Afghans should not to be underestimated, says History Professor John
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj
by Frank Kuin
The United States may have underestimated Afghanistans proud history
of repelling foreign invaders when it started its bombing campaign against
the central Asian nation a month ago, says Professor John Hill of Concordias
By assuming that overwhelming military and technological power would crumble
the fundamentalist Taliban regime, the Americans appear to have miscalculated
the legendary resolve of the Afghans, tried and tested in the last two
centuries by such superpowers as the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
Moreover, the Anglo-American coalition seeking to eradicate the Taliban,
accused of harbouring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, has crucially
overlooked the need to have a credible alternative government ready to
take over, Hill said.
This failure to properly value credible allies within Afghanistan
made evident by the recent, apparently effortless assassination of anti-Taliban
war leader Abdul Haq by Taliban forces betrays a casual attitude
on the part of the U.S. that may result in the undoing of its military
The American air campaign has destroyed a lot of things, but it
has not demoralized the Taliban forces so much that they are splitting
apart and are joining other groups, said Hill, a specialist in South
Asian history who travelled through Afghanistan in the mid-1970s.
If anything, the short-term result has been to make people support
the Taliban to a greater extent than they did before. Part of the
Talibans appeal to many ordinary Afghans is that it brought stable
government to Afghanistan after years of civil war and unrest.
Hardened by foreign invasion
The Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, following several years of
disruptive government by feuding mujahideen factions. The mujahideen,
or holy warriors, had successfully resisted 10 years of occupation by
the Soviet Union, but they turned on each other after the Russians withdrew.
In 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded the country at its southern periphery
to support a Communist coup. Despite early successes, the Cold War superpower
was unable to conquer the rugged Afghan countryside due to guerrilla attacks
by mujahideen warriors with anti-aircraft artillery supplied by the United
States. More than 13,000 Soviet troops died in the conflict.
Long before the Soviet Union, the mighty British Empire also failed to
subjugate Afghanistan, located strate gically at the other end of the
Khyber Pass, across from (British) India. It tried three times: in 1839-43,
1878-79 and in 1919.
In all cases, the odds were stacked against the Afghans, Hill pointed
out. With the British in the 19th century, the Russians, and the
American and British forces now, the technology of destruction advantage
has always been with the foreign army coming in.
However, the Afghans had other advantages, which they still draw on today.
They have been hardened by centuries of foreign invasion. Most Afghan
men learn how to use and repair firearms from an early age. Also, they
are intimately familiar with the terrain, its caves and mountain passes.
Now, their history of defeating foreign powers is itself a psychological
gain for the Afghans, Hill said. It has given them a reputation
of being tough and not to be underestimated. These are terrifically
heady things, not only to say about yourself, but to have the world press
say about you.
Thus, while the U.S. has a technological advantage in terms of laser-guided
bombs, satellite imagery and so forth, its weakness is the lack of a sufficient
support base of allies within Afghanistan. Its main domestic ally, the
Northern Alliance, is not a generally acceptable alternative to many Afghans.
(It is unacceptable to Pakistan, the Americans most crucial ally
in the region.)
Historically, establishing a stable government in Afghanistan has been
difficult because of its mixture of ethnic groupings, Hill explained.
The problem in Afghanistan has always been the unlikelihood that
any single ruling dynasty or other ruling system can be maintained for
much longer than a generation.
An exception has been the Durani clan, which ruled Afghanistan for more
than 200 years until the Communist coup of 1978. Indeed, the U.S. wants
to re-install the second-to-last representative of that dynasty, former
king Mohammed Zahir Shah. He has lived in exile in Italy since being deposed
by his cousin in a 1973 palace coup. The cousin, Mohammed Daoud, died
in the Communist revolt.
But while Zahir Shahs long absence from Afghanistan may have mooted
any resentment toward him, Hill views his possible role as limited. The
best he can be is a kind of symbol of Afghan continuity, a bit of glue
that might help hold a coalition together.
Without a clear alternative government in the wings, the danger for the
U.S. is that verbal support from Muslim nations may soon run out, Hill
said. This, he estimated, could happen in a matter of weeks.
Meanwhile, the man who got the Americans involved in Afghanistan has been
Whether Osama bin Laden is in Afghanistan, or has been there since
Sept. 11, is, I think, a very arguable point, Hill said. Nothing
I hear or read makes me think that theres significant intelligence
about where he is and how he might be caught.