Forgotten Wars - Afghanistan


Written by Amiera Sawas
22 Monday 22nd September 2008

The Cold War left a number of nations in dire straights, but few as severely as Afghanistan. Afghanistan gained international relevance as a tactical buffer state between the West and the Russians, from the times of the great imperial struggle through to the Cold War. From the close of World War II in 1945 until 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for Afghanistan’s support through strategic aid. The ruling elite at the time were happy to accept it, as they lacked the ability to extract taxes from the population anyway.

Topographic map of AfghanistanWhen the Soviet Union realised that Afghanistan was not going to willingly align with them, they invaded in 1979 in an attempt to instil a communist ruling party. Instead this triggered an Islamic insurgency: a Jihad against the Soviet Union. The Western allies saw this as an opportunity to gain favour against the East and provided millions in military assistance to the Mujahideen (seven Islamic militant groups who joined in the Jihad against the Communist party). Ironically, the US provided assistance to none other than the infamous Osama Bin Laden.



1979-1992: Communist Party Vs The Mujahideen

Civil War began in 1979. The 1988 Geneva Accords, which stipulated the discontinuation of Soviet and US/Pakistan military support to both sides, were supposed to end the conflict. Unsurprisingly, both reneged on their agreement, the western alliance more so as they continued to arm the resistance. Conflict continued, destroying physical and economic infrastructure and any chance of centralised control and security by the government. Attempts to quell the opposition by depriving them of resources and agriculture actually led to the entrenchment of the opium trade as a survival tool. This created the war economy that now has devastating effects on prospects for peace in Afghanistan[1]. When the Soviet Union eventually dissolved in 1992, so did the Afghan government.


1992-1996: The Afghan Government versus the Taliban

The result of the Soviet dissolution was the removal of Cold War patronage support from the Russians and Americans, who no longer needed to fund the resistance. The residual effect was a weak government and a Jihadi insurgency struggling for control. No longer under superpower auspices, numerous Afghan groups felt empowered to take control of the land, to award it some well-needed stability. However, long-standing ideological differences between the Northern Alliance (a group of tribes borne out of the communist influence) and the Taliban (borne out of the Mujahideen, but defined by a more fundamentalist Sunni Islamic code) became instrumental obstacles to a stable Afghan-led state. While many commentators like to define the 1992-1996 period as an ethnic conflict between Pashtuns (a large majority of the Taliban) and non-Pashtuns (a large majority of the Northern Alliance), the violence was arguably due to more complex reasons such as: entrenched warlord tactics and a strong economic dependency on illegal trades such as drugs and arms.

Northern Alliance troops lined up next to the runway at Bagram Air Base, December 16, 2001.

1996-2001: The Taliban versus No-one

Afghanistan opium poppy cultivation, 1994-2007 (hectares)In 1996, the Taliban defeated the Northern Alliance, assuming command over the country for the first time in its history. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan by designating regions to Warlords or ‘Commanders’ [2]. While the Taliban initially forbade the drugs trade, considering it unholy, they did not take long to realise that, in an underdeveloped country with no legitimate trade and no sustainable international help, the drugs trade was the only way to make money. It was the only income-providing activity that allowed for public spending and sustained control. Warlords such as Hekmayter and Masud provided mosques, schools and clinics and stepped up security by training and building their armies, transforming what they conceived to be an illegitimate opium trade into legitimate welfare. Consequently, Afghanistan became less of a ‘state’ so to speak, and more of a vast expanse of territory consisting of mini-states under warlord control.

U.S. special forces troops ride horseback as they work with members of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom on Nov. 12, 2001

Post-September 11th 2001: The World versus the Taliban

Without a capable centralised authority, there was always the opportunity for deviant military groups to develop. This was recognised as the enabler of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Centre. In a country with secure borders and central control, Bin Laden’s activity might have been noticed or even prevented.

In the aftermath of the WTC attacks, the US government formed a multinational coalition, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’[3], which invaded Afghanistan on 7 October and drove the Taliban from power. The US-Led coalition consequently planned a UN meeting with a number of Afghanistan’s leaders in Bonn, Germany. Here, they laid out a state-building process called the ‘Bonn Agreement’[4] that included some key benchmarks: an Afghan Interim Authority to administer the sovereign state for six months, followed by the Loya Jirga in June 2002, a committee which would develop a new representative government (Afghanistan’s Transitional Authority) and finally, general elections and a democratically crafted constitution by 2004.

On the surface, this agreement appeared to cure all of Afghanistan’s ills. A centrally controlled, democratic government agreed upon by the Afghan warlords; supported financially by the international world with no need for an illegal drugs trade. If so, then why the continued fighting? The fundamental problem was that no members of the Taliban were allowed at the Bonn conference. In fact, most representation came from the Northern Alliance, their opposition. While the Taliban had been removed from power, they still had military capabilities and some ideological support among the population. They also continued to prosper from the opium trade, helping to rebuild their armies. Another assumption made by the negotiators of the Bonn Agreement was that those warlords that agreed to it would simultaneously convert to ‘peace-lords’, forgoing their violent methods of the past.


Who’s fighting now?

In January 2003 came the inevitable Taliban insurgency. Civil war had returned quickly, except this time the international forces present were also seen as the Taliban’s enemy, bringing a new dimension to the conflict. The new Afghan army and US soldiers were subject to regular rocket attacks and bombs, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. Due to the mountainous nature of the territory, it is very difficult to target rebel groups, let alone locate them. Consequently this violence has been almost impossible to control, despite the brave faces put on by coalition forces[5]. Barry Rubin, special representative at the Bonn Conference states,

“U.S. policymakers have underestimated the stakes in Afghanistan. They continue to do so today. A mere course correction will not be enough to prevent the country from sliding into chaos. The Taliban, meanwhile, have drawn on fugitives from Afghanistan, newly minted recruits from undisrupted training camps and militant madrasahs, and tribesmen alienated by civilian casualties and government and coalition abuse to reconstitute their command structure, recruitment and funding networks, and logistical bases in Pakistan.” [6]

In 2006, NATO forces took command of the fight against insurgents, as the Afghan and International forces were struggling to make progress.[7] This meant more troops from NATO member states had to be deployed to the warzone (including huge numbers of UK troops). Since then, there has been an escalation in violence, particularly suicide bombing[8]. Many analysts suggest that these bombers tend to be alienated young Afghans who have been devastated by the conflict. We are seeing an increasing number of civilian deaths and insurgency attacks. This august marked the highest number of civilian casualties (330) since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001[9]. Disturbingly, NGOs and aid workers are being targeted by Taliban insurgents and forced to pull their operations out of the country. The International Rescue committee did so after four of its staff were assassinated. In fact, there have been 117 violent incidents against civil society workers in the past six months[10]. Effectively, like many other wars of our era, it is the most vulnerable populations that tend to suffer from the conflict: the civilians and aid workers who lack military protection and are therefore easy targets[11].

American and British soldiers take a tactical pause during a combat patrol in the Sangin District area of Helmand Province 10 April 2007

Every day in Afghanistan is characterised by intense conflict and it seems more intractable than ever. Francesc Vendrell, the Spanish special envoy to the country has recently stated that it is in the worst state ever [12]. This has gone seemingly unnoticed for the past few years by the international media. Some suggest that the Iraqi conflict has taken centre stage. The situation is no worse there, but has cost more money and its causes were more controversial[13]. The harsh reality is that, with more than 65, 000 troops deployed and over 10, 000 more pledged to go this year[14]; there is no end in sight to Afghanistan’s conflict, no peace in sight for the people, and no return in sight for our troops.

[1] Felbab-Brown, V. (2006) Kicking the Opium habit: Afghanistan’s drug economy and politics since the 1980s. Conflict, Security and Development, 6 (2): 127-149.

[2] Lezhnev, S. (2005) Crafting Peace: Strategies to Deal with Warlords in Collapsing States. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefied Publishers Inc.

[3] Operation Enduring Freedom Fact Sheet, US Department of State. Published online at

[4] The Bonn Agreement. Published online at

[5] Kalyvas, S. (2006) The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[6] Rubin, B. (2007) Saving Afghanistan. Foreign Affairs, January/February.

[7] NATO (2007) NATO in Afghanistan. Published online at

[8] Rohde, D. (2007) Afghan Suicide Attacks Rising, Report Shows.  New York Times, 9th September.

[9] UNAMA (2008) UN Rights chief urges protection amid sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths. September 16th, published online at

[10] IRIN (2008) Afghanistan: IRC reviews option to résumé activities. September 15th, published online at

[11] Kaldor, M.(2006) New and old wars: organized violence in a global era. Polity Press

[12] Vendrell, F. (2008) Quoted in article: “Afghanistan Is in Its Worst Shape Since 2001, European Diplomat Says”. New York Times, September 14th.

[13] Stiglitz, J. & Bilmes, L. (2008) The Three Trillion Dollar War: the true cost of the Iraq conflict. New York: Norton.

[14] Reuters (2008) Afghans hail Bush's move to send more troops. September 10th, published online at

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