It is often believed that the reality of nations is determine by individuals and the decisions that they make; but there is such thing as constraints and limits that are out of human beings’ control and cannot be overcame. Among all the constraint that a territory can have, the most obvious and important one is geography. According to Robert Kaplan (2012), geography is the backdrop of the human history, and it can reveal a lot about government’s long-term intentions and its secret councils. It also is a fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent one.
The entity now called Afghanistan has a long history of invasions, migrations, and civil conflict. It is known for its important geostrategic location in the region, since its connecting East and West Asia. The country links three major cultural and geographical regions of Indian subcontinent to the southeast, central Asia to the north and the Iranian Plateau to the west. The land has been a target for various invaders, as well as a source from which local powers invaded neighboring regions to form their own empires. From the invasion of Alexander the Great in 330 BC and making Kabul a base for his operations to the take over the rest of the Asia, to the attempts of Iran to include the country in its territory, and being main part of the great game between British and the Russian empire for most of the 19th century.
These instances demonstrate why (and how) geography has been a deciding factor in Afghanistan’s destiny. Due to its geographical location, the country has been the center of competing foreign powers for a long time. The same is true about the history of the modern Afghanistan and presence of the United States and efforts of Pakistan for keeping Afghanistan as an unstable state.
The Great Game
The strategic location of Afghanistan made the country important for European powers as Britain and Russia struggled to maintain their control over the Indian subcontinent. According to Lord Curzon (Governor General and Viceroy of India in 1899), Turkistan, Afghanistan, Tran- scaspia, Persia are pieces on a chess-board upon which is being played out a game for dominance of the world. In the 19th century, the Great Britain had the fear that another European country would take advantage of the political decay of Asian countries by colonizing them – which would have threatened the position of Britain in Indian sub-content.
After France in Western Europe, Britain was worried for Russia’s continuous march toward south in the Asia. While both powers were aware of strategic importance of Afghanistan, they were not ready to engage in direct military fight. Instead, both tried to have control over the country, as it was a key for their strategic plans in Asia. To ensure its welfare in India, Britain was attempting to stop Russia form moving into Afghanistan and other neighboring countries that could be a threat for Britain in the Indian subcontinent, which was a source of wealth and power for the British imperial. The three Anglo-Afghan wars were not triggered for Afghanistan itself, rather they were a way for the British to threaten Russia for not advancing towards the Indian subcontinent, and to warn Afghans from forming an alliance with Russia.
The Durand Line
The Britain, in order to protect India subcontinent from Russia, aimed at identifying a line where they could easily defeat their rival. In 1893, the final geographical line between Afghanistan and Pakistan was identified, that divided the tribal areas uniformly and was named Durand line. While the defined border was a pragmatic solution for the Britain to an intricate problem in that time, it also created many complications for Afghanistan that has been continuing until today. The current claim of most Afghans that the main root of all problems in Afghanistan, including terrorism, is the Durand line might not be very rational. Yet, it cannot be denied that dividing a community that shares the same culture, believes and religion was not the right way of defining border between the two countries, although the approach worked well for the military purposes of the Britain.
Furthermore, to oversee the frontier, the British constructed a robust chain of military strongholds along the foothills, known as frontier posts. The aim of these posts was to discourage the illicit tribal activities and to provide a means to intercept and pursue illegal raiding gangs. However, the continuous presence of the Britain in the frontier not only impacted the frontier communities in that era but its lasting impacts can be seen even today. Since the colonization of India and the inception of British army’s presence in the frontier, the Pashtuns residing in areas around the Durand line, especially Waziristan are understood as problematic and resistant to law and regulations. Today, in addition to raids and lootings, the frontier is known to be a safe haven for terrorist groups that have been threatening the security of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is often said that these tribesmen are psychologically different from other Pashtuns. But the effects that colonization and presence of British army left not only int only in Waziristan but all over Afghanistan and Pakistan is often overlooked.
Despite the significant improvements in other areas, the frontier communities evolved little during recent centuries. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan governments find it hard to enforce law in areas around line, especially in Waziristan, because the communities haven’t improved much.
The communities were introduced to guns instead of books and school from childhood and have been advised to be suspicious of everything and everyone, which is the legacy that British colonization and military presence left. Waziristan would have had a different destiny if it were not for the frontier between Afghanistan and Indian subcontinent, similar to Afghanistan that might had different history if it was not a buffer state between Britain and Russia.
Soviets invasions and the Opium War
Considering the strategic location of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union turned to Afghanistan in order to spread their political, economic and social ideology in central Asia and the Middle East. The agenda was to rule the country through an outcast group of communists, much as the soviet had dominated Bukhara in the early 1920s. Since, the Afghan government of the time was resisting, the Soviets, in December 1979, invaded Afghanistan to remove the government.
With the Soviet invasion, the Afghan economy was significantly damaged including the irrigation networks, distribution and marketing systems, and a significant part of labor force that was disrupted by the war and its hostilities. Such unsettlements did not only impact the political and economic, but it also facilitated the culture of black marketing and smuggling in the country. The evidence suggests that the civil war environment in Afghanistan spawned a flourishing opium trade.
As the Soviet troops faced resistance of Afghans, in addition to mass killings in villages and districts, they also burned the agricultural lands. According to a report by Aljazeera (2003), the opium production increased more than 150 folds in 25 years since the Soviet intervention and the beginning of CIA involvement in the drug trade. Afghanistan’s opium production leapt from about 100 tons in 1971 to 300 tons in 1982 and to 575 tons the following year. According to another report, between the U.S.S.R.’s withdrawal in 1989 and the Taliban’s emergence in 1994, the country descended into chaos as warlords competed for power. Afghan farmers, struggling to regain their standing in the marketplace, discovered that India and Pakistan had developed their own products and were no longer interested in importing Afghanistan’s.
Afghanistan’s history is indication that geography is the destiny. The role of the people and their decisions on the fate a nation cannot denied, but there are factors that out of human beings’ control. In the case of Afghanistan, because of the ethnic divide, there were few people that wanted to lead the country to a better future, even they could not do much because of the foreign interventions. in addition to internal affairs, the foreign policy of the county was always forced by other countries.
The country, despite its isolation and being landlocked, receive a lot of attention from the powers of the world. Every invasion and military operation that happened in Afghanistan, left lasting impacts on the country and its people. looking to the current situation of the country, it is easy to blame the nation and the individuals, but the fact is that what else can be expected from a generation that was born in war, grew in war and continue living the unwanted war.
*Neela Hassan is Afghan Journalist and M.A Of Communication for Development from Ohio University