Kites Over Kabul, Part 2: Afghanistan’s Troubled Present

Afghanistan in the 1960s was not a happy, stable place. Pro-democracy fighters vied with monarchists and conservatives, and while the incumbent Prince Zahir Shah was all too happy to introduce liberal and democratic reforms (it kept people happy and subdued rumours about corruption in the monarchy) that just seemed to put more power in the hands of the extremists on both sides. For example, political parties were made legal, but the parties that emerged – the People’s Democratic Party, for example, and the National Revolutionary Party – were strongly opposed to the having a Prince at all. In 1973, the first revolution began, led by ex-prime minister Muhammad Daoud Khan, and although it was peaceful (Zahir Shah abdicated almost as soon as he heard the news) it gave Daoud complete control of the country and a one-party system that kept him in perpetual power and allowed him to bump off anyone and everyone who challenged him. The newly created Republic of Afghanistan was every bit as bad a place as its forerunner.

It only lasted five years.

Just as the Great Game had messed up Afghan politics in the Industrial Era, the Cold War messed Republican Afghan politics in the Modern. This time, the major player was the USSR, and its influence caused a second revolution, called the Saur Revolution after the Persian Calendar month it took place in, which installed a communist government. This was even more brutal than Daoud’s regime – killing intellectuals as the dictator had, but also traditional leaders, religious heads in an attempt to move the country “forward” – and even worse suited to the Afghan peoples – land reforms, propaganda and state atheism angering the largely conservative and Muslim country to huge extremes. But this was a regime that could not be toppled, one that had the full support of the Soviet military, and when rebellions started (just one year later, in 1979) the USSR actually invaded to “keep peace”. In retaliation, the USA began its funding the Mujahedeen (“Strugglers”, Muslims who fight for their religion) who were resisting the invasion. Afghanistan became, once again, a battlefield in a fight between Superpowers, and the bloody conflict stretched until 1922, when the Mujahedeen drove out the last of the communist government and created an Islamic, democratic republic. America had created a religious, conservative, democratic state out of a communist regime. Surely, with US support, this could last?

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan lasted three years.

See, one of the groups the USA funded were called the Students. They were Mujahedeen to an extreme – ruthless, successful, and supported by the nearby Pakistani government, and they made good use of the money they received from Uncle Sam, but once the Mujahedeen had won and the Islamic Republic been set up, they turned against their former allies for being too western, and too moderate. It was then when they started a revolution against the new Islamic Republic. And it is now that I should tell you that Students in Pashtun, the local language, is Taliban. The Taliban created the Emirate of Afghanistan, every bit as brutal a regime as those that had come before it with a religious twist – this time it was the non-Pashtun minorities like the Hazara, non-Sunni groups like the Shiites, who were exterminated. Similarly, women became at huge risk as the ultra-conservative regime reduced their rights and freedoms. The Taliban caused a second civil war, with forces loyal to the old republic in the north and the emirate in the south, which still blazes today. But they could not foresee the consequences of funding a particular terrorist group who would go on to become globally infamous. They did not foresee the danger of al-Qaeda.

2001 was the year that shook the world, and nowhere was that more clear than in Afghanistan. An almost immediate declaration of war from the United States forced the country into yet more bloodshed, and although the Taliban was toppled and replaced by a second Islamic Republic (which is still the de jure state of Afghanistan today) the insurgency and the war has continued to this day. Kabul is now a warzone, a constant fight between Islamists and Democrats, and the War in Afghanistan enters its 34th year (having started as soon as the communist revolution did). Whatever Afghanistan’s future, Taliban-led or Republican, Communist or Conservative, you can be sure it needs one thing more than any other right now. Peace.


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