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November 8, 2001 History shows Afghans are formidable foes



John Hill

Afghans should not to be underestimated, says History Professor John Hill.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Frank Kuin

The United States may have underestimated Afghanistan’s 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 Concordia’s History Department.

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 campaign.

“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 Taliban’s 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 Shah’s 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 seemingly untraceable.

“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 there’s significant intelligence about where he is and how he might be caught.”