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Foreign Armies in Afghanistan Sucked Into Regional Conflicts

Tribal, and family loyalties are generally strong among Afghanistan’s estimated over 31 million people. There are approximately 20 ethnic groups with a rich mix of languages, fashions, and social institutions. Many of the tribes stretch into neighbouring countries of Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group, and remain the most influential. The Pashtun were the ones to unify the country in the 18th century. The concentration of administration and state power in Pashtun hands to the exclusion of many other large or regional groups has not helped ease strong ethnic or tribal loyalties. Loyalties remain divided by regional ethnicity, while tribal independence and identity are forces that pull against central or federal control.

Cohesion is provided by religion, and two major languages shared by most. Military history, such as the repulsion of British and Soviet invasions have helped strengthen a sense of common identity by highlighting ‘others’ or ‘outsiders’ who sought conquest or control in Afghanistan.

In 1989, the 100,000 strong Soviet army retreated from decentralized and incensed Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had earlier invaded Afghanistan, fearing that a pro-communist government could lose power. Despite clearly expressed military advice and opinion against war, a small group of administrators in the Soviet government made the decision to mobilize, effectively fighting a civil war on behalf of the weak and nationally unpopular Afghan government.

Parallels can be drawn from the earlier Soviet experience to today’s war. Many Afghans felt their social traditions and their religion was threatened by the Soviet-aligned national government, and were even more agitated by Soviet military presence. Furthermore, Afghanistan has had a history of strongly violent resistance to foreign occupation. Afghan insurrection in the 1980s was led by the US-backed and funded religious Mujahideen, with bin Laden as one of its leaders. They employed fierce guerrilla tactics and increasingly forced the Soviet troops to fall back into urban fortresses where they were besieged behind heavily manned fortifications echoing today’s green zones.

Now it’s the turn of NATO countries. The US, Canada, Britain, and other allies don’t have anywhere near the size of previous occupation armies. It can be argued that the US and NATO do not seek a military solution, because certainly they do not have enough ground troops for total security control though a larger army may only fuel the fire of insurgency. But, the core question should be, what is the actual goal of western countries in Afghanistan? Is it to see the emergence of a sovereign, national, and democratic government? Why support warlords who have an established history of theft, murder, and an interest in maintaining or expanding their personal quasi-feudal powers? These men have taken over most of government. Furthermore, stability and responsible government require economic security: but investments by the West have stalled, many of the promises unfulfilled, and much of the money given over to warlords who have used these funds to their personal benefit.

Meanwhile, a mainly Pashtun, and traditionalist, and religious insurgency has grown bold and increasingly powerful. It, like the Mujahideen of the past, uses guerrilla tactics, forcing foreign troops traveling between urban centres in the south of the country to expect a high frequency of attacks. The national government is growing increasingly unpopular, and cannot project its will far outside the capital city. The president is at pains to claim that he represents public will, and he is frightened enough to use only foreign body guards lest local ones murder him. Are NATO armies fighting a civil war on behalf of an unpopular government as well as northern tribal commanders versus a Pashtun, nationalist, and religious insurgency?

It’s certainly important to understand more about the earlier Soviet intervention in order to better understand the current situation.

You can read more at the following:

>> Milton Beaden: Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires
>> Astri Suhrke: The Limits of Statebuilding: The Role of International Assistance in Afghanistan
>> The National Security Archive’s Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War
>> De-classified CIA document from 1978: Afghanistan: Ethnic Diversity and Dissidence
>> CIA: The Word Factbook on Afghanistan
>> Afghanistan Squeezed, From Bad to Bad: US and Allies’ Support of and Opposition to War Criminals

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  1. April 19, 2007 at 7:11 am

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