The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was an episode in an ongoing Afghan civil war that began 40 years ago and will probably continue after American forces leave the country.
The basic conflict is between the Pushtu-speaking people of southern Afghanistan and the Dari- and Uzbek-speaking people of northern Afghanistan.
The Soviet-backed government that was installed in 1979 mainly represented Dari and Uzbek speakers. The rebellion against that government, backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, was mainly Pustu speakers. The Taliban are mainly Pustu speakers. The U.S.-backed government in Kabul represents the same ethnic groups as the old Soviet-backed government.
This is the analysis of Chris Mason, a military expert familiar with Afghanistan, whose latest book is available free on-line in PDF form from the United States Army War College.
Mason wrote that there are many ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, such that the English language cannot do justice to their complexity.
There are religious conflicts among the Taliban, moderate Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. There are ongoing conflicts the various ethnic groups—Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazaras. There are conflicts between tribes and clans. If one clan supports the Taliban, the other is likely to look for help from the Americans, and vice versa.
The only time Afghanistan has enjoyed any kind of unity was been under its kings, who exercised a loose authority over diverse ethnic and religious groups.
This unity was broken, Mason wrote, when the Pushtun Afghan King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammad Daud, in 1973. Instead of installing himself as king, Daud abolished the monarchy and tried to rule without traditional authority. He was overthrown and killed in 1978 by the Afghan army, with the support of Afghan Communists—the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
The PDPA had two factions, the predominantly Tajik Parcham faction and the predominantly Pushtun Khalq faction. With the help of Soviet Spetznaz commandos, the Parcham faction overthrew the Khalq faction. The PDPA attempted reforms, such as redistribution of land and emancipation of women, which, although enlightened, were resisted by traditional Afghan religious leaders.
An uprising against the Soviet-backed government consisted mainly of Pustuns, Mason wrote. Members of the other Afghan ethnic groups continued to serve loyally in the government’s conscript army.
From 1979 to 1989, the Soviets fought all-out against the insurgents. They destroyed thousands of Pustun villages and massacred as many as a million Pustuns, he wrote.
The Soviets were merciless, murderous and went all-out to win. I think their experience shows that mass killing is not the key to victory..
The Pushtun insurgents were backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), which armed them with weapons provided by the CIA and paid for by Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan supported the Afghan Pustuns partly because many Pushtuns live in Pakistan’s northwest frontier area. But the main reason Pakistan backed the Pustuns was the fear that their enemies would ally themselves with India, leaving Pakistan will have to face its main enemy on two fronts—Afghanistan and Kashmir.
The Afghan civil war continued after the Soviets withdrew. Pakistan supported the Taliban, and provided its forces with air support and military advisers. The opposing Northern Alliance—consisting of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Turkmen—retreated until October, 2001, when the United States entered the Afghan civil war on their side.
The Bush administration authorized Operation Evil Airlift in November 2001 to rescue Pakistan troops trapped in Afghanistan. Mason said Pakistan’s ISI used this as an opportunity to rescue key Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders as well. Maybe one of them was Osama bin Laden. Who knows?
The U.S.-backed government in Kabul is a Northern Alliance government, Mason wrote. There are hardly any Pushtuns in the government or the army. Official statistics to the contrary are bogus, he said.
When the United States finally withdraws, Mason expects Afghanistan to divide into a southern part controlled by the Taliban and a northern part controlled by the Northern Alliance, with neither side achieving a decisive victory in the foreseeable future. Presumably the United States will try to aid the Northern Alliance and Pakistan will aid the Taliban. It will be up to the various Afghan peoples, not any outsiders, to decide when they want to make peace.
Click on The Strategic Lessons Unlearned from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: Why the Afghan National Security Forces Will not Hold and the Implications for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for the text of Chris Mason’s book in PDF form. I thank Craig Hanyan for suggesting it.