Folks, ya’ll in for a tough read over here. It might get a bit windy and confusing but bear with me.
Afghanistan, the Crossroad of Asia, the Graveyard of Empires, land of the Afghanis (which raises the question “Who are the Afghanis?” but honestly, that’s a whole different story right there). There is just so much to say about this wonderful land, one which witnessed the birth and death of empires, epic clashes that lit the red pages of history, and a population that has undergone strife, oppression, despotism, and tyranny.
Here I tell one side of the story of Afghanistan: How it became the battleground for the jihadist movement which started as a freedom struggle against a foreign oppressor, making way to a smorgasbord of global terrorist movements that shook and took thousands of innocent lives.
It is safe to say that the jihadist movement has been one of the most oversimplified yet immensely complicated and misunderstood topics in the world. The roots of the same can be first traced back centuries, as the Quran itself talks about “striving in the path of God” (“al-jihad fi sabil Allah”). A rather important notion to understand is that the term did not always have the aggressive, combative meaning it encompasses today. The Soviet-Afghan war is a textbook example of how the ideology of jihad played out in the geopolitical spectrum.
I know this is a huge crime, but I shall be telling the story from the Saur Revolution in 1978 which established the Communist regime in Kabul. For context though, previously the government of Afghanistan was headed by a monarch, who did not pander to the country’s Islamic conservationists. In fact, his policies were highly anti-Islamic for the time, having promoted women’s education, secularism, and a small lean towards the west. Replacing this were the Soviet-backed communists, who wrung power from a strong monarch, wanting to establish Afghanistan as a pioneering communist republic with a highly Islamic population.
Oh, bwoi and how did that go wrong.
Suddenly, these Islamic conservationists were neck-deep in land and social reforms, taxes, all with their traditional rural power structure being toppled with an alien ideology which was, to them, at best inconceivable and at worst scandalous. Any sort of dissent was met with imprisonment and execution.
These invasive top-down policies led to riots in March 1979, and the Afghan government reacted with brutal crackdown. At this point, we need to understand that the leadership of the communists was not consolidated in a single hand, not even on the same side of the coin. One of the leaders wanted to give a chance to the Islamists, and improve US-Afghan relations, while the others wanted to seek help from the Soviets to quell the protesters. So, after an assassinated President, lots of skirmishes, and a power squabble within a weakened Afghan government, you could say that the Soviets decided to pull a Thanos. Hence started the infamous Soviet land and air invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, to bring its neighbors into proper “communism”, fearing that the Islamic trend would spread to its Muslim populations as well.
The Soviets won every battle but lost the war. And the US had everything to do with it.
They ousted the President and replaced him with a Soviet puppet, Babrak Karmal and completely took over the government. This invasion opened a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan and quite arguably, changed the world.
“Jihad and rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues”
– Abdullah Azzam, the Father of Global Jihad
This aggression by the USSR initiated a call for jihad and paroxysm for pro-Islamic emotions in the Hindu-Kush mountain ranges. In the eyes of the traditionalists, their values and traditions, their way of life and their religion, was under threat from a foreign orthodox/atheistic invader who wanted to impose their ungodly ideologies upon a god-fearing populace. This call for jihad resonated across the middle east.
One of the earliest to join this movement was Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a renowned scholar of Islam. He gave Quranic interpretations of the Soviet-Afghan war, appealed to all Muslims to “establish a solid foundation as a base for Islam” in Afghanistan by ousting the Soviets out of Muslim land, asking committed Muslims to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to become the mujahideen.
Azzam’s words were endorsed by leading clerics and Afghan warlords, which gave him the extra boost needed to reach the masses. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Hamas in Palestine all endorsed Azzam’s views, and as a result, many fighters from Pakistan, India, and the middle east traveled to Peshawar (north-western Pakistan), where the mujahideen, had set up camp. After training and due planning, they sent teams to Afghanistan through the Hindu-Kush to fight the Soviets. Among these fighters was one name that resonated for two decades:
Osama Bin Laden.
But who funded them?
I mean, who else?
The US had been getting worried about all the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. They felt that allowing the Soviets to get Afghanistan would make them a step closer to having more power in the Persian Gulf and the long-standing Soviet dream of an open port in the Indian Ocean and the Americans were worried that they would lose Afghanistan to the Soviets forever.
Hence, the US also started funding the jihad which was perceived as a freedom struggle. The USA, combined with the Saudis, sent vast sums of money to train and equip the mujahideen in Pakistan (who was absolutely delighted to see some pan-Islamic cooperation), under the ISI. This move propelled the mujahideen, which received close to 40 billion US dollars worth of equipment and training.
The Soviets had a hard time fighting the mujahideen, primarily because of their guerilla tactics devised by the mujahideen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. The success of the Soviet search and destroy missions were dwarfed by the sheer fact that the death of one mujahideen would help in the recruitment of five more. For them, this was a Holy War, a freedom struggle, to save what their forefathers had been safeguarding for centuries. The word “terrorism” can hardly explain these motives. At least until the point where things took a nasty turn.
pan-Islamic cooperation), under the ISI. This move propelled the mujahideen, which received close to 40 billion US dollars worth of equipment and training.
By the end of a gruesome 10 years, the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 with a new Soviet-backed leader, Mohammad Najibullah as President. The Soviets had spent billions fighting a lost war, facing international criticism with grave repercussions. The Soviets under Gorbachev continued their support to the Afghan government in fighting the mujahideen until the Union itself unraveled in 1991.
The fight went on until 1994, with multiple squabbles with the warlords, having no actual government function. And now it gets more exciting. Here comes a new player, a player who drastically changes everything in a whip: the Taliban, backed by the Pakistani ISI, with the ideology establishing a full Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan under Sharia law. This mold of Islam comes under the umbrella of Salafism, a rather radical and extremist interpretation of the monotheistic religion. Certain sources, including the Middle East Institute and many other renowned scholars, believe that the Taliban was created by Pakistan itself, with General Naseerullah Babar, the then-Home affairs minister of Pakistan, being called the “Godfather of the Taliban”
Long story short, by the end of 1996, the Taliban gained control over most of Afghanistan, and by 9th September 2001, assassinated Massoud, completely dismantling the mujahideen coalition. Two days later, the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked by Al-Qaeda.
Wait Pachu, what? You’re just throwing a lot of stuff at us right now! I thought the US, Pakistan and the Mujahideen were on the same side?!
Yea, I know. I’m sorry, but I have no other way to break it to you. Don’t worry, hold on. We’re gonna backtrack a few years and see what happened there.
“The war is between us and the Jews. Any country that steps into the same trench as the Jews have only itself to blame.”
-Osama Bin Laden, terrorist
Azzam’s call to “establish a solid foundation as a base for Islam” takes significance here. After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Azzam started growing a large network of financiers to sponsor future Holy Wars and free Islamic lands of foreign influence. As Azzam said, Islam needed a solid base, a foundation; hence, Al-Qaeda was born. After his death, the charge of the organization went to the rich Saudi born Osama Bin Laden. And he had no intention to keep the fight to just a godforsaken landlocked country. He aimed to bring the Muslims back to the Holy Land in Jerusalem, from where they had been ousted by the Jews. He needed to purge the rightful land of Islam of all western and foreign influences and decided to take the fight to the global stage.
What made matters worse was that Arabs who had come from some countries- Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria- could not go back fearing persecution and arrest. This splintered the Arabs in Afghanistan and many different groups originated within this period, Al-Qaeda only being just one of them (arguably the most successful one). This change was neither led by the Al-Qaeda, nor the natural outgrowth of Islamic militancy. The abundance of funds and arms, youthful frustration and inconsequential outside events also played a major role in this radicalization of Islam.
These were soldiers of fortune, yet they were not seeking money but martyrdom.
Different factions of Al-Qaeda have since branched off to different corners of the world, its most famous daughter being ISIS. Many would say that the formation of ISIS again was also propelled by the US during the invasion of Iraq.
Analyzing this situation, we can see the domino effect which started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and US funding of the mujahideen. Once again, the world’s superpowers helped create one of the biggest problems they’re fighting right now, killing thousands of people in the midst. However, it’d be a classic example of hindsight talking if the blame was to be put just on the two superpowers.
The issue, of course, is highly complex and multifaceted with many countries, ideologies, interest groups at play. The more history we learn, the more we can see that top-down changes, forced occupations and unsystematic changes to centuries-old structures never gets any entity too far. It always leaves a gap, one which would eventually be filled, giving birth to the exactly-the-same
One country deciding what’s best for another country who has completely different cultures, traditions and beliefs would be a precursor to anarchy; the same anarchy that the Afghan people faced in the decades ravaged in power-struggle.
The idea behind freedom should not be a poisonous one.
It should set birds free, not build another cage.