by Violette Combe
copyright January 2004
On September 11th ,2001, falls a
great symbol of the American superpower: the World Trade center. The attack
has been perpetrated by a group of fundamentalist islamists. And this is
the arrival of a forgotten country of a very, very far region, Afghanistan.
The country is suddenly put on the foreground of the international press,
since the believed responsible for the outrage, Osama Bin Laden, seems
to come from there.
The international community, and particularly the United States, begin to re-discover Afghanistan, which is not such a foreign country for the latter. The USA had supported the Afghan resistance against Russia for about 10 years, at the time of the USSR and of the Cold war.
What is the direction History has chosen to take? When the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and when it had to withdraw in 1989, in front of a strong resistance supported by many foreign forces, was it the fate of the liberated country to become the heart of extreme islamism, and international terrorism? Why did the Afghan people turn against one of their former allies, the United States? These are not questions easy to answer. However, I’ll try to know if the present situation has been caused by the Soviet invasion.
The analysis of this invasion displays that the Soviet but also the American involvements in Afghanistan have played a role in developing fundamentalism. Yet it seems important to me to insist on the historical weakness of the Afghan state, as well as the influence of the taliban regime on Muslims.
I/ THE INVASION, ROAD TO FUNDAMENTALISM
A. The invasion and the war against
Since 1933 had the King Zahir Shah reigned. But his brother-in-law, Mohammed Daoud, brought it to an end in 1973, by seizing power and declaring a republic. Daoud and his family were massacred in 1978 in a full Marxist coup. The communist system, or more precisely the socialist reforms newly introduced, seemed on the point of being rejected by the population. The leaders of the Soviet Union decided they had to intervene, in order to keep the image of international Marxism- Leninism. On December 26th 1979, Soviet troops invaded, and the latest president, H. Amin, was killed in his palace.
This intervention broke up the balance instaured at the Yalta conference betwwen the two great powers. In January the USA began an embargo toward Moscow, and the Western countries (except France) boycott the Olympics games of Moscow (1980). In spite of these measures, the fightings broke out in Afghanistan, between the Red Army, who supported the government, and the Afghan population who fiercely defended its freedom. The war was going to be very harsh, until April 14th 1988, when some peace treaties were signed in Geneva, by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR and the United States; and the last Soviet soldier left the country in February 1989.
The effects of the war on the civilian population were horrendous. Indeed, the rural areas in which the majority of people lived were vulnerable to the kind of weapons employed by the soldiers. On average, the losses represented over 60 Afghan deaths for each Soviet soldier who died as a result of the war. Nearlly 1.5 million persons became disabled. The psychological trauma caused by the effects of displacement was enormous: at the beginning of 1990, over 6million Afghan refugees were outside the country. The ones who had survived were suffering from starvation, privation, inflation and acute shortage of raw materials. The infrastructural assets had sometimes been targeted directly, and in other cases decayed through lack of necessary maintenance. By 1990, about 60 per cent of Afghan schools had no building (UNO, 1994: Vol. I: 16). However, given the significance of agriculture, it was the deterioration of the agricultural sector that posed some of the greatest problems. The damage caused to irrigation systems was to have the unintended consequence to encourage narcotics production. In 1980 the trade deficit was of US$ 69 million, compared to US$ 649 million in 1990. The country was clearly dependent on foreign aid, which increased its debt, inflation and decreased the autonomy of the government. The challenge was how to re-institutionalise and re-legitimate the state after years of politics based on ideology, personality, and violence.
Moreover, another consequence of the war was the resurgence of Islam. First, those who had battled Soviet forces since the December 1979 invasion felt great pride that a superpower had been forced into what they saw as a retreat. The invasion had encouraged the development of religious nationalism and the declaration of jihad, the holy war for muslims, against the Soviet Union. Islam became the central pivot of the fight. It is important to remind that Afghanistan has always been a tribal society, in which the islamic religion was the only thing likely to create a nationally united resistance. And it worked, as the USSR had to withdraw in front of a politically divided but religiously united resistance. The aspect of jihad gave the moujahidin (jihad fighters) a great strength, for they were not afraid of dying, as they believed death was a priviledge given by Allah. Added to that, the moujahidin, contrary to the Soviet soldiers, had nothing to lose. The countries which were supporting the moujahidin were mostly muslims (except western countries!): Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran,... A lot of arab volunteers came in Afghanistan to help the “freedom fighters”, and Bin Laden was among them. It was the beginning of an international islamism.
All these foreign volunteers, when
the war was over, felt that Washington no longer needed them as the victory
over communism was enough. And they began resenting against the United
States, which was one of the few countries that supported Israel.
B. The involvement of the USA,
Robert Gates, former CIA director, thinks the Afghan war was one of the greatest success of the American administration. This is not the view of an American Congress commission, who had to investigate about the drugs and terrorism’s financial network. They concluded by saying the federal administration had managed to make of the Afghan region one of the main centers for drug trade and international terrorism.
In 1950-1953, the Korean war made
a shift in the American foreign policy, as it had to extend their involvement
to Asia, in order to contain communism. In 1954, Pakistan signed a bilateral
treaty with the USA, and benefited from a US aid, especially for military
matériel. Afghanistan had never been listenned to when it demanded
military help, as it was considered to be the enemy of Pakistan. Already
before WWII, the USA had neglected the country, in spite of its strategic
location. In 1979, the fall of the Shah of Iran made America lose a serious
ally in Iran. Afghanistan suddenly became a good means to reconquer the
region and to contain communism. 6 months before the Soviet invasion, 120
trainement camps for moujahidin had been financed and supported by the
CIA. According to Mohammed Issami , the CIA had even openned bank counts
in Switzerland to recieve international donations for jihad. In 1980-82,
the total aid of the United States to the Afghans was US$ 25 million a
year, and twice more the year after. Reagan’s administration was willing
to increase the pressure on the USSR, even if the CIA had already felt
the islamist, and sometimes anti-American, side of the resistance.
It should be added the role of the Pakistani influence. As the Afghan opposition slowly began to build up, there were two mutually hostile tendencies: the religious fundamentalists headed by G. Hekmaytar, and the more nationalist faction led by B. Rabbani and A. Shah Massoud. Pakistan, as well as the USA, supported the fundamentalists; “the Great Satan was giving its backing to Islamic fundamentalism ”. It came about because of the excellent relations Pakistan’s military intelligence organization, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), had built up with the CIA. Over the years to come, the CIA would follow the ISI’s advice faithfully. The ISI’s argument was that Hekmatyar’s organization, Hezb-e Islami, was fiercer and more effective than any other moujahidin group at fighting the Russians. Throughout the 1980ies, however, Hezb-e Islami never hid its hatred for Western values .
Pakistan played a key role in the Afghan conflict. The country wanted to assure itself an allied government in Kabul, and it was the main base and shelter for the fighters. The number of madrasas (islamic schools) increased , financed by the Saudi dollars. The moujahidin recieved the islamic formation in Pakistan, and the military trainement in Afghanistan.
During the war, the ISI imposed strict rules on the USA, and its whole military aid was canalized by the Pakistani Service.
The United states actually made a wrong diagnosis about the Afghan islamist resistance. It used to think the movement was more against modernity than against Western countries. It was concentrated on other threats than islamic terrorism: it was even obsessed by the revolutionnary Iranian chiism and by Marxism-Leninism. Therefore they recklessly supported Pakistan, but the ISI supported the anti-American Hekmaytar, and the region was about to become a future sanctuary of radical islamic terrorists. The USA was so obsessed by containing Communism that it even created formation centers in its country (about 17); and after the end of the US interest in Afghanistan, all the trainement camps that had been created kept on working, welcoming more and more foreign Muslims who were more and more criticizing Western values. The USA followed Pakistan, even if it became doubtful after the 1993 outrage against the World Trade center.
The war lasted until 1992 for Afghan people, who had turned into a civil war. But the United States had obtained what it wanted, and its interest in Afghanistan disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
However, despite the role of the
Soviet and American involvements, other factors, more closely linked with
Afghanistan itself, are likely to explain the road to terrorism.
II/ AFGHANISTAN’S SPECIFICITIES, A PLACE FOR FUNDAMENTALISM
A. The historical weakness of
The State of Afghanistan has alwalys suffered from weakness, since it emerged very late, in 1880 only. Afghanistan has always been the meeting point of great empires: the Persian Empire (West), the Iranian Empire (North), the Indian one (East). It has no ancient state history, as it has for centuries been divided into independent regions, or incorporated to the big empires. Afghanistan, contrary to India with the Himalayan mountains, has few natural borders. The Hindukush is an opened mountain, “hospitable”. The country was a crossroads of trade and civilizations, since it was a main step in the Silk Road. It once belonged to the Persian empire (VI- IVth cent. before JC), then to the Indian or to the Timourid one, or later to the Mongol empire (XVI- XVIIth cent.).
As a result, Afghanistan has always been the place where neighbouring countries intervened, creating or benefiting from the divisions of Afghan people .
It should be added that the Afghan society is deeply divided as it is based on ethnies, tribes,clans, families. There is no national feeling, no historical acceptance of a national power . The Constitution of 1964 is the first historical reference made to an “Afghan Nation”. Thus, as a historic crossroads for the movement of peoples, it has a complex population ; the two main groups are the Pashtuns(40%) and the Persian-speaking Tajiks (30%). The political chaos of the past has also lead its neighbours and other countries to fish in Afghanistan’s troubled waters. Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Britain, France or China have all become involved in one way or another. And Afghanistan became the battleground for other countries’interests.
During the war against the Soviet Union, the Afghan resistance was also sharply divided (as seen above). When the Russians left Afghanistan, in 1989, they left a regime headed by the unscrupulous President Najibullah, and now the mujahidin declared a new jihad against him. In 1992, the mujahidin finally succeeded in capturing Kabul, and Najibullah was given shelter in the UN compound in the city. The vicious rivalries between the various mujahidin groups had never been resolved, and now they broke out in open violence.
And the worst and most disturbing experiment of all was about to be unleashed upon it by its neighbour.
B. The influence of the Taliban
The word “Taliban” means religious student. During the years of Soviet occupation, the sons of Afghan refugees who had fled to Pakistan were educated at hundreds of madrasas. They were encouraged to feel a bitter resentment against the Russians, and they were trained in a literal interpretation of the Holy Koran. Armed and trained by Pakistan, the Talibans made their first foray across the border in November 1994. the Taliban seemed like a purifying force, recuing the country from chaos and violence. They were welcomed because they seemed to bring peace. On September 26th 1996, the Talibans had captured Kabul; the full force of sharia law was introduced. The Talibans benefited from the divisions of the Afghans to make them believe they were the only solution for a united nation, strenghtened by Islam. The traditional Afghan Muslim religion is not a fundamentalist one. It is mostly soufism, which is Islam mixed with traditional shamani habits. The islamic nationalism appeared at the XIXth century, during the wars against the British, and the declaration of jihad. But is mostly developed trough the war against the USSR, in which Islam became the corner stone of the resistance. The Saudi dollars brought a new tendency, wahabbism, which is still the most radical one. The Talibans, if they were deeply Afghan, became more and more opposed to Western countries as they welcomed more and more foreign forces.
According to Amnesty International’s report of 2002, the Security Council of the United Nations imposed sanctions on taliban Afghanistan in December 2002, unless “Talibans ceased sheltering and training international terrorists and their organizations”. The Talibans were especially influenced by Osama bin Laden, who developed a vision of a generalized Islam troughout the world. Bin Laden came back in Afghanistan in 1996(he had left in 1990), and declared jihad on the United States, who “humiliated and oppressed Saudi Arabia”. He used to say that “every Muslim’s duty is to kill everywhere he can the Americans and their allies, civilians like soldiers” . According to Ahmed rashid, who lives in Pakistan, works for The Nation, and who is a specialist of Aghanistan, the Talibans sheltered before September 11th a lot a lot of varius terrorist groupsof the muslim community. However, the Talibans had never had such an international vision of Islam before they met bin Laden, after the capture of Kabul in 1996. The Talibans became all the more influenced by foreign radical movements as they benefited from their great support: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Libya or Iraq. Thus, the country seemed destined to become a centre for islamic fundamentalism, drugs, and terrorism.
Moreover, American politicians and journalists who had supported the Central Asia Oil pipeline Project, in which the US Oil Company Unocal was heavily involved, generally welcomed the arrival of the Talibans in power. It would, several of them said, endure peace and stability in the country. Pakistan, meanwhile, began to benefit from the arrival of the Talibans. Afghanistan seemed like an economic province of its neighbour. It was the ISI’s greatest achievement, and the CIA, which still listened to what the ISI said, apparently approved. But bin Laden had never made any secret of his hatred for Westerners. He gave the Taliban regime millions of dollars, and became a close personal friend of Mullah Omar.
That’s why the Talibans, deeply influenced by their foreign relationships, became increasingly hostile to the Westerners.
All Afghanistan’s problems ultimately
come down to two factors: weakness at home, and the interference of outsiders.
As the jihad development was mostly caused by the war against the USSR,
it became more and more extreme under the Taliban regime and the influence
of Osama bin Laden.
It can seem easy, nowadays, to criticize the American policy of this period because of the current threats of terrorism. However, before judging, it is important to remember the context of the time, during which every means was good to contain Communism and the USSR. It can be noted that even if it created the expansion of an islamic terrorism, the war and the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan have in a way contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and to the end of the Soviet Union. Now the problems of Western democracies have changed, and the USA like Europe have to seek new solutions to terrorism, as the Afghan cancer has been neglected for a too long time.
Afghanistan is still a country where the population is not to be regarded as terrorists, but as people who have the right to know peace and who mostly need a great help, in order to re-integrate their country into the international community.
- Islam et modernité politique, Olivier Roy, Paris, Le Seuil, 1985
- The day that shook the world, understanding September 11th, BBC News, 2001
- The Afghanistan wars, William Maley, Palgrave Mc Millan, 2002
- Imprévisible Afghanistan, George Etienne, Presses de Sciences Po, 2002
- Jihad: the rise of militant Islam in Central Asia, Ahmed Rashid, Yale University, 2002
- L’ Afghanistan, berceau du terrorisme international?, Ludivine Delsenne, I.R.I.E.D., 2002
- L’histoire du monde de 1918 à nos jours, Larousse, p.488-89.
- Géo magazine, n°277,
- Le Monde
- The Times
- Rapport annuel Amnesty International, 2002