Originally posted December 2009

Over the last three decades, foreign interventions have played a critical role in transforming Afghan society and integrating it into global politics. Among the countries torn apart by invasions and civil wars, Afghanistan is the only one to be shaped by direct military occupation at the hands of both Cold War superpowers. For roughly 18 of the past 30 years, foreign armies and political elites have dominated Afghan politics. Only 12 years separated the departure of Soviet troops in 1989 and the arrival of the Americans and their allies in 2001. But even during this tumultuous period of civil war, regional powers, joined by a host of transnational entities, from al-Qa‘ida to energy corporations and aid agencies, mediated the contest for power within the borders of Afghanistan.

The period from 1979 to 2009 forms a unique period in which a succession of foreign actors set out to remake Afghans. They deployed different resources and ideologies and varying degrees of coercion in these projects. Yet these outsiders shared the assumption that their efforts would in fundamental ways liberate Afghans, freeing them from the fetters of the past — feudalism, poverty, and patriarchy — in short, everything these foreigners associated with “backwardness.” With the aid of the superpowers and, at key moments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Afghans would become “modern.”[1] These good intentions, the fruit of European Enlightenment thought, have fueled Central Asia’s Thirty Years’ War.

Such projects of transformation have failed not because Afghans are more xenophobic or belligerent than others, or because, as many critics of such policies now claim, the country is a timeless “graveyard of empires,” whose reason for existence since Alexander the Great has been to bring ruin to foreign armies. Nor can the failure of these interventions be explained solely because they came from abroad. In fact, Afghans have participated actively in each of these ventures and redirected them in ways their foreign masters could rarely control.

A closer look at the Soviet and American experiences points to some of the reasons why policies aimed at liberation have unleashed tragic and unforeseen consequences. Viewed from the perspective of Afghanistan, the differences between these projects narrow considerably.[2] Despite their adherence to competing ideologies, in Afghanistan both spoke the language of women’s rights, economic development, and democratization. While the specific circumstances that prompted Moscow and Washington to intervene were unique, at a basic level each acted in search of great power prestige. One attempted to demonstrate the ideological and strategic vitality of a sclerotic Soviet system, while the other tried to show that it could wield its might on a global scale to punish anyone who threatened American security and power. Once established in Afghanistan, however, both states pursued, albeit in inconsistent and contradictory ways, policies aimed at radically altering the Afghan social landscape, provoking opposition within the country and abroad.

Rather than seeing this opposition as an eternal feature of a society supposedly dominated by tribal warriors, it is important to recall the specific contexts in which resistance to these projects emerged. In 1978, not long after the Afghan Communists seized power in Kabul, the regime’s heavy-handed program for bringing revolution to the countryside provoked protests. These were followed by mutinies among the armed forces. The resistance swelled as the regime adopted repressive measures. The arrival of Soviet troops to bolster the embattled government prompted further mass uprisings and gave birth to numerous guerrilla “fronts.” In the wake of 2001’s “Operation Enduring Freedom,” a broadly based anti-government and anti-coalition movement took longer to appear. But already in 2003 armed fighters who had been marginalized by the new authorities and who were critical of the foreigners’ presence and the legitimacy of the government of Hamid Karzai were quite active in the east. By 2009, they moved throughout Afghanistan (and neighboring Pakistan) with de facto control of large swaths of the country.

Although these militants have been the subject of numerous studies that seek to understand their place in international networks, many other structural features common to these interventions influenced the decisions that young Afghan men made about their futures after 1979 and again after 2001. Soviet and American reliance on airpower, intended to offset manpower shortages and the logistical obstacles posed by the country’s rugged terrain, proved to be a clumsy counter-insurgency tool and drove legions of farmers, traders, and clerics into the opposition.[3] Soviet commanders tolerated greater loss of civilian lives than their American and NATO counterparts. But even the “surgical strikes” of the latter were politically disastrous in an era when many Afghans could learn about them almost instantly throughout the country by radio, television, and Internet. Moreover, the widespread government use of irregular Afghan militias, who pursued their own agendas against rival groups, alienated populations who fell victim to their abuses, pushing them into the ranks of the insurgents. House searches were yet another contentious issue. The mass arrests, secret prisons, and torture that Afghans endured under both foreign powers also undermined the legitimacy of these states and their Afghan allies. The Afghan Communists and Soviets engaged in such practices on a wider scale, but new media amplified American adoption of similar strategies before Afghan and international audiences. For many Afghans, the Pul-i Charki prison persisted as a symbol of tyranny under successive governments. Yet Guantanamo became a truly international icon of human rights abuses connected to the American war.

These military aspects of the US and Soviet interventions in turn colored other policies relating to the transformative projects introduced by these states. In both cases, military forces intervened on behalf of “progressive” Afghan actors. These elites proved, however, to be often unruly clients. The Afghan Communists who seized power in 1978 outstripped the radicalism of the Soviet leadership, who devoted much of its energy to tempering their allies’ brutality and redressing their “mistakes.” Similarly, Karzai increasingly sought to distance himself from the Americans, especially on the issue of civilian casualties.

Karzai’s electoral fraud in the summer 2009 presidential election encapsulates the dilemma created by a relationship built on military intervention and occupation: Though dependent upon outsiders for their survival, Afghan elites have frequently pursued their own interests and challenged the authority of their backers with the knowledge that they were indispensible to foreigners who sought indigenous cover to legitimate their policies. Like great powers in many parts of the globe, the Soviets and Americans found that exercising power through local elites bore significant risks. Crises of legitimacy bound the two parties together.

Between 1979 and 2009 neither of these interventions succeeded in creating an Afghan state that enjoyed broad legitimacy or that reached far beyond Kabul. Hesitant to commit extensive civilian or military resources, the great powers were also handicapped by their ignorance of Afghan society (even though the Soviets were ahead of the US in their linguistic expertise and intelligence) and by the pervasive corruption produced not only by the war economy of drugs and guns but by the Soviet supply system and the American cult of privatization.

Development agencies attempted to fill the gap, but these, too, were often ideological enterprises that insisted on countering local norms relating to age and gender hierarchies. After 2001, the creation of “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” (PRTs) militarized humanitarian operations.[4] Liberation has proved a perilous affair, particularly for Afghan civilians.

The Soviets and Americans shared an anti-colonial ideology for most of the 20th century. However, their actions in Afghanistan bolstered opponents who framed their conduct there as “imperialist” and who rejected as hypocrisy the foreigners’ “democratization,” along with their claims on behalf of women. With the US-led phase of this war entering its ninth year and many of its emancipatory ideals discredited in the eyes of Afghan critics, more and more Afghans appeared poised to seek their own liberation in anti-imperialist nationalism.


[1]. For further exploration of these themes see Conrad Schetter, “Afghanistan: Willkommen in Umerziehungslager,” FriEnt Impulse, No. 5 (2006), pp. 6-8; and Renate Kreile, “Befreiung durch Krieg? Frauenrechte in Afghanistan zwischen Weltordnungspolitik und Identitätspolitik,” Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, No. 1 (2005), pp. 102-120. Similarly, one should also recall that Muslim fighters from the Middle East have long been active in promoting their own visions for the transformation of Afghans.

[2]. See Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[3]. For a fuller picture of this varied opposition, see the brilliant analysis of Thomas Ruttig, “The Other Side: Dimensions of the Afghan Insurgency: Causes, Actors — and Approaches to ‘Talks,’” Afghanistan Analysts Network, http://aan-afghanistan.com/index.asp?id=114. See also, Graeme Smith, “What Kandahar’s Taliban Say,” in Antonio Giustozzi, (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (London, UK: Hurst and Company, 2009), pp. 191-210.

[4]. For a vivid illustration of the ideological rigidity of many foreign NGOs, see the PBS Frontline documentary “Afghanistan — A House for Haji Baba,” (2003), http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/afghanistan/.