Afghanistan: Looking Back to See the Future

Written by Courtney Andrews and Faiza Mawani

Photo of armored car driving through mountains of Afghanistan
Mountains of Afghanistan. Source: Creative Commons

Twenty years after the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism, the United States military has ended its operations in Afghanistan. The country, ravaged by war and too fragile to stand on its own, was immediately overtaken by the very forces the U.S. sought to defeat. After two decades, three administrations, and 170,000 American lives lost, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in much the same shape as it was found.

What is to become of Afghanistan and what toll will the inevitable economic and humanitarian crisis take on its people, many of whom do not know where their next meal will come from? What will happen to a generation of women and girls whose education and employment are now at stake and whose rights are tenuous under the new/old regime? What will happen to the millions of children under five that are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year? What will happen to those that managed to escape – will they find safe refuge in neighboring countries, or will they suffer the plight of many refugees and displaced peoples around the world? All remains to be seen, but at this point, the outlook is dire. Here we provide a brief history of Afghanistan over the past century and consider what lies ahead for the struggling nation.

Afghanistan: A Retrospective

Afghanistan is located centrally in southeast Asia and shares a border with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It is home to at least 14 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the mountainous terrain has kept these clans separate and made it difficult for a central government to take hold. The strategic location of the country, however, has made it very enticing to those seeking to procure a hold on southeast Asia. After a period of relative stability after its independence from colonial rule in 1921, the country has been plagued by invasion and power struggles since the 1970s.

In 1953, the pro-Soviet General Mohammad Daoud Khan became prime minister of Afghanistan, and in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to help Khan establish economic and military ties. At this time, women were granted a more public presence and were allowed to attend university and join the workforce. In 1973, Khan abolished the monarchy and replaced it with The Republic of Afghanistan, naming himself president and keeping close ties with the USSR. While creating his new government, Khan proposed a new constitution in which women were granted more rights, and the country set out on a path to modernization. This did not sit well with local clan members who believed in a strict interpretation of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Tensions rose under the surface until they eventually boiled over.

In 1978, an armed revolt broke out in the countryside, led by conservative Islamist and ethnic leaders who were protesting social changes Khan was trying to implement. This group became known as the mujahideen, or “holy warriors.” Backed by the United States, the mujahideen killed Khan, and a full-scale war broke out from 1979 to 1989: communists versus mujahideen. This being the height of the Cold War, the US continued to provide weapons and tactics to the rebels in order to defeat the Soviets.

Around 1988, Saudi Islamist Osama bin Laden founded the group al-Qaida (“the base”). Though the US had backed the mujahideen in defeating the Soviets, bin Laden argued that the US stood as the primary obstacle to the establishment of a truly Islamist state. By 1995, a newly formed Islamist militia, the Taliban, rose to power, promising peace to the war-torn people of Afghanistan. Calling themselves “students of Islamic knowledge,” the Taliban imposed strict sharia law, stripping women and girls of their basic human rights and instituting public floggings and amputations of those who broke the law.

Photo of soldier crouched down pointing gun
Afghanistan. Source: Yahoo Images

The War

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives hijack four commercial airliners and crash them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Close to 3,000 people die in the attacks, thousands more are injured, first responders are exposed to toxic fumes that will later be listed as the cause of cancer, and a nation that has never before been attacked on its own soil mourns an incomprehensible loss.

Most of the 9.11 hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia, none from Afghanistan, though the mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, was operating out of the country. The ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was accused of harboring terrorists. In the coming weeks, George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” provided the U.S. blanket authority to invade any country accused of sympathizing with or aiding Muslim extremists. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. military began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ground combat troops arrive two weeks later. Thus began what would become the longest war in U.S. history.

Both the Obama and the Trump administrations tried to leave Afghanistan, but the situation remained too precarious to do so safely. President Biden, convinced that there was never going to be a safe time to leave, was determined to put an end to the loss of American lives, especially in a situation of no measurable progress. “It’s time to end America’s longest war,” he declared. The remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan have been withdrawn despite the failure of intra-Afghan peace talks and the increase in Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and citizens. The Taliban wasted no time storming the capital of Kabul, forcing president Ghani into exile, and reasserting its authority.

Biden says Washington will continue to assist Afghan security forces and support the peace process, but what does that mean? As the U.S. officially ends its military operations in Afghanistan with precious little to show for it, much is at stake for those who remain in the country, most notably women and children.

A Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis

One of the central tenets of the Taliban’s ideology has been the opposition to girls’ and women’s education. It is predicted that around 1 million children will miss out on education due to increased attacks on schools and villages dramatically increasing in the past month since the Taliban has resumed control over Afghanistan. Rather than educate them, the Taliban have a history of enslaving women, increasing the risk of domestic violence, abuse, and exploitation, including forced child marriage. Many humanitarian agencies are concerned about an increase in violence against women during this time of crisis. In an apparent attempt to rebrand themselves as more moderate, the Taliban have made some statements alluding to protections for women, though some see this as an empty promise. The days of denying women the right to education and subjecting them to public floggings and mass executions seem part of a not-so-distant past.

The ensuing humanitarian crises is expected to affect nearly half of children in the country. Food stocks will soon run out, and a third of the country will not have access to basic goods and services. Afghanistan does not have sufficient funding in its international humanitarian response plan; as of August 2021, it is only 38 percent funded. This translates to approximately 1.2 million children losing protective services, leaving them vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, and forced early marriages, and about 1.4 million women left without a place of comprehensive support.

Displacement and a Refugee Crisis

Although President Biden did agree to allow Afghani people who worked with the US coalition to come to America with US troops, there were several tens of thousands that could not board the planes. Images of the Kabul airport being jam-packed with families awaiting airlift, along with videos of people handing their babies to American soldiersand absolute strangers for the sake of safety and refuge did circulate our social media pages the past few weeks. The outpouring of compassion did overwhelm the global community, but now that airlifts have ceased, about 39 million Afghans remain trapped in the humanitarian crisis that is yet to emerge in the country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 3.5 million people have already been displaced due to violence in Afghanistan. These people are fearful of returning to their homes, but they also lack the finances to survive.

Consequently, the people of Afghanistan will seek refuge in neighboring countries, where many of their fellow citizens already live. For four decades, Pakistan and Iran have hosted millions of Afghan refugees. But these countries are also not capable of doing this for too long due to their own lack of international humanitarian aid. The UNHCR has called on countries to leave their borders open and permit refugee status to the people of Afghanistan in order to evade any more human rights violations and to prevent a greater humanitarian crisis from emerging.

 What Next?

In an article about the challenges that the Taliban now faces, Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times writes: “Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?” So far, the Taliban have been cracking down on protests, rounding up known opponents, and violently suppressing the news media. Unfortunately, from a human rights perspective, it appears that the worst is yet to come.

 

Violent Persecution of the Shi’a Hazaras of Pakistan

Who are the Hazara Muslims?

The Hazara Muslims are a predominately Shi’a Muslim group that originate from Afghanistan. Hazaras are famous for their music, poetry, and proverbs from which their poetry stems, which have been passed down orally through generations. They speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi – Persian dialect) called Hazaragi.

The conflict of Sunni Muslims versus Shi’a Muslims derives from a varying interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the distinct lineage both sects choose to recognize. Consequently, extremist groups in Pakistan have resorted to violence carried out by Pakistani governmental organizations who have feared Shi’a Islam becoming a major sect since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

These targeted killings had continually existed, but they reached unprecedented levels in 2013 with approximately 700 Shi’a murdered, many of which were Hazaras in Baluchistan. Bombings in 2013 also claimed innumerous Hazara lives, and such violence eventually led to protests by the Hazaras, including refusing to bury the deceased bodies until the Pakistani government took some action.

hazaras
Women protest the loss of innocent lives of Hazara Muslims. Source: Yahoo Images

What has been happening with the Hazaras recently?

Believing in a different interpretation of Islam and allowing more freedom to their women are two red flags to extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). The IS massacred. eleven Shi’a Hazara coal miners in Machh, Baluchistan, on January 2, 2021. The families of the deceased refused to bury the bodies and demanded a visit from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, along with immediate action against the perpetrators who claimed responsibility for the killing. On January 6, 2021, the Baluchistan Chief Minister, Jam Kamal, visited a protest camp and urged them to let go of their demand. He tried to reassure the protestors that his government is doing all they can to eradicate terrorism, but with little success. Considering the mass murder that has been occurring since 2013, the Hazara people have no reason to believe the Chief Minister of their state.

overcome grief
A father overcome with grief as he is told about his son’s death. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

For starters, the Pakistani government can acknowledge the persecution that Shi’a Hazara Muslims have been encountering for generations, and find a way to actually eradicate such acts of terrorism that are being justified by extremist groups with the overarching term, jihad.

To ensure progress is being made, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and the leader of the prominent Afghan Hezb-e Wahdat-e-Islami political party, Karim Khalili, met in Islamabad on January 12, 2021. They exchanged views on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and progress in the Afghan peace process. The political figures also briefly recalled the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in November 2020 to Kabul to hold talks with Afghani President Ashraf Ghani. During those talks, Afghanistan promised Pakistan it would do “everything, whatever is possible” to aid the peace process. But Pakistani officials like Qureshi believe that there are “spoilers” within and outside of Afghanistan who do not wish to see the return of peace in Afghanistan and other affected regions.

It is time for the international system to fulfil its role in protecting the global population. Years and years of persecution of a people who have done nothing to deserve such brutality needs to come to an end.

MOAB: Blown Out of Proportion?

BY: Russ Hunter

a picture of the MOAB bomb
A Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon is prepared for testing at the Eglin Air Force Armament Center. The MOAB is a precision-guided munition weighing 21,500 pounds and will be dropped from a C-130 Hercules aircraft for the test. It will be the largest non-nuclear conventional weapon in existence. Source: National Museum of US Navy.

As the news of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, was used in Afghanistan this last week I was at first amused by the commentaries from spin doctors and political pundits from around the world. I found myself dismayed at the lack of understanding of what happens on a battlefield… then came the sensationalism some commentators within my circle were streaming out. I found the comments not only baffling but somewhat maddening. The comments have led me to write this blog. I will use my experience and training to try and explain some of the reasons I think the MOAB was used and why it may be the right tool for the job. I will do this by way of answering five questions that were posed to me.

1. What is the possible reasoning behind this decision? Many different theories are being pursued in the media (to include social media) regarding the reasons behind the dropping of the MOAB. They are that, theories. Some may even reach conspiracy level madness. My professional point of view as a career soldier is that a commander on the ground, who had authority, chose a tool that was best suited for the mission.

I have some concerns with the extreme points of view on both sides of the political spectrum. One side is saying that President Trump has allowed military leaders to assume control. President Trump did not abdicate his authority; he delegated. Those that have served in the military understand this. We also know why we delegate. It is called the span of control. One person is only able to supervise a very limited number of subordinates, that is why there is a chain-of-command. On the battlefield, there is nothing worse than someone who is not there, someone who has no situational awareness or the training and experience saying to a commander: ‘Don’t use that munition, it is not the right one.’ I defer to the battlefield commander in this instance.

The other side is joyfully extolling it as great and about damn time. To those I say, there is nothing great about dropping a massive bomb. The MOAB is a tool and professionals do not brag about how big their bomb is. Get out of the business of bragging and get to the business of bringing the fight to a close as quickly as possible within the limits of jus in bello.

I am sure the political implications are there. Does it send out messages: yes, of course it does. Coupled with the Tomahawk strikes in Syria it sends a very clear message. A message that this is not the same US military posture of the past. It sends a psychological message as well within the battle space and without, we have many tools, and we will use them. So, proceed with caution when you (the enemy) think of attacking X or using Y chemical.

2. The implications of this decision? The implications are multifaceted. I will concentrate on my training and experience. We have a munition that has, at first battlefield damage assessment (BDA), proven to be effective. It is a tool in the commander’s arsenal. The implications for the battlefield are that they will not have to do large area bombings to attain the same effect. The use of the MOAB may be a good thing. The more bombs in the air, the more chance one will miss the target area and harm civilians. The MOAB is proving effective on tunnels and bunkers within the blast area. This may lead the ‘enemy’ to decide that tunnels and bunkers are no longer a safe haven and move out of contested areas. I do caution those who think this will be a game changer in the battle front. We have had that thought before when we shelled an area with such saturation we thought the enemy would be ‘softened.’ That battle turned out to be one of the worst in the Pacific theater in WW II, Iwo Jima. More recently, let us not forget all the munitions dropped on the cave complexes of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, and people thinking Osama bin Laden was dead in a cave.

3. The possible global security – as a human right – implications of this decision? I will hazard an opinion on this. The global security aspect may be the one area whereby using the MOAB may have done the most harm. Though the MOAB is a tactical weapon, the sensationalism surrounding its use causes me concern. The comparison to a nuclear weapon gives the impression that it is more destructive than it truly is. This comparison can raise fear in places like North Korea and Iran. I am afraid those who want to vilify the US and the West will use the sensationalized articles and soundbites from pundits within their propaganda machine. We have already seen the rise of tensions on the Korean peninsula and Iran’s recent unveiling of a new fighter jet with the accompanying rhetoric with its debut. The human right aspect to all of this I fear will be the loss of life.

4. Was this a violation of international law, given that there was no direct threat to the US? This one is easier to answer. There is no violation of international law. Afghanistan is a recognized conflict zone. The conflict is being waged under a coalition support force. This coalition has been granted through a status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the US and the Afghanistan government. The US/Afghanistan agreement is coupled with the SOFA agreement between NATO and the Afghanistan government. This legally allows NATO and the US to be there to assist the Afghanistan government against insurgents. The MOAB is not on the list of banned weapons; it is a conventional bomb. The two central jus in bello principles are satisfied: Discrimination and proportionality. Discrimination: Was it a legitimate target? Yes. Proportionality: Was the force morally appropriate? Yes. You may argue against this view but the commander weighed out what it would take in human lives to clear out this tunnel complex. The commander determined the MOAB as the best tool to save those lives under his command.

5. Is it possible this was a good decision? I think anything is possible. In this particular case, yes it was a good tactical decision as qualified by the combatant commander. As a strategic decision or a political decision; that warrants further consideration. As the rhetoric spins up and sabers are rattled, it can become problematic. The decision to use the MOAB may prove, in the end, not to have been a good decision outside of the combat zone (Question 3).

Once again I caution equating this weapon to more than it is. First off, it is a conventional weapon. Delivered by conventional means. It is not a banned weapon nor is it something that changes the strategic landscape. Bear with me here. To use this particular weapon, you have to have air superiority, control the skies. It is not self-propelled. It is not launched via a submarine. It is not an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). It is not radioactive. It is not chemical (as in banned chemical weapons). It is not a biological weapon. However, as long as the media sensationalizes and people do not educate themselves as to what this weapon is, a tactical weapon, we will have questions about its use and when is it a good decision to use it.

The last issue I wish to expound upon is this notion of the comparison of the MOAB to a nuclear weapon. Let me be blunt. Whoever does this type of comparison is disingenuous about what the differences are between a conventional bomb and a nuclear bomb. They are keeping to a political narrative, or they are ideologues who cannot see past their entrenched views. The comparison is by no means within a reasonable frame as comparable to a nuclear bomb.

Yes, it is a tool of war and no, I do not see it as a push of boundaries of nuclear and conventional bombs. The MOAB is around 11 tons of TNT while the Hiroshima nuclear bomb was 15,000-16,000 tons of TNT (equivalent – it was not a TNT bomb) or better understood as Hiroshima at 15-16 kilotons and MOAB at 0.1-0.2 kilotons. No radioactive material involved. I do understand the concern about the use of such weapons, but I feel we must not conflate the abilities. I have seen 500-pound bombs detonate and fully appreciate the destructive power that the MOAB represents but the MOAB is not close to a nuclear event, and it does not help the debate to misrepresent its destructive power.

The debate about the MOAB should be in two realms. First, is it a good tactical weapon that helps the combatant commander achieve his goals? Second, if it is a strategic decision to use a tactical weapon, then we should be debating why and what its function is. If it is not the right tactical weapon for use on a target and is not proportional but used to make a strategic point, then we need to debate the jus in bello principles. Now I ask a question to you the reader. Consider the just war theory principle of winning the war as quickly as possible, while adhering to jus in bello requirements. This principle requires us to ask: Why would you not use the MOAB as a tactical weapon if it can bring this prolonged war to a close?

 

Russ Hunter Expertise: Civil/Military Operations, Intelligence, WMD Operations
Russ is currently in the Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Otago. He holds a Master Degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, a Post Grad Certificate from the University of Stirling, Scotland and is a graduate of the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy. He retired from the U.S. Army as a Sergeant Major in 2009 with over 24 years of distinguished military service in both Operations and Intelligence. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Richmond. The titles of Russ’ past lectures have been Drone Strikes: A Case for a Moral Response, Evolution of Unmanned Air Systems (Drones in the Sky), and Counterterrorism/Antiterrorism Strategy. He co-taught a Drone law course for law, paralegal and Masters students. Russ has multiple awards and citations both professional and academic.