Afghanistan is a landlocked country jammed between Pakistan, Iran, and the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It has a panhandle that sticks east, barely touching against China.

A Brief History of the Last 71 Years

In 1948, when I was born, Afghanistan was a land of tribal feudal villages with busy little cities as nodes of the tribal networks. Most people were farmers or herders, but Afghanistan was also one of the last places on Earth with a significant population of nomads.  The country had few exports beyond raisins, lambskins, and carpets.  It was a patchwork of ethnic groups, and at least a dozen languages were spoken.  Virtually every Afghan was a practicing Muslim. Sufis—Islamic mystics—were widely revered. Since 1826, the country had been ruled by a tribal monarchy, the Mohammedzai clan.

Whether in cities or villages, Afghans lived in family compounds. Society was divided into a public sphere and a private sphere. When women went out into the public sphere, they clad themselves in chadris: full-body coverings with only a mesh to see through.

Then the Cold War began. Afghanistan became a chip in the competition between the Soviet Bloc and the Capitalist Bloc.  The Mohammedzais leveraged neutrality to extract development funds from both sides. “I will smoke American cigarettes,” said one prime minister, “but I will light them with a Russian match.”  Highways were built, airports, dams, hospitals, hydroelectric plants.  The monarchy pushed for progressive social change as well.  In 1959 they had the chadri stripped of legal sanction. Schools sprouted across the country, including girl’s schools, and in 1960 or so, the country began to experiment with co-education.   A public university was born, and within a few years, its student body included both men and women. Between the mid ‘50s and the mid’70s, the country went through perhaps 2000 years of social change.  Predictably, that much change in just two decades strained the social fabric of a country already under duress from the Godzillas of global politics, the powers locked in a Cold War struggle that made Afghanistan one of its lines of scrimmage.

In 1978, a small group of Afghan communists overthrew the monarchy, seized power, and killed the entire royal family and their retinue.  Soon after, they assassinated the American ambassador, thereby putting all their chips in the Soviet basket.  Backed by Soviet might, they tried to generate radical social change in Afghanistan by force, savage force—which triggered an overwhelming backlash.   Virtually all sectors of the society took up arms against the few thousand Communists of the “People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan”. Backed against a wall, these few Communists drew ever more heavily on the guns and torture devices supplied by the Soviets. By 1980, the Soviets could see that their handful of proxies in Kabul were not going to be able to hang onto power; so they invaded the country directly. A brutal 12-year war began.

America supplied just enough weaponry to the Afghan rebels to prevent the Soviets from winning or withdrawing. This was a Cold-War tactic designed to sap Soviet strength.  But in 1989, when the Soviet Union began to crumble, the Afghan Communists’ days were numbered.  In 1992, an array of anti-Communist, ethnic armies rushed into Kabul, the country’s capital, slaughtered the Communists, and then started slaughtering one another.  The next four years turned much of Kabul into rubble and reduced its population to about 300,000. The carnage was horrific. It ended when the Taliban—mainly boys and young men who had grown up in the refugee camps—drove out those many ethnic armies and took over Kabul and soon the entire country. By then the Cold War was over and a new global war had begun. Call it “terrorism”, call it “war on terror”—they’re the same thing.   This new surge of global violence had a strong flavor of Islam against the West. Afghanistan therefore became a crucial nexus a global war, since the Taliban were radically reactionary Islamist extremists caught up in a dream of restoring some imagined past. 

The events of 9/11 brought what was then routinely called “the world’s only remaining superpower” into the Afghan ring.  The United States smashed the Taliban in short order and installed a new government, staffed by its Afghan allies in the war against the Taliban, many of them Afghans who had been living in exile in the industrialized world. These streamed back to receive the several trillion dollars of development aid showered on the country by the United States and other outside powers.  The officials of this new government managed and mismanaged a hasty, and often shoddy restoration, of the country’s pre-war infrastructure.  Kabul had a few hundred thousand people when the Taliban fell; it is now a city of at least five million and perhaps as many as ten. Cell phones abound even in rural areas. The country has highways and airports and wireless Internet and television stations and bookstores. Outside powers—China, India, Iran, and others—are aggressively mining its vast mineral recourses—iron, copper, rare earth, uranium, and more.  Afghan officials lucky enough to be stationed in the vicinity of these resources are pocketing bountiful commissions.

The United States has two of the world’s largest military bases—Bagram and Kandahar—in this country. Official American military deployment in Afghanistan has dropped drastically over the last decade and is expected to drop further still; but the country is crawling with private military contractors, a different kind of foreign army; and during the Obama years, the United States and its allies developed drone warfare as the sophisticated modern way of waging war.  Therefore, the number of individual soldiers stationed in Afghanistan no longer works as a measure of American military involvement in the country. 

Today, news reports tell us that American diplomats are preparing to meet with “the Taliban” in Qatar to negotiate an end to the fighting.  The Taliban, however, have one non-negotiable demand: America’s complete military withdrawal.  It’s hard to picture the Taliban budging on this one. It’s also hard to picture the Americans giving on this one.  Here’s why:  from those air bases in Kandahar and Bagram, American warplanes can reach Beijing, Moscow, Delhi, and Tehran. Given this fact, a real American military withdrawal from Afghanistan is not likely to happen in the near future.

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