As the US’ withdrawal is complete, stark similarities with the First Anglo-Afghan War continue to appear even as it ends.
There are distinct similarities between the First Anglo-Afghan War and the present conflict. Chiefly, there was the regime change operation to replace the Taliban with more pliant Pashtuns of the US’ choosing. So just as Shah Shuja Ul Mulk with British military forces replaced Dost Mohammed Khan on the throne of Kabul in 1839, Karzai flew into Afghanistan in 2001 replacing Mullah Omar who rode off on his motorbike into the sunset of Uruzgan, never to be seen again by his opponents. The First Anglo-Afghan War resulted in the return of Dost Mohammed Khan to power and utter defeat of British forces just as we have seen the utter defeat of NATO and return of Taliban.
The Puppet Rulers
Afghans have proven historically sensitive about leaders that have been imposed upon them by regime change orchestrated by foreign powers. During the Kabul student demonstrations of February and March 1980, the Soviet imposed leader, Babrak Karmal was denounced by the students as ‘Shah Shuja the Second’. It is said that Karzai was particularly sensitive to the Taliban who depicted him as Shah Shuja the Third, who, like Karzai, was also a Popalzai. No doubt Karzai had his eye on history and did not want to be dismissed as a mere puppet, aware of the ramifications this would have. Perhaps that partly explains why he decided to stay in Afghanistan rather than escape with ill-gotten gains like Ashraf Ghani.
Bin Laden’s Houdini like escape
In 2001 the US sent Afghan warlords to Tora Bora to capture Osama Bin Laden, but they were paid off by Al Qaeda and looked the other way as Bin Laden escaped into the arms of his hosts across the Durand Line in Pakistan. Similarly in 1839, the British forces along with Afghan allies under Haji Khan Kakar pursued Dost Mohamed Khan into Northern Afghanistan. When the pursuing British and Afghan forces were within an easy ride of capturing Dost Mohammed Khan, Haji Khan Kakar warned the British, that were they to proceed after Dost Mohammed, he would not then be able to prevent his men from attacking the British. The British officers, with little alternative, had to content themselves with Dost Muhammad making good his escape.
The Afghan Government
The USA, far from establishing a liberal human rights observing democracy in Afghanistan, established the 20th most corrupt regime on the planet and linked with this were gross abuses of human rights. At Dasht-e-Laili near in Northern Afghanistan during 2001, thousands of captured Taliban fighters were murdered by forces of Abdur Rashid Dostum and US special forces. It was darkly similar to the fall of Ghazni in 1839 to the British, where a general massacre by British forces ensued. The invaders also looted all the belongings of the people, including all their clothes.
During the course of the conflict many innocents were slaughtered during night raids. These murders added fuel to the fire of the Taliban insurgency. British special forces had been in a macabre competition amongst themselves to see who could kill the most Afghans during these night raids. One of the victims of the night raids was the uncle of Hamid Karzai. Night raids were also a feature of the First Anglo-Afghan War ending in slaughter and in one such raid in 1841 the British forces captured Akrum Khan of Helmand. Akrum Khan was taken to Kandahar and blown from a cannon by the British for his resistance against the occupation. That was not to be the end of the story for in May 1842 Akrum Khan’s widow wearing her white chador, seated upon her husband’s horse holding aloft her husband’s tribal flag led thousands of Afghan cavalrymen into battle against the British. Afghans have historically resisted those that oppressed them whether the oppressor was Mongol, Safavid, British or Russian or the so called ‘leader of the free world’ the USA.
Britain’s historic legacy of defeat in Helmand
The Afghans of Helmand knew all about their heroes such as Akrum Khan of the First Anglo-Afghan War and his brave wife. There were also other heroes who defied Britain in the Second Anglo-Afghan war like Abu Bakr. Helmand would therefore give the British a bloody nose forcing the occupiers in 2006 signed a peace deal with the Taliban to vacate Musa Qala under Taliban guarantees of safe conduct for departing British troops. By 2010 the British forces were no longer able to hold out against the Taliban and British officials were pleading with their US colleagues to relieve them. This led to the surge of US troops under Obama and the quiet withdrawal of the defeated British ‘lion’ mauled on the fields where their forebears too had struggled. Even the Afghan National Army officers despised the British. In Helmand a gate had been locked by the British between the Afghan army camp and British army camp. The incensed Afghan officers, fully aware of the British defeats during the Anglo-Afghan wars, berated their British counterparts for their previous record of failure in the province. It was such tensions that led to frequent killing of NATO troops by Afghan soldiers. Interestingly, such attacks from supposedly allied Afghan soldiers had menaced the British during their first adventure in Afghanistan in 1839-1842.
Detention Facilities and torture
The USA established secret detention facilities such as the ‘black’ salt pit prison at Kabul airport, a torture facility at Bagram and another at Kandahar. Other sites including the notorious Guantanamo Bay became operational as well as other hidden torture facilities, away from the prying eyes of the visitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross. These included a torture facility in Poland where detainees from the Afghan conflict for abuse. Even an unfortunate German Muslim citizen was captured by the Macedonian authorities in Macedonia and handed over to the USA who flew him to Bagram for torture. Therefore the shadow of the human rights abuses struck fear into Muslim communities around the globe since this was not the only case of Muslims being kidnapped from third countries to Afghanistan.
The oldest Guantanamo inmate aged 73 Saifullah Paracha is a Pakistani who was kidnapped from Thailand and had never set foot in Afghanistan. Another Pakistani in custody of the USA is Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a US citizen, kidnapped from Karachi with at least two of her children and held prisoner in Bagram. Dr Siddiqui was later alleged to have attempted to shoot US soldiers, though there was no forensic evidence linking her to the rifle she was alleged to have used to supposedly try and shoot the soldiers. Dr Aafia is presently serving a lengthy prison sentence in the USA for attempting to shoot US soldiers. The human rights of those in US hands were not safeguarded, as the US employed all sorts of torture including rape and waterboarding. At Bagram an Afghan Taxi driver named Delawar was beaten to death by US troops who sadistically enjoyed hearing his cries to Allah for assistance which prompted the US troops to beat him even more.
NATO funded Taliban
Rather perversely, during the course of the conflict, the US indirectly funded the Taliban. The US supply convoys delivering equipment to US bases around Afghanistan, would often pay protection money to the Taliban in order not to be attacked. During the First Anglo-Afghan War, the British paid the Ghilzai tribe to allow the British to safely pass through Ghilzai territory to South Asia. When these payments were stopped, the Ghilzai cut the British lines of communication, culminating in British defeat. Similarly Italian troops at Sarobi in 2009 paid the Taliban not to attack them.
All occupations end with a final act of violence. The US occupation was no different. On 16 August 2021, US troops killed three armed Taliban engaged in crowd control without any provocation on the part of the Taliban. The danger signs of a further massacre were therefore present from trigger-happy US forces. When IS exploded suicide bombs at Kabul airport on 26 August 2021, the US troops opened fire at the defenceless Afghan men, women and children who had been waiting to enter the airport. According to BBC reporting by Secunder Kermani, most of those killed were shot dead by US forces in cold blood in the frenzy following the initial explosion. The following day, ten members of an Afghan family were murdered in a US drone strike which the US claimed was a strike against an IS operative. The dead included six children aged from 2-12.
In 1842, the British left Kabul after conducting a massacre of the population and burning Kabul city to the ground in a final act of vengeance for its resounding defeat. All that was of economic value was destroyed, including fruit trees. As US forces finally left Kabul airport the Afghans arrived to find a scene of destruction, with vending machines broken and the drinks inside looted, the aeroplane arrival and departure computerised screens smashed, the immigration administrations booth broken smashed along with the computers.
Today if you Google “Kabul Massacre” you will come across the account of the defeat of General Elphinstone, but you will not see the 1842 massacre committed by British troops in Kabul and many other villages, towns and cities. The news of the US massacre committed at the Kabul airport is likewise obscured behind smoke and mirrors and the deaths largely attributed to the suicide bombers. No Western journalist seeks to establish who gave the order to US troops to fire upon the defenceless Afghans at the airport and what the US proposes to do to hold the criminals to account. The reality of news reporting from mainstream outlets is to tow the USA line on the massacre at the airport. The USA, whilst losing the war, succeeds in portraying its opponents as unscrupulous savages; exactly the image the British presented of Afghans after the First Anglo-Afghan War. The USA has further succeeded in glossing over its many atrocities in Afghanistan such as killing and torture of thousands of innocent Afghans. Yet despite these sordid atrocities the Western journalist feel no sense of embarrassment or self-introspection in asking ask Taliban judge whether the hands of the thief will be amputated, after NATO forces too had been reported to cut the fingers off the fingers of Afghans for fun, with little to no media scrutiny. There are strict sharia guidelines and conditions which need to be upheld before thieves are to have their hands amputated. Which guidelines did American forces follow?
Aside from the US military industrial complex, Afghan warlords like Dostum, Fahim, and Sayyaf as well as their associates such as Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Ahmed Wali Massoud amongst others benefitted immensely from US largesse. Another important group that gained were Afghan-Americans, in particular Karzai and Ghani, as well as their extended families. Likewise, a very small group of people in Afghanistan benefitted from the First Anglo-Afghan war. These were the Hindu money lenders, mainly of Shikarpuri Sindhi and Punjabi origin, who helped the British occupation remain solvent and transfer funds from Afghanistan across South Asia.
Refugees and human rights
While the USA and its allies continue to demand that Afghanistan provide safe routes for those wishing to leave Afghanistan, the USA has, with much irony not accepted all the Afghans they flew out of Kabul. Many languish in third countries such as Albania waiting for their cases to be processed. After the First Anglo-Afghan War as well, the ancestors of the author, who had supported the Shah Shuja regime, ended up abandoned by the British in the hostile Sikh controlled city of Lahore. After two long years living under Sikh rule, finally in 1844 did the British allow their former Afghan allies to come to British Indian controlled territory in Ludhiana.
Likewise, the teenage female Afghan National Robotics team was flown to asylum in Mexico, which US State Department reports have decried as a country with a high rate of femicide with 580 women killed in the first eight months of 2020.The niggardly nature of the US and its allies means that most of these Western countries do not, in fact, want to accept Muslim refugees. Presently in the UK there are 3,000 refused asylum seekers of Afghan origin, and Westminster shows no signs of reversing those refusals. Human rights have been and will continue to rank lowly on the list of Western priorities, despite the widespread assertion that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate will be held to human rights conditionality. In reality, the British government is so adverse to human rights promotion that it is seeking to pass legislation that will protect British troops from prosecution for their many war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In conclusion, it is likely that the USA will continue to try and destabilise Afghanistan through freezing Afghanistan’s national reserves of $9 billion and limiting aid other than through NGOs. In this, it is remarkably similar to British imperial attempts to isolate Afghanistan from the world of commerce and diplomacy.
It remains possible that the USA may seek to support armed elements opposed to the Taliban whether that be the likes of the discredited Amrullah Saleh or Ahmed Massoud. The possibilities of the Indian, Iranian and Tajikistan actively supporting such US adventures in Afghanistan are high since all three nations are due to meet in Dushanbe this month. India has long warred against conservative Afghan parties, Tajikistan sees itself as the protector of the Tajik minority in Afghanistan whilst Iran seems willing promote Dari-speaking groups in Afghanistan.