After years of ignoring it, pundits and reporters have rediscovered Afghanistan. They rend garments and tear hair over the immediate disaster, while preparing to spend months obsessing over what everyone expects to be coming horrors. They're openly advocating for a continuation of the longest war in American history, and never mind that the war was so successful that the government it supported collapsed before the last American troops had even pulled out. What they don't do is explain where they've been for the last decade and why they only seem to care now. What they don't do is provide historical context. With notable exceptions, what they don't do is ask the most basic of questions, and not only because to do so would expose their complicity in and ignorance of how it all came to this, rather it's primarily because having the attention spans of gnats they don't even know what questions to ask.
Afghanistan is not Joe Biden's fault. The anticipated coming horrors are not Joe Biden's fault. Former President George W. Bush recently criticized the pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, which breaks the scales of hypocrisy, given that it was his disastrous failures that ensured the war was unwinnable, after his administration's disastrous failures enabled the worst ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil, which triggered the war in the first place. The Washington Post editorial board recently criticized the pullout, but the Washington Post editorial board helped cheerlead and lie the U.S. into the illegal and immoral Iraq War, which ensured that the effort in Afghanistan would disastrously fail.
None of this is Joe Biden's fault.
Here's a clue: If twenty years of war and military occupation in a far distant nation can't succeed in creating a stable, self-sustaining government, nothing the U.S. can do will. Many of those responsible for this failure in Afghanistan are now all over the media attempting to blame Biden. Even worse is that the media are allowing members of the Trump team to spout or froth. It shouldn't need to be said, but unless they can condemn Trump for attempting a coup in the United States, their opinions on the takeover of a government halfway around the world could not be less relevant. It's also worth noting that Trump actually invited the Taliban to Camp David, and just months ago was criticizing Biden for not withdrawing from Afghanistan fast enough.
Questions Biden critics must answer
If they're even to begin to have any credibility on Afghanistan, all critics of Biden need to answer questions so simple, so fundamental, and so beyond their ability to formulate, that it will be to their benefit merely to show them what to ask:
- If it was wrong to leave now, when would it have been right?
- The achievement of what metrics would have proven that it finally was time to leave?
- If those metrics haven't been achieved after twenty years, why is there reason to believe they ever could have been?
- How much more would it have cost in military lives lost, military personnel wounded, and money wasted?
But supporters of endless war never ask those questions, and reporters and pundits never ask those questions. This is where the criticism of Biden is particularly insidious. Any critics of the Afghanistan pullout must answer those questions. Anyone in the media interviewing any critics of the Afghanistan pullout must ask those questions. Anyone failing to ask and answer those questions automatically forfeits any right to be taken seriously as an analyst or critic of Biden's Afghanistan policy.
But with Afghanistan, there is an even bigger question that every ostensible analyst needs to be asked: Do you know Afghanistan's history? Because the real secret about Afghanistan, that has been hiding in plain sight all along, is that there never has been stability in Afghanistan. The British couldn't create it. The Russians couldn't create it. The Afghan people themselves couldn't create it. And even a cursory review of Afghanistan's history makes that clear.
Centuries of horror
For some eight hundred years, Turko-Mongolian political dynasties or militaries dominated the region that includes what is now Afghanistan. Historians mark 1747 as the year Afghanistan became an identifiably independent nation with local rule. The Turkish-Iranian leader Nadir Shah Afshar had created an expanding empire fueled by conquest, looting, and taxing the conquered, and had even defeated the Mughals in India, occupying Delhi. When he was assassinated, it created a regional political vacuum.
Iran was now in turmoil, the Mughals never recovered, the Uzbeks to the north also were weakening, and that gave one of Nadir Shah's generals, the Pashtun Ahmad Shah Durrani, the opportunity to take control of his people's traditional eastern homeland, and found what became known as Afghanistan's Durrani Empire. To consolidate power he fought external wars or battles against the Afshars, the Uzbek Bukharans, the Mughals, the Sikhs, and the Murathas. In the home territories he controlled, he also had endless problems with local tribes and their leaders, who were constantly agitating for various levels of independence.
Ahmad Shah was succeeded by his son, Timur Shah Durrani, who refrained from foreign adventures to focus on domestic battles to stabilize his fragile and disputed regime. He died without having named an heir, and his many sons then began a series of bloody internecine wars. The rival Barakzai clan helped Ahmad's son Zaman Shah take the throne, and he repaid them by executing their patriarch, Payinda Khan, in an apparent attempt to limit Barakzai power. The eldest of Payinda Khan's twenty-one sons, Fatih Khan, then deposed and blinded Zaman, helping Zaman's brother Mahmud Shah take the throne. Three years later, Mahmud was overthrown by another brother, Shah Shuja, who ruled for six years before the Barakzai helped Mahmud overthrow him and return to power. Shuja fled to India. Mahmud Shah's second reign saw a series of Durrani civil wars, and then in another attempt to limit Barakzai power, he had Fatih Khan imprisoned, blinded, and decapitated. Fatih's brothers then overthrew Mahmud, and installed puppet governments ostensibly ruled by members of the Sodazai clan.
Anyone notice a pattern here?
Fighting endless wars within and around Afghanistan, four of its initial seven rulers were deposed.
And then it got worse.
The Barakzai were riven by their own internecine battles, but in 1826 another of Payinda Khan's sons, Dost Mohammed, dispensed with the puppets and claimed power for himself. But the civil wars had so weakened the kingdom that it had lost its most valuable Persian and Indian territories, rival clans had taken control of important regions within Afghanistan itself, and the Sodazai disputed Dost Mohammed's right to rule. Meanwhile, Afghanistan was drawing interest from more international players, including the Sikhs in Punjab, the Russians, who were supporting the Persians in the west, and Britain, which began poking around through diplomatic visits.
In India, Shuja was still trying to build support to reclaim the throne, and in 1839 the British rolled into Afghanistan and restored him. Dost Mohammed sought refuge with the Bukharans, who held him captive for a year. In 1840, he returned to Afghanistan, using Uzbek then Tajik warriors to fight the British, and after a successful battle north of Kabul inexplicably surrendered, being peacefully sent to exile in India.
The British came to conclude that Shuja was useless, and relegated him to the role of puppet, attempting to impose their own reforms on Afghanistan, to their own Western imperial standards. But trying to create an Afghanistan in the West's image never would work. Scattered open rebellions began to break out, which Dost Mohammed's son Muhammad Akbar unified into an organized opposition, with key support from the Ghilzai and Kohistani tribes. Successive British agents were murdered, and in early 1842 the British negotiated a complete withdrawal. This retreat became a legendary horror. Despite Akbar's promise of safe passage, those members of the army and its followers not taken prisoner departed for Jalalabad only to be massacred by the Ghilzai, or succumb to the brutal winter weather. Only one British survivor straggled into India.
Shuja remained fortified in Afghanistan, protected by Arab and Hindustani soldiers, while Akbar's cousin Zaman Khan was making his own claim to Barakzai leadership. Shuja played for local support while secretly urging the British to invade again, but the Barakzai lured him out of his fortress and assassinated him. His son Fath Jang now became the Sodazai claimant. Akbar took Fath Jang prisoner, but used him as a puppet to thwart Zaman, recognizing him as shah while having his exiled father reaffirmed as the true king. The British returned and reconquered Kabul, but when Fath Jang realized they wouldn't stay or support his desire to create a new regime, he left with them, a brother succeeding him as Sodazai claimant, before also fleeing. The British then allowed Dost Muhammad to return to Afghanistan, and recognized his rule.
With the Sodazai gone, various tribal factions weakened by internal discord, an army that had been professionalized by the British, and the sometimes rebellious Akbar dying in 1847, Dost Muhammad's second reign was initially far more successful than his first. For the first time, he had effective rule over the entire country. He resumed official relations with the British, and didn't interfere with their other imperialist adventures in the region. The Russians and the Persians meanwhile were focused on their own problems. But this moment of relative stability wouldn't last. Dost Muhammad died in 1863, and several of his dozens of sons began their own efforts to take the throne, with Sher Ali initially successful and Muhammad Afzal his main rival. After one indecisive battle, they were attempting to negotiate peace when Ali learned of a plot against him being organized by Afzal's only son, Abdur Rahman. Afzal was arrested and Abdur Rahman had to flee.
Suppressing a rebellion by another brother cost Ali his son and heir, and Abdur Rahman returned, freeing his father and installing him as amir. After bloody defeats in 1866 and 1867, Ali fled to the safety of his son Yaqub Khan, whose regional rule typified a once again divided Afghanistan. Afzal's death saw his brother Azam ascend to the throne, with Rahman leaving for Turkistan, but in 1868 Yaqub defeated Azam, who died on the way to Iranian exile. Rahman fled to asylum in Samarkand. Sher Ali was back on the throne.
Ali's primary goal was to build the state and strengthen the army, and over the next ten years he was largely successful at that. But tensions between the British and the Russians over their rival imperialistic Central Asian claims resulted in ultimatums from the British which Sher Ali could not accept, and in 1878 they invaded. Again. Ali fled Kabul to retrench and fight elsewhere, but in 1879 he died of what had been a long series of illnesses. Yaqub succeeded him, but with little hope of military success, soon made peace on British terms.
The second British occupation went about as well as the first. Disagreements led to rioting. The leading British agent was killed. The British sent in the military, took Yaqub prisoner, and began direct rule. Regional revolts escalated, and rival Afghan factions began organizing armies. The British knew how this would end, and so began negotiating with rival claimants. In 1880, Abdur Rahman accepted their offer on their terms.
Anyone notice a pattern here?
The first phase of Barakzai rule saw all five leaders deposed, with one assassinated and another dying on the way to exile. The British Empire had begun its militant meddling, selecting Afghan leaders of their liking, while losing plenty of its own people to the endless maelstrom of violence.
And then it got worse.
Abdur Rahman's reign began with Afghanistan again split, according to Britain's mandate. Sher Ali's son Ayyub effectively ruled the south, while Rahman ruled the north. But of course that couldn't last, and when the British again pulled out, conflict between Rahman and Ayyub escalated, with Rahman quickly prevailing. His viciousness became evident when a cleric who had supported Ayyub sought sanctuary in a sacred shrine and Rahman had him removed, then personally beheaded him. Ayyub fled, first to Persia, and then to permanent asylum with the British in India.
Rahman and the British came to an agreement. He wouldn't meddle in their foreign adventures, and they wouldn't meddle in his domestic affairs. They subsidized the military dictatorship he used to consolidate his rule. With increasing brutality he waged war on anyone who opposed him, systematically crushing every region's autonomous rulers. Afghanistan now had a rare, consolidated central government, mercilessly enforced by the era's most modern weaponry. Rahman wasn't content merely to destroy local leaders, their militaries, and the traditional political and religious hierarchies from which they had arisen, he sought bloody retribution on the peoples they had ruled, sometimes uprooting entire populations and moving them out of their ancestral homelands.
Afghanistan arrived as a unified nation-state on a sea of blood. But a fissiparous nation ruled by terror couldn't easily transition to peaceful coexistence. It didn't.
It got worse.
So successfully had Abdur Rahman imposed absolute control that in 1901 his son and designated heir Habibullah became the first ruler in Afghan history to enjoy a peaceful transfer of power. It was now more than a hundred-fifty years since Ahmad Shah had created an independent Afghanistan.
Let me repeat that: After more than a hundred-fifty years, Habibullah became the first ruler in Afghan history to enjoy a peaceful transfer of power.
He called back many exiled families, and they helped him rule. But a growing schism began to emerge between devout religious traditonalists and educated nationalist reformers. That schism remains to this day. Habibullah faced dissension and potential threats from one faction and then the other, and in both cases he arrested and executed some of their leaders.
Habibullah refused to take sides as Europe succumbed to the madness of the first World War, but he could not escape its ramifications. The fall of the Ottoman Empire further radicalized the religious traditionalists, who saw their Holy Lands now occupied by European infidels; and the Russian Revolution gave the modernists a potentially dangerous ally. On a hunting trip in 1919, Habibullah was assassinated in his tent, by an unknown assailant. His religious brother, Nasrullah, assumed the throne, with support from Habibullah's eldest sons. Habibullah's modernist third son, Amanullah, however, revived the Afghan tradition of no peaceful transfers of power, and when the military that his grandfather had forged into such a powerful force took his side, Nasrullah abdicated. His reign had lasted ten days. He spent his remaining few years imprisoned.
Amanullah ended de facto British external rule and thus lost their military support, but he then played the British and Russians off each other, while bolstering his credentials among the religious by supporting Islamic causes throughout the region. At the same time, he attempted to curtail religious law within Afghanistan and promoted modern social reforms. This provoked a backlash, particularly in traditionalist provinces, which never had accepted central control to begin with.
The 1924 Khost rebellion exposed Amanullah's weakness and threatened his rule, and although his military was able to crush it, he briefly paid homage to the religiously conservative by acceding to their demands against his social reforms; but after becoming the first Afghan leader to tour Europe, he returned home inspired to modernize and secularize the government and legal structures, and to promote women's rights. He couldn't contain the inevitable uprising, and in early 1929, with a Kohistani army led by Habibullah Kalakani closing in on Kabul, Amanullah abdicated and fled. His brother Enayatullah briefly took the throne, but he soon also abdicated, and Habibullah became amir.
Amanullah soon revoked his own abdication, and Afghanistan once again was riven by a bloody civil war. At various moments, both sides seemed to have the advantage, but Amanullah eventually came to realize his position was untenable, and fled to exile in Europe, leaving the Europhile modernizer Nadir Khan to lead the opposition. After multiple battles and shifting tribal allegiances, Nadir's allies finally captured Kabul, and he was declared king. Habibullah and his inner circle were hanged. With little traditional right to claim the throne and Amanullah now again attempting to assert his own right, Nadir's rule was fragile, but by 1931 he had gathered the support he needed. Two years later, he was assassinated. He was succeeded by his son Zahir Shah, who held the throne for forty years.
During most of Zahir Shah's relatively stable reign, the real power lay with his prime ministers, who were part of yet another family dynasty. In 1953, it was Daud Khan, but in 1964, Zahir Shah assumed power for himself. While Zahir was visiting Italy in 1973, Daud staged a coup and declared a republic. Ruled by him. By decree. Zahir survived in exile long enough to return to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
Daud resumed the secularization of Afghanistan, but of course new factions arose, running the ideological spectrum from Islamists to Marxists. With support from the Soviets, it would be the Marxist PDPA that prevailed, assassinating Daud and seizing power in 1978. The bloodshed subsequently rivaled that of a century before, with Daud's family, members of his regime, Islamists, and other influential families massacred. Then the PDPA turned on itself, with president and premier Nur Muhammad Taraki assassinated and his deputy and sometime rival Babrak Karmal fleeing to exile. Hafizullah Amin was now in charge. With uprisings all around the country, and violent infighting tearing the PDPA apart, by its own estimates, in the less than two years it ruled, about half of its one time 46,000 members were killed or purged, or left the party.
Unable to control Amin, and unwilling to see a Marxist government fail, the Soviets invaded in 1979, assassinating Amin and placing Karmal ostensibly in charge. But they tired of his ineptitude and lack of support from the Afghan people, and in 1986 did him the unintended favor of deposing him, replacing him with Mohammad Najibullah. Karmal died in 1996, in exile in Moscow. Just over two months earlier, Najibullah had been horrifically tortured and murdered by the Taliban, after they first captured Kabul.
Anyone notice a pattern?
Of the kings, amirs, presidents, and premiers who ruled Afghanistan between the autocratic reign of Abdur Rahman and the first conquest by the Taliban, seven were assassinated or murdered, and the other five were forced to abdicate or were deposed.
And the United States is supposed to solve this?
The very fact that the Taliban so quickly and easily swept back into power this week ought to be a clue as to the pointlessness of the entire American endeavor in Afghanistan. This is in no way a criticism of the American military personnel who served honorably there. They did their duty. Their sacrifice is not diminished by the political ineptitude and myopia that defined the policies and strategies they were tasked with defending. But after twenty years, the Afghan government the U.S. helped establish, and the Afghan military it trained and armed, proved helplessly and hopelessly corrupt and inept. Critics of Biden need to explain how he could have solved what his two Republican and one Democratic predecessor administrations couldn't.
There is a myth based around the popular book Charlie Wilson's War that suggests that perhaps this all could have been prevented, had the Reagan administration continued to support the mujahideen rebels it armed to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. There's another myth about the Best and the Brightest that prevailed during the Obama administration, which optimistically believed that because they were smarter and better intended than their predecessors they could solve what their predecessors couldn't. Biden himself was a skeptic. All these myths about the U.S. solving centuries of problems in Afghanistan simply ignore the centuries of problems in Afghanistan. No matter who takes power, it never lasts, and it never ends well.
Afghanistan has a reputation in the West as the graveyard of empires, but this, too, simplifies something far more complicated and far more horrific. It's not about the U.S. or the Russians or the British. It's not about the Mughals or the Persians or the Sikhs. Afghanistan is about Afghanistan. It's a cycle of horrors, and there's nothing any foreign power can do about it. It's unclear if there's anything the Afghan people can do about it. But if these cycles finally end, it will be because the Afghan people end it. Violent clampdowns only postpone the inevitable violent backlash.
Even the best and brightest of well-intended foreigners cannot solve what a local people themselves cannot solve. Perhaps foreign powers getting out and keeping out and refusing to send any factions any form of military equipment would help. Perhaps not. But perhaps it's time for all foreign powers to try. Because other than helping the most threatened Afghans escape, there's no good that foreign powers can do in Afghanistan. That's always been the case.
Afghanistan's problems are Afghanistan's problems. The best the rest of the world can do is to stop enabling and exacerbating those problems, and stop trying to solve them. Because all that ever accomplishes is to make things worse.