The Ghosts of Afghanistan

By October 12, 2001 No Comments

As the Americans and their Allies focus on Afghanistan, a series of editorials have warned of the dangers of venturing into the area. The Afghans are said to be stubborn guerrillas and deadly in their native haunts… Except that this really isn’t entirely true.

Many commentators remember the heroic resistance by the Afghans to the Soviet occupation of 1979-1989, but forget that that was in the context of a complex wider civil war that began in 1977 (and had actually started sputtering into life a few years before that). The Soviets lost about 15,000 men during the decade they were there and experienced several debacles at the hands of Afghan guerrillas. However, the Afghans lost 1.5 million dead during the same period — it was a vicious civil war and the Soviets were ruthless. While Western audiences rejoiced at the seeming hardihood and prowess of Afghan guerrillas, they did die in droves when fighting against Soviet conscripts and second-line troops. Moreover, during the 1980s, the best Soviet troops were all to be found in Central Europe poised against NATO.

While Afghanistan was not the graveyard of the Soviet Army, it was a black hole for Moscow’s finances when the USSR was teetering on the edge of complete economic and political collapse. Considering that the Soviets had lost more troops quelling Post-War Ukrainian and Baltic nationalist guerrillas then they did in Afghanistan, the Afghans didn’t represent much of a drain on their military resources. In short, political and economic implosion in Moscow, and not guerrillas, dragged the Soviet military out of Afghanistan – although many observers were not willing to concede this point at the time.

It is interesting to note that the Soviet withdrawal was largely unmolested, and many Soviet conscripts in the final years of their occupation have told stories of deliberately letting the guerrillas go by them to attack Afghan government troops. The Taliban (and Osama bin Laden) were not present at this time, but the latter was engaged in some heroic posturing in southern Afghanistan while the Soviets were departing the northern half of the country.

Other commentators remember the British Army that marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and that only one man staggered out in 1842. However, the Army of 4,500 troops (mostly Indian sepoys) and 12,000 attendant camp followers stunned the Afghans when it roared into Kabul in August 1839. It was an efficient army by the standards of the time, but had the misfortune to have Major General William Elphinstone appointed as its new commander in 1841. Elphinstone is stripped bare in Norman Dixon’s classic study “The Psychology of Military Incompetence” as an example of irresolution and stupidity.

After encouraging the Afghans into rebellion with his displays of irresolution and uncertainty, Elphinstone attempted to march out of Kabul in mid-winter. However, his characteristic dithering and sketchy logistic preparations added new burdens to his troops and most of them quickly died from exposure while Afghan snipers picked off the rest. After this debacle, the British sent another Army into the country in 1842. It reached Kabul once more with great ease. The British sent expeditions into Afghanistan on a couple of other occasions and always secured their military objectives. While the Pathan rifleman on the hillside remained an opponent for British soldiers right up until World War II, he was invariably more of a pest than a menace.

Other conquerors have also found Afghanistan an easy country to invade. Alexander the Great romped through it, so did a variety of Persians, Huns, Indians, Arabs, Chinese and Mongols. Indeed, Afghanistan’s history is one of conquest, and many of its people are the descendants of those who fled conquerors into the high hills. In one example, the high mountains in the eastern “tail” of the country shelter a population of Dravidian Animists who have been hiding out since Aryan charioteers bounced into the Indus Valley sometime around 1400 BC.

In short, Afghanistan is easy to occupy but staying there is another matter. As a high cold desert, interspersed with jagged mountains, there is little to entice outsiders into staying. The Soviets realized no great material advantages for occupying it, nor did the British – who thought the financial cost of garrisoning the place to be prohibitive. As for the Afghans, like many other hill-peoples elsewhere in history (such as the Scottish Highlanders, Appalachian Hillbillies or the mountaineers of the Caucasus), their relative isolation and bitter poverty has left them with a fierce pride and stubbornness – they really have nothing else.

After the Soviet departure, the Civil War continued until the early 1990s; with the defeat of the Kabul regime a new one sprang up between the different peoples and factions of the country. Since 1977, Afghanistan had been so fought over that almost nothing remained… and so came the next set of conquerors. In 1997 the Taliban took Kabul and the remaining cities of the country, imposing their fanatically austere version of Islam on the surviving population.

While the Taliban contains many Afghans (mostly Pathans), much of its strength is drawn from northwest Pakistan. The Taliban has also been able to draw volunteers from elsewhere in the Muslim world, and commands financial support unavailable to other forces in the country. Yet a coalition of the survivors of the Civil Wars and Soviet occupation (the Northern Alliance) continues to oppose them – albeit with an army of old men and young boys. Elsewhere, the Taliban is resented as an alien party.

If the US and its partners do enter Afghanistan – and act with restraint — many Afghans might welcome them, but the Taliban might not be much of an enemy to reckon with. As for the famed Afghan guerrilla… much of the fame is unwarranted, most of the guerrillas of recent wars are dead, and the few survivors might welcome the US with open arms rather than open hostility.