Although the country needs international assistance to rebuild as a state, attempts must be underway to restore its lost independence and neutrality.
Afghanistan is largely known by the attributes like absence of central authority, fragile economy, difficult terrain, and weak and failed state.
Notwithstanding these facts, geostrategic location of the country has attracted many a states to meddle in its internal affairs to foster their geostrategic interests by exploiting its weaknesses.
Amidst its weaknesses, one fact of pride for Afghans is continuous striving for independence and neutrality.
Since the era of struggle and containment between Russian and British Empires for supremacy in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean and for Eurasian dominance and resources – which is also known as the Great Game – the equilibrium of power between contending actors and unremitting attempts by Afghan rulers to maintain state’s neutrality ensured independence of Afghanistan.
On two occasions – first, after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 and, second, the American-led Afghan war in 2001 – Afghan neutrality and independence has been blatantly breached, resulting in fundamentalism and radicalism and thus, sabotaged the international peace.
Although the actors have changed and certain features transposed, the Great Game continues unabated in Afghanistan, which is considered the gateway to fulfill the aforesaid strategic ambitions.
Afghan rulers tried to secure the state’s independence through a number of policy measures. The first policy measure was not to introduce modernization in the country so as to leave Afghanistan impassable and with less economic incentives for the external powers.
For example, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Afghan ruler, Abdur Rahman believed that the very backwardness was vital to continued Afghan internal self-determination. He believed that so long as the country remained poor and inaccessible, it would be unattractive to those with imperial designs. Therefore, he was firmly opposed to railroad construction in the country, courtesy the believe that once a railroad was built, the foreign troops could be called in at anytime to protect foreign investments and Afghanistan’s primitive military forces would be helpless to stop them.[i]
The second way was to maintain complete neutrality in its external relationship with the great powers.
For instance, at the beginning of twentieth century, there was considerable pressure on Rahman’s son Habibullah to join Central Powers in their war with Britain and Russia. He, instead, chose to maintain neutrality throughout the war, as he was well aware of the geographic distance between Afghanistan and the Central Powers whereas the immediacy of Afghanistan’s borders with British colony and Russia.[ii]
The third was playing one power against another in other areas of conflict so as to carefully avoid the military move of the great powers directly into Afghan territory.
For instance, the ruler Amanullah indulged in international intrigue pitting one power against the other so as to secure Afghanistan’s independence and neutrality.
Amanullah lent support not only to the pan-Islamic groups in Soviet Central Asia aimed at weakening Soviet abilities, but he was also silent on British activities in stirring up pan-Islamism. At the same time, he did not object to passage of men and arms from the Soviet Union through Afghanistan on their way to stir up trouble in North West Frontier Province of British India, though he insisted that the two proceeded separately, the arms to be under strict Afghan control during passage.[iii]
The fourth was supporting a power which had the clear chance of winning the game.
For instance, following Habibullah’s assassination, when his son Amanullah came to power, he declared war against the British. It is believed that Amanullah might have been confident at the least of Soviet financial backing, although there is no available record of any Soviet military commitment to Afghanistan in 1919.
During the time, the British were providing an annual subsidy of more than one million rupees for the Afghan economy. But Amanullah cut himself off from this support[iv] with the opening hostilities against the British. This is an indication of the Afghan obsession with independence which was prioritized over any material gains.
The fifth one is jihad i.e. mustering religious strength cutting across ethnic groups to prevent the sway of the external powers into Afghanistan.
The adoption of these aforesaid strategies varied from rulers to rulers and from time to time. During Amanullah’s regime, Afghanistan was actively helping the ruler of Bukhara and the Khan of Khiva to defend them against the Red Army and to suppress indigenous revolutionaries. What Afghans had in mind was the formation of a Central Asian confederation, with Kabul as the dominant power. It was believed that such a confederation not only would provide an excellent buffer against Russian encroachments from the north, but also would further Afghanistan’s own pan-Islamic aspirations.
Amanullah opened diplomatic relations with Bukhara and Khiva in order to give them legal recognition as sovereign states. He also wanted to include Turkestan in his projected confederation. To achieve that objective the Afghans provided direct support and discreet aid to the Basmachi, a pan-Islamic movement, in order to resist the Soviet control in the Central Asian region.[v]
Similarly, despite the British imperial power’s invasion of Afghanistan twice in the nineteenth century in an attempt to forestall perceived Russian threat to occupy the geostrategically important country, the British Empire failed to extend its sway into Afghanistan due to the impassable terrain, religious unity and aversion of the Afghans towards foreign occupation that.[vi]
The last method of attaining independence and neutrality has been adoption of clear policies of neutrality at the international level.
Afghanistan continued to adopt different strategies to maintain its neutrality in the midst of all pulls and pressures from the major powers, even when strategic ambitions of dominating Asia drove both Soviet and American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War.
Afghanistan not only maintained strict neutrality during the two World Wars, it joined Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) during the Cold War. The policy of Neutrality and Mutual Non-aggression signed in June 24, 1931 with the Soviet Union was further extended in December 1955.
Daoud Khan – who was the Prime Minister of Afghanistan (1953-63) during King Zahir Khan’s rule and became the President of the country in 1973 with the help of Afghan communists and adopted a pro-Soviet policy line – played a vital role in balancing American power and neutralizing American influence on King Zahir during much of the Cold War.
But when Daoud Khan realized that the Soviet influence was becoming a threat to Afghan independence during the last years of his rule, he diversified aid from different countries and asked the Soviet personnel to leave the country and jailed many members of Afghan communist party.
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 cannot be compared with the instances of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which were part of the Soviet Socialist system. Afghanistan was neither a member of Warsaw pact nor of Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon).
Thus, there was no legal and moral commitment from the Soviet Union to defend socialism in Afghanistan. Hence, intervention to protect communist government in Afghanistan seems to be unwarranted.[vii] Starting from this blatant violation of Afghan independence and neutrality, radicalism has been on ascendancy with assistance of different stakeholders in Afghanistan like the US.
The eventual circumstances gave way to the US-led Afghan war in 2001. In view of the evolving circumstances in Afghanistan, it can be asserted that although the country needs international assistance to rebuild as a state, attempts must be underway to restore its lost independence and neutrality.
[i] For details see Kakar, M. H. “Afghanistan: A Study in International Political Development, 1880-1896”, Kabul, 1971, pp. 83-159.
[ii] Stewart, R. T. Fire in Afghanistan Faith, Hope and the British Empire, Double Day Publication, New York, 1973, pp. 15-21.
[iii] Arnold, A. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in perspective, Hoover Press Publication, Leland Stanford Junior University, 1985, p. 16.
[iv] Jacobson, J. When the Soviet Union entered World Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994, p. 72.
[v] McCauley, M. Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Modern History, Pearson Education Limited, London, 2002, p. 38.
[vi] Partem, M. G.. “The Buffer System in International Relations”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 27, No. 1, Mar 1983, p. 12.
[vii] Arnold, A. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in perspective, p. 134.
Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India.