There seems to be no end in sight to the fighting in Afghanistan. After all, the Afghans have been battling foreign invaders – and each other — for three millennia and more.
An excellent guide to the history of that troubled region is Afghanistan by Stephen Tanner (Da Capo Press, 375 pp, $17.95). Originally published in 2002, the book has been brought up to date with this new edition, published earlier this year.
Tanner is a military historian and well-regarded writer. His Afghanistan is interesting, informative and should be read by anyone who wants to understand what’s going on in that remote land of rugged mountains and fiercely independent tribes.
Invaders from the time of Alexander the Great to the late Soviet Russia have tried to conquer Afghanistan. And failed. Invading armies may win battles, but the tribesmen just move into the mountains and ambush the invaders until they go away.
Alexander had the smarts to marry a local princess, declare victory and get the hell out of the area.
Genghis Khan and his Mongols swept through Afghanistan, leaving nothing but devastation. They slaughtered tens of thousands. They destroyed whole cities. And when they moved away the Afghan tribesmen came down from their refuges in the mountains and resumed their lives.
Tanner makes an interesting comparison between Afghanistan and Switzerland. Both nations are landlocked. Both are extremely mountainous. Both are inhabited by different groups of people, rather than a homogeneous population.
Europeans learned a few centuries ago that Switzerland isn’t worth the effort it would take to conquer it. Afghanistan is like Switzerland in many ways, except that it’s bigger, its mountains are higher and more rugged than the Alps, and it has never been a nation in any real sense. Afghanistan has always been a congregation of tribes who have just as often battled each other as foreign invaders.
For many centuries, Afghanistan was at the crossroads of major caravan routes across Asia. The area held strategic importance. As Europeans began to establish global empires based on sea power and international trade, however, Afghanistan became a backwater, and its strategic importance dwindled.
Except that it was a buffer area between the Russian tsars and the British Empire. For nearly two centuries the Russians and Brits played “the Great Game” against one another, with Afghanistan in the middle.
In the 19th century, Britain unwisely tried to occupy Afghanistan and was soundly whipped and driven out by a coalition of tribesmen and fanatical Muslim jihadists.
In the 1970s Soviet Russia invaded and set up a puppet government in Kabul. They too were driven out, but only after devastation unseen since Genghis Khan’s time and truly ghastly casualties among Afghan civilians.
By the turn of the 21st century, Afghanistan was in the grip of the Taliban, a strict fundamentalist Muslim sect. The area became a training ground for Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorists. The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were planned and led from Afghanistan.
The U.S. responded swiftly and the Taliban regime quickly collapsed. It turned out that many Afghans did not like the Taliban’s stifling religious fundamentalism.
But the U.S. made the same kind of mistake that so many others had made earlier in Afghanistan. We thought that we were dealing with a nation and all we had to do was set up a national government that would be beholden to us.
In fact, Afghanistan is still a collection of tribes whose allegiance is constantly shifting from one group or one warlord to another. But they unite when an outsider tries to occupy their bloody mountainous land — especially a non-Muslim outsider.
Once the Taliban collapsed, Hamid Karzai was named head of the new government of Afghanistan, but in Tanner’s aptly-turned phrase, “he was not so much a leader of Afghanistan as the Anglo-American backed mayor of Kabul.”
America’s overriding goal in Afghanistan was to destroy al Qaida. This we have been unable to do. We came. We saw. We thought we had conquered. But the Afghan tribesmen merely fled to their mountaintop strongholds once again and bided their time. We simply do not understand how to deal with these fiercely independent men, who see us invaders and infidels.
Take our attempts to bring liberal Western ideas about women to the Afghan people. Tanner writes:
“Any occupying power that makes one of its first priorities rounding up the daughters and sisters of a country to educate them in ways foreign to their indigenous culture should tread lightly….[I]n religious Afghanistan … while girls’ education remains a laudable goal, the effort should have an indigenous, not foreign stamp. In the end, battles for Afghanistan are not about politics or economics, but about culture, with the prioritization of women on the part of the foreign powers unhelpful.”
What can we do? We can fight the resurrected Taliban, of course, although that risks more and more casualties among innocent civilians — which simply antagonizes the Afghans further.
There is some movement among the tribes to unite, and perhaps even to work with Karzai’s government in Kabul. Even the Taliban seem to be unbending a little from their fanatical fundamentalist attitudes. This could be good. On the other hand, Muslim fighters from all across the Middle East are streaming into Afghanistan to carry on what they consider to be a holy war.
Their war against us is financed by selling their poppy crop to heroin manufacturers. Perhaps destroying the poppy fields would be more effective than killing guerrillas — and civilians.
One way or another, we must learn to deal with the Afghans in ways that will bring peace and an end to terrorism.
We could benefit from the lessons learned by Alexander the Great, British and Russian invaders. You will understand better what we’re up against by reading Stephen Tanner’s Afghanistan.
Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of more than 120 books, including The Return, his latest futuristic novel. Dr. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com.