As the “orderly and safe drawdown” of US troops from Afghanistan amid a Taliban takeover continues, America joins the former Soviet Union as a great power that recently waded into the fray with utter conviction and left in ignominy.
Not for nothing has Afghanistan been nicknamed the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.
While what we now call Afghanistan has witnessed strife for centuries (think Darius I, Alexander The Great, Mahmud of Ghazni and Genghis Khan), the past few decades have seen an almost constant thrum of conflict.
Here is a brief recap of the violent history of Afghanistan from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973 to just after the US invasion in 2001.
1973 - Overthrow of the monarchy
Mohammed Daud Khan, a pro-Soviet general who is also the cousin of King Zahir Shah, overthrows the monarchy in a military coup in 1973. Khan and his People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan take power and he names himself president.
In 1979, Khan is killed in a pro-Soviet coup and the presidency ends up in the hands of Nur Mohammad Taraki (a founding member of the Afghan Communist Party) with Babrak Karmal as his deputy.
Taraki and Babrak declare independence from Soviet influence and pledge to follow Islamic principles, Afghan nationalism and socioeconomic justice. Even though Taraki signs a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, trouble is on the horizon.
Taraki, at the same time, is at loggerheads with Hafizullah Amin, an influential communist leader. Meanwhile, an insurgency against Taraki’s regime – a client State of the Soviet Union – is already forming in the countryside. These guerrillas would be known as the Mujahedeen, some of whom would ultimately form Al-Qaeda.
1979 – Soviets march into Afghanistan
It’s Christmas Eve, 1979. Taraki has just been killed and the Soviet Red Army crosses the Oxus River into Afghanistan to prop up the floundering government. The Soviets cite an invite from the new Afghan communist leader Babrak Karmal, who is later installed as head of the government, as justification for the invasion. This sets the stage for decades of war and conflict.
Across the border, in Pakistan, the Mujahedeen, funded and armed by the United States for a war against the communists, are assembling. More than eight million Afghans flee to Pakistan and Iran, the first of multiple waves of refugees over the decades.
During the 1980s, CIA’s covert Operation Cyclone funnels weapons and money for the war through Pakistani dictator Mohammed Zia-ul Haq, who calls on Muslim countries to send volunteers to fight in Afghanistan. One notable name among the thousands of volunteers: Osama Bin Laden.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan meets with Mujahedeen at the White House. He calls them “freedom fighters.”
1986 - The tide turns
The tide of the battle turns in September 1986, when the US provides the Mujahedeen with shoulder-held anti-aircraft Stinger missiles.
As the CIA itself recently put it:
The Stinger missiles supplied by the United States gave Afghan guerrillas, generally known as the Mujahideen, the ability to destroy the dreaded Mi-24D helicopter gunships deployed by the Soviets to enforce their control over Afghanistan. #HISTINT #Museum
— CIA (@CIA) April 6, 2021
Najibullah takes over from Babrak Karmal as head of the Soviet-backed government. The Soviets begin negotiating withdrawal.
On 14 April, 1988, Washington, Moscow, Kabul and Islamabad sign an agreement that outlines the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. This agreement, known as the Geneva accord, covers four basic principles: the pace and time frame of the nine-month Soviet withdrawal, the halt of foreign interference in the Afghan conflict, the right of Afghans to determine their own government and the safe return of some 5 million refugees from Pakistan and Iran.
1989 – Moscow finally pulls troops out
A decade after invading Afghanistan, Moscow pulls its troops out. On 15 February, 1989, the last Soviet soldier leaves Afghanistan.
The Mujahedeen, not party to the Geneva accord, continue to battle the communist government headed by Najibullah.
The insurgents declare Sibhatullah Mojadidi as head of their exiled government.
1992 – Fall of Najibullah regime, Mujahedeen takeover
By now, the Soviet Union, which has been funding the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan, has collapsed. Mujahedeen groups enter Kabul. The fleeing Najibullah is stopped at the airport and put under house arrest at a UN compound.
Power-sharing among the Mujahedeen leaders falls apart. They spend four years fighting one another; much of Kabul is destroyed and nearly 50,000 people are killed.
1994-2001 - The Taliban takeover
The Taliban emerges in southern Kandahar in 1994, take over the province and set up a rule adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam. On 26 September, 1996, the Taliban captures Kabul after sweeping across the country with hardly a fight; Northern Alliance forces retreat north toward the Panjshir Valley. The Taliban hangs Najibullah and his brother.
Though initially welcomed for ending the fighting, the Taliban rules with a heavy hand under Mullah Mohammed Omar for the next five years, imposing strict Islamic edicts, denying women the right to work and girls the right to go to school. Punishments and executions are carried out in public.
In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the world’s largest standing Buddha statue in Bamyan province, to global shock.
2001 – US invades Afghanistan
After the attacks of 11 September, 2001, Washington gives Mullah Omar an ultimatum: hand over Bin Laden and dismantle militant training camps or prepare to be attacked. Omar refuses. On 7 October, 2001, a US-led coalition launches an invasion of Afghanistan.
In November, the Taliban flees Kabul for Kandahar as the US-led coalition marches into the Afghan capital with the Northern Alliance.
By December, the Bonn Agreement is signed in Germany, giving the majority of power to the Northern Alliance’s key players and strengthening the warlords who had ruled between 1992 and 1996.
Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun like most Taliban, is named Afghanistan’s president.
Also, in December, Mullah Omar leaves Kandahar and the Taliban regime officially collapses.
In May 2003, President George W Bush famously declares “mission accomplished” as the Pentagon says major combat is over in Afghanistan.
With inputs from AP