A Military History of Afghanistan
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A Military History of Afghanistan

From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror

Ali Ahmad Jalali

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eBook - ePub

A Military History of Afghanistan

From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror

Ali Ahmad Jalali

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About This Book

The history of Afghanistan is largely military history. From the Persians and Greeks of antiquity to the British, Soviet, and American powers in modern times, outsiders have led military conquests into the mountains and plains of Afghanistan, leaving their indelible marks on this ancient land at the juncture of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In this book Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former interior minister of Afghanistan, taps a deep understanding of his country's distant and recent past to explore Afghanistan's military history during the last two hundred years.

With an introductory chapter highlighting the major military developments from early times to the foundation of the modern Afghan state, Jalali's account focuses primarily on the era of British conquest and Anglo-Afghan wars; the Soviet invasion; the civil war and the rise of the Taliban; and the subsequent U.S. invasion. Looking beyond persistent stereotypes and generalizations—e.g., the "graveyard of empires"designation emerging from the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century and the Soviet experience of the 1980s—Jalali offers a nuanced and comprehensive portrayal of the way of war pursued by both state and non-state actors in Afghanistan against different domestic and foreign enemies, under changing social, political, and technological conditions. He reveals how the structure of states, tribes, and social communities in Afghanistan, along with the scope of their controlled space, has shaped their modes of fighting throughout history. In particular, his account shows how dynastic wars and foreign conquests differ in principle, strategy, and method from wars initiated by non-state actors including tribal and community militias against foreign invasions or repressive governments.

Written by a professional soldier, politician, and noted scholar with a keen analytical grasp of his country's military and political history, this magisterial work offers unique insight into the military history of Afghanistan—and thus, into Afghanistan itself.

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1 A Distinct Geography and a Turbulent History

Geography is a defining factor in Afghanistan’s military history. The country’s location and its topography had a profound impact on the course of events and the nature of military movements in and around the land occupied by today’s Afghanistan. Geography has also influenced social and cultural developments in the country with political consequences. Located at the confluence of four main regions in Asia, Afghanistan has been entwined in unrelenting wars and conflicts throughout its turbulent history. Outside conquerors advancing their imperial ambitions, competing regional powers clashing on their geographic edges, and violent reactions by indigenous highlanders to outside incursions kept the people living in Afghanistan in a constant struggle for survival. At times Afghanistan itself became the hub of powerful empires with easy access to neighboring regions for military conquests. It has been the destiny of Afghanistan to serve as a battlefield for imperial ambitions since the dawn of history. Major armies crisscrossed the mountainous country from north to south and from west to east. From Persians and Greeks to Arabs and Mongols to the British and Russians and Americans, all have passed through this rugged land, leaving their imprint on the social and political life of the region.
Throughout the eventful history of Afghanistan, several outsiders have invaded, pillaged the country, and left. There were others who tried to colonize the land and failed. Yet there were also foreigners who settled on the land, adapted to the indigenous culture, and established powerful empires in Afghanistan that straddled the boundaries of central, west, and south Asian regions. Being an ancient focal point of the Silk Road and human migration, Afghanistan became a major crossroad of trade, cultural exchange, and political interactions in Asia. Modern writers identify the country with distinctive epithets: the graveyard of empires, the Central Asian roundabout, the highway of conquest,and the crossroad of empires. The British historian Arnold Toynbee called Afghanistan the eastern roundabout of the old world. In his classification of geographic locations into “roundabouts” and “cul-de-sacs,” he identified Afghanistan as a classic example of a roundabout since it has been the link between Southwest Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and Eastern Asia.”1 However, what is more relevant is how the people of Afghanistan refer to their land: the heart of Asia. In the words of poet-philosopher Sir Mohammad Iqbal (1877–1938), Asia suffers when the “heart” is in pain.2
In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the geography has not been merely a static space where the time-bound history was played out. The mutability and vicissitudes of history altered the stark reality of geography while the geography, for its part, adjusted the course of history. Political, social, and cultural shifts transfigured the geographic landscape while the geopolitics of regional powers and forces from beyond the region often accentuated the impact of geography on history. Ancient conquerors—whether they came from the north, such as the Aryans (second millennium BC), Kushans (first century AD), Ephthalites (fifth century), and Turks and Mongols (tenth to fifteenth centuries), or ventured from the West, such as Achaemenids (sixth to fifth centuries BC), Alexander the Great (330–327 BC), and Arabs (seventh to ninth centuries)—all used Afghanistan as the gateway to India. Before the discovery and use of sea routes to India, the subcontinent was well protected in the north by the Himalayan massif and in the south by the sea. Access to the area was mostly limited to major mountain valleys and passes in the west that passed through the hilly terrain of Afghanistan.
In the fifteenth century, with the discovery and use of sea routes by European powers, the gates of India, in the words of Thomas Holdich, became “Watergates” and the way to India was the way of the sea.3 Sea transport diminished the attraction of previously well-beaten land routes that brought to the subcontinent Aryans from the north and conquerors from the west. Later, with the rise of the so-called gunpowder empires in the region, the Mughal Empire in India looked at Afghanistan as India’s gateway to the outside world. Abul Fazl-i-’Allami (1551–1602), the leading court chronicler of the Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (1542–1605) wrote that “Kabul and Kandahar are considered two gates of India. The former provides access to Central Asia and the latter to Iran. . . . Both facilitate links to the outside world.”4
Centuries later, during the ferocious strategic competition among the European powers in Central Asia, British-controlled India was threatened by Napoleonic France and Tsarist Russia. The rush to rediscover the land routes to India through Afghanistan intensified. Once again geography exerted a strong influence on the course of history by defining its consequences. This time Afghanistan became the forward line of defense for the British Indian territories.
The topographic influence of the land has internal and external dimensions. Internally it shapes political and social developments, and externally it creates a formidable barrier to invasions. More than two-thirds of the land is covered by mountains whose highest peak is over 25,000 feet. The Hindu Kush, the greatest mountain range in Afghanistan, covers the central part of the country. The original appellation of the Hindu Kush in the Avestan language, Pariyatra Parvata in Sanskrit, meant a mountain loftier than an eagle’s flight. The craggy chain, which emerges in the northeast from the Pamir-Karakorum knot, slopes down to the southwest. The system stretches 966 kilometers (600 miles) laterally with an average altitude of 4,500 meters (14,700 feet). The maximum width of the central mountainous sector from north to south is about 600 kilometers (370 miles) and its median north-south measurement is about 240 kilometers (150 miles). Only about 600 kilometers of the massif is called the Hindu Kush Mountains; the rest consists of numerous smaller mountain ranges branching out in different directions forming a complex of hilly country in central Afghanistan. The major western chains in the system include the Koh-i Baba west of Bamian and the Spin Ghar or Eastern Safed Koh in the east, south of Nangrahar province. Several valleys in the eastern branches of the central massif offer access routes to the east, including the legendary Khyber Pass road. Further south, the Suleiman range, in the southeastern provinces of greater Paktia, is bisected by the valleys of Kurram, Tochi, and Gomal, which were historically used as conquest routes to India. In the west, numerous ranges create the western mountain hedge of the central massif, covering the eastern edges of the plains stretching from Badghis in the north to Farah in the south. These ranges include the Siah Koh, Koh-e Khwajah Mohammad, Tirband-e-Turkistan, the western Safed Koh, and the Doshakh commonly referred to as the Paropamisus.
Numerous high passes transect the mountains, forming a strategically important network of transit routes. Not all passes have military significance, as most of the higher northeastern passes only offer limited seasonal access. Further down in the southeast, one of the well-traveled ancient routes runs through the Khawak Pass (10,000 to 12,000 feet) in upper Panjsher Valley. This was used 2,300 years ago by Alexander the Great to get his 50,000 to 60,000 troops across the massif in two weeks. Another well-trodden historical passage is a circuitous route along the Ghorband Valley and through the Shebar Pass (9,800 feet) that skirts the high peaks and opens onto the northern plains in the Baghlan Province. The most important mountain pass today is the Salang Tunnel (11,200 feet), which was built in 1964 and links Kabul and points south of it to northern Afghanistan. The tunnel gained renewed significance during recent foreign military interventions in Afghanistan. In the 1980s the Salang highway became the main supply route for the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. Most recently, as the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan faced political obstacles in using the southern supply route through Pakistan, they decided to increase the use of an alternate supply route from Central Asia through the Salang Tunnel. Military traffic congested the Salang Pass by increasing its original capacity 10 times. It was designed to support only 1,000 vehicles per day. The passes of the Paropamisus in the west are relatively low, averaging around 600 meters; the best known of these is the Sabzak Pass between Herat and Badghis provinces, which links the western and northwestern parts of Afghanistan.
The Hindu Kush has a major impact on the climate and hydrography of Afghanistan. Mountain ranges verging on the southern and southeastern borders create a barrier that blocks moisture flowing from the Indian Ocean across the Indian subcontinent. Only some eastern valleys of Afghanistan down to Laghman lie on the fringe of the Indian summer monsoon that causes forestation of various densities to grow at certain elevations. The north and northwest sides of the mountains receive less rain, which falls mainly in the winter and spring. The inner valleys of the Hindu Kush are arid and have desert vegetation except for shrubs along rivers and streams. The distinct climate influences the political, social, and economic development of the land. Communities are isolated by geography and climate. The average annual precipitation is 313 mm (12 inches)—one third of the world average. Scarcity of water has forced people to live where water is available, spreading people over widely separated small areas. The distance and remoteness of habitable areas had long limited contact between people and force local communities to become self-reliant. The impulse of self-reliance drives the societies to limit themselves to sustenance economy with little prospect for surplus production to be marketed elsewhere.
The Hindu Kush influence parallels the effect of the Alps in Central Europe. Both massifs have often defined political and cultural frontiers between communities living on opposite sides of the highland. The Hindu Kush marks a cultural watershed between northern and southern expanses in the region, with the north having closer cultural affinities with Central Asia and the south with the Indian subcontinent and Iran. This is similar to one of the great cultural frontiers of Europe between the cultural sphere of Mediterranean and the transalpine cultures to the north drawn by the Eastern Alps. Both chains are identified with great conquerors who successfully led massive armies across the rugged mountain passes. The feat of Alexander the Great, who crossed the Hindu Kush in the cold weather of the early spring of 329 BC, has been as exalted by military historians as Hannibal’s passage through the Alps in the late fall of 218 BC.
The Hindu Kush mountain chain has exerted exceptional sway over events in Central and South Asia. The intertwined mountain ridges channeled military columns and commercial caravans through distinct tracts and corridors. The restrictions affected all kind of traffic moving from west to east and from north to south and produced two distinctive patterns. In the first pattern, large movements from the west heading east were forced to branch off to the north and south of the central massif. The northern branches were directed toward northern Afghanistan (ancient Bactria) and the trans-Oxus region. The southern branch moved through Sistan and Kandahar to Sind and southern India or through Kabul and the Khyber Pass to Northern India. The two divergent axes occasionally converged and linked up at the north-south passes of the Hindu Kush.

The Geopolitics of a Peripheral Status

The territory of today’s Afghanistan straddles the geographic boundaries of three main regions. It encompasses the converging space and dividing verges of Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia with historical connections to China. Its identity as a state is based less on geography and more on history. Throughout its long history the country has served as the buffer between expanding empires or the collision space between competing regional powers.
Afghanistan contains the key strategic lands of the ancient Ariana, an extensive geographic area between Persia and the Indian Subcontinent. Ariana means the “land of Aryans” and has its roots in Zoroastrianism’s Avesta. It is also believed that the designation is the Greek name for greater Iran, which covered a far wider expanse than today’s Iran—the name adopted for Persia by the Pahlavi dynasty in 1935. The limits of Ariana are not exactly defined by ancient geographers. Ariana is not mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BC) or the geographer Ptolemy (90–168 AD). The Greek geographer Eratosthenes (276–194 BC), known for being the inventor of the first map of the world based on the available geographic knowledge of his time, identifies a large territory named Ariana, which he places between Mesopotamia and India. He defined the Indus River as the eastern border of Ariana while it was bounded to the north by what he called the Tauros Mountains.5 The southern border of Eratosthenes’s Ariana was formed by the sea while its western limits included the lands between Carmania and the Caspian Sea.6 But Eratosthenes noted that the name Ariana was extended to a certain part of Persia and Media as well as to the Bactria and Soghdiana to the north, who speak roughly the same language.7 Later, the prominent Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC–24 AD) and the Roman author Pliny (23–78 AD) defined the boundaries of Ariana with certain clarity.8 Strabo describes its eastern boundary as the River Indus and its southern boundary as the Indian Ocean from the mouth of the Indus to the Persian Gulf. The western limit of Ariana is identified in two different ways: in one case it is marked by a line drawn between the Caspian Sea to Carmania (Kerman), and in another case the boundary is described as a line separating Parthia from Media and Carmania from Persia that includes the whole of Yazd and Kerman but excludes Fars.9 The northern boundary is the Paropamisus Mountains (Hindu Kush), which is the continuation of the massif that forms the northern limit of India. However, Strabo includes some of the eastern Persians, the Bactrians, and Sogdians as part of the people of Ariana living in the north of the mountains apparently because of the affinity of their language. Therefore, Ariana is said to have comprised the provinces of Parthia (the country between Herat and the Caspian), Aria (Herat), Carmania (Kerman), Bactria (Balkh), Margiana (Murgab-Merv), Hyrcania (Gorgan), Drangiana (Sistan), Gedrosia (Makran), Arachosia (greater Kandahar), and Paropamisus Mountain (Hindu Kush).10 This includes the eastern extremities of the Iranian plateau, the entire modern-day Afghanistan, the east and south of Iran, Tajikistan, parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and northwestern Pakistan.
During the Islamic period Afghanistan was the essential part of Khorasan, a variously defined area located east and northeast of the Kevir Desert in eastern Iran, covering northern Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. The space has been defined in terms of geography, administrative divisions, and cultural affinities of the people living there. Geographically, Khorasan covered the area bounded by the Oxus River to the north, the Kevir Desert in central-eastern Persia to the west, and the Hindu Kush Mountain to the south. It was an area with four main provincial centers: Balkh, Merv, Herat, and Nishapur. Administratively Khorasan boundaries surpassed its geographic space and extended to the north to Transoxiana between the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers, with Samarkand and Bukhara its major cities, and to the south to the area south of Hindu Kush encompassing Sistan, Zabulistan, and Kabulistan, which geographically was considered the Indian borderland.11 Culturally, Khorasan covered an even larger area where the inhabitants shared distinctive cultural affinities and that extended from eastern Persia to the Indus River. It was in this context that Babur wrote in the early sixteenth century that “ju...

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