By Dana Visalli
I traveled to Afghanistan four times between 2010 and 2014, volunteer teaching at a girls’ school in Kabul. In the process I learned something about Afghanistan’s history over the past 200 years, which I think helps explain the drama unfolding in that country today.
Surprisingly to many, England has been a major player in Afghanistan’s history. England had taken control of neighboring India by 1770, and began forcing Indian farmers to grow large quantities of opium poppies in order to trade opium to China for coveted tea and silk. By 1800 Britain had a monopoly on opium production in India and saw to it that cultivation spread into Afghanistan as well (Pakistan did not exist until 1947).
The Afghan king resisted opium production in Afghanistan, so in 1839 the British sent a force of 12,000 soldiers into the country, overthrew the existing government and set up one that would do their bidding. The Afghan people rose up against the occupation in 1842 and drove the British out; there was a battle near Jalalabad in which 17,000 retreating British were killed.
The Afghan government did not have the resources to protect its borders, and England soon took control of all Afghan territory between the Indus River and the Hindu Kush, including Baluchistan in 1859. This created a permanently weak Afghanistan by cutting off its access to the sea. That territory became the country of Pakistan in 1947. Still unhappy with Afghan compliance, England invaded Afghanistan again in 1878; overthrew the standing king and forced the new government to become a British protectorate.
In order to consolidate its gains, England created the Durand Line (named after a British diplomat) in 1893, an arbitrary 1,500-mile border between “”British” India and Afghanistan that consolidated its previous territorial gains and laid claim to the Northwest Frontier Provinces, long considered part of Afghanistan. This was done without consulting the Afghan government. Taking these provinces divided the Pashtun people between two separate nations, Afghanistan and India. This created a deep animosity among the Pashtuns that survives in full force today, 120 years later. As fate would have it, most of the Taliban are Pashtuns.
A strongly anti-colonial King Amanullah ascended to the Afghan throne in 1919, and declared Afghanistan’s independence from Britain’s “protectorate” status in his inaugural speech. Amanullah attempted drastic changes in the country by abolishing slavery and encouraging the liberation of women. He discouraged the use of the veil and the oppression of women, introduced educational opportunities for females. Britain resented Amanullah, fearing that the liberalization of Afghan society would spread to India and become a threat to British rule and opium production there. Britain therefore initiated support for conservative and reactionary Islamists in the country to undermine Amanullah’s rule, who was overthrown in 1929.
Meanwhile the British were having a hard time quelling rebellions by the Pashtuns and initiated military action against them. The offensive went poorly, and Britain was about to lose control of the tribal warriors when it initiated a massive aerial bombardment of civilian Afghans to prevent defeat. Winston Churchill opined that poison gas was just right for use against these “uncivilized tribes.”
By the early 1970s the United States had decided that the best way counter the Soviet influence there was to support the strict Islamists in Afghanistan, who were opposed to the progressive reforms of the Afghan government. The CIA started to offer covert backing to Islamic radicals as early as 1973. In August 1979 a classified State Department Report stated: “the United States’ larger interests would be served by the demise of the current Afghan regime, despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan.”
The Russians invaded Afghanistan because they feared an Islamic revolution on their borders, their intention was to create a more-liberal and enlightened state. After the invasion the United States supported the fundamentalist Mujahideen with $40 billion worth of weapons. Fifteen years later the United States was at war with these same fighters, which it had itself created through the funding of the fundamentalists.
What emerges from this brief review of Afghan history is that the Afghan people had been fighting for independence from the colonizing British for 200 years when the United States entered the fray. In fact the Vietnamese were fighting for independence from the French when the United States first entered that war in 1954, and the Koreans (the country was united until 1945) was fighting for independence from the colonizing Japanese.
All of these American wars — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the list goes on — have been completely unnecessary. They posed no threat to the United States whatsoever (the 9/11 pilots were Saudis). There is a tendency for people to demonize “others”” so we feel better about ourselves; psychologists call it enemy projection. Another term for this is “confirmation bias,” people will simply fabricate stories that make them good by making others bad. These wars are doing massive damage to our own country; the United States is now $30 trillion in debt, most of it war-related. All that is needed to end the forever wars is a touch of compassion, a slight shift in perception and just a bit more personal honesty.
Dana Visalli lives in Twisp.