistan was a wasteland. The cities that had survived had been decimated but they were, in fact, the lucky ones. Entire populations had been erased off the face of the earth and there are places in Afghanistan that, to this day, are only of interest to archaeologists. This kind of wholesale destruction left the land ripe for the pickings of local and regional warlords. It would be another hundred years before Afghanistan recovered and another great ruler rose from the ashes.
Born in 1336, Timur-e-leng, or Tamerlane (a bastardization of Timur the Lame which is the translation of Timur-e-leng) as he is known in the west, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. Few then or now believe that claim, but if actions are a measure of potential lineage, then the ambition and brutality displayed by Tamerlane just may prove that he was indeed from the same genetic line as the great Khan. By 1370 Timur had begun expelling the remaining Mongols from Afghanistan and proclaimed himself as emperor. By 1398 he had created a vast empire which included Dehli in India where he slaughtered the inhabitants. As testimony to his cruelty, Tamerlane was fond of stacking the heads of his victims into massive pyramids and/or “incorporating them into walls” (Ewans 25). Timur did differ from Genghis Khan in one very important respect: he appreciated culture. Under Tamerlane’s son Shah Rukh music, poetry, art, and architecture flourished in Afghanistan.
Although the next several hundred years saw rulers come and go, the true mark of the country during this time was the people and, in particular, the warriors. Afghan mercenaries became prized assets for armies all around Central Asia. As a people they were used to the harsh conditions of Afghanistan. As horsemen they were unrivaled in Asia and possibly the world. For sport the horsemen of Central Asia play a game called buzkashi that is similar to polo except that instead of a ball, they use the headless corpse of a goat and instead of polo mallets to strike the ball they use short, rawhide whips to brutalize the other players as they reach down from their mounts to try to snatch up the goat carcass at a full gallop. The game always ends in some sort of injuries and fatalities are so far from uncommon that they are considered normal. This is what they do for fun. Considering that brutal, bloody whippings while viciously fighting over the headless body of a goat is what the Afghans consider “fun”, it is no small surprise that what they consider “war” is a thousand times more savage. The people of Central Asia understood this. The British did not.
The British entry into Afghanistan has been called “The Great Game” because it was a match between the British and the Russians to see who could exert influence in the landlocked nation in the early nineteenth century. The Russians wanted it as a foothold to assert pressure on the British as their colonization in India expanded and as a speed bump for the Persians. The British wanted it as a buffer state to keep Russia in check. The British at the time were redefining imperialism. By this point in history they no longer wanted naked military aggression to seize real estate for real estate’s sake. The Crown wanted commerce and affected that desire through the East India Company (EIC). The East India Company was in a symbiotic relationship with the Crown because the EIC brought in revenue and in turn, when the EIC needed to flex a little muscle to open up its trade possibilities or protect its assets, the crown supplied the manpower. If Great Britain could avoid hostilities, however, it would.
The Russians were also interested in bloodless influence in the region not only because of the brutal history of the region, but because of the simple fact that dispatching one diplomat to Kabul or Herat or Ghazni was a lot cheaper than dispatching an army which it had already done to lay siege to Herat. Both the British and the Russians sent agents to Kabul to speak with Dost Mohammed, the ruler of Afghanistan at the time. The Russians sent a ridiculously junior officer named Vitkievich and the British sent a seasoned diplomat named Burnes. The problem for the British was that they were supporting a Sikh in India that the Dost neither liked nor trusted. When Burnes refused to put in writing promises that would have assured Dost peace of mind, he balked at Britain’s offer. Talks with Vitkievich were similarly unsuccessful and Burnes returned to his superiors with the suggestion that the British return in force with Shah Shuja, the elderly former leader of Afghanistan that had been exiled for two decades, and install him as the ruler of Afghanistan by force. And so, on the advice of a failed diplomat, the British fell into fatal folly.
While the British did enjoy some successes in their theater of operation, they were few and far between and were far outweighed by their losses. The complete and utter failure of the First Anglo-Afghan War could be catalogued over the span of volumes but can be summed up in a few sentences. The British failed to understand the people, culture, and difficulties that the land itself presented. The British came in cocky and underestimated their new found foe not by inches, but by light years. The British were not properly equipped for the expedition upon which they were embarking and found themselves short on supplies and separated from their logistical trains. The British officers resembled gentlemen dandies with trains of comfort items that were loath to exert the brutal force necessary to subdue the Afghan instead of hardened, combat veterans that were used to desert fighting, traveling light, and tactical flexibility. The British were not properly armed for the conflict; the men were armed with smooth bore carbines with maximum ranges of 150 yards that were more suited to close in, linear fighting whereas the Afghans had long barreled, rifled muskets that, while slower, could deliver accurate fire out to 500 yards (Tanner 140). In the desert, range is safety. The British stupidly imagined that the Afghans would just let them waltz in and install a puppet of their choosing when that same puppet had been ousted by the self-same people he meant to rule. They also allowed soldiers to bring in their families to improve morale, giving the Afghans the impression that they were establishing a colony. Lastly, the British simply didn’t have the stomach for what had to be done to win. They were civilized and merciful and those are two things you cannot be to win against a foe that will kill his own daughter as punishment for being raped by his brother.
When the British marched into Afghanistan in December of 1838, they did so with an Army of 20,000 men. By 1842 there were various garrisons around Afghanistan but the primary force of 16,000 (Tanner 184) soldiers, family members, and support troops were pinned down in a cantonment area just outside of Kabul under Major General Elphinstone. Elphinstone decided to retreat from Kabul and on January 6th, 1842 (Tanner 184) the garrison set out for Jalalabad. By January 13th, of the 16,000 that left the cantonment area near Kabul, only one bloodied and battered rider, Dr. William Brydon, made it to Jalalabad alive (Tanner 187). The rest of the retreating British forces had been slaughtered by Afghan fighters and civilians. All other British forces then withdrew from Afghanistan until the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
By the Second Anglo-Afghan War the situation had changed and British luck had improved considerably. Fought between 1878 and 1880, the Second Anglo-Afghan War had a much brighter outcome for the British because they had applied lessons learned from the First Anglo-Afghan War. This time, the British didn’t fool around with troop strength and marched in with 40,000 troops in three separate columns. Families were left at home. Violence was met with wrathful revenge. Afghan resistance that took years to foment during the First Anglo-Afghan War took mere months this time but the British reacted more wisely to the revolts. Again, entire dissertations could be written about the Second Anglo-Afghan War but the major lessons learned were these: be brutal when necessary, ally yourself with a popular and strong local leader, meet your goals quickly, and get the hell out before more can go wrong. These were all lessons ignored by the Soviets.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979 (St. Jacques). Taking advantage of instability caused by the arrest and execution of Nur Mohammad Taraki, leader of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, by his deputy Hafizullah Amin the Soviets moved in and on December 27th of that same year Spetsnaz and KGB commandos stormed the presidential palace, killed Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal as president (Jones xii). Citing the need to stabilize an unstable region so close to their border, the Soviets justified their invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan as a kind of peace-keeping mission. The rest of the world saw it as the naked aggression and land grab that it really was. This was the beginning of the Viet Nam experience for the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union made numerous strategic, tactical, and political errors during their ten year tenure as puppet masters in Afghanistan. The first and foremost mistake was imagining that they could win. The Soviets and the Soviet system was an atheist system by design. Atheism and Afghanistan are mutually exclusive. Allah makes the rules in Afghanistan. One does not lightly defy the will of Allah.
The second mistake the Soviets made was underestimating their enemy. The Soviets considered the Afghans to be ignorant peasants and, while not formally schooled and not classically educated, the Afghan people are not stupid nor are they naïve by any stretch of the imagination. What the native Afghans lack in formal schooling, they more than make up for in a cleverness and cunning that borders on animal instinct. While the Russians are also a people long inured to hardships and prone to extreme violence under duress, they are rank amateurs when compared to their neighbors to the south.
The third mistake the Russians made was the composition of their invading force. Afghanistan, while rich with plains and valleys, is mostly a mountainous region. The Russians had designed their entire military structure on mobility and armor. Motorized Rifle Regiments were the standard unit and armored personnel carriers, tanks, and heavy helicopters were the standard equipment within the Soviet arsenal. The problem with heavy vehicles, however, is that they are not well suited to the narrow roads, goat paths, and crowded villages of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the domain of light, dismounted infantry operating in small units with the ability to be highly mobile. When the Afghan Freedom Fighters, or Mujahedeen, couldn’t corral the Russians into a narrow wadi or lure them into an urban ambush or booby trap, they would simply take to the hills where the lighter, more mobile Mujahedeen could simply outrun them and hide. There have even been instances where the Mujahedeen would bait the Russian Hind-D Helicopters into mountainous regions to chase an insurgent only to find more insurgents waiting at a higher altitude and throwing large rocks down into their rotor blades (St. Jacques). Stone Age weapons and tactics were taking out space age technology.
The Russians did adapt to this sort of tactic and others used by the Mujahedeen by upping the level of brutality in their operations. Indiscriminate targeting of civilian populations suspected of harboring or even aiding insurgents became more widespread as the conflict trudged on. The Soviets had no problem implementing a policy of summary executions that was so brutal that, to this day, the Afghan people are more afraid of the Beretta 9mm pistols carried by American officers, medics, and machine gunners than they are of the rifles and machine guns that the soldiers usually carry because the executions were almost always carried out with a pistol (St. Jacques). No one was spared Soviet brutality and a blind eye was turned to rapes and beatings as well as thievery and vandalism. The very walls surrounding the King’s Palace in Kabul are riddled with graffiti from Russian soldiers (St. Jacques).
The last mistake that the Soviets made was thinking that the United States wouldn’t somehow get involved in the conflict. Spurred on by Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-TX), money and weaponry were funneled by the US Government through the Pakistani Intelligence agency to the Mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. Although never officially acknowledged as ever having taken part in any action in Afghanistan, it is widely believed that the CIA and members of Special Operations units from both the United States and Great Britain not only took part in training the Mujahedeen in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also took part in the fighting. US made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles leveled the playing field for the Afghans and took a huge bite out of the air superiority that the USSR thought that it had achieved. American money was being rerouted to buy weapons made by or made to look like they were made by Soviet bloc countries and placing those weapons and ammunition squarely in the hands of the Mujahedeen.
Faced with an unpopular war abroad, mounting unrest at home, and an economic crisis brought on by vainly trying to fight the cold war, the Soviet Union decided to withdraw from Afghanistan. By mid-February 1989 the last of the Red Army crossed the Termez Bridge into the USSR and the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan was over. Muhammid Najibullah, former head of the Afghan Secret Police and current puppet president installed by the Soviets, was now in charge of the war torn country. That situation wouldn’t last long.
In 1992 the US stopped arms shipments to Afghanistan as well as most of the financial support needed to rebuild the country. What was left was a vacuum of misery similar to the situation that faced the country after the Mongols but to a much, much lesser extent. Where civilized discourse and reason could have prevailed had financial support been supplied, fear and violence crept in for nature abhors a vacuum. The Taliban (literally “students” in Pashtu) started their rise to power. Trained in fundamentalist Islamic schools called “madrassas”, the primarily ethnic Pashtun Taliban lived, learned, preached, and enforced a violent and despotic form of Sharia Law (Islamic Law). By 1994 the Taliban were on the march and taking over towns in southern Afghanistan such as Spin Boldak and Kandahar. By 1996 the Taliban, now under the direct control of Mullah Omar, had taken control of much of the country and the capital city, Kabul, fell under their onslaught. Former president Najibullah, having sought refuge in the UN compound in Kabul, was captured and summarily executed by the Taliban. He was not the first nor was he the last victim of the Taliban.
The Taliban reign of terror in Afghanistan was savagery at its worst. Women were banned from attending school, working, or even showing their face in public. Beatings on the street for minor infractions and public stonings and beheadings in the soccer stadium in Kabul were commonplace. Music, kites, games, and art were banned by the Taliban. The common people were virtual prisoners in their own homes and it seemed like nobody in the country had the will or the means to resist the Taliban’s murderous, maniacal rampage. Nobody, that is, save for Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Ahmed Shah Massoud was the leader of the Northern Alliance. Massoud not only openly disagreed with the Taliban practices, he fought them. While the Taliban mandated the wearing of the burqa, Massoud mandated that women be allowed to dress as they please. While the Taliban banned women from working, Massoud not only allowed it but encouraged it. While the Taliban banished girls from the schools, Massoud made sure they could get an education. While the Taliban killed civilians, Massoud killed the Taliban. While the Taliban captured most of the country, Massoud held on to the Panjshir Valley as a safe haven for all that was good in Afghanistan. Known as the Lion of the Panjshir, Massoud was the worst enemy the Taliban had in Afghanistan and the best friend any rational human being had there. In September of 2001 Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated by an al Qaeda bomb disguised as a video camera by al Qaeda suicide bombers disguised as Dutch journalists. Two days later the United States would realize just how much we would miss the man that we barely even knew.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001 a group of Islamist terrorists from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates boarded four separate planes at two different airports with the intent of perpetrating the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States of America. They succeeded. By the end of the day the spot that used to house the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one side of the Pentagon in Virginia, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania were littered with aircraft parts, rubble, and the body parts of almost 3,000 victims of Jihad. Seven thousand miles away a Saudi Arabian man in Afghanistan watched on in satisfaction and barely contained glee. This man was Osama Bin Laden, militant Islamist, head of the al Qaeda terrorist network, financier and mastermind of the Pearl Harbor of our time.
Save for his US Army surplus camouflage field jacket, he was dressed in the traditional Afghanistan style of beard, turban, tunic, and baggy pants that the US troops would come to call “man jammies” when he appeared on television to gloat over his victory. Bin Laden not only lorded his cold-blooded and calculated attack on primarily civilian targets that included women and children as a victory, he reproached the United States for having brought the attack upon itself and silently mocked the US for what he assumed would be another round of mostly ineffective retaliatory cruise missile attacks. Bin Laden’s assessment of the probable response by the US was not unreasonable based on the responses by the Clinton administration to the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. After determining the complicity of al Qaeda in those bombings, President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on al Qaeda training camps in Khowst Province (Jones xiii). The strikes were effective, but not in the manner that Clinton had intended. The cruise missiles intended as a punitive measure failed to achieve their objective of inflicting the kind of casualties that deter future attacks, but they did solidify the bond between the Taliban and al Qaeda (Jones 83) and turned what was once a loose confederation into a solid alliance. The United States would not make the same mistake again; this time, they would make new ones.
Within hours of the attacks of 9/11 Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had summoned Pakistan’s Lieutenant General Mahmoud Ahmed to a meeting to press for Pakistani military and diplomatic cooperation. “It’s black and white” (Jones 88) Armitage told Ahmed. Ahmed, who was already visiting Washington on an unrelated matter, hemmed and hawed. When he tried to tell Armitage that he must understand history Armitage butted in with “no, the history starts today” (Jones 88).
Within 24 hours the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, was sitting in a meeting with Pakistan’s President Perez Musharraf with the sole intent of asking one key question: “Are you with us or against us?” (Jones 88). The question would have sounded very pointed and decidedly undiplomatic in just about any other setting but the rationale behind the way the question was posed was sound. For the previous decade the Pakistani government had been providing material support to the Taliban and tacitly allowing Pakistani troops that were sympathetic to the Taliban’s cause to conduct military operations across the border in Afghanistan. The issue at hand was the porous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan known as Waziristan. Packed to the gills with ethnic Pashtuns, the area was and still is a hotbed for Taliban activity and the local tribes allowed free access across the borders from both sides and tight lips to anyone asking questions based either on support for the Taliban’s brutal enforcement of Sharia and in some cases because of fear of reprisal. Musharraf tried to turn this into a power play to gain leverage over India but the US would have none of it. The time for gentle diplomacy was over and clever maneuvering would be as warmly received as a Klansman at a Black Panther rally. The US was out for blood and if you weren’t siding with us, you were siding with the Taliban and it was our intent to kill or capture as many Taliban as possible. If it is hunting season and you have the choice to be the hunter or the hunted, the wisest course of action is usually to be the hunter. To quote President Bush in his address to the nation on the evening of September 11th, 2001 “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them” (Tanner 291). Pakistan acquiesced and with few conditions the US had their support.
Within days the Central Intelligence Agency had drawn up plans for Operation Jawbreaker. Designed to be an insurgency against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Operation Jawbreaker would use CIA paramilitary operatives, US Special Forces teams, and American air support to bolster operations by the Northern Alliance. It was the intent of the United States to train the native, anti-Taliban populace to conduct the same type of operations against the Taliban regime that it had trained the native, anti-Communist populace in the form of the Mujahedeen to conduct against the Soviets and the puppet government that they had left in place when they vacated the country in 1989. While relaying the plan to the President at Camp David on September 13th, 2001Cofer Black, counterterrorism chief to CIA Director George Tenet simultaneously assured and cautioned President Bush that “we can do this […] but you’ve got to understand [American] people are going to die” (Jones 90). The President understood this but he also understood the severe limitations of “cruise missile diplomacy” that was so popular yet so ineffective during the Clinton administration. “What’s the sense of sending $2 million missiles to a hit a $10 tent” Bush quipped.
The Taliban and Mullah Omar were given an ultimatum: hand over Bin Laden or face the wrath of an angry American military. Three things prevented the handover of Bin Laden. The first was the Muslim belief that you must help a Muslim and defend a Muslim, especially if that Muslim is threatened by a kafir (infidel). The second is Pashtunwalli, the Pashtun code of conduct. The Taliban were and still are primarily Pashtun and as such are ruled by the Pashtunwalli which states that you must provide sanctuary and hospitality even if that endangers your life. And thirdly, well, they just really hated America. Mullah Omar and the Taliban told the United States that, in no uncertain terms, they would never hand over Bind Laden. By October of 2001 the United States started bombing targets in Afghanistan. By the end of November of that same year U.S. and Afghans forces had taken most major cities in Afghanistan including Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kunduz. By the end of the next month Kandahar would fall as well. The Taliban regime, by and large, had been eradicated by the first week of December 2001. In the area of Waziristan known as Tora Bora on the southern border of Afghanistan the U.S. narrowly missed killing Osama Bin Laden. He escaped the battle using one of the same underground irrigation tunnels that Genghis Khan tried so hard to destroy.
By the summer of 2004 I was in Afghanistan. My story is neither exceptional nor mundane and I cannot begin to claim that I am the world’s foremost expert on Afghanistan, but being both an eyewitness as well as a student of history I understand it a lot better than most people on the planet. There is a degree of historical significance to my deployment as my unit, the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division, had not seen combat since World War II. The 116th Infantry Regiment (The Stonewall Brigade) was the first wave on Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1941. After World War II the entire division sat fallow for decades because of the devastating losses incurred during World War II in general and on D-Day in particular. To be part of that kind of history was an honor. To be the acting platoon sergeant of the men that fired the first shots fired in anger by the 29th Infantry Division and the 116th Infantry Regiment since World War II is a matter of singular pride that I alone in the world can enjoy.
Most of my tour in Afghanistan was uneventful. My unit was assigned to force protection in and around Bagram Air Field and as such we spent a lot of time patrolling the base and the ten kilometer ring around the base. We also did regular rotations as the Quick Reaction Force for Eastern Afghanistan. The Quick Reaction Force was a platoon sized, heavily armed element that could be in a helicopter, wheels up, within 30 minutes of getting a call out at any time of the day or night. Routinely those call outs included downed aircraft, troops in contact (firefights) that needed support, and rescues. We also were in charge of providing support for President Karzai in the event that he needed to evacuate his palace in Kabul. As a result of doing practice runs for this mission I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time at the Presidential Palace as well as sleeping in the King’s residence.
Midway through our tour we were pushed out to one of the Forward Operating Bases (FOB) on the outskirts of Ghazni. We would routinely conduct foot patrols in and around Ghazni City and we provided support and security for President Karzai during the elections of 2004. Being the first freely held elections in Afghanistan, I was incredibly proud to participate in that bit of history. Within a few weeks we were assigned our area of operations (AO): Wardak Province. Wardak Province was Taliban central at the time and is much worse now. If Afghanistan was New York City, Wardak would be the most gang infested area of Hell’s Kitchen. Where I was living in a wooden hut a month before on Bagram, I was now sleeping, eating, and crapping in the same trench where the night before I was fighting for my life. Where I was driving down a paved road on Bagram the month before to get a coffee from the coffee shop, I was now white knuckled gripping what passes for a dash board on a HumVee while we traverse mountain roads with sheer drop-offs of hundreds of feet that would give a mountain goat a heart attack or mine fields where the mines are so close to the road that your tires brushed the sides. Where the month before I was speaking Russian to the girls at the barber shop on Bagram, I was now interrogating a Pashtun through my tajiman (interpreter) that I knew goddamned well tried to kill me last night but whom I could not shoot or arrest because I had no concrete proof.
I have seen Afghanistan and I have seen its people. I have talked to women on the dirt packed and raw sewage filled streets of Ghazni and had them thank me for our presence in their country and the security that we provide. I have handed out pencils and paper and clothing to Afghan children and had them thank me profusely for the gifts. I have fought side by side with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and what they lack in tactical and technical proficiency, they more than make up for with raw courage and a tenacity that would frustrate a mule. I have felt the joy of sharing a meal and jokes with the ANA after sundown during Ramadan and the sheer terror as bullets cracked past my head as I ran unarmored into a firefight to get to my troops and join the fray. I have crawled into tunnels hoping that I would be able to crawl back out alive and ran to a bomb shelter as missiles fell around me, certain that I would not survive the night. I have watched in sheer awe as I passed the minars of Ghazni that had stood for centuries before America even existed and stood in mute contemplation of the sheer beauty, and stark ugliness, of the same mountains and deserts that Alexander and Genghis Khan and Tamerlane had crossed. I can and did leave Afghanistan, but it will never leave me. It cannot. Ask anyone who has been there and they will tell you the same.
On Bagram Air Field there are numerous opium poppy fields but there are no guards posted at them. There is no need to because the poppy fields are collocated on mine fields. That is the perfect metaphor for Afghanistan and our involvement there. It is a place of beauty but it is so potentially lethal that you are best off just not being there and even surrounded by that much security and technology and rough men wielding devastating firepower, there is still danger even within the walls of your own fortifications. Ten years into our involvement in Afghanistan we are still there with no clear, identifiable end state other than a “stable Afghanistan”. Once we have achieved that, we can go home. We cannot stay in Afghanistan forever, but we cannot in good conscience just leave Afghanistan to the wolves that will surely fill the void once we vacate. But can we achieve that which has never been achieved with a nation of people who are so glib, disinterested, and ignorant that they know more about the lives of the Kardashians than they do about the location of Afghanistan? Can we afford not to try to reign in that country that for so long has served as a training ground for al Qaeda and the Taliban when it will surely revert back to that status when we leave? Can we really fight those for whom life has no meaning? Can we afford not to?
Within a year of returning home I was invited to tea at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington D.C. Ambassador of Afghanistan Said Jawad had invited me and a few other Operation Enduring Freedom combat veterans to talk about the situation there, how we felt about it, and if we thought we should be there. To a number we all agreed that the U.S. should be there because leaving before any real security and stability had been established would be signing the death warrants of every Afghan that helped us as well as scores of hundreds of women and religious dissidents once the Taliban completed their resurgence, which they most certainly would. He thanked us for our efforts there and told us how much he appreciated our sacrifices as we had been told by so many others in Afghanistan before. His words, however, sparked a memory in my mind from a conversation I had with an old Pashtun man in a mountain village in the Nirkh region of Wardak Province. He had asked us what we were doing in their area and we replied that we were conducting village assessments to see if the villages here had sufficient medical support, clean water, schools, and security. He replied “we like that you come to help us. We like that you bring us medicine and clean water. But we can provide our own security. The Russians tried to give us security. You know what happened to the Russians. Don’t be the Russians.”
That old man’s face and words haunt me to this day.