New Delhi: After months of negotiations, the US government has managed to strike a draft peace deal with the Afghan Taliban. But even as the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad was giving an interview sharing the details of the draft, a Taliban-planted bomb went off in Kabul, killing 13 people and leaving hundreds injured.
Khalilzad said the deal would facilitate the withdrawal of 5,000 US troops from five bases in about 20 weeks. In return, the Taliban would ensure that Afghan territory is not used by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS to attack the US. The withdrawal of the rest of the troops would depend on a ceasefire between Taliban and the Afghan security forces, and the intra-Afghan dialogue.
But for nearly 200 years, Afghanistan has witnessed many such false dawns. Several times, there have been ‘transformations’ that have promised a radical break from the past, only for the cycle of violence and chaos to resume soon after.
Anglo-Afghan treaties and their legacy
Ahmad Shah Durrani, also known as Ahmad Khan Abdali, is considered the founder of the modern Afghan state in a geographical sense, according to Ganda Singh’s Ahmad Shah Durrani: Father of Modern Afghanistan.
The Durrani empire he founded ruled Afghanistan from 1746 to 1826, when the Barakzai dynasty came to power and established the Emirate of Afghanistan.
The emirate’s history was dominated by the ‘Great Game’, which saw the British and Russian empires trying to exert their control over Afghanistan, according to Frank Clements’ Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopaedia.
After the first phase of the Second Anglo-Afghan war, the two sides signed the Treaty of Gandamak. This treaty gave various frontier areas to the British and, in return, Afghan ruler Muhammad Yakub Khan retained full sovereignty over Afghanistan.
In 1893, the British and Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan reached the Durand Line Agreement, which demarcated the British and Afghan spheres of influence. The Durand Line divided the Pashtun and Baloch communities into two separate states, leading to ethnic tensions that continue to plague the region even today. In addition, the line would also go on to become the de-facto border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In 1947, Afghanistan refused to accept the Durand Line as a legitimate border, and ever since, it has led to a deeply contentious relationship with Pakistan, with forces often clashing along the line.
Abdur Rahman Khan’s legacy and 20th century Afghanistan
In the first 73 years of the 20th century, transformative changes in Afghanistan were mostly effected by internal movements and counter-movements, according to Thomas Barfield in Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.
Abdur Rahman Khan ruled over Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, and is considered one of the most important emirs, as his rule left some lasting legacies.
First, he ensured that the politics would remain Kabul-centred, and a deep divide emerged between provincial Afghanistan and the capital. Second, a small urban and educated elite had developed during his rule, which would go on to dominate Afghan politics until the 1970s. This elite was mostly comprised of the Muhammadzais, a sub-tribe of the Barkazai.
Owing to these two legacies, Afghanistan saw a recurring pattern, according to Barfield’s book.
“Each began with the confident illusion that its new policies or crafty political compromises would break the old cycle for good, only to have its world collapse when it fatally underestimated the strength of the opposition,” Barfield wrote.
This pattern was repeated in Afghanistan throughout the 20th century.
In 1919, Amanullah Khan assumed power and made an aggressive push to modernise the state. His rule ended in 1929 with an uprising against these very policies, and led to a civil war. Khan was soon deposed and replaced by Mohammed Nadir Shah.
Nadir Shah was succeeded by his son, Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1933. He would go on to rule Afghanistan until 1973.
During Zahir Shah’s rule, Afghanistan saw considerable opening up to the world and partial democratisation under the 1964 constitution. But this opening up would again lead to a counter-revolution.
Due to increased education and economic growth, a new educated elite was created, which did not belong to the Muhammadzai community. This new elite was not provided any patronage by the state and ended up supporting the emerging Communist party, People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), backed by the Soviet Union.
Finally in 1973, Zahir’s cousin and then-Lieutenant General Mohammed Daoud Khan replaced him through a non-violent coup. Daoud was supported by the Communists.
Communist rule & the Soviet-Afghan war
However, even Daoud’s rule failed to make substantial progress in meeting the growing demands of the people.
In 1978, backed by the military, Afghanistan saw another coup led by the Communists. This was known as the Saur Revolution and brought the PDPA to power, which established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
This government initiated a series of radical modernisation reforms, which were resisted by the more traditional sections of Afghan society. When the regime tried to violently suppress the protestors, it created rebellion movements across the country, according to Barfield.
The PDPA itself was marred with factionalism and internal dissent. As the regime weakened, the Soviet Union deployed troops in Afghanistan and staged a coup in 1979. Through this coup, it installed its loyalist Babrak Karmal, though the deployment of troops was seen as an invasion and led to the Soviet-Afghan war, which lasted from 1979 to 1988, left millions of Afghans dead and three million displaced.
Rise of the Taliban
Several Afghan mujahideen groups backed by the US and Pakistan managed to decisively defeat the Soviet army, but it left the country in complete disarray. Between 1988 and 1992, several warring mujahideen groups competed with each other for power.
In 1992, Pakistan attempted to broker peace between these warring groups. As a result, six of the seven main factions agreed to sign the Peshawar Accords and established an interim government in what was now the Islamic State of Afghanistan.
However, the Peshawar Accords failed to bring about lasting peace as several factions, such as the one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, continued the fighting. Eventually, this morphed into a full-blown civil war across Afghanistan.
Chaos and a power vacuum in southern Afghanistan led to the rise of Taliban in 1994. Making steady gains over the next couple of years, the Taliban succeeded in capturing Kabul in 1996. Once in power, the Taliban renamed the country as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The Northern Alliance, a military alliance of several ethnic Afghan groups and backed by a host of international governments, tried to resist the Taliban, but failed. Taliban’s government was uprooted by the US occupation in 2001.
Eighteen years later, as the US begins to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the country has witnessed a resurgence of the Taliban. Today, the Taliban controls or contests 65 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory.