The Afghan Turmoil from 1747 to 2001

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S. Iftikhar Murshed


Since the establishment of the kingdom of Afghanistan by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1747, the country has seldom known peace. It has been ravaged by conflict before the emergence of the Taliban, during their harsh rule from 1996 to 2001 and after their ouster. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country and it is the quest for national cohesion in a heterogeneous population that defines the Afghan problem. The 20 August 2009 presidential election was fraud-tainted. Whatever dispensation finally emerges, it is essential that it should reflect the ethnic composition of the country or else durable peace and stability will not return even if the Al Qaeda-supported Taliban insurgency comes to an end. Author).

Through history, Afghanistan has seldom known peace. Its ethnic heterogeneity has     shaped and influenced its violence-ridden past. Peaceful coexistence among the ethnic groups has been alien to the Afghan experience. The ethnic map of the country, with the groups separated and confined to clearly defined areas, has also militated against national unity. The Hindu Kush range, which translates as the “slayer of Hindus,” has served as the rough divide.

In the historical context, the term “Afghan” was probably first used in the fifteenth century  during the reign of  Mahmud of Ghazni, a ruler of Turkish descent, while the name of the country, “Afghanistan,” was coined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the Moguls. History contains no record of an Afghan state before 1747. Eastern Afghanistan formed part of the Mogul Empire while its west was controlled by the Safavids of Iran.   Kabul became the capital of Mogul territory west of the Indus. The second major Afghan town, Kandahar, was contested between the Mogul and Persian empires till it was taken by the latter during the reign of the Mogul emperor, Shah Jahan. The shahs of Iran continued to treat Afghanistan a province of their empire till the nineteenth century.

The quest for national cohesion in a heterogeneous population defines the Afghanistan problem. The difficulties are compounded because the disparate groups of the country were brought together, through the centuries, more by accident rather than any shared desire to live together. The urge for unity was absent from Afghan society because one group, the Pushtuns, imposed itself on the others. The ethnic minorities were subjugated and treated as second class citizens. The Pushtuns monopolized economic and political power with the encouragement of imperial Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus uni-racial rule in a multiracial society, and its attendant backlash, unleashed violence among a people who had never wanted to be united into a single nation.

The Great Game

In 1747, Ahmed Shah Abdali founded the Kingdom of Afghanistan and extended it up to Kashmir, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan of present day Pakistan. He was conferred the title Durr-i- Durran (Pearl of Pearls) and from this his tribe, which was to play so prominent a role in Afghan history, became known as  the  Durrani. After Abdali’s death in 1773, the empire fragmented into independent city states and spurred rivalry between the British and the Russians for dominance of the country.

The emergence of Afghanistan as a state in the last two centuries owed itself more to Britain’s imperial ambitions than any desire among its  peoples  to  forge  national  identity.    British  writers  claimed  that their country had contributed significantly to give “a national unity to that nebulous community which we call Afghanistan (which the Afghans never called by that name) by drawing a boundary all round it and elevating it into a position of buffer state between ourselves and Russia.”1 External compression was, therefore, applied by the advancing empires of Britain and Russia to foster effective cohesion among the Afghan groups.2 The conflicting interest of the two imperial powers did not permit either to establish itself in Afghanistan. The alternative to an armed clash over the territory was to transform it into a buffer state. It was also in their interest, if Afghanistan was to play this role, to ensure that chaos and anarchy did not prevail in it. A strong ruler was, therefore, needed in the country. Britain and, to an extent, Russia feared chaos in a leaderless Afghanistan more than the unfriendliness of an Afghan ruler.3

The British were also conscious that there was nothing to guarantee Afghanistan’s continued existence as a buffer between England and Russia as no other country cared about its survival.4  This generated a disproportionate British interest in Afghanistan which played itself out as the “great game” in the nineteenth century. The attempt to incorporate Afghanistan in the British sphere of influence led to two Anglo-Afghan wars from 1839 to 1842 and 1878 to 1880. The first resulted in defeat for the British while the second enabled them to control Afghanistan’s foreign policy and annex sizeable territory. These lands, stretched from the Indus to the Durand Line, which demarcates the present day border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The result was the delimitation of the frontiers of Afghanistan in the west, south and east by the British, and in the north by the Russian and British governments.

After bringing Afghanistan into existence, the need for a strong ruler to hold the country together thus became of paramount concern to the British who, on occasions, played a decisive role in the selection of the amir. So deep was their involvement that British support became essential to ensure any particular amir’s continued occupation of the Afghan throne. They provided him the subsidies and weapons to build an army and consolidate power. Furthermore, the subjugation of the ethnic minorities by the Pushtun amirs was carried out with the encouragement and support of the British.  In the words of a Russian historian “after

1849 Dost Muhammad turned to the conquest of non-Afghan peoples living north of the Hindu Kush (Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen) with the support of the British India Company.”5

With British subsidies, amir Abdur Rahman, who ruled from 1880 to 1901, sought to establish an absolute monarchy. He was succeeded by his grandson, Amanullah Khan, who tried to modernize the country in the ten years that he reigned from 1919 to 1929. He won Afghanistan’s independence in the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919 but lost the subsidy as a consequence of which he failed to establish a resource base or build a reliable army. An insurrection supported by extremist clergy ensued and Kabul was taken by the rebels in January 1929. An ethnic Tajik rebel ruled for the next nine months when the capital fell, yet again, in October 1929 to the Pushtun tribes led by Nadir Khan, a member of the royal family.

As was  perhaps  inevitable  under  the  circumstances,  the  power base in Afghanistan has constantly remained extremely narrow. Its exercise has been the privilege of the Pushtuns, within the Pushtuns of the Durranis, and within the Durranis of the Barakzais. For almost half a century during which power rested with the Mohammadzai branch of the Barakzai clan, Afghanistan was  controlled by an inner cabinet consisting of important members of the royal family and a few of their trusted associates. Command positions in the army were invariably held by members of the royal family and, in some instances, by staunch supporters of the monarchy. The successful coup by Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan in July 1973 against his cousin, King Zahir Shah, merely ended the monarchy but did not result in any diffusion of power. In effect, power was transferred from the former oligarchy to a single individual.

These factors which included the imperial rivalry of Britain and Russia, geographical separation of the Afghan ethnic groups and a traditionally narrow power base, combined to prevent the peaceful growth of Afghanistan into a state in the true sense of the word. Founded, as it was, as a loose confederation of Pushtun tribes under Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan national identity became synonymous with Pushtun nationalism. Despite the presence of other ethnic groups, Afghanistan has been a country run by the Pushtuns and for the Pushtuns. The other groups have, with considerable justification, been described as “the victims of an internal colonisation.”6  Afghan governments have been generally preoccupied with exclusively Pushtun issues such as the Afghan irredentist campaign and the advancement of Pushtu as the state language. The latter has included “the required learning of Pushtu in the schools, support for research in Pushtu literature, and the enshrining of Pushtu as the national language in article 35 of the 1964 constitution.”7

Without exception, Afghan cabinets have been dominated by Pushtuns completely out of proportion to the population ratio. For instance, in a cabinet of sixteen, the number of non-Pushtuns hardly exceeded one and very rarely two. Even this meagre representation was not always ensured. Pushtuns were appointed governors in most provinces, even where the population was predominantly of other ethnic groups “but a non-Pathan has never been appointed governor of a Pathan province.”8

It is, therefore, interesting that when the Taliban were in control over the major part of Afghan territory from 1996 to September 2001, they appointed eleven non-Pushtuns as governors, some of them in Pushtun provinces, and included four or five members of the minority ethnic groups in the cabinet.

Economic   development   was   equally   unbalanced.   Practically all development projects were concentrated in the Pushtun areas. Agricultural programmes were to be found in Khost and the Helmand Valley, forestry schemes at Ali Khel, hydroelectric power generation and irrigation in Nangarhar – all Pushtun provinces. Even when development took place in regions where other groups were dominant as with cotton ginning and processing in the north at Kunduz and along the Oxus, it was “often in an area with a Pushtun settler population dating from the government’s deliberate shifting of Pathans to these areas before the Second World War.”9 Similarly, the great majority of Afghan industrial workers were “often members of those families who were moved into the non-Pushtun provinces and were never quite able to fit happily into the local community.”10  Thus the growing industrial elite was as Pushtun-dominated as was the administrative elite.

The Process of Pushtun Domination

The most comprehensive accounts of Pushtun subjugation of the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and the Hazaras of Afghanistan are mainly to be found in the works of Soviet historians. This process, which involved conquest followed by persecution and ethnic cleansing, reached its peak under amir Abdur Rahman who is often described as the Bismark of Afghanistan.11 The enormity of the Afghan tragedy, both historical as well as contemporary, cannot be overstated. It raises fundamental questions such as whether the people of Afghanistan can, and in particular the minority groups, be expected to forget the past and begin a process of genuine reconciliation, or will the legacy of interracial disharmony and hatred continue to define the country’s post-Taliban future?

The Tajiks lost their state with the fall of the Samanids, but continued to fight stubbornly to preserve their independence. It was only in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries that the Afghan feudal lords defeated the Tajik peasants of the Kabul, Kandahar and Ghazni regions. In the 1830s a bitter struggle between the Tajiks and the Pushtuns began, which culminated in the 1880s when Abdur Rahman succeeded in finally breaking the Tajik resistance. The establishment of Pushtun authority in the Tajik areas was accompanied by the confiscation of land from the local aristocracy, the forcible seizure of small holdings from the peasantry, and the transfer of un-worked lands to the state. The vast state holdings thus acquired were distributed among the Pushtun immigrants who formed military colonies in these areas. The indigenous population was strangulated economically through the imposition of exorbitant taxes from which the Pushtuns were exempted.  Crippled economically and ostracized politically, a sizeable number of local Tajiks were forced to move to Turkestan in search of a living.

The process was repeated with the Uzbeks. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Uzbeks, who were settled in northern Afghanistan, constituted the feudal khanates of Kunduz, Mazar, Shibberghan and Maimena. They were dependent to a greater or lesser degree on the amir of Bokhara. However, as early as the accession of Dost Muhammad, the Afghan government began to conquer southern Turkestan including the Uzbek khanates. The bloodshed continued for several decades till Abdur Rahman was able to capture all the territory between the Amu Darya (the Oxus) and the Hindu Kush.  Again excessively high taxes were imposed on the local population forcing them to migrate. Their of Pushtun colonization of the area commenced.12

The Turkmen experience was no different. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the greater part of their principalities had become vassals to Bohkara and it was not till the conquest of Andkhoi, Shibberghan and Maimena by Abdur Rahman that these areas were assimilated into Afghanistan. This was in fact facilitated by the Russo- English demarcation of 1885-1887. Property was again confiscated from the local population thus making them wholly dependent on the mercy of the Pushtun aristocracy. Many reverted to nomadic ways while others became shepherds and herded the flocks of the new landowners.13

However, it was the Hazaras who suffered the most because, as Shiias, they were detested not only by the Pushtuns but also by the other ethnic minorities. This sectarian bias against them has always been and continues to be one of the most shameful aspects of Afghan society. Jealousy and envy also played a role because, unlike the other ethnic groups, the Hazaras had guarded their independence and did not submit for a prolonged period to any outside power for six centuries. The people of the Hazarajat accepted only their own leadership till the 1890s when they were finally subjugated, after a long and fierce conflict lasting several decades, by Abdur Rahman. Not only did they lose a considerable portion of their land to the Pushtun feudal lords but also suffered persecution, the barbarity of which has few parallels even by Afghan standards. The heads of slaughtered Hazaras were placed on pillars along the highways as a warning to those contemplating rebellion. The bazaars of Kandahar and other  major towns were filled with Hazara prisoners who were sold at cheap prices as slaves. A foreigner who happened to be in Kabul in the 1890s observed: “a short while ago a Hazara baby was bought for half- a-crown, and the purchaser got the mother for fifteen shillings.”14  On other occasions, prisoners were traded for guns, ammunition and horses. The possession of Hazara slaves became a status symbol for prosperous Pushtuns.15  Even after slavery was abolished by king Amanullah, the Hazaras continued to live as outcasts possessing neither wealth nor any rights.

In the 1960s, a second infiltration of the Hazara areas took place when about sixty thousand Pushtuns from the plains were settled in the Hazarajat. The local population meekly accepted this as they were too weak to offer any resistance. In this period they also became the victims of wealthy Pushtuns who lent them money at interest rates that verged on extortion.

Seldom have minority communities in any society suffered so much. This aspect of Afghan history will continue to cast a shadow on the prospects of sustainable peace in the country. But the problem is far more complicated because the ethnic minorities also distrust and even despise each other as the tragic tale of Afghanistan has so frequently demonstrated.

The Afghan Political Structure and the non-Pushtun Groups

After their “colonization,” which was completed by Abdur Rahman, the non-Pushtuns became mere bystanders as their country underwent political change. They were unable to even express their grievances. Their subdued anger at Pushtun political, economic and social predominance became increasingly pronounced and instilled parochial rather than national loyalties. The indignities and the persecution that the Hazaras suffered made them particularly bitter.

The subjugation of the ethnic minorities of Afghanistan was, in a sense, also a conflict between Pushtun tribesmen and the non-Pushtun urban population. The conquest of the towns, which had previously been controlled by merchants and artisans, resulted not only in the loss of urban political influence, but also in “the collapse of organization, skills, and economic activity. Their markets constricted and they suffered from plundering and heavy taxation imposed by tribally and rurally oriented rulers…The picture presented until the late nineteenth century was that of dying urban communities. The subsistence orientation of the peasant and the nomad made them virtually independent of the towns economically, while their numbers and organization gave them political control in both town and countryside.”16 of the victorious Barakzai forces. The burden of their demands fell mainly on the Tajik section of the population with the result that “in the immediate vicinity of towns no human voice greets or curses the visitor. Once rich vineyards are dried up and all around is desolation.  This is specially the case in the Qandhar district where every fresh change of rulers has only brought increased taxation, until the population has been decimated and tax gatherers, enraged at not being able to squeeze money out of the mud walls, seized and sold into slavery the last inhabitants of once prosperous towns and villages.”17

The urban centres of eastern and southern Afghanistan, rather than the Afghan tribes, were the worst sufferers of the two Anglo-Afghan wars of the nineteenth century as well. While the country’s meagre economy as a whole was undoubtedly damaged seriously, the urban population was badly hit by inflation and the scarcity of basic commodities. The population and the economy of Kabul and of the Kandahar regions declined sharply; the province of Herat also suffered enormous material losses.

No relief was in sight for the non-Pushtuns because the amirs of Afghanistan faced difficulties of their own. The consolidation of power was never an easy task for them. The threat to their position came mainly from their own kinsmen or other Durrani chiefs. Amir Habibullah Khan and King Zahir Shah have been the only two rulers to ascend and occupy their thrones (the latter for four decades) without a challenge. Whenever the throne was contested, which was generally the case, the issue was decided by the Pushtun tribesmen. In the conditions prevailing at the time, involvement in these dynastic contests represented the only form of political activity in the country. The non-Pushtuns were in no position to play any role in these contests and had no influence on their outcome. Thus they were denied all means for political advancement.

Furthermore, the evolution of Afghanistan’s international personality also militated against the interests of the ethnic minorities. With the demarcation of Afghanistan’s international frontiers and the guarantee of its territorial integrity by Britain and Russia, the Afghan rulers became relatively free from worries about foreign intervention and they used this breathing space to deal with their people. The amirs had always suspected Persia of irredentist designs in the western part of Afghanistan, and Russia of expansionist interests in the north.   In the perception of the Afghan rulers, these were the two areas most vulnerable to foreign ingress. To an extent, they could now count on British support in containing these threats. Despite this, the amirs were unable to break away out of a mind set that the country’s neighbours were inherently hostile and sought to annex Afghan territory.   They, therefore, deliberately chose an isolationist foreign policy as that would not only reduce external threat but also enable them to pursue vigorous domestic measures. This helped them in particular to insulate the non- Pushtun areas in the north and the west, and consolidate their grip on these regions. This could not have been achieved without the help of the Pushtun tribesmen. Thus, the authority of the state was identified with the rule of the Pushtuns and opposition to it with the ethnic minorities. The latter were, therefore, to remain suspect in the eyes of the Pushtun rulers of Afghanistan.

Reform Measures

The Afghan political structure has undergone fundamental changes since 1747. Though the amir has always been at the top of the power pyramid, his support base has varied under different rulers. Ahmed Shah Abdali’s “election” represented tribal consensus and his kingdom was, in essence, a Pushtun tribal confederation. Incessant dynastic struggles and internecine warfare within the Durranis and between them and other Pushtun tribes, particularly the Ghilzais, dominated events in Afghanistan after Abdali’s death till amir Dost Mohammad Khan finally succeeded in uniting the country. He was able to rally national support largely because of the British invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1839-1842.  However, after his death internal conflict resurfaced and continued with ferocity till Abdur Rahman seized Kabul and declared himself amir in 1880. It was during his reign, which lasted till 1901, that Afghanistan began to acquire the semblance of a nation state. Till his ascension the central government was dependent on support, in descending order of importance, from the Pushtun tribes, the religious economic interest groups. Abdur Rahman took consequential measures to alter the power structure by trying to make the government less dependent on tribal support. Besides keeping the tribes under control, he institutionalized the bureaucracy, the army and the monarchy. Till then, provincial governments were primarily organized along tribal lines with each tribe ruling in its own area autonomously. Whatever little control the government was able to exercise was usually through the army. To strengthen central authority, Abdur Rahman demarcated provincial boundaries that cut through tribal territory and doubled the number of provinces. Subsequent rulers stabilized the new system so that pure tribal government was done away with. Abdur Rahman further weakened the authority of the tribal chiefs by appointing them to seemingly important but innocuous posts in Kabul.

Claiming to rule by divine right, Abdur Rahman virtually eliminated the influence of the religious leaders by incorporating them into government service and appropriating their endowments.

On a parallel track, measures were taken to establish a professional army loyal to the central government and insulated from tribal influence. This experiment was entirely new to the Afghan experience. The tribal levies, who constituted the backbone of the army, were encouraged to pledge fealty to the amir rather than their own tribes. Abdur Rahman also introduced western military technology and organization. The modernization process was continued by his son, amir Habibullah, who set up a military academy for the officer corps.

These efforts were only partially successful because tribal rather than national loyalty continued to be the dominant impulse within the army. This was evident from the successful revolt against Amanullah, which was led by the Shinwaris of eastern Afghanistan, while his successor, king Nadir Shah, was able to capture Kabul only with the assistance of the Wazirs and the Mahsuds from the British-India side of the frontier. Thus the supremacy of the tribes had never really been diminished.

The new rulers, the Muhammadzais, were conscious of the influence of the tribes and also recognized the need for eliminating the dependence of the government on tribal military support. They understood only too well that a well-equipped and disciplined army, which could protect the state from the tribes, was desperately required. However, such a force was eventually only to emerge, with Soviet military assistance, during Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan’s first tenure as prime minister from 1953 to 1963. Thus for the first time in Afghan history, the central government had acquired the capability to respond decisively to any tribal or religious insurrection.

Two primary elements are identifiable in the complex relationship between the government in Kabul and tribesmen on the east. First, urban economic weakness and the autocratic and feudal character of the monarchy itself made the Afghan amirs increasingly dependent on the Pushtun tribes for the defence of the country and the preservation of their dynasty. The tribes were also the only obstacle in the way of British incursions into Afghanistan. Thus those in the British-India side of the frontier not only played a decisive role in determining who among the various Durrani contestants was to hold power in Kabul, but also provided the surest guarantee of Afghanistan’s territorial integrity. The amirs, therefore, wanted to at least influence, as they could not control, the movement and direction of tribal enterprise. Second, despite the support that they derived from the tribes, the amirs, conscious of their own weakness, did in fact welcome British control over the tribesmen as that provided them the opportunity to consolidate internally without tribal interference. With the departure of the British from South Asia, Afghan rulers feared that the attention of the tribesmen east of the Durand Line would be diverted towards Kabul.

Managing the relationship with the tribesmen in British-India was a major preoccupation of the rulers in Kabul. The process for the imposition of the central government’s authority over the tribal chiefs, which was started by Abdur Rahman, ended during the first premiership of Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan. The changed political structure was incorporated into the Afghan constitution of 1964. Article 2 of the constitution, which abolished tribal territory, stated: “all territories and localities which are under the sovereignty of the king constitute a homogenous whole, and Article 9 was directed against the membership of tribes and read “all persons residing within the kingdom of Afghanistan are to be treated as Afghan subjects.”  Article 13 proclaimed the equality of all Afghan subjects. Article 26 dismantled tribal administration and forbade the collection of duties or taxes by anybody except the government. The methods introduced by Abdur Rahman were used for the implementation of these constitutional provisions. Tribal chiefs were appointed to harmless posts in the executive, the upper house of the legislature or the judiciary. In other instances, they were made governors of provinces far from their own regions. Tribal administration was replaced by new regional organizations under government appointed officials. This process started at the top of the tribal hierarchy and stretched down to the smaller administrative units. However, in the more remote and smaller centres the administration was left to the local chiefs.

The modernization efforts were primarily focussed on the armed forces.   However, the military reforms spilled over into other sectors and contributed to the establishment of a bureaucracy, an educational system and a few basic political institutions.  In time, the bureaucracy was restructured and expanded to play a more assertive role in Afghan society. The civil servants exercised a liberalising influence. Like them, the intellectual elite which included teachers, doctors and college students also gave voice to the need for political liberalization, broadening of the base of government, and the establishment of an egalitarian socio- economic system. Thus modernists were pitted against traditionalists and the former became more influential after Daud Khan’s retirement 1963. Through all this, the most significant political force to emerge was the military. It became the only organization in the country capable of acting effectively on a nation-wide scale. Its command positions were, however, held by members of the royal family and by its most loyal and trusted supporters. But that was as far as the reforms were intended to go.

To an extent the reform programme of the Afghan rulers was helped by the influence of Islam on Afghan national life. Though the disparate Afghan groups had little in common, the sense of community and brotherhood instilled by Islam provided a much needed unifying force.

It was used by the Afghan rulers to mobilize opposition first against the Sikhs and later the British.  However, although the principles of Islam permeated the 1964 constitution and it was declared the state religion, official policy emphasized nationalistic rather than religious ideology. Unfortunately, the former continued to be equated with Pushtun supremacy. In the early 1950s, king Zahir Shah declared publicly that “the strength of the Muslim faith did not necessarily guarantee stability and national unity.”18  As a result, the country’s traditional institutions were progressively secularized through the years.

It was not till the early 1970s that employment opportunities in government were opened up for non-Pushtuns as a measure to promote national unity. Though recruitment into the armed forces was mainly from the Pushtun tribes, representatives from other ethnic groups were also gradually taken into the military. Conscription helped to bring persons from different communities together and contributed to the lowering of barriers between them.

Simultaneously, even economic development projects were initiated in various non-Pushtun regions. Substantial investments were made in industry and agriculture north of the Hindu Kush and in areas far away from the capital such as Herat. A special effort was made to improve the overall infrastructure particularly the up-gradation of roads and modernization of   communications.

The Afghan Dilemma

Well into the twentieth century, the framework within which the rulers of Afghanistan tried to promote unity before the communist revolt was a combination of two major but contradictory principles. The first was encouraging the gradual growth of a national Afghan, rather than as in the past, a Muslim identity. This was to be achieved by overriding ethnic and linguistic divisions, through legal and administrative reforms and by increasing the participation of non-Pushtun groups in the government and bringing economic development to their regions. The second was preserving the strength of traditional forces, in other words, respecting Pushtun domination. Cultural unity, and in this sense there was no change from the past. The army, modernized and equipped with the latest weapons, remained the principal instrument for imposing national unity and maintaining the authority of the central government. However, it was totally under the control of the Pushtun leadership. There was also no change in the approach towards the cultural autonomy of the other groups. In fact, for the first time in the basic law of the country itself, Pushtu was declared the national language. It was made compulsory in schools and proficiency in the language was required for appointment to senior government positions. The Pushtun Academy and Afghan Historical Society were set up to sponsor research in Pushtun history and culture.  Although Darri was also the official language, Pushtu was allowed to develop at its expense.

Only limited reforms were thus carried out through a modernized bureaucracy and military but these did not have any impact on the political power structure. The reforms were imposed from above and did not originate from the masses. Political activity was generally suppressed or at best severely restricted as the formation of political parties was prohibited. After the promulgation of the 1964 constitution, a political parties bill was passed by parliament. King Zahir Shah, however, withheld his consent on the ground that political parties would emerge from the ethnic groups and militate against national unity. Thus the continuance of Pushtun domination could only be ensured if the other ethnic groups were kept away from any organized political activity. The irony is that the absence of legitimate party organizations encouraged parochial loyalties and by the 1970s resulted in the formation of political parties along ethnic lines.

The rivalry between the imperial powers of the earlier centuries, the cruel process of Pushtun domination and the superpower rivalry in the Cold War period ensured that peace and stability would elude Afghanistan. The turmoil of today has its roots in the past. Previously, external powers were to an extent responsible for the chaos, but in the contemporary era the Afghans themselves are mostly to blame. The competition for power and wealth between the Pushtuns and the ethnic minorities continued to generate violence in Afghan society and became alarmingly pronounced by the time the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996.  When the on-going post-9/11Taliban insurgency comes to an end, the deeper problem of promoting reconciliation among a people who have always refused to be reconciled will have to be addressed.


At another level, religious extremism coloured by the conservative traditions of tribal Afghanistan has always been resistant to change and at variance with contemporary values. Thus the socialist Afghanistan of the PDPA encountered   domestic violence for attempting to transform the country through progressive reforms while the Taliban, during their rule from 1996 to 2001, faced  international condemnation for clinging senselessly to tribal customs  which were often  far removed both from civilized conduct as well as from the spirit and the true  teachings of Islam.

Centuries of conflict, internal upheavals and dislocations thus brought unparalleled  misery to the Afghan people who, it seemed, had become accustomed to suffering.

Four distinct phases in recent Afghan history have also singly and collectively contributed towards the unending turmoil in the country. The first, the coup by the PDPA on 27 April 1978; the second, the Soviet invasion and occupation from 29 December 1979 to February 1989; the third, the prolonged resistance against the Moscow-installed Najibullah regime till 28 April 1992 and; the fourth, the emergence and rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. The post 9/11 Al Qaeda-supported Taliban insurgency is influenced by the four previous phases.

Phase one: After the PDPA Coup

Zahir Shah succeeded his assassinated father, Nadir, as king of Afghanistan in 1933. He ruled for almost forty years till his overthrow in 1973 by prince Daud. In 1953 Daud, then Prime Minister, launched a

in the negative sense. Daud resigned in 1963, prompting Zahir Shah to promulgate a new constitution that sought to encourage political freedom and envisaged an elected consultative parliament. With the ouster of Zahir Shah, Daud abolished the monarchy, established a republic and proclaimed himself president. He was assassinated on 27 April 1978 by the same officers who were behind him in the 1973 coup.  However, this time they handed over power to the Marxist-Leninist PDPA. With Daud ended two hundred and thirty-one years of rule by the Durranis of Kandahar.

The cause of Daud’s downfall lay in his own reforms. He depended heavily on    assistance from the United States and the Soviet Union without developing domestic consensus. This phase in Afghanistan’s history saw the development of the infrastructure, the strengthening of the army and the expansion of education. The elite went to the academic institutions of the West, the military officers were sent to the Soviet Union while the Islamists were trained in Egypt’s Al-Azhar University. This was to bring about a transformation of the country’s political structure. Previously, the struggle for autonomy by ethnic minorities had dominated Afghan politics. The Persian speaking Tajiks and Hazaras as well as the Turkish speaking Uzbeks and Turkmen had been equally active in ridding themselves of Pushtun domination. Actual power even among the Pushtuns, however, vested only with the tribal elite and this resulted in a loose unity of the underprivileged. The marginalized and frustrated intellectuals thus joined radical groups ranging from the Marxists to the Islamists. The stage was thus set for a power struggle between the two which led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The conflict that ensued would hasten the collapse of the Berlin Wall and bring the Cold War era to an end.

The PDPA was created in January 1965 in Kabul at the residence of Nur Muhammad Taraki. Its thirty-three founding members elected Taraki, a Pushtun, secretary general and Babrak Karmal, a Persian- speaking Kabul resident, his deputy. Serious differences, however, developed between the Taraki-led Khalq (masses) faction and the urbanized Persian-speaking group, the Parcham (flag), under Karmal. By 1967 the party had split.

Though both factions were staunchly pro-Soviet, Moscow was partial to the Parcham which it found more pliable and receptive to advice. The Khalqis were considered self-opinionated and unpredictable. Ideologically, they were orthodox Marxist-Leninists representing the economically and socially under-privileged Pushtuns. Taraki, a tenth- grade drop out, was projected by his group as a man of letters because he spoke English which he had learnt in the early 1930s while working for an Afghan merchant in Bombay. In contrast, many among the Parchamites, with their upper class backgrounds, had received higher education abroad while Karmal, the son of an army general, had graduated from the Kabul University’s faculty of Law and Political Science.

The next twelve years saw the rift between the Khalq and Parcham factions widen into pervasive enmity. The former derided the Parchamites as bourgeois and, therefore, unfit to represent the proletariat. During his days in parliament, Karmal was said to have had connections with the king and thus all Parchamites were described by their rivals as “royal communists.” In turn, the latter looked upon the Khalqis with ill-disguised contempt because of their low social standing, lack of education and their inability to comprehend the intricacies of   statecraft.

To pre-empt the Khalq-Parcham tensions from exploding into street violence, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union intervened in May

1977. The two factions were merged and Taraki once again became Secretary General and Karmal, his deputy. The new thirty-member unified central committee was divided equally between the two groups.

However, this new found PDPA unity was cosmetic and proved short- lived. Each faction acted independently of the other. They recruited their own men to the army and police, a task which the Khalq entrusted to the ruthlessly ambitious US-educated Hafizullah Amin and the   Parcham, to Mir Akbar Khyber.

The April 1978 coup resulted in Hafizullah Amin’s emergence as the second most powerful man in the Khalq group. His rise undid the feeble Soviet attempt of the previous year to restore PDPA unity. Karmal, as the party deputy secretary general, became increasingly sidelined. Amin claimed that the coup had been masterminded and executed by the officers that he had recruited, therefore, Karmal was not entitled to occupy the number two slot in the new dispensation. For the same reason, he also rejected, with the support of the newly established Khalq- dominated Revolutionary Council, Karmal’s demand that cabinet posts and key military positions be shared equally between the two factions.

The Soviets attempted yet again to restore PDPA unity. In April 1978 a high-level KGB delegation led by Vladimir Khrychov arrived in Kabul and persuaded Amin to accept equal Khalq-Parcham representation in the cabinet. The trade-off was that the office of president and prime minister would vest in Taraki. Karmal was thus relegated to the backwaters and appointed deputy president of the Revolutionary Council. Amin became foreign minister and the first deputy prime minister.

Even this arrangement did not last long. With Taraki’s support, Amin secured the approval of the PDPA Politburo to send Karmal and six of his close associates to ambassadorial exile. On Moscow’s request, Karmal was assigned to Prague. However, despite this, tension between the Khalq and Parcham groups continued to simmer beneath the surface till August when the Parchamite defence minister and two generals were arrested on charges of plotting a coup that was to have taken place on 4 September.

The purge of the Parchamites thus began with a vengeance. They were dismissed from government and hundreds were imprisoned. Orders were issued to Karmal and the other recently appointed ambassadors to return home immediately to face trial. As expected, they sought political asylum.   Karmal continued to live in Prague till October 1979 when he moved to Moscow. Thus the Parchamites were, at least temporarily, side-lined.

Like the Taliban, the Khalqis did not take easily to enlightened educated opinion particularly of those who had attended academic institutions of the west. They went even further and persecuted men of were hounded on flimsy pretexts and even the possession of an English dictionary was enough to invite the wrath of the establishment.

Educated Afghans, especially those who were not members of the PDPA prior to the coup, were branded anti-proletariat and excluded from government. Amin, Mansoor Hashmi and Salim Masudi were the only US-educated ministers in the first communist cabinet. The rest, barring three who had studied in Soviet institutions, were either graduates of the Kabul University or had merely completed high school education. Abdul Karim Mesaq, the finance minister, had only attended primary school.

The semi-literate and inexperienced Khalq government then embarked on ill-thought-out reforms which were to have disastrous consequences. These socialist measures were far removed from the religious beliefs, customs and traditions of the Afghan people and generated a violent reaction.  Thus, even those whom the reforms were meant to benefit turned against the government.

The starting point of the reform process was the implementation of the Basic Lines of the Revolutionary Duties of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a thirty-point programme, that had been announced a fortnight after the coup. Its stated purpose was to “transform the traditional Afghan society into a new flourishing one based on the principles of socialism and equality.” Towards this end, eight revolutionary decrees were hastily issued. Of these, three –   the sixth, seventh and the eighth – dealt with social and economic reforms.

Decree six had two aims. The first provided debt relief to peasants by exempting them from repayment of loans incurred prior to 1974. The second sought to restore mortgaged land to owners in return for a small payment. Contrary to expectations, these measures led to resentment among the peasants because the repayment of debt is obligatory in Islam. Furthermore, those in desperate need of money could not even secure a small loan.

Decree seven, promulgated in October 1978, aimed at the emancipation of women. Taraki proudly announced: “The Afghan women from now are free in the real sense of the word and have equal rights with men.” Despite its progressive spirit, the decree contained clauses which alienated not only the conservative elements of society but also, surprisingly, women.

The feminists were embittered by article three which fixed the maximum amount for dowry or mahr at three hundred Afghanis. The article read: “The girl or her guardian shall not take cash or commodities in the name of the dowry in excess of ten dirhams according to Shariat.” The decree also gave the right of divorce to women. The result was that the stability of the family structure in a traditional society was ruined while women were deprived of financial security in the event of divorce. Article four of the same decree permitted women, contrary to Afghan traditions, to terminate their engagements if they so decided. This dealt a further body blow to the family unit.

The social reforms also obliged Afghans to send their women to the newly established adult literacy institutions. This caused commotion in many parts of the country notably Herat where it was first introduced. In March 1979, massive demonstrations were held in the streets of the city and resulted in two weeks of violent clashes with the law enforcement authorities, particularly the army.

Thus, apparently well-intentioned reforms, ignited rebellion because of the perception that they were contrary to tribal Afghanistan’s obscurantist interpretation of Islamic doctrines. The Khalq regime came down with a heavy hand. Disappearances, torture, custodial killings and summary executions were carried out with abandon by Amin’s secret police which was controlled by his nephew and son-in-law, Assadullah Amin. This intensified the resistance forcing the regime to move even closer to the Soviet Union. The latter’s presence in  government became all pervasive. In December 1978, a treaty of friendship and cooperation was concluded with the Soviet Union under which Moscow was to provide assistance to Kabul in the event of internal instability or external threat.

the single objective of restoring an Islamic government in Afghanistan, it was divided into seven Sunni Muslim groups based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and eight Shiia parties headquartered in Iran. The latter were united, under Iranian pressure, into the Wahdat-e-Islami (later to be known as the Hizb-e-Wahdat) while the former continued to operate individually as distinct groups. These parties were to have a profound impact on subsequent events in Afghanistan.

Among the seven Peshawar-based parties, four were fundamentalists and three moderates. The former consisted of:

(i)                  Jamiat-e-Islami:  a Tajik party  formed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, the subsequent leader of the Northern Alliance, in 1970. Ahmed Shah Masood was, till his assassination on 9 September 2001, the head of its military component known as the Shura-e-Nazar;

(ii)                Hizb-e-Islami (Hikmatyar Group): a Pushtun-dominated party created by Gulbadin Hikmatyar. It sought to initiate an Iranian- style revolution and to establish a one-party fundamentalist state (Hikmatyar was subsequently associated off and on with the Northern Alliance);

(iii)               Hizb-e-Islami (Khalis Group):  a splinter group of the Hizb-e- Islami (Hikmatyar)  established by Yunis Khalis in 1979. Most of its fighters later joined the Taliban; and

(iv)              Itehad-e-Islami:  a Saudi-backed party, again primarily Pushtun, formed in 1980 by Professor Abdul Rasool Sayyaf (he is also associated with the Northern Alliance and is said to have brought Osama bin Laden back to Afghanistan during the four years that the Rabbani regime controlled Kabul).

The moderates included:

(i)                  Harakat-e-Inqilab-e-Islami: a Pushtun-dominated party founded by Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi in 1978. It also included a sizeable number of Uzbeks. It advocated free elections, agricultural reform and non-alignment;

(ii)                Mahaz-e-Milli: It emerged in 1979 under Pir Syed Ahmad Gillani. It was Pushtun-dominated and monarchist (Gillani’s was represented by his son, Hamed, at the UN-sponsored meeting of Afghan groups in Bonn and signed the agreement of 5 December 2001 establishing an interim post-Taliban administration under Hamid Karzai); and

(iii)               Jubba-e-Nijat-e-Milli:   a Pushtun party established in 1978 by Professor Sibghatullah Mujaddadi. It favoured representative government based on Islamic principles and Afghan traditions. It did not oppose the participation of the monarchists in any future government.

The  fundamentalists  were  inspired  by  the  political  teachings of Hasanul Bana and Sayyid Qutub of Egypt as well as Maududi of Pakistan. Their objective was to restructure Afghan society in accordance with Quranic injunctions and the Sunnah or Islamic traditions. They were anti-west and, in particular, anti-US because of its support for Israel. Though they received American assistance for their fight against Soviet and Afghan communism, they did not conceal their hatred of Washington. Hikmatyar, who was later to join the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, refused to meet President Reagan when he was in New York in 1986 to address the UN in his capacity as the president of the resistance alliance.

The moderates, in contrast, were conservative nationalists who favoured a role for the monarchy and whose objectives included the safeguarding of national independence and the defence of Islam. They were inclined to establish a strong relationship with the West, particularly the United States.

The fundamentalists and the moderates remained apart throughout the war despite attempts to bring them together. Their differences contributed to the chaos that engulfed Afghanistan long after the communists were ousted from Kabul.

The repression of the Afghan people by the regime in Kabul resulted not only in the intensification of the resistance but also led to divisions within the PDPA. Taraki and a number of PDPA leaders, encouraged by the Soviets, wanted to slow down the pace of reforms and to also include non-communists in the government. This was, however, staunchly opposed by Amin.

Because of his independent approach, Amin alienated the Soviet Union. He not only rejected Moscow’s advice on slowing down the reforms but also blocked further Soviet involvement with the running of the secret police and the military. The Kremlin began to suspect him of pro-Washington leanings because of his American educational background.

During Taraki’s meeting with Brezhnev in Moscow on 10 September 1979, it was widely believed that he was asked to eliminate Amin. Taraki lost no time in carrying out the assassination plan on his return to Kabul the following day. He summoned Amin to the presidential palace but the latter refused to comply because he had been forewarned by his protégé, Taroon, Taraki’s aide-de-camp. Amin was, however, prevailed upon to change his mind on being assured of his personal safety by Ambassador Pazanov of the Soviet Union. On reaching the palace there was a shootout resulting in several deaths. Amin, however, escaped but Taroon, who shielded him during the firing, was killed. Shortly afterwards Amin returned to the palace with his supporters, arrested Taraki and later strangled him despite reported appeals from Brezhnev to spare his life.  The stage was thereby set for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and thus began the second phase of the Afghan conflict.

The Second Phase: the Soviet Invasion

On 27 December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with an initial eighty-five thousand troops. Amin was killed and Babrak Karmal, whom they brought from exile in Moscow, was installed in his place.

The anti-Khalq insurgency which had spread to the entire country rapidly transformed into a full-fledged war of liberation. A jihad or holy war was declared.

Moscow justified its incursion into Afghanistan by declaring that it was “entirely defensive” and designed to provide security to a friendly neighbouring Marxist regime as well as to protect its southern flank from Islamic fundamentalists and American imperialism.

Karmal’s mission was to slow down the pace of the Amin-Taraki reforms, to correct the mistakes of the past, to broaden the political base of the regime and to reorganize the armed forces and the secret police with the active involvement of the Soviets.

To fulfil his mission, Karmal initiated several measures. One of his first acts was the release of all political prisoners who numbered in the tens of thousands. He also announced the abolition of all anti- democratic and anti-human rights regulations, declared a ban on arrests and persecution, decreed respect for Islamic principles and freedom of conscience, promised the protection of lawful property, upheld the right of individual and collective security and guaranteed the restoration of peace to Afghanistan.

On advice from Moscow, Karmal also pledged not to change Afghan society rapidly and to broaden the base of his government by including non-communists. He proclaimed a provisional constitution titled, the Fundamental Principles of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, in April 1980. It defined the rights and duties of the citizens as well as the functions of the branches of state. In the face of the Islamic resistance, the constitution guaranteed “complete freedom in the performance of Islamic religious rites.” Drafted by the Soviet advisers, translated by their Tajik specialists and refined by the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Justice, the provisional constitution was in form and substance similar to those of the Soviet Republics of central Asia.

Another Karmal initiative was the creation of the National Fatherland Front (NFF) in 1981 which, his regime claimed, was a coalition of “nationalist, patriotic, democratic and progressive forces.” Its primary objective was the mobilization of support against the opposition and it was projected as “an important step to give the masses of the people a say in running the affairs of the country.” The provincial branches of the NFF tried to establish offices in the countryside but no one dared come near them for fear of reprisal by the Islamic resistance.

A sizeable public sector-led economic revival programme involving an investment of about thirteen billion Afghanis was also launched. The major part of the funding was to come from the Soviet Union and the rest from its East European allies.

These economic and social measures further intensified the determination of the Afghan people to resist the occupation and the communization of their country. Except for Kabul, the provincial capitals and a handful of centres in some of the provinces, the country was in the control of the resistance. Militarily the Soviets employed all the might at their disposal short of using nuclear weapons to eliminate the opposition.

Moscow soon realised that the deeply entrenched hatred among the masses for communism was reinforced by their determination to free their country from foreign occupation which no amount of military force could defeat.   Accordingly, pressure on Karmal to fulfil his promise of broad-basing the regime was increased. His reluctance to deliver, prompted the Soviets to oust him and to establish a government which was not outwardly communist. This, they felt, would also give an impetus to the Geneva proximity talks which had begun in June 1982 because Karmal was considered the symbol of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Furthermore, by the mid-1980s the Soviets were convinced that their intervention into Afghanistan had been a major blunder. They wanted an exit but Karmal would not even hear of it and this provided yet another reason to get rid of him. Thus six years after he was installed as the General Secretary of the communist party of Afghanistan, he was replaced on 4 May 1986 by Dr. Najibullah, the chief of the notorious secret police. The latter also had the advantage of belonging to the majority Pushtun community.

Najibullah was instructed to facilitate the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan by including non-communists in the government. Dr. Hassan Sharq was accordingly appointed Prime Minister and other non- communists were also included in the cabinet.

Najibullah also launched a programme of national reconciliation. He invited the leaders of the opposition to join the PDPA in a coalition government and made concessions to the armed groups operating in different parts of the country.  Only an insignificant few took the bait. Otherwise these overtures had no impact on lessening the strength of the resistance. To appease the feudal elements in the opposition, Najib suspended the land reforms. This again was of little consequence as the reforms had no significance in the face of the conflict and chaos that had gripped the entire country.

Thus Najibullah failed to restore peace to Afghanistan which continued to bleed from the lashes of internal turmoil. Nothing had changed with the replacement of Karmal. The resistance continued to control almost the entire countryside. All the highways except the one from Kabul to the north were inoperative. The Soviets and their protégés controlled, as before, only Kabul and the provincial capitals as the resistance became progressively strong. The Soviet losses were heavy. There was also the financial crunch. Thus the only option available to them was to withdraw from Afghanistan. This process which began, under the Geneva Accords, in the summer of 1988 was completed by 15 February 1989.

According to one estimate, the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan cost them US dollars 29 billion. About 26, 000 Soviet soldiers died and 1,200 aircraft and helicopters and tens of thousands of armoured vehicles were destroyed.

The Islamic resistance was vigorously supported by the US, the west and moderate oil-rich countries of the Islamic world, particularly Saudi Arabia. In addition to Afghans, thousands of Arabs, including Osama bin Laden, were indoctrinated in madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan and provided military training by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). They were regarded by all, including the west, as the mujahideen or holy warriors who were waging a “heroic” jihad to rid their country of foreign occupation and the “ungodly” communists  who  controlled  Kabul. After  the  defeat  of  the  Soviet forces, the world abandoned Afghanistan and forgot its people who had struggled so valiantly and sacrificed so much in the cause of the free world. Pakistan was left alone with more than three million refugees on its soil and thousands of highly motivated and militarily trained Islamic extremists.

The Geneva Accords on Afghanistan signified the end of the Brezhnev and the Reagan doctrines which had dominated the final years of the Cold War. The former sought to protect neighbouring communist regimes while the latter was built around support to insurgencies against such governments. In Geneva the Soviets undertook to end their presence in Afghanistan in support of the Najibullah regime while the US agreed to end its assistance to the mujahideen.

The Third Phase: after the Soviet withdrawal

The Geneva Accords were flawed in as much as the Afghans were left out of the proximity talks which had dragged on for years. Therefore no agreement was reached on a successor government in Kabul.

The Soviets were soon to begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan but continued to support Najibullah for whom they left behind huge quantities of weapons and ammunition for the fight against the mujahideen. In this period there were frequent Afghan Scud missile attacks on the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan.

The seven Peshawar-based mujahideen parties, who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, formed an anti-Najib interim government in exile with Pakistan’s backing and encouragement. The most powerful person in this setup was Gulbadin Hikmatyar. It was Islamabad’s hope that the leaders of the mujahideen parties would sit together and work out the modalities for establishing a post-Najib government in accordance with the wishes of the Afghan people.

Pakistan, which was under the military rule of general Zia-ul-Haq through the decade-long Soviet occupation ofAfghanistan, was staunchly supported by the US-led west and became the third largest  recipient of American economic and military assistance after Israel and Egypt. Islamabad’s  clandestine  nuclear  weapons  development  programme and the reality that the country was under a military dictatorship were ignored. The conclusive defeat of communism was considered far more important than pious concerns about non-proliferation and democracy.

With  the  Soviet  withdrawal  from Afghanistan,  the  expectation was that the Najib government would collapse and to hasten this, the mujahideen intensified their attacks against the regime.   Their first target was Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar. It was expected that the city, which is near the Pakistan border, would be captured with ease. Some seventy soldiers of the regime defected to the mujahideen who, instead of receiving them with open arms, slaughtered them and mutilated their bodies which they sent back to Jalalabad in sacks. The barbarity convinced the city’s defenders that they would meet the same fate and strengthened their resolve to fight. The mujahideen laid siege to the city which continued for three months and ended in their defeat. This boosted the morale of the regime which launched counter-offensives in which the mujahideen suffered further setbacks.

The fortunes of the Najib regime continued to rise till an abortive coup attempt in March 1990 by general Tannai, the Khalqi Defence Minister. Thus the old rivalry between the Khalqis and the Parchamites surfaced again. Several Khalqi officers subsequently fled Kabul and many of them sought and were given asylum in Pakistan.

There were two immediate consequences of the attempted coup. Najib could no longer trust the Khalqis regardless of whether they had been associated in the coup attempt. They were accordingly purged from the army. This created confusion in the defence forces and destabilized the regime even further. The second consequence was that it prompted the Karmal loyalists who were furious at his ignominious ouster to resume their intrigues against the regime. Kabul thus became a hotbed for intrigue and tension which was to continue till the capture of the city by the Taliban.

Najib’s position became progressively weaker. His principal supporter, the Soviet Union, was on a steep nosedive to elimination. Thus, he could no longer count on Moscow’s military and economic assistance. The powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord, Rashid Dostum, who had hitherto extended support for purely selfish reasons, also abandoned him. Whereas previously Najib had been willing to take non-communists into the government, he was now ready to step down and transfer power to the mujahideen. Accordingly, in April 1992, he informed the UN of his intentions and the latter devised a mechanism for the transition. It envisaged an interim dispensation consisting of a fifteen-member committee of non-controversial Afghans, living in the US, Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The committee, in turn, would transfer power to the mujahideen within six months. In mid-April 1992, the UN asked the committee members to assemble in Pakistan from where they were supposed to move into Afghanistan.

Most of the committee members thus gathered in Islamabad and were about to proceed to Kabul when on 18 April a coup, backed by Ahmed Shah Masood and Abdul Rashid Dostum, was staged by Karmal loyalists. A number of Najib’s supporters, including the Minister of National Security, were killed. Najib, however, managed to escape and took asylum at the UN office in Kabul. The organizers of the coup, all of whom were Persian speaking Parchamites, requested Masood, who was at the time in Charikar sixty-five kilometres to the north of Kabul, to take over. Masood instead asked the seven leaders of the mujahideen factions, who were in Peshawar evaluating the committee’s nominees, to form a government in Kabul. The leaders, however, could not agree on its composition or even what the next step should be.

The Peshawar Accord. To facilitate the formation of the government, Pakistan intervened. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went to Peshawar on house. The six mujahideen groups led by Mujaddadi, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Gillani, Nabi Muhammadi and Yunis Khalis attended. The proceedings were, however, boycotted by Hikmatyar who was considered the most important of the resistance leaders because of his military strength and his extensive control of Afghan territory. The talks nevertheless resulted in an agreement which provided a mechanism for a peaceful political transition in three phases. Under the first phase, Mujaddadi, the head of the weakest mujahideen party, became president for two months from 28 April.  In the second phase Mujaddadi was to be succeeded on 28 June by Rabbani who was to remain in office for four months. Phases one and two were successfully implemented albeit with difficulty. The third phase envisaged the drafting of a constitution to be followed by election in the six-month combined presidential terms of Mujaddadi and Rabbani.  If the interim government failed to accomplish these tasks within the stipulated time-frame, Rabbani was to step down and hand over power to a Jihadi Council consisting of the leaders of the seven resistance parties.

Hikmatyar was furious that minor leaders had been chosen to lead Afghanistan in the six month interim period. He also suspected, and in hindsight he was right, that Rabbani would not relinquish power when his term expired. He, therefore, entered Kabul, captured key positions including the presidential palace and the Ministry of Interior. Ahmed Shah Masood retaliated by immediately attacking the capital with a combined force of his own men, the remnants of the communist elements and Dostum’s Uzbek militia. Hikmatyar was driven out of Kabul but he established himself in Charasiab, a district some twelve kilometres to the south of the capital. Charasiab was to remain his headquarters till it fell to the Taliban two years later. Thus began another sad and violent episode of Afghan history.

Hikmatyar’s expulsion from Kabul enabled Mujaddadi to move to the capital on 28 April 1992, four days after the conclusion of the Peshawar Accord, to become the first president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The replacement of the communist regime with an Islamic government was a cause for which the Afghan people had fought for fourteen long years. The cost was enormous. More than a million and a half people were killed, half a million were maimed, a third of the population became refugees and about two hundred thousand faced even more hardship as internally displaced persons. Thousands more were to die from the land mines planted by the Soviet occupation forces. The infrastructure of Afghanistan had been completely destroyed. There was hardly a building that had not been hit during the brutal conflict. There was no longer any irrigation system and agricultural production, the mainstay of the economy, was at a standstill. The tragedy had few parallels in human history. The violence, which was now being inflicted on the country by the Afghans themselves, continued. The peace that was breaking out worldwide did not visit Afghanistan.

The government in Kabul existed only in name. The state structure had  broken  down.  The  institutional  collapse  was  demonstrated  by the disappearance of the army virtually overnight. Huge quantities of weapons which included tanks, aircraft, armoured personnel carriers and massive ammunition dumps were left by the departing Soviet forces for their protégés.  In the eastern zone alone, Najib’s corps commander abandoned 633 tanks and thousands of vehicles. Weapons, therefore, were never to be in short supply for the power-hungry Afghan factions.

The authority of the interim government did not extend beyond Kabul as the warlords established their own centres of power in the provinces. The Tajik, Ismail Khan of Rabbani’s Jamiat-e-Islami, governed eight south-western provinces from Herat. Dostum, who had previously supported Najib with his Uzbek militia, established himself in the six northern provinces with headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif. Haji Qadeer, a Pushtun, ruled the three eastern provinces adjacent to Pakistan. Hikmatyar was entrenched in Charasiab. Other local commanders were dominant in Kandahar and the southern provinces. The Shiias, in turn, became the masters of Bamyan and a few central regions. The warlords accepted neither instructions nor advice from the feeble coalition in Kabul and administered their areas as personal fiefdoms. order. Rape, brigandage, theft and murder brought yet more suffering to ordinary Afghans. The commanders, down from the warlords to the local chiefs, ruled as though by divine right. Each was the law unto himself.

During his two month tenure, Mujaddadi tried but failed to have his term of office extended. Rabbani’s assumption of power on 28 June 1992 began with intense shelling of Kabul by Hikmatyar on the pretext that remnants of the communist army including those loyal to the famous Parchamite general, Baba Jan, as well as Dostum were in control of the city. This was denied by Masood and Rabbani.

Severe sectarian violence soon erupted in Kabul. Ali Mazari’s Shiias Wahdat-e-Islami based in the western part of the city and the Saudi backed Ittehad-e-Islami of Professor Sayyaf attacked each other. This resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of the western part of the capital.

As Hikmatyar had anticipated, Rabbani refused to step down at the end of his four month tenure and had his term extended for a further two years through a council he convened on 29 December 1992 with the support of Nabi Mohammadi, Sayyaf and Pir Gillani – the three principle leaders of the mujahideen coalition. It was claimed that the council was attended by 1,335 delegates from all over Afghanistan and was, as such, genuinely representative. This was roundly rejected by Hikmatyar and other non-partisan Afghans. Radio Message of Freedom, run by the Hizb-e-Islami of Hikmatyar, described the proceedings as a “declaration of war against the nation.”

Hikmatyar resorted to intense rocket attacks on Kabul and the regime retaliated by strikes against Charasiab. This continued for two months resulting in thousands of civilian deaths and the complete destruction of the southern and eastern part of the capital. Tens of thousands fled the city to take refuge in camps established by the UN in the eastern province of Nangarhar. of the presence of communist remnants in the armed forces, now had an excuse to resume his attacks.    He claimed with good reason that Rabbani had fraudulently usurped power through a non-representative council and vowed to oust him through military means.

The Islamabad Accord. Pakistan intervened again. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif invited Hikmatyar, Rabbani and the other leaders to Islamabad and the talks resulted in a power-sharing agreement on 7

March 1993 under which Rabbani continued as president and Hikmatyar was appointed Prime Minister. The new arrangement was to last till July 1994 and in this period the regime was to draft a constitution, hold parliamentary and presidential elections and create a national army and police force. The leaders went to Mecca and, in front of Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba, pledged to honour the agreement. However, shortly afterwards differences broke out between Hikmatyar and Rabbani on the formation of the cabinet and the distribution of ministries.

In this period Pakistan, which had been preaching the need for political stability to the Afghans, was itself in chaos. President Ghulam Issaq Khan dissolved the national and provincial assemblies on 18 April but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court and Nawaz Sharif was reinstated on 26 May only to be dismissed again by the president on 18 July because of corruption. Moin Quershi, who had served for many years in the World Bank, headed the interim government till Benazir returned to power for her second term on 19 October 1993. Her government was, in turn, dismissed by President Farouk Leghari three years later and Nawaz Sharif became prime minister again, with a huge parliamentary majority, in February 1997.

The Jalalabad Accord. The inability to form a government under the Islamabad understanding led to a resumption of fierce fighting till 29 April 1993 when the leadership of nine mujaheeden groups including Rabbani and Hikmatyar met in Jalalabad at the initiative of the Nangarhar shura led by governor Haji Abdul Qadeer. After protracted negotiations and under pressure of the Nangarhar shura an accord was signed on 20 May which involved some modifications to the Islamabad understanding.

The government thus formed included each of the seven Peshawar- based Sunni parties and the Shiias groups. However, despite being the prime minister, Hikmatyar did not dare enter Kabul as he feared that he would be killed by his archenemy, Ahmed Shah Masood, who had become Defence Minister. He, therefore, established himself in Charasiab and ministers were thus obliged to shuttle between the two cities. Cabinet decisions were never implemented. Hikmatyar soon realised that he was prime minister only in name and that actual power vested with Rabbani and Masood.  He initially remained silent but when Rabbani refused to endorse a cabinet recommendation that an agreement with Russia under which the latter printed the national currency be abrogated, he reacted sharply and the ill-disguised tensions within the government came into the open.

At this point in time Hikmatyar, who barely eighteen months earlier had rocketed Kabul on the mere presumption that Dostum was in the city, reconciled his differences with the latter. The two seemingly implacable ideological enemies thus became allies and forged an anti-government alliance which also included the Shiia Wahdat party of Ali Mazari and the Islamic National Liberation Front of Mujaddadi. The new alliance, which was  called the Shura HamAhangi ( the Supreme Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution of Afghanistan), thus started a war against the Rabbani regime on the first day of 1994 which continued sporadically till February 1995, when the Taliban overran Hikmatyar’s headquarters at  Charasiab.

Rabbani was to hold office till July 1994. However, he secured a decision from the Afghan Supreme Court, while the chief justice was out of the country, extending his term to December 1994. Even this decision was not respected by him and he continued in office till the Taliban takeover of Kabul in September 1996.

The impression that Pakistan was partial to Hikmatyar in this period is not borne out by the extent of financial support disbursed by Islamabad to the individual mujahideen factions. For instance, between 1990 and April 1992, the largest recipient of this assistance was in fact the Jamiat- e-Islami of Burhanuddin Rabbani. He was paid rupees 460 million (the Jamiat while Ahmed Shah Masood, who headed the military wing of the party, received 142 million rupees. Thus the total assistance given by Pakistan to the Jamiat was 602 million rupees. The Hizb-e-Islami of Younis Khalis was given 496 million rupees. Next in line was Gulbadin Hikmatyar whose party was provided 366 million rupees; professor Sayyaf was paid rupees 244 million; Pir Gillani rupees 241 million; Nabi Mohammadi rupees 240 million; Mujaddadi rupees 160 million and Mohseni rupees 60 million. During the period of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan five to ten times this amount was paid to the factions annually in addition to weapons, ammunition and other supplies. This was, of course, in coordination with the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries who had supported the mujahideen in their struggle against the communists.

Phase Four: The Emergence and the rise of the Taliban

The Taliban movement was a reaction to the prevailing anarchy after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent misrule of the Rabanni regime. The assumption that they first emerged in the summer of 1994 is erroneous. The Taliban are the product of madrassas or seminaries that have existed in Afghanistan since the coming of Islam into that country. In Afghan history, students from these seminaries have always risen at the time of national crises either to fight invaders or to oppose unpopular regimes within the country. The brunt of the resistance to the British during the Afghan wars of the nineteenth century was from the Taliban of the time. Similarly, the struggle to rid the country of Soviet occupation through the 1980s was spearheaded by the Taliban and, in the second half of 1994, it was again the students from the madrassas who set forth to restore order in the country. In previous times the Taliban always returned to their seminaries after achieving their objectives. This was not to be so after 1994 because on defeating the local warlords, they decided to form the government themselves.

In the last week of August 1994, Mulla Omar Akhund set out with forty-five followers from a madrassa in Maiwand, Kandahar, to punish a commander who had molested a local family. It was neither ideology nor religious fervour that accounted for their subsequent success. It was the war-weariness of the populace which made them welcome any force that could deliver them from the hands of brigands. They hungered for the restoration of peace and the semblance of an honest administration no matter how harsh its system of justice.

Local warlords had created fiefdoms owing nominal loyalty to one political leader or the other, but imposing in fact their own arbitrary fiat in the areas that they controlled. In Kandahar, the main road to Herat on the one hand, and to Chamman in Pakistan on the other, had toll posts and barriers at virtually every kilometre, where local commanders exacted fees and whatever other extortions they decided upon on any passing traffic. The lives and honour of ordinary citizens were at their mercy.

Initially even Rabbani sought to use the Taliban to eliminate his opponents and to quell the unrest that had been generated by his failure to abide by the Islamabad Accord. He offered them assistance and there is sufficient evidence to show that his emissaries frequently contacted the Taliban to offer financial and other support. Rabbani is on record as saying: “The Taliban and some mujahideen from Kandahar asked us to help them to open roads and improve law and order in their province. We supported them.”19

The Taliban, however, did not need such assistance. The local commanders who surrendered brought with them substantial quantities of weapons and ammunition. With each success the ranks of the Taliban swelled with veterans who had fought against the Soviets. However, it was not through force of arms but the persuasiveness of their message that the Taliban were able to triumphantly sweep first the eastern and then the western part of Afghanistan. This was accompanied by surprisingly few casualties.

By late October 1994, the Taliban movement gained victories one after another in their war against the mujahideen and, within a short time, captured the whole province of Kandahar, from where they spread their influence to the other parts of the country. During this phase, the Taliban were loosely allied to Dostum who controlled six provinces in the north, Hikmatyar who was in place in a small area in eastern Afghanistan, the Hazara Shiias who were predominant in central Afghanistan and also other small groups who had little control of territory. Rabbani declared “jihad” against Dostum and persuaded the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia to issue a “fatwa” or religious injunction against him.

The Afghan situation in mid-1994 was very different from what Pakistan had expected after the collapse of the communist regime in Kabul and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The peace accords between the resistance factions attempted by Islamabad had come to naught and Afghanistan remained in the grip of turmoil and factional fighting. Islamabad was understandably anxious to see the centuries old trade routes to the resource-rich central Asian region reopen. Soon after the establishment of the mujahideen government in Kabul, Pakistan sent a survey team to examine the possibility of reactivating the Kabul- Salang Pass-Hairatan road to Uzbekistan. However, this route was found to be unfeasible because of the fighting between the Afghan groups. The other route available, the Quetta-Kandahar-Herat-Ashgabat road, was considered more viable. A delegation headed by General Naseerullah Babar, the minister of interior in Benazir Bhutto’s second government, embarked on a journey along this route on 21 September 1994 and completed its travel via Ashgabat, Tashkent, Almaty, Kashghar and Gilgit on 5 October. Special security arrangements were made by Amir Imam, a retired army colonel who was serving as Pakistan’s consul general in Herat. This task was assigned to him because he was known to most of the mujahideen commanders. He claimed that he had   trained about eighty thousand of them during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The entire route inside Afghan territory that Babar used was under the control of warlords. The delegation was able to confirm that there was an absence of central authority except in Herat where commander Ismail Khan, who was loyal to the Rabbani regime in Kabul, controlled the road from Dilaram onwards. The delegation met all the major power groups who assured safe passage. Colonel Imam’s assessment, which was rejected by Babar, was that it would be difficult to use this route on a regular basis because of the war lords.

Immediately after returning to Islamabad, Babar decided to send a good will caravan which would deliver medical supplies to hospitals along the route. He wanted the caravan to reach Ashgabat in time for Benazir Bhutto’s visit to Turkmenistan from 30-31 October 1994 for that country’s independence day celebrations. What Babar did not realize was that the situation had completely changed since his own transit through Afghanistan the previous month. Kandahar was about to be captured by the Taliban. The convoy consisting of thirty 5-ton military trucks was delayed and was only able to leave Pakistan on 31 October. The journey was hazardous and the convoy was captured on several occasions by local warlords only to be rescued by the Taliban who had taken Kandahar around the time that the caravan reached the city.

The despatch of the convoy was an ill-advised decision by the publicity-hungry Babar. The drama and fanfare that went into the whole episode was for no better motive than to project this foolhardy venture as an achievement of the Bhutto government. The lives of the caravan members were unnecessarily risked and their safe return to Pakistan can only be attributed to luck. The same gifts to the four south-western provinces of Afghanistan could have been sent through the traders and would have earned enormous goodwill. Furthermore, the sending of a military convoy at a time when the Taliban were ascendant was interpreted as support for the movement. The erroneous belief that emerged was that the Taliban were a Pakistan-created entity. Islamabad was never able to live down this ill-founded reputation. Babar’s visit to the area just thirty days before Kandahar fell to the Taliban lent further credence to the assumption that they were sponsored by Pakistan. Babar also did little to dispel the rumours at the time that the Taliban owed their existence to him. In actual fact, Babar had never met the Taliban and was surprised to learn about their emergence. His reference to them as “our boys” after their initial successes fuelled vicious and unrelenting propaganda against Pakistan and resulted in regional tension which was to last several years. Lastly, though the Rabbani regime had long outlived its legality, it was still recognized by Pakistan. However, Babar did not think it necessary to obtain Kabul’s permission for sending the convoy.  This was clearly a violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and was justifiably resented by the Rabbani government.

In 1994 and 1995 there were several international initiatives aimed at promoting a political settlement in Afghanistan. Pakistan supported the idea of proximity talks which was proposed during 7th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM) in Islamabad from 7-9 September 1994. The first round of such talks was held during the ICFM between the different Afghan groups and the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). This was followed by a second round in Tehran from 29 November to 7 December in which Pakistan, Iran and the UN participated. These meetings like so many others achieved nothing.

In March 1995, Mehmoud Mestiri, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Afghanistan proposed the establishment of a council to discuss the modalities of a peace settlement. He envisaged that the council would consist of two representatives from each of Afghanistan’s thirty-two provinces and, to balance its composition, also include fifteen to twenty eminent personalities both from inside as well as outside Afghanistan. The proposal remained on the drawing board and never got off the ground. Rabbani, however, visited Pakistan from 13-15 March to attend a summit meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization.20 The participants did nothing more than take “serious note” of the situation in Afghanistan and unanimously agreed to support a UN-sponsored peace process.

On 10 March 1995, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Qazi Humayun, assumed charge of his post but the mission was temporarily relocated to Jalalabad the following day because the embassy had been ransacked by the Rabbani regime the previous year. The mission finally reopened in Kabul on 3 May 1995. Around this time, the unrepresentative nature of the Rabbani regime was acknowledged by Mehmoud Mestiri, when he declared: “General Masood, Professor Rabbani and others associated with him have been arguing that by pushing the Taliban out of Kabul they have achieved victory all over Afghanistan. In fact, the reality is that the base of the government has become narrower and could be said to represent only the Tajik ethnic group. The Pushtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaras have been alienated. These three ethnic groups represent about 60 percent population of Afghanistan.”21

The special representative on Afghanistan of the OIC secretary general, Ibrahim Saleh Bakr, visited Pakistan from 11-12 June 1995 and proposed the formation of a group of a hundred persons representing all the provinces of Afghanistan as well as representatives of political parties and neutral personalities which would meet in Jeddah to discuss the establishment of a transitional government. This proposal was preceded by a visit to the region by prince Faisal Al-Turki, the Saudi minister for intelligence services (several years later he became the Saudi ambassador to Britain), in the last week of May. Again, like the Mestiri proposal, it was a non-starter.

General Abdul Wali, the son-in-law of ex-King Zahir Shah, arrived in Pakistan on 29 June 1995 for a six-week visit. He proposed the convening of a grand assembly, known in Afghan traditions as a loya jirga, for the transfer of power to a transitional government. The proposal for a loya jirga has been made time and again, as well as after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, to resolve the problems of Afghanistan. However, the three requirements for a loya jirga are that it can only be convened by a head of state recognized by all Afghans, it can only be held on Afghan soil and it is called at a time of grave national crisis. The first of these preconditions posed a serious problem as, for the past several decades, the country did not have a leader acceptable to all segments of Afghan society.

On 6 September 1995, the Pakistan embassy in Kabul was burnt by a mob of three thousand instigated by the ruling junta. A Pakistan-based sanitary worker, who the crowd mistook for ambassador Humayun, was killed. The ambassador, the defence attaché, other diplomats and embassy personnel received serious injuries. The defence attaché was stabbed several times and was left bleeding on the floor because it was assumed that he had died. Despite this, which was the second attack on the embassy in a year, Pakistan did not break diplomatic relations with the Rabbani regime. Islamabad’s policy has always been to recognize the entity that controlled Kabul. Thus Pakistan recognized the regimes of Sardar Daud, Tarakki, Hafizullah Amin, Karmal, Najibullah and Rabbani long after the latter had lost its legitimacy and even after it had ransacked and burnt the Pakistan embassy. The reason is Pakistan’s porous and more than two thousand kilometre-long border with Afghanistan, makes it impossible not to have dealings with any regime in Kabul, no matter how hostile. In the case of the Taliban, however, Pakistan withheld formal recognition for nine months, even though the movement had taken Kabul and was in control of most of Afghanistan. The reason for this was that Islamabad hoped to encourage the Taliban to include all other ethnic groups in its government using the bait of recognition to achieve such an outcome. Nevertheless, regular contact and day-to-day dealings with the Taliban continued unhindered.

In the winter of 1995-96, the Tajik-dominated regime took a strategic decision to broaden its base by inviting other leaders to join it. In January, Rabbani’s representative, Dr. Abdul Rahman, met Hikmatyar in Sarobi, Dostum in Mazar-e-Sharif and the Shiia opposition groups in Bamyan. These initial meetings achieved nothing.  Instead, in February, all the opposition groups with the exception of the Taliban established a ten- member council for negotiating with Kabul.

In the interim, the other groups began to gravitate towards Kabul. On 27 March the council of the Hizb-e-Islami gave Hikmatyar the power to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with Kabul. By the first week of May approximately one thousand Hikmatyar troops arrived in the capital to help in its defence against the Taliban. On 26 June, Hikmatyar entered Kabul to assume the post of Prime Minister and his party was given nine portfolios in the new coalition. The same day the Taliban launched a massive rocket attack on the capital in which sixty- one people were killed and more than a hundred injured.

The political breakthrough induced Rabbani to visit Jalalabad in an endeavour to persuade its shura which controlled the three eastern provinces to abandon its policy of neutrality and to join his government. Rabbani offered to step down in favour of any moderate leader and proposed a meeting of all Afghan groups to elect a new head of state.

On a parallel track, negotiations were intensified with Dostum while Masood kept the Taliban at bay outside Kabul. Through December 1995, Dostum came under considerable Iranian pressure, which included financial inducements, to reconcile with Rabbani. The Iranian expert on Afghanistan, deputy foreign minister Alaeddin Broujerdi, visited Dostum several times during the month to persuade him to receive Rabbani in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Dostum was double minded. He was half inclined to meet Rabbani through Iranian good offices because he had been promised financial support but feared that such a move might not be in his interest. Rabbani, he felt, was isolated and this militated against any compromise with him. On the other hand Dostum also thought that he could gain political mileage if Rabbani came to Mazar-e-Sharif to apologize to him for the Saudi “fatwa” and the declaration of the “jihad.” Iran’s efforts achieved some success as Dostum agreed to a truce at the end of August1996 and the Salang highway connecting Kabul to the north was opened for civilian traffic for the first time in over a year. However, Dostum refused to join the government till greater autonomy was guaranteed to the provinces.

There were also problems within the Shiia Hizb-e-Wahdat which had split into two factions headed respectively by Karim Khalili and Akbari. Broujerdi, therefore, visited Bamyan in December 1995 and established a commission to reconcile the differences between Khalili and Akbari. Iran’s obvious objective was to get the ethnic minorities to unite under the Shiias and the Persian speaking groups of the north in support of Rabbani.

For their part, the Taliban refused to negotiate with anyone nor did they come forward with any power-sharing proposal of their own. They adamantly insisted on the overthrow of the Kabul regime and convened a meeting of more than a thousand notables in Kandahar on 20 March 1996 to chalk out the future strategy while they continued to shell and rocket Kabul. The meeting, which ended on 4 April, nominated Mulla Omar as amirul momineen (the commander of the faithful) and the undisputed leader of the “jihad” against the Rabbani regime. This confirmed that the

Taliban had no intention of returning to their seminaries after achieving their objectives because the amirul momineen, like absolute monarchs, continues in office for his entire life unless he becomes mentally or physically incapacitated.

In April 1996 alone the Taliban fired 866 rockets on Kabul killing 180 civilians and injuring an estimated 550. Their onslaught resulted in the fall of Jalalabad with less than twenty casualties. In Sarobi, where Rabbani and Masood had sent their own commander to strengthen its defence and mine the approaches, the local Ahmadzai tribe joined the Taliban, and the commanders around Sarobi either surrendered immediately or fled to Kabul. It had been claimed that the capital could sustain a siege for more than a year but its surrender came virtually overnight on 27 September 1996 with only 200 casualties. Almost immediately after entering Kabul, the Taliban killed Najibullah and kept his body hanging for several days in the centre of the city.

The capture of Kabul by the Taliban and the retreat of the Rabbani government north of the Hindu Kush resulted in the formation of the Northern Alliance and threw Dostum into prominence. He emerged as the strongman and the leader of the minority ethnic groups. The  factions within the Northern Alliance decided to set aside their differences which, nevertheless, continued to simmer beneath the surface as subsequent events  would  demonstrate.  Their  immediate  priority  was  to  work out a joint political and military strategy against the Taliban. On 4 December 1996, a parallel government was set up in Mazar-e-Sharif by the Northern Alliance. Though it consisted of many parties, the alliance was dominated by three elements which, in descending order of importance at the time, included Dostum’s Uzbek Jumbish-e-Milli, the Tajik Jamiat-e-Islami led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the Shiia Hizb- e-Wahdat headed by Karim Khalili.

Initial International Reaction to the Taliban. The US reaction to the Taliban soon after they had taken Kabul was one of cautious support. The first formal American pronouncement on them came on 18 November 1996 during a UN conference in New York of countries with interest in Afghanistan. Three elements in the statement of the US delegate, assistant secretary Robin Raphel, were particularly interesting. She said: ( i ) the Taliban were purely an indigenous movement; (ii) their success had little to do with military prowess (implying that they were preferred by the Afghan people to the chaos that had been prevailing); and ( iii ) some of the policies pursued by the Taliban were extreme but this could be moderated by engaging with them.

The Russians also wanted to establish contact and develop relations with the Taliban. Deputy foreign minister Mamedov, who attended the same UN conference as Raphel, requested the Pakistan delegate to facilitate a meeting between senior Taliban functionaries and representatives of the Russian government. Moscow had earlier told Washington that it would never again repeat the mistake it had made in 1979 of intervening into Afghanistan. Russia had no problems with Taliban control of Kabul and 75 percent of Afghan territory so long as the movement did not advance north along the borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan because Moscow feared the export of extremist religious ideology, the influx of refugees and the spill-over of the conflict into these central Asian states.

Tehran alone was bitterly opposed to the Taliban. One of the reasons for this was that the Sunni majority areas of Iran were contiguous to Afghanistan. Iran feared that the Taliban might instigate a Sunni uprising on its territory. This apprehension turned to hysteria after the capture of Herat by the Taliban. Furthermore, Tehran considered the Taliban an impediment to its own ambitions in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the greatest initial external success which the Taliban met, due to no effort of their  own, was the decision of the OIC to adopt the vacant seat formula in respect of Afghanistan. This entailed the expulsion of the Rabbani regime from the OIC where Afghanistan would not be represented till an internationally recognized government was in place in Kabul.

After their capture of the Afghan capital, the Taliban leadership repeatedly affirmed that their agenda was purely domestic and that they posed no threat to any country and in particular their neighbours. For their part, they expected external powers not to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. This was never to be because some of the neighbouring countries were determined to replay the great game of the nineteenth century in order to carve out their respective areas of influence inside Afghanistan.

Instead of engaging with the Taliban, as Robin Raphel had recommended in the UN conference, the international community isolated their regime. The vacuum was filled by Al Qaeda and Afghanistan became the breeding ground for terrorism.

With the post-9/11 ouster of the Taliban, the Karzai regime was installed in Kabul under the Bonn Accord of December 2001. The government was dominated by the Tajiks. Though Karzai himself is a Pushtun, he was rejected by his own ethnic group. Despite the elections in 2004, the Al Qaeda-supported Taliban insurgency spread like wildfire through the country. The fraud tainted 20 August 2009 presidential election, which Karzai is said to have won, has further deepened the political crisis and the violence is likely to continue.


1.    G.P. Tate, “The Kingdom of Afghanistan”, p 111.

2.    Sir Thomas Holdich, “The Indian Borderland,” Methuen, 1901, quoted in J.C. Griffiths “Afghanistan, p 20.

3.    Ludwig W. Adamec, “Afghanistan, 1900-1923, A Diplomatic History,” pp. 4 and 10.

4.    Griffiths p.16.

5.    Richard S. Newell, “The Politics of Afghanistan,” p.48.

6.    Griffiths, op.cit. p.66.

7.    Newell, op.cit. p. 185.

8.    Griffiths, op.cit. p.66-67.

9.    Griffiths, op.cit. p.68.

10.  Griffiths, op.cit. p.125.

11. M.G.Aslanov, E.G. Ghaffarbeg, N.A. Kisliakov, K.L. Zadykhin, and G.P. Vasilyeva, “Ethnography of Afghanistan, a Study,” translated by Mark and Greta Slobin in “Afghanistan, Some New Approaches,” published by the Centre for Near Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1957.

12.  Aslanov,,op.cit; pp.44-45 and 69-77.

13.  Aslanov,, op.cit., pp. 44-45 and 69-77.

14.  Quoted in Gregorian, op.cit., footnote, p.34.

15.  Holdich, “Gates of India,” quoted in Gregorian, ibid.

16.  Newell, op.cit., p.33.

17.  Lumsden, H.B.Major, “Mission to Candahar,” quoted in Tate, op.cit. p.154.

18.  Interview to the “Middle East Journal” (winter 1952 edition).

19.  “Afghan News” of May 1995, published by the Jamiat-e-Islami of Rabbani.

20.  The ECO was established in 1985 by Pakistan, Iran and Turkey as a successor to the Regional Cooperation for Development. It was expanded in 1992 to include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

21.  Speech at the Afghan Support Group meeting in Stockholm, 2 June 1995.