By Arab News
By Ajmal Shams*
Afghanistan and the US are close to celebrating 100 years of ties. The two countries share a history of deep-rooted partnership and engagement that started about a century ago. Most of Afghanistan’s late 20th and early 21st century events revolve around the US’ active military and political roles shaping the current state of affairs in the country. Afghanistan was recognized by the US back in 1921, just two years after its independence from Britain. This was followed by the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first US president to visit Afghanistan, in 1959. Similarly, King Zahir Shah was the first head of state to visit the US, in 1963, while Prime Minister Sardar Daud Khan was the first Afghan to address the US Congress. Throughout the decades, there were mutual visits and engagements and US-Afghan relations continued to grow.
When Khan visited the US in 1958, he requested America’s defense cooperation, but the US declined and instead focused on economic assistance. The US had miscalculated how slowly and gradually Afghanistan had been drawn into the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. Moscow had strategic objectives in the region and was planning to use Afghanistan as a gateway to access South Asia and the Middle East.
In 1978, Khan’s government was toppled by a communist coup instigated by the former Soviet Union. However, in December 1979, the Soviet Union resorted to a full invasion, sending thousands of troops to protect its installed administration in Kabul. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans migrated to neighboring countries, mainly Pakistan and Iran. Immediately upon the Soviet invasion, Afghans started their freedom struggle against the Kabul regime and Soviet occupation. The Afghan resistance was widely supported by the free world, led by the US and the Arab and Islamic worlds. The main supporter of the Afghan freedom struggle was the US. Afghan refugees were provided with humanitarian aid and the freedom fighters were given military assistance reaching billions of dollars.
Another channel of both relief and military assistance was Pakistan. During this period, Pakistan was the focus of attention and millions of dollars of aid poured in to help it, particularly from the countries of the West and the Arab and Islamic worlds due to its support of the Afghan resistance and its role as a frontline state against the Soviet Union’s aggression. Pakistan was also able to develop its nuclear program during this critical period, when the US was virtually dependent on it to support the Afghan freedom struggle and act as the main conduit for logistical and military supplies to the Afghan mujahideen. Afghans were grateful to the people and government of Pakistan during those difficult years, when Islamabad welcomed millions of refugees and provided them with all kinds of assistance. However, they have been unhappy with Pakistan’s continuing interference in Afghanistan, which has strained relations between the two countries, adversely impacting both in terms of politics and their economies.
Due to US pressure and the international isolation of the Soviet Union, the latter had to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. The Soviet-backed communist administration then collapsed in 1992 and a mujahideen-led regime was established in Afghanistan. This was the beginning of a period of civil war, anarchy and instability. During this period, the US had lost virtually all interest in Afghanistan. In the wake of the mujahideen’s anarchic rule, the Taliban emerged and gradually took control of about 95 percent of Afghanistan’s territory, bringing relative stability. However, due to their ultraconservative rule and hosting of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, they faced international isolation. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban regime was toppled by the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001. This was the beginning of a new chapter in relations between the US and Afghanistan.
The two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2012, followed by Afghanistan being designated by the US as a major non-NATO ally. Similarly, the Bilateral Security Agreement was signed in September 2014 on the second day of the establishment of the National Unity Government. It is because of the above-mentioned strategic bonds that almost 50 percent of Afghanistan’s national budget is financed by the US, and its National Defense and Security Forces get annual funding of about $4 billion.
According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, more than $100 billion has been invested in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development. Although Afghanistan has made tremendous progress in terms of new infrastructure and social and economic development, with proper care and a more robust monitoring mechanism in place, the impact of this money could have been much greater.
The US has been fighting the war against terrorism in Afghanistan for the past 17 years. Al-Qaeda has been defeated, but the Taliban remains a significant threat to both the Afghan state and the remaining US forces. The Trump administration has prioritized ending the war and restoring peace in a country that has witnessed conflict for almost four decades. Afghans are eagerly looking forward to the outcome of the peace talks involving US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban delegation in Qatar. They have held several rounds of talks and, each time, optimism about the progress made has been high. Both Afghanistan and the US believe this war is no longer sustainable in terms of blood and treasure. Everyone wants an end to war and a lasting peace.
If peace returns to Afghanistan, Afghan-US relations will enter a new era of mutual interests, with economic and political dividends for both.
- Ajmal Shams, based in Kabul, is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party. He was a deputy minister in the national unity government, and served as policy adviser to Ashraf Ghani before his presidential bid. Twitter: @ajmshams