Parallels between British occupation, retreat of Soviets, US withdrawal sound like chorus of Greek tragedy.
Right from the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842), which was perhaps the West’s greatest imperial disaster, history has often repeated itself in Afghanistan.
The latest US decision to withdraw troops from the war-torn country bears a telltale similarity with earlier events, the return of Dost Mohammad as king in 1842, the Geneva Accord of 1988, negotiations with the Taliban in 1998, and finally the Doha agreement in 2020.
US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement without putting up a credible governance structure in Kabul has a striking resemblance with the Geneva Accord, which paved the way for the withdrawal of Soviet troops that ended the nine-year-long occupation. But it soon descended Afghanistan into chaos in absence of a consensus interim government. The occupation had consumed 15,000 Soviet soldiers, 1,600 tanks as well as 1,000 aircraft. Another 35,000 soldiers were wounded, according to official Soviet figures.
Recalling the events, Pakistani diplomats who were involved in negotiations that preceded the Geneva Accord stated that the Soviet Union was in a hurry to leave without meeting the condition of forming a consensus government.
“The US also supported the Soviets as it was keen in withdrawal of troops than putting up a stable government in Kabul,” wrote veteran Pakistani journalist and author Shaikh Aziz, who covered the signing of the accord.
Fearing that then Pakistan President Gen. Muhammad Ziaulhaq may make Afghanistan a base for Islamists, who may then expand to Central Asia, the US opposed the move to remove the communist government of Mohammad Najeebullah before allowing Soviets to withdraw. To force Islamabad to ink the pact unconditionally, the US even imposed a 120-day ban on aid to Pakistan.
While Pakistan was still showing hesitation to go ahead, its capital Islamabad and the nearby garrison town of Rawalpindi experienced a dreadful tragedy on April 10, 1988. The ammunition dump in the heart of Rawalpindi city meant for Afghan Mujahideen exploded. The missiles and bombs rained down on twin cities, killing 100 people and leaving many more injured.
Four days later representatives of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US, and the Soviet Union signed the pact in Geneva.
Hesitant Ziaulhaq and chain of events
Although Gen. Ziaulhaq welcomed the agreement, he showed his resentment, remarking that the Najeebullah government should have gone, as its presence will reignite flare-up.
Earlier in January 1988, Ziaulhaq told Lally Weymouth, senior editor of The Washington Post, that Pakistan wants a new coalition government in place before signing the Geneva agreement.
“We cannot sign with Najeebullah. How can a government of Pakistan sign the Geneva accords with the man appointed by the Soviet Union who is responsible for killing so many people?” he asked.
In an interview to The New York Times, Zia even indicated that he would support participation by members of the pro-Soviet Afghan regime in a successor government without Najeebullah. He also called for an international peacekeeping force to replace the Soviets till the country is stabilized and to monitor troop withdrawal.
According to declassified documents of the US Department of State, Zia had offered an interim government that would include the Mujahideen, the Afghan exiles, and perhaps some elements of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan without Najeebullah himself. Zia wanted this interim government to sign the Geneva accords with Pakistan.
“The Mujahideen have won the war. The Soviet Union has lost. It is only a question of not rubbing it in too hard. The Soviet Union wants a face-saving device, and the Mujahideen should offer it to them because the aim should be the vacating of Afghanistan by Soviet troops,” Zia told The New York Times.
While Mujahideen leaders — such as Yunis Khalis and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — had rejected the coalition proposed by Zia, Pakistani officials claimed that in private conversations, they were flexible.
The Geneva agreement itself triggered a chain of events in Pakistan, starting with the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo’s government in May 1988 and then the death of Ziaulhaq in an air accident in August 1988 along with top military commanders and US Ambassador Arnold Lewis Raphel.
Civil war to capture Kabul
Soon after Soviet forces completed withdrawal on Feb. 15, 1989, the civil war between the Kabul government led by communists and Mujahideen consumed the country till 1992. The blood continued to spill even between the Mujahideen factions, even after they took over Kabul by overthrowing the communist regime.
An agreement signed between various factions in the holy city of Makkah inside Masjid al-Haram over a pre-dawn banquet in the holy month of Ramadan corresponding to March 1993 could not even stop the bloodshed. To make it more sacrosanct, the text of the agreement was hung on the wall of the Kaaba. Burhanuddin Rabbani was supposed to retain his post as president for 18 months and his archrival Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was appointed prime minister.
″This accord has been signed in the holiest of Muslim cities, and no one can dare break it. If anyone does, he will be answerable to God,” said then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who endorsed it on behalf of his country.
But according to the Afghanistan justice report, the rockets continued to target the city of Kabul, killing 25,000 people in the first six months of 1994. This infighting ultimately led to the emergence of the Taliban movement in August 1994, which was then ousted by the US-led military campaign in 2001.
Doha agreement and Bill Richardson
Ironically, when 19 years later the US signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha on Feb. 29, 2020, history was again repeating itself.
Way back on April 17, 1998, US envoy to the UN Bill Richardson had negotiated a similar agreement with the Taliban. According to Roy Gutman’s book, How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, the Taliban had agreed on a cease-fire and to join talks with the rival United Front or Northern Alliance.
Under the agreement, reached in the presence of Richardson and Pakistan’s ambassador Aziz Ahmed Khan, the Taliban had also agreed to allow higher education for women — without co-education — and permit health workers and doctors to treat women. They had also promised to prohibit all opium cultivation in Afghanistan.
The agreement was revived in Doha in 2020, but not before the killing of estimated 157,000 people, which included 43,000 civilians. The conflict consumed more than 2,300 US military personnel, while more than 20,000 were wounded in action. The Pentagon says it has spent nearly $825 billion on operations in the country.
The events unfolding in Afghanistan have a knack of repeating themselves ever since the Anglo-Afghan war. When the British launched a military campaign to take over Kabul in 1839, it was aimed to remove hostile Dost Mohammad and anoint their ally Shah Shuja as the king.
But soon Afghans retaliated and killed most of the British soldiers. According to Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple, the retreat from Kabul was the worst military catastrophe ever suffered by the British.
The retribution was sent, who completely wiped out the city of Kabul and everything else they came across. “They raped women. They killed children. It was a hideous example of evil breeding evil, and not surprisingly some of the British officers welcomed back in India as victorious heroes were so sickened by shame that they found it hard to respond appropriately,” writes Dalrymple in his book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan.
After all that plunder, the British were forced to return to Dost Mohammad pleading him to take over reins of Kabul in 1842 as Shah Shuja had been murdered. After long negotiations, he returned as the king, but not before the British invasion had left 20,000 of its soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians dead in three years.
Parallels with British occupation
The parallels between the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan, the retreat of Soviet forces, and the post 9/11 occupation by the US and now its withdrawal, are so insistent that they begin to sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.
Interestingly, British ally Shah Shuja and the US ally Hamid Karzai, who was appointed president of Afghanistan soon after the US military campaign in 2001 shared the same Pashtun tribal heritage. The ironic similarities do not end here as Dost Mohammad and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban movement also shared the same Ghilzai tribe. The tribe today makes up the bulk of the Taliban’s foot soldiers.
The bigger question looming now is who will take over the reins of Kabul after the US withdrawal? Will the country descend into chaos or the king will return again after the hard lessons learned? The question awaits answer in the country fraught with unpredictability, which has become the sick heart of Asia.
A century ago, noted poet and philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal in his famous Persian poem wrote:
Asia is a body of water and clay,
Of which the Afghan nation forms the heart.
The whole of Asia is corrupt,
If the heart is corrupt,
Its decline is the decline of Asia;
Its rise is the rise of Asia,
The body is free only as long as the heart is free,
The heart dies with hatred but lives with faith.
Therefore, only bold, tangible, and prudently shaped actions by empowering citizens across the tribal affiliations and taking on board, the security of the country, and the genuine interests of its neighbors can bring this heart back to a healthy state. A stable and secure Afghanistan is also a precursor to the rise of Asia.