The Travails of Afghanistan: A Contemporary History

Timothy Nunan's Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan is an insightful and lucid account of contemporary Afghanistan.

This is a magisterial undertaking that belongs to a new genre – a book on development, steeped in history, and embellished with insights on contemporary regional and global politics. It is easy to find excellent, first-hand battlefield accounts on Afghanistan and readable memoirs of journalists and diplomats who have lived there, but few great, scholarly accounts exist that can explain why the country should still be unravelling after decades of ‘humanitarian’ intervention. Timothy Nunan’s work is a compulsory reference point for any student of history or geo-strategy seeking knowledge about an important part of the world straddling Iran, Central Asia, Transoxiana, China and South Asia.

A scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Nunan deconstructs what he describes as Afghanistan’s ‘development moment’, combining academic rigour with felicitous prose. This original rendering provides a cogent narrative of how the Cold War progressively transformed the country into “a hothouse of modernisation,” and made it “a crucible” where development theology from the two sides of the Iron Curtain competed against each other.

Afghan elites inventively used the Cold War, contends Nunan, to finance “their own visions of renewal,” conscious of limitations on their ability to raise finances internally. At the high point of this process, Kabul was teeming with American and Soviet financial and trade advisers, and Afghanistan’s south with American hydrologists, its north with Soviet petroleum engineers, and its east with German foresters. There were teams of activists seeking “to ‘rescue’ Afghan women from barbarism;” he writes, “of agronomists who wanted to make cedar forests bloom; of economists and statisticians who wanted to make the state as legible as a spreadsheet.” This did not happen. Instead, political cataclysms spun Afghans into a relentless forty-year vortex of violence. A comparable experiment tried in the post-Taliban years has similarly begun to founder.

Nunan writes with passion and lucidity about the men and women, both Afghan and foreign, who worked with dedication – unmindful of the frailty of their efforts and, perhaps even the futility of their sacrifice – and ignoring the harshness of partisan interests that subverted their social vocation. In the process, the country became an arena of economic experimentation and social engineering, where aid agencies and their workers contested against each other to reshape Afghanistan in their own national image, seeking to prove the success of their respective models of development. At the core of it lay, in Nunan’s words, “two new projects of world making,” between which the Afghans were trapped. This competition eventually turned into a conflict that was emblematic of the Cold War divide, embroiling Afghanistan in incessant wars until this day.

The insightful account of contemporary Afghanistan is enriched by Nunan’s staggering appetite for digging and detail. He has stitched into his narrative nuggets of information sifted from archival records in Afghanistan, Germany, Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, Tajikistan and the US, as also the dairies, meeting notes, private papers, and manuscripts of public servants, advisors, consultants, contractors and NGOs, and interviews with many of them.

The English, with their imperial calculus, had hived off Afghan territories between Attock and the Indus, enclosing the Afghans beyond the Durand Line in a cartography designed to enforce internal emasculation and external control. Foreclosed as a buffer between the expanding British and Czarist empires, Afghans were contained within a sanitised zone, within which they were forced to live on the margins of survival, lest they became too strong to trouble their imperial neighbours.

As the inheritors of British India’s western borders, Pakistan’s elite atavistically applied the colonial policy – in preference to a fraternal embrace of peoples with whom they shared the closest imaginable ethnic, religious, and cultural ties (former Afghan President Hamid Karzai described the two nations as “conjoined twins”).

Post 1947, with the British gone, Afghanistan rejected Pakistan’s borders claims. In return, Pakistan “turned an iron cage into a house of sand,” writes Nunan, constraining Afghans even more than the British ever did, punishing them with blockades for aspiring to unite with their brethren and dreaming about Pashtunistan. This cut off Afghanistan’s traditional connectivity with the Indian subcontinent, disrupting its vital role as the crossroads between Iran, Central Asia, and India, without which it cannot sustain itself economically.

Instead of intimidating Afghans into submission, Pakistan’s hostile actions had the opposite effect. A 1955 Afghan Loya Jirgah declared that “it does not in any way regard the areas of Pashtunistan as part of the territory of Pakistan, unless and until the people of Pashtunistan desire it and consent thereto.”

Timothy Nunan <em>Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan</em> Cambridge University Press, 2016

Timothy Nunan
Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan
Cambridge University Press, 2016

Meanwhile, the differentiated treatment of Pakistan and Afghanistan by the US in the 1950s, prompted by British advice, set the pattern for regional security practices for the next half century and more. It resulted in one country being invited into military alliances targeted against the Soviet Union, eventually being designated a major non-NATO ally and provided modern weaponry, while the other was denied these. The practice that started with John Foster Dulles, got entrenched. “No one has occupied the White House,” claimed the then US President Richard Nixon in 1970, “who is friendlier to Pakistan than me.” That was about the time US funding for Afghanistan began to slow. When its request for US weapons was rebuffed, it was forced to turn to the Soviet Union for military training and supplies, which created the cadres for Kabul’s successive communist governments.

Afghanistan threatened Pakistan, suggests Nunan, by its quest for Pashtunistan, and the challenge it posed to the Durand Line. India, meanwhile, “invaded” East Pakistan, he writes, forcing the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers “in the largest capitulation since World War II.” Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto believed Pakistan faced an overwhelming threat from India and Afghanistan, both supported by the Soviet Union. “After the 1971 War cleaved Pakistan in two,” continues Nunan, Islamabad saw a compliant regime in Kabul “as a core national security interest,” – its strategic objective was, therefore, “to demobilise the Afghan state as a vehicle for Pashtun self-determination.” He elaborates Islamabad’s logic in the following words:

“Just as Punjabi generals had successfully orchestrated a junior role for high caste Pashtuns in their domination of the Pakistani state, now too, Afghan Ghilzai Pashtuns would take on a secondary junior role in an inverted Durrani Empire: ruled from the Punjab, not Qandahar; by Punjabis and Ghilzai Islamists, not Durrani nationalists.”

Pakistan’s leaders convinced themselves that Afghanistan’s threat could be disabled only by extinguishing its sovereignty.

That moment finally came with the installation of Emir-ul Momineen, Mullah Omar, in Kandahar. The US deputy chief of mission in Islamabad cabled the assistant secretary of state, Robin Raphel, that a Taliban government in Kabul “would be as good as it can get in Afghanistan.” Jalaluddin Haqqani, a particular favourite of the Pakistan Army, also cited by Nunan, elaborated further: “On Pakistan’s eastern border is India – Pakistan’s perennial enemy. With the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Pakistan has an unbeatable two-thousand-three-hundred-kilometre strategic depth.”

Pakistani leaders have long insinuated that the irredentist Afghan claim negating the Durand Line is what creates the animus between their two countries. Nunan quotes from the P.N. Haksar papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library that India’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, D.P. Dhar, wrote to the foreign secretary, T.N. Kaul, suggesting that Kabul help the oppressed East Bengalis materially “by reviving their vocal interest in the Pakhtoon movement.” Nunan contends that Moscow later leaned on King Zahir Shah not to accede to his generals’ request to take Peshawar in 1971.

Afghan and Indian policy makers might have flirted with – but never put into practice – mutually supportive action against Pakistan. Pakistan’s political elite exaggerates this threat out of all proportion, to justify its implacable hostility towards Afghanistan, with which it has been engaged in an undeclared conflict since 1947.  That is why it is safe to surmise that Afghanistan’s acceptance of the Durand Line cannot guarantee good relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rather, the Durand Line can only be accepted by Afghans as a function of improved Afghan-Pakistan relations, not the other way around.

After beginning with the Cold War competition between two distinct ‘humanitarian’ projects, Nunan’s account covers the uncamouflaged confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, when their war of manoeuvre in Afghanistan became an armed war conducted through proxies. Nunan is, curiously, circumspect about spelling this out upfront. He prefers, instead, to elliptically describe the battle being waged as a “clash of territorial empire with post-territorial ‘non-governmentality’,” placing the Soviet Union and the humanitarian NGOs, and not the two super powers, on the two sides of the divide.

In the non-kinetic phase of the contest, the competition was between the Cosmosol advisors helping the Soviet-backed PDPA regime and the Western humanitarian NGOs, led by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) and the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who provided, in Nunan’s words, the “little platoons of humanity.” The SCA and the MSF were the largest among the transnational NGOs to challenge Soviet socialism in Afghanistan. Many of their cadres were “disillusioned ex-communists,” he adds, for whom “the cult of the guerrilla gave way to the religion of humanity” shorn of the ‘humanitarian’ baggage, however, this soon turned into a clash between states, grounded in their conflicting objectives. The military contest pitted the Soviet Union frontally against the US and Pakistan, both allied with Islamist forces already at loggerheads with the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

The US-Pakistan enterprise was strongly supported by Saudi funds and Chinese weapons. The Mujahideen were mining and taxing the lapis lazuli mines in Sar-i-Sang to buy additional Chinese weapons through their Pakistani patrons. Besides helping the Mujahideen, China maintained its own links with revolutionaries in northern Afghanistan. Nunan quotes east German intelligence agencies reporting the presence of Chinese military trainers in Pakistani refugee camps, while China supplied Badakhshani Maoists weapons, “and – ironically – Chinese border guard uniforms to prepare for the announcement of an independent republic.”

The international NGO community sometimes wilfully, and mostly unwittingly, disregarded inconvenient political realities. Anders Fange of the SCA conceded upon reflection years later in an interview to Nunan that while vaguely aware of Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan “we were not as aware as we should have been that Pakistan really wanted to establish a friendly client.”

Juliette Fournot of the MSF, in contrast, had a sobering encounter with reality well before she left Afghanistan. When an MSF convoy in Badakhshan was ambushed and its workers kidnapped in 1986, Fournot found that the Hizb-e-Islami fighters intended to ransom the French workers for Soviet weapons. When she met Guldbuddin Hekmatyar in Peshawar through his wife to get him to intercede with his fighters, they were joined by a rich Saudi, recognised by her as Osama Bin Laden. Nunan’s account is that Fournot went complaining to the lead USAID officer in Islamabad, Larry Crandal, criticising the unconditional American funding of Hekmatyar as ‘demented’. “Crandal dismissed Fournot as naïve, telling her to stick with medicine,” writes Nunan.  “What began as a campaign against totalitarianism,” he adds, “enabled a quest to obliterate Afghan statehood.”

Afghanistan’s benefactors created not a blueprint of progress but an elaborate scheme for consulting and contracting that did not benefit Afghans as much as it should have, given the scale of the funding committed. Having failed in both combating terrorism and nation building, they have produced predictable excuses, often reminiscent of the prejudiced histories penned by the British after their bloody brush with the Afghans in the 19th century.

Following the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century, Afghans were portrayed as corrupt, cantankerous, recalcitrant, duplicitous and bloodthirsty, and not amenable to any discipline. A century or so later, Fred Halliday (of New Left Review fame, who wrote with passion against the idea of a clash of civilizations), is quoted by Nunan as having spoken of Afghanistan as “an unspeakable country filled with sheepshaggers and smugglers”. He also quotes the journalist Alexander Cockburn describing the Mujahideen as “primitive Moslem tribesmen who make Khomeini look like a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” There is, of course, no hint of Western condescension in Nunan’s rendering.

It is not just in damning Afghans that phantoms of the past cast their shadow on the present. There are other interesting parallels too between the post-Soviet and post-American interventions in Afghanistan. Nunan recalls Yuli Vorontsov, the former Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan, complaining that Soviet advisors “were everywhere, absolutely everywhere – it was the worst sort of colonial politics.” Exactly that happened when the US-led effort to stabilise the country peaked two decades later. A military surge was followed by a civilian surge, and then by a diplomatic one. Almost all the Afghan departments had multiple western advisors. The number of American and British foreign service officers located in Afghanistan by 2011 topped the total number of Indian foreign service officers then in harness globally!

Afghan women had their moments of equality, mostly before wars engulfed their country. Arab students attended the engineering and medical faculty of Kabul University, where Afghan women came to classes dressed in blouses and long skirts. But once Afghanistan lost its geopolitical relevance in the late 1980s, so in the 1990s, “the plight of the Afghan women aroused limited attention,” notes Nunan. In the 2000s again, US President George W. Bush and the First Lady, Laura Bush, espoused the liberation of Afghan women as a justification for the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan. These brave and hapless women might come to be sacrificed again by the votaries of an illusory peace based upon power sharing with the Taliban.

By 1986-87, the ground situation in Afghanistan had shifted fundamentally. The country had split into two, “the humanitarian landscape of frontiers and mountains, and the Soviet landscape of Kabul and the cities,” writes Nunan. He graphically describes how “a vertebrate of Soviet power” was “challenged by cells of ‘liberated areas’.” The situation is eerily similar now, with swathes of ungoverned territories in the hands of a resurgent Taliban, which receives continuing help from Pakistan.

As the Soviet project faced defeat, followed by the measured disintegration of Afghanistan, the Soviet correspondent, Igor Cherniak, argued that the time had come “when we had to let go.” The western media reacted exactly the same way when the US and International Security Assistance Force missions in Afghanistan began to stutter and stall – a moment foretold in US President Obama’s ‘exit strategy’, startlingly announced in the same breath as the decision to temporarily try to beat back the Taliban with a troops surge, about which Henry Kissinger famously quipped that it was all about exit, and had little to do with strategy.

Nunan writes with feeling about the exposed PDPA faithful, when dwindling Soviet support led to the unravelling of the PDPA regime. He quotes from the notes in the diary of an advisor of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Iuru Sal’nikov, about his Afghan partners – “men with slim chances not only of survival but also of an easy death.” The embattled Afghan security forces, facing the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Daesh with minimal support, and without enablers and any prospect of medical evacuation, face a similar predicament today.

Afghanistan’s recent history also exemplifies the ineffectiveness of the UN, especially when great powers are at odds with each other. The United Nations Good Offices Mission (UNGOMAP) in Afghanistan and Pakistan was established following the Geneva Accords of April 1988. Its three principal tasks were to certify Soviet withdrawal, monitor the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – to ensure that there was no supply of arms to the combatants, and to oversee the return of refugees. Except for the first, UNGOMAP failed to carry out its mandate, and faded away without ceremony, leaving Afghanistan in ruins.

The Soviet Union’s withdrawal in February 1989 opened the doors to frontal Mujahideen attacks on Jalalabad and Kandahar, aided by the Pakistan army. The ISI Chief, Hamid Gul, Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, and the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, met together before the attacks were launched – Bhutto and Oakley were either party to the decision or acquiesced in it. Although the initial attacks were repulsed, the PDPA regime fell after Soviet Union’s collapse in the end of 1991, when Afghans were deprived of food, fuel, and firepower. By the spring of the next year, writes Nunan, “Afghanistan was a wreck.”

Karzai had once mentioned to me in early November 2009 that he had asked the visiting Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, whether western countries were present in his country only to combat Al Qaeda, or whether they had an interest in the welfare of his countrymen. Bildt reassured Karzai that Europe was definitely there to help in rebuilding Afghanistan. Curious after this conversation, I queried several of my European homologues of the reason for their presence in the country. A few said they were there to atone for their opposition to, or half-hearted participation in, the invasion of Iraq. Many had a sense of obligation to the US, and some had genuine solidarity with Americans after 9/11. The majority, I felt, were there to show they mattered in global politics. Not to be present in the hottest global arena, fighting a ‘good’ war and contributing to a ‘just cause’ was not an option for most of them. The well-being of the Afghans might have been an important consideration too, but perhaps only as an after-thought.

Timothy Nunan. Credit: Twitter

Why has the US-led intervention faltered in Afghanistan? At one time, 150,000 well-armed foreign troops were deployed there, not just from NATO countries. The Congressional Research Service in 2015 put the direct cost of war to the US government alone at $686 billion. Other estimates put the figure closer to one trillion. In addition, US aid to Afghanistan was $108 billion, according to its special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction. This gigantic mission began to fail because its central purpose was never clearly defined, and because the war was fought inconsistently and in the wrong place. A former British Ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, who has authored an honest account of his days in Kabul, rued to his colleagues about the collective western predicament in Afghanistan: “We are all helpers in an imperial, American adventure gone astray.”

Since Nunan’s objective is to dissect the Cold War conflict through the ‘humanitarian’ interventions in Afghanistan, Afghan voices are muted in the narrative, compared to those of the foreign actors. Unlike other western historians, however, Nunan comprehensively projects the Soviet Union’s point of view through the eyes of its advisers in the field, beyond the internal policy debates in Moscow. He makes a determined effort to go beyond the dynamic of great power conflict in telling his story. He describes how the dreams the advisers had for Afghanistan would eventually “spawn nightmares,” and how, by the early 1990s, an alliance of the Mujahideen and humanitarian NGOs “usurped” power from the Afghan state and the United Nations. They were able to do so, I believe, because of their being assisted by significant powers.

The failure to read this reality leads to a misjudgement of Russia’s potential regional role in the last section of the book. In its concluding, section, titled Afghan Pasts, Afghan Futures, he contends that as the major states pursue their “brutal scramble” for influence, “the only power capable of playing spoiler remains none other than Russia.” He then goes on to say, in his final words, that the Russian dreams of development and power “form an indelible part of Afghanistan’s past, but they have become our shared future.” Such a role attributed to Russia is somewhat off track, for the end state in Afghanistan will be determined, besides its internal dynamics, mainly by the actions of the US and Pakistan. If Afghanistan remains in disarray, it will be because of continuing support, sustenance, and sanctuary to the terrorists from Pakistan and not because of a renascent Russia.

This book convincingly demonstrates that the successive international ‘humanitarian’ interventions in Afghanistan have so far contributed to creating misery for its people, deepening the cleavages in its polity, and destroying state structures instead of stabilising them. Howsoever fraught the immediate prospects for Afghans, their sense of pride and nationhood, and their instinct for survival in adversity, might nevertheless help them stand on their feet and take their own decisions, if their friends and neighbours give them the support and space to do so. The development ventures in Afghanistan have been stalled, not ended. They must resume in earnest, but this time with Afghan public institutions taking the lead, in a project of the longue durée.

Jayant Prasad is Director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. A retired Indian Foreign Service officer, he has served as Indian ambassador to Afghanistan.