The beginning of the misery in Afghanistan, which led to the catastrophic rise of the extremist Taliban and made the failed state a major threat to the democratic world, can be traced back to the 1970s when an explosive mix of Soviet communism and indigenous Islamism began against to strike back western liberal ideals in the country.
At the time, Muhammad Zahir Shah had ruled the country for four decades. The meek, western-educated king wanted to modernize his country. He instituted constitutional democracy and tried to open up the civil sphere by granting universal suffrage, promoting civil rights, and bringing women into a very conservative tribal society.
In July 1973, however, the king’s influential cousin, General Muhammad Daoud Khan, who had been dismissed as his prime minister for his aggressive stance towards neighboring Pakistan over old border disputes, ousted Zahir Shah in a bloodless coup and reinstalled himself as the autocratic president of the constituted one-party republic of Afghanistan.
This was at the height of the Cold War, and the USSR longed for customer states in South Asia to offset the strong American presence in the Middle East. Since Daoud had shown socialist, pro-Soviet tendencies, the USSR initially welcomed his rise to power. However, when he tried to distance himself from the Soviets and ordered a purge of the communists, Daoud and his family were massacred by his former ally, the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
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The Soviet Union-backed PDPA formed several chaotic governments in Afghanistan, but failed to establish itself as a legitimate ruling party amid ongoing power struggles and uprisings. When the situation became untenable, the Soviets finally intervened, fearing the demise of their client state, and at the end of 1978 sent the Red Army to occupy Afghanistan. The following year, the Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran left the US region behind.
Internal chaos combined with foreign occupation sent Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Young democratic institutions vanished and emerging civil rights were nipped in the bud. The westernized army and modern police force collapsed, and their troops and weapons dispersed among the communists and insurgents. In these circumstances, the religiously motivated tribal militias operating as Mujahideen were the only force that put up resistance to the Soviet juggernaut.
Of course, the US threw its weight behind that Mujahideen. In a massive security project called Operation Cyclone, which would ultimately cost billions of dollars, the CIA funded the Afghan resistance against the USSR. Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and Britain also made significant contributions to the anti-Soviet war effort. However, since most of the international aid goes to the Mujahideen Through Pakistan, the lion’s share ended up in the hands of the most radical elements of the insurgents, backed by the country’s Islamist government.
In 1989 the Cold War was in its twilight. The Soviet Union, which is still facing fierce resistance from the Mujahideen and now in agony the Red Army finally withdrew from Afghanistan. The country was now devoid of a unifying archenemy, democratic and civil institutions, or any culture of inclusiveness or tolerance. What Afghanistan had was an abundance of eastern and western weapons. The tribal warlords turned against each other and plunged the devastated land into civil war.
This paved the way for the emergence of the Islamist Taliban extremists in the mid-1990s, who swept through Afghanistan with a lightning attack and captured Kabul in 1996. The Taliban ruled through a draconian version of Sharia law, Western ideas of human rights and specifically women and girls. The country festered from Islamist radicalism and terrorism, which eventually led to the catastrophic al-Qaeda attacks on the American homeland. By the time the US government took action, much irreparable damage had already been done to America and the world.
Now the corrupt, dysfunctional, but quasi-democratic, peaceful and West-friendly government of Afghanistan has collapsed thanks to the rash withdrawal of US troops and the country has been recaptured by the extremist Taliban. The withdrawal has so far claimed the lives of 13 American soldiers and many more Afghan civilians, and the war on terror remains largely unsolved. Many observers fear that Afghanistan will again sink into darkness and become a center of apocalyptic militant sects like al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, which are out to terrorize the world and establish a global Islamic caliphate.
Worse still, hostile regimes like those of Iran, Russia and China have wasted no time exploiting the failed state left by the US. Their common goal is to pull Afghanistan into their respective spheres of influence and to make it a foremost base of operations for world domination. Now that they have seen America fail to stand up for its values and defend its citizens and friends in Afghanistan, these enemies will be more aggressive in their own way.
The Iranian regime, in particular, is already taking advantage of the Western confusion over Afghanistan to accelerate its onslaught on an atomic bomb that would threaten the whole world. At the same time, it is intensifying and expanding its regional chaos, which will primarily be directed against Israel, the United States, and the United States’ allies in the Middle East.
Dr. Reza Parchizadeh is a political theorist, historian, and senior analyst. He is on the editorial board of Al-Arabiya-Farsi and the journal for interdisciplinary Middle East studies. He is also the correspondent for the World Shakespeare Bibliography Committee at Johns Hopkins University. He can be reached at @DrParchizadeh and https://iup.academia.edu/RezaParchizadeh.
A version of this article was originally published by the BESA Center.