On January 13, 1842 a wounded and battered British military doctor, Dr. William Brydon, riding atop a dying horse arrived at the British garrison in Jalalabad. He was the only survivor of the 16,000 strong British Army that was in full retreat from Kabul. The remaining soldiers had been slaughtered by the Afghanis in the snowy mountain passes between Kabul and Jalalabad.
The British discovered in 1842 what every other conquering army has come to learn – that Afghanistan is easily taken but never kept. Since the time of Alexander The Great conquering armies have made forays into Afghanistan only to find that it is the graveyard of occupying armies. Nonetheless in the 19th century the British and the Russians competed for control of Afghanistan in what has come to be known as The Great Game. This Game has always been played with the foreign power installing a puppet regime in Afghanistan, which eventually is destroyed by local forces. As The Great Game has been played out the Afghan distaste of foreign occupiers has grown.
The Great Game continued in the 20th Century with the Americans replacing the British as Russia’s adversary after the Second World War. On Christmas day in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime. With that action The Great Game between the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was launched in earnest. Over the next 10 years the Soviets unsuccessfully battled an insurgency, the Afghan Mujahideen, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Soviet Army lost over 15,000 soldiers in Afghanistan while over a million Afghans lost their lives in the same period. Yet after 10 years of fighting the Soviet Union was unsuccessful in breaking the back of the insurgency. On February 15, 1989 the battered and demoralized Soviet Red Army completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The humiliation of the Afghan campaign and the financial strain put upon the Soviet economy by the invasion and occupation played a significant part in the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. The 10-year Soviet occupation also left the economy and society of Afghanistan in tatters.
More than a decade later the United States finds itself as the occupying force in Afghanistan playing The Great Game once again. In response to the attacks of September 11th 2001, on October 7, 2001 the United States launched an aerial bombing campaign in Afghanistan that led to the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime. After the routing of the Taliban the United States installed the government of Hamid Karzai in power. Subsequently an election was held that legitimized the Karzai government.
As in previous occupations of Afghanistan what appeared initially as a routing of the local forces is beginning to appear as anything but that. Over the past few years the seemingly defeated Taliban have regrouped into an ever more potent insurgency. As the Afghan population has soured of the continued foreign occupation the Taliban have regained support as the defenders of Afghanistan. In recent weeks there has been heavy fighting between the American military and the Taliban in the South of Afghanistan. This renewed fighting has led to significant loss of civilian life. With each additional civilian death the United States is rapidly losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan. The inexorable logic of occupation is leading to ever growing resentment of the occupier amongst the local population.
The situation in Afghanistan has become increasingly more volatile. Any act or accident by the United States is now viewed by the Afghans as an act of provocation. In this context the fatal traffic accident in Kabul yesterday involving an American military truck was the spark that was needed to set ablaze Afghan frustration. Yesterday’s riots will undoubtedly be brought under control by the Afghan Government. But by doing so, the Government will inevitably kill or injure Afghan civilians. Any heavy-handed Government tactic will be viewed by the Afghan people with suspicion. The Government will be seen as doing the bidding of the United States. In appealing for calm President Hamid Karzai may have done more harm then good by calling the rioters enemies of Afghanistan:
Karzai, speaking on national television Monday night, condemned "opportunists" for exploiting a simple traffic accident and said people responsible for the violence would be sought and treated severely. "Accidents happen all over the world," he said. "This is not a reason to fight or destroy. Those who have done this are the enemies of Afghanistan." [Emphasis added by me.]
Karzai will be seen more as an American puppet in the aftermath of yesterday’s riots in which Government troops killed up to 20 people. The Washington Post reports on the underlying resentment brought to the fore by the traffic accident:
The riots exposed the bitter resentment that many Afghans harbor toward the U.S.-led military forces that have been stationed here since the Taliban was driven from power. It also reflected the deep ambivalence many Afghan Muslims feel toward the growing Western influence here that includes high fashion and fast-food shops, sprawling aid compounds and even rap music.
The public mood has also been tense since a U.S. airstrike killed at least 16 civilians last week in a village in southern Afghanistan, the scene of heightened fighting this spring. Afghan and U.S. officials blamed Taliban insurgents who had taken shelter in village compounds and then fired at U.S.-led forces.
This is a situation ripe with danger for the United States at a time when it is preoccupied with the worsening civil war in Iraq. The United States and the Karzai Government are in a no win situation. If they allow the rioting and unrest to continue unchecked Kabul and perhaps the rest of the country will become destabilized. On the other hand if the Karzai Government clamps down on the population, as it has begun to do, it will lose any legitimacy it may have and will be seen as a tool of the occupier. Either way the Karzai Government is likely to go the way of other Governments that were installed by occupiers in Afghanistan.
The United States occupation of Afghanistan will come to an end at some time in the future. The only unknowns are whether or not the American military will suffer the fate of previous occupiers and what kind of society the Americans will leave behind in Afghanistan. The Soviets endured 10 years of pinpricks from the Afghan insurgency before the cost of occupation became too great to bear. What will be the breaking point for the United States? The challenge for the United States is to break the cycle of The Great Game and leave behind a functioning Afghan society that does not lead to future interventions and instability. Meeting this challenge requires the United States to be fully engaged not only militarily but also diplomatically. History has shown that foreign militaries have never been able to impose their will on the Afghan people for an extended period of time. If there is a recipe for success in Afghanistan it does not lie in the use of force. With the United States preoccupied in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan promises to slip away toward failure. Urgent attention is required and may not be forthcoming from the Administration of George W Bush. Thus another predictable chapter of The Great Game may be written.