Afghanistan | Part 1
Hello, and welcome to the Global Thread podcast! I’m your host, Yasmin Aliya Khan, and today we’re talking about Afghanistan. This is Part 1.
Welcome back, everyone, to our third episode of the season. We’re doing something a little different with this one. I was working on the script for this, and it kept getting longer and longer, well exceeding my normal word count limit. I was getting nervous about how long this episode was going to be. I didn’t want to make too many cuts, and I definitely didn’t want to rush the ending, so for the first time, we’re going to break this topic up into two parts. I don’t know, if this becomes a pattern, I’ll just have to transition fully to documentary filmmaking or something… but first I need to learn how to make films. I did take a journalism scriptwriting course back in college, though, so maybe that will actually come in handy. Shout-out to Professor Desel.
That was a joke, by the way. I don’t know how cameras work.
For this topic, there are so many different angles to cover and all of them are super sensitive for different reasons for different groups. I never, ever want to downplay the overall factor of humanity when discussing these topics. For me, the people affected are the only things that really matter in any of these conflicts or wars or whatever. However, for the sake of comprehension and the big picture, you almost have to pull yourself outside of the narrative - that is, as much as you know how to - while still giving humanitarian impacts the significance they deserve in these matters. Those impacts are such a big part of these stories, but they’re often treated as footnotes or unfortunate side-effects. It’s fine to let your personal ideals and values and even prejudices influence your opinions on the matter, but we need to at least start from a solid baseline. I may say some things you don’t like or agree with. It’s possible that I won’t spend as much time on something as you think I should. You may feel as though I’ve left out something important - I mean, I definitely will. And maybe by the end of this podcast, you’ll feel differently about the War in Afghanistan, maybe not. That’s not up to me, though. I always say I’m not here to “thought-lead” or “influence” anyone.
As always, I’ll do my best to present it to you in a way that makes sense of something so convoluted, and that way, you can form your own opinions about what has happened in Afghanistan, what is currently happening, and whatever you think the future will bring.
I would like to give some credit where it’s due upfront - I read Spencer Ackerman’s book, Reign of Terror, in preparation for this podcast, so while I may not quote from it directly, it was certainly a part of my research process. Ackerman’s an American journalist who has covered the War on Terror extensively throughout his career. His book discusses the post-9/11 United States and how the attacks led to what would come to be known as a Forever War in the Middle East, a war that most Americans still can’t comprehend even though it’s been a part of our lives for the past 20 years. Anyway - great book, highly recommend - and no, I’m not sponsored by anyone and I bought the book with my own money. My podcast really isn’t big enough for me to have to say that last bit, but I think I’m still supposed to…
That feels like a good enough intro. Let’s go.
[THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE]
First, let’s start with the Truman Doctrine. Shout-out to Linda Belcher, the mom from Bob’s Burgers, for getting The Harry Truman Song stuck in my head the entire time I was researching this segment. It was very distracting.
President Harry S. Truman is, by most general accounts, regarded as a strong US president. He served as a senator under FDR, overseeing infrastructure projects related to the New Deal. He was a man of the people who looked out for the little guy, specifically by expanding social security, fighting for workers’ rights, and addressing homelessness in the nation. In fact, his Fair Deal promoted many things that modern-day liberals and progressives are still fighting for, such as health care for all, an increase to the minimum wage, and non-discriminatory hiring practices. He also investigated exorbitant and inefficient government spending in the Defense Department, and he sought to curb war profiteering.
Beyond his work as a senator, Truman had a reputation, both in Washington and amongst the American people, for being a man with some semblance of integrity. He was transparent with his constituents, even in instances where it could have hurt his political career, and when FDR was running for his fourth term, Truman was pegged as his VP.
Less than three months after being sworn in as Roosevelt’s vice president, Roosevelt suffered a stroke and passed away. Truman was a strategic choice for FDR, seeing as to how the latter’s health was declining and he was never expected to survive his full fourth term. He deliberately chose Truman as his successor, but as the nation was still engaged in World War II, Truman, who had primarily dedicated his senatorial work to domestic affairs, found himself at the helm of the biggest international conflict of the era.
It was Truman who made the fateful and highly controversial call to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings killed upwards of 200,000 people according to some estimates, most of whom were civilians, but they also prompted the Japanese surrender. His decision helped facilitate the end of the war, but the war’s loose ends soon became wrapped up in what came to be known as the Cold War.
By the late 1940s, the Russians were targeting Turkey and Greece. Fearing the spread of Communist ideals, Truman saw virtue in stopping Russia by aiding Turkey and Greece. He opted to provide military aid against Russia, all while overseeing the Marshall Plan, which aided in the post-war reconstruction of Western Europe, and the creation of NATO.
Thus, the Truman Doctrine was born.
According to the US State Department, the Truman Doctrine [QUOTE] “established that the United States would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces.”
Consider for a moment that the US was hesitant to join World War II and only did so once we were bombed at Pearl Harbor. They attacked us, so what else could we do besides engage in some kind of retaliatory effort? That effort and the doctrine that followed were both born from a generally isolationist foreign policy. The Truman Doctrine marked the start of an era when the United States would assume the role of the world’s police force. It’s a role that we never stepped down from.
Truman’s justification for shifting US foreign policy so dramatically was rooted in the idea of stability. By preventing authoritarian expansionist efforts, he would be maintaining peace in targeted and nearby regions. That peace and stability would ultimately benefit the United States as globalization was becoming more prevalent and more influential in foreign affairs.
Really quick, I want to make clear that I’m not trying to “cancel” Harry Truman or anything like that. You can make up your own mind about him, but I think there’s a tendency now for younger generations especially to look back at historical figures with a very binary lens - good or bad - like Gandhi was a bad dude because he was racist and to hell with everything he did for the liberation of India. Most people - I won’t say all, but most people - are neither all good nor all bad. Their motivations may not be relatable to today’s values, but they may have been at the time. They’re also human, so they’re going to suffer from some very humanistic flaws and they’re going to make mistakes that are always more obvious retrospectively. Whether or not the bad outweighs the good is your own call to make, but Truman remains a celebrated American president because he did do a lot of good for the American people during his time serving in public office.
That said, his doctrinal legacy is working against him now, as Americans are tired of fighting forever wars overseas. The message of the original Truman Doctrine has been bastardized and used as loose justification for American intervention in foreign affairs time and time again, interventions that always serve to benefit the American people before the people it claims to be liberating or democratizing.
Additionally, the inherent flaw with the Truman Doctrine is that it focuses on containing hostile forces, but it cannot and has not succeeded in containing hostile ideals. Nationalism isn’t stamped out with bombs. Bombs are akin to bullying on the world stage. If you bully people, they don’t try to befriend you just so that you’ll be nicer to them. They don’t change the fundamentals of who they are just so that you’ll like them more. At best, you can scare them into submission, ruling over them with fear and threats of violence and destruction. Meanwhile, under submission and in silence, your targets grow to hate you more deeply than they would have otherwise. They resent you, they want you out of their business, and they want you to suffer as they’ve been made to. Their ideas solidify and proliferate, spurning nationalistic movements and authoritarian ambitions.
By the end of it, after decades of war that have only ever seemed to encourage more war, more conflict, more disagreement, and more division, we have to ask if any of it was worth it.
Diving into Afghanistan, we’ve got another landlocked country! If you listened to the previous Global Thread episode on Belarus, you’ll recall how many problems that country faced just by virtue of being landlocked. Whenever there’s a nation amidst nations, there tends to be a struggle for land and resources because the borders are so… well, negotiable. They serve as corridors for other, bigger nations to pass through, and they often suffer the consequences of location accordingly.
In the case of Afghanistan, starting on its west side and working around, it’s bordered by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is huge. It pretty much spans all of Afghanistan’s eastern and southern border and most of Pakistan’s western border. The shared bit of border with China looks pretty negligible on the map, but it’s not to be overlooked. It’s roughly a 50-mile long border, but the pass has its own political implications, which we’ll talk about later. The Wakhan Corridor is mostly mountains, and it’s a nature refuge on both the Afghan and Chinese sides. The corridor actually used to be a part of the Silk Road, which is kind of cool.
Afghanistan’s geographic location is a little interesting, too, because it’s not technically in the Middle East, though it tends to get lumped in there. It’s more Central Asian than Middle Eastern. It’s also right next to the region considered to be South Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent, which starts with Pakistan.
Over the centuries, many have tried to conquer the region, but formidable terrain has often been an obstacle - deserts, plateaus, and of course, mountains. The Hindu Kush spread out from the northeastern corner of Afghanistan into the central part of the country.
But beneath all those big, big rocks is a wealth of natural resources that by some estimates is said to be worth upwards of $3 trillion. Of course, we know they’ve got oil that everyone wants to get their hands on, but beyond that, Afghanistan is rich with metals like copper, iron, and gold; it’s got natural gas, uranium, and coal; then there’s lithium, lead, zinc, travertine, gypsum, marble... and more.
Copper is huge in construction and infrastructure projects, as well as in electronics for the wiring. Uranium is critical for nuclear power plants. Lithium is highly sought after for use in batteries, especially as electric cars become more prolific. Travertine, gypsum, and marble are all used as building materials. That’s not even to mention the precious gems and jewels that can be dug up in those mountains.
A recent CNN headline, in my opinion, lays out the source of the region’s long history of conflict with almost unintentional realism and terrifying transparency. The headline read, “The Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of minerals the world desperately needs.” I say “terrifying” not necessarily because these resources are now in the hands of the Taliban, but terrifying in the sense that immense blessings always seem to be tainted by those who would seek to take them from you. Afghanistan, both the country and the region, will never be left alone. The land and its bounty will always be coveted by whoever has the strongest military or the biggest economic pull. This creates a situation where superpowers are constantly fighting to either maintain or seize control of a land that is not theirs, by whatever means necessary.
And the people on the ground, those who were born on and of the land, are the ones who suffer for it.
You kind of can’t blame Wakanda for building that huge Vibranium shield over itself, can you? We all saw what happened as soon as the world got hip to the Vibranium. Klaw happened… that black market dealer who chose to bust open an entire nation of secrets for his own profit - and he was just one guy. He wasn’t the entire United States, or China, or Russia. I don’t know, this may be a loose analogy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Black Panther, but you get the point.
Now, we get into the history portion of the episode, where we go back in time to try to discern where any and all of this even started. Afghanistan is one of the oldest civilized regions on the planet, though, so we’ll see how this goes.
By virtue of its landlocked location, the region that would come to be known as Afghanistan has passed through a few different hands in its time. It was conquered by Darius the I of Babylonia around 500 BC, and then nearly two centuries later, it was taken by Alexander the Great of Macedonia.
Actually, have you guys seen that terrible Alexander the Great movie from years ago with Colin Farrell? Remember when he took a wife from Bactria, who was, for some reason, played by Rosario Dawson? It was such a weird movie with such a weird cast, but especially weird was Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of people from Bactria. I mean, whatever. For all I know, maybe she did deliver a strong, historically accurate portrayal of people from that region in 300-something BC. Anyway, Bactria would have been modern-day Afghanistan and its neighboring regions in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There was a lot of Persian influence back then, too, which again, makes casting Rosario Dawson extra weird, but I digress. That region northwest of the Hindu Kush is particularly fertile, so it makes sense that it was decently populated at that time.
It all went on to be conquered a few more times, with Islam entering the region in the late 19th century.
Meanwhile, the British were already in India, and if you’ll recall from 9th-grade geography, India back then was comprised of modern-day Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Pakistan, if you’ll recall from earlier in this podcast, shares a huge border with Afghanistan. That border is known as the Durand Line.
But before we get to that, a great game was being played between Britain and Russia. It was called The Great Game...
[THE GREAT GAME]
In the 19th century and into the 20th, global powers were seeking to expand their influence in foreign regions. The British were all over India, as they had been for centuries at that point, and the Russians were establishing themselves firmly in Central Asia. Both the British and the Russians were wary of the other. The British didn’t want the Russians interfering in India, and the Russians didn’t want the British expanding into Central Asia.
The region of Afghanistan, which again is landlocked, was seen as a thoroughfare for both the Russians and the British. The British wanted to annex it and keep it as a protectorate so that the Russians wouldn’t be able to access India through Afghanistan. This would also have protected British seaports and granted Britain access to Central Asian trade routes. Whether or not the Russians actually cared about India or wanted to conquer it is debatable, but regardless, the suspicion alone was enough to prompt the Crown into action.
Britain, in its great Western wisdom, sought to “civilize” the region, which at that point was populated with nomadic groups. They would essentially Anglicize the groups, setting up trade routes and spreading their own views and values, as they liked to do back then. The idea was to create a buffer between the British holdings and Russia. They didn’t want Russia too close or too comfortable.
First, they tried to work with the Afghans, which backfired on them when the Afghans imprisoned and later beheaded two of their military officers. Meanwhile, the Persians, who were backed by the Russians, were trying to recover some of their own lost land in the Afghan region, so the British sprung into action.
They captured and exiled the Emir of Afghanistan with loose justification for doing so. They replaced him with a more British-friendly Shah thinking that it would solidify an Afghan-British alliance. Unfortunately, the Afghan people didn’t like their new shah, so they killed him. The Afghan people revolted against the British and won, prompting the British to leave the region and release the imprisoned Emir Khan.
At that point, the British turned their attention elsewhere, this time fighting the Sikhs to subjugated their empire. After two wars, the British had captured Sind and Punjab, the latter of which may or may not have been where my own ancestors came from. We can’t really confirm, though, because we don’t have a lot of records from that time, which is just another example of geopolitical nonsense from centuries ago having modern-day impacts (as if this whole podcast doesn’t support that exact premise). For reference, this region lies in modern-day Pakistan and India, so it’s east of Afghanistan.
The British went on to fight two more wars with the Afghans, all the while establishing diplomatic relations with the Russians and staving off the Persians. By the end of the third war in 1921, Afghanistan had declared itself fully independent. The new Emir Amanullah was looking for a way to earn more public support for his leadership, especially amongst the more conservative factions, so he positioned himself as progressive, democratic, and more nationalistic, meaning that it was time to break free from Britain. He took advantage of the fact that the British military had been depleted by World War I, so he attacked British India and came out victorious. Ultimately, it worked out alright for the British, because they both agreed to leave each other alone, which is really all the British ever wanted in the first place. It also led to the British officially recognizing the Durand Line as the border between Afghanistan and the western portion of British India, which again, is modern-day Pakistan.
[THE DURAND LINE, 1893]
Following the Second British-Afghan War, the British had taken over significant Afghan lands, which resulted in both sides signing a treaty establishing a 1660-mile long border between Afghan territory and British India. However, the line cut straight through land that had been occupied for centuries by the Pashtun people, which resulted in Pashtuns finding themselves on opposite sides of an arbitrary line, separated from their friends, families, institutions, and historic lands. To this day, the line remains a point of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Afghanistan, in particular, claiming lands on the other side. Actually just last week, Pakistan asked for a border wall to be placed on the Durand Line, but the Taliban said no, confirming that they do not recognize the legitimacy of the line.
Side note, the British would do something similar to this all over again when they drew a line creating India and Pakistan in 1947, a line that also is the cause of many modern-day conflicts in the region. You’d think they’d learn…
[THE COLD WAR]
By the 1950s, the British had evacuated India, but not before creating the nation of Pakistan as a parting gift, segregating the territory on religious grounds. The newly-formed Pakistan inherited the border created by the Durand Line. The Western world was recovering from World War II, the Americans had a new president after nearly four terms with FDR, and with Harry Truman in place as his successor, the Cold War was upon us.
I’m not going to spend too much time on the Cold War, but if you take the basic premise that the US, by virtue of the Truman Doctrine, decided to provide military and humanitarian aid to foreign nations who were vulnerable to Soviet influence, the whole situation is not much different from that of the Great Game. You just sub out Britain for the US. My point is that as much as you can sign a treaty or declare a war or a conflict to be over, things are rarely ever truly resolved. The underlying fears, ambitions, and other motivations never really go away, even if they are momentarily pacified at different points in history.
Here are some highlights, though.
Following the war, both the Americans and the Soviets were vying for influence in Afghanistan. They did this by funding infrastructure projects, which is something you see happening now with China, and they offered military support to the Afghans. In the 50s, a pro-Soviet Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud Khan, came into power. He served as PM for ten years under his cousin, the Shah, until he was ousted from his position in 1963. The Shah, who would come to be known as the Father of the Nation, then focused on modernizing and democratizing Afghanistan, granting his constituents freedom of speech and assembly, and establishing Afghanistan as a constitutional monarchy. But in 1973, Khan re-emerged, unimpressed with what he deemed to be ineffective leadership and slow progress. With the help of Afghanistan’s growing socialist faction, he led a bloodless coup against the shah, after which he established the Republic of Afghanistan and declared himself to be its president. He refused to acknowledge the Durand Line and aligned himself with the disenfranchised Pashtuns, much to the dismay of other Afghan minority groups.
So, he wasn’t actually that popular! Establishing one-party rule in his new republic, he ruled as an authoritarian, systematically purging his government of those who opposed him, including some of the socialists who helped him get into office. A lot of people resented his close ties with the Soviet Union, many blamed him for the country’s poor economic performance, and he had botched the country’s diplomatic relations, both foreign and domestic. The socialists in Afghanistan had grown in number and influence during this time, and in 1978, they staged another coup, this time against Khan, assassinating him and his family. Their bodies were thrown unceremoniously into mass graves, which is eerily similar to what happened when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Romanovs in Russia.
[PEOPLE’S DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF AFGHANISTAN, OR PDPA]
Once the socialists took over, they wanted a more modernized country. They were more nationalistic, too, which is understandable and expected from a nation of people who had spent the better part of a few centuries being jostled amongst superpowers. They wanted to re-establish themselves as Afghans, not as British subjects, not as Soviets, not as Persians, not as Americans. The problem with this was that many of the people living in Afghanistan, especially in the more rural areas, didn’t see themselves as Afghans, primarily, but rather as members of their own smaller tribes and groups.
After the newly-empowered People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or the PDPA, overthrew Khan and established their new socialist government, they made it a priority to move the nation forward, and a lot of these reforms, I’m not gonna lie, sound pretty great. To be fair, some of these were expanded from the Shah’s and President Khan’s administrations. They prioritized literacy for Afghanistan’s almost entirely illiterate population; they championed women’s rights by raising the minimum legal age for marriage, abolishing forced marriages and exorbitant dowries, or “bride prices,” ensuring women had access to schools and universities, and allowing them to participate in government; they redistributed land and forgave peasants’ debts to restore a balance of wealth and power; usury was abolished; and Sharia law was abolished and replaced with a separation of church and state.
Unfortunately, large swaths of the Afghan people hated these reforms. Literacy amongst women, for example, had previously been determined by the woman’s father or husband. They were the ones who decided whether or not to educate the women, and they almost always opted not to. The new government, as they saw it, was stripping them of their authority over their women, and they feared that educated women would become too rebellious. The land reforms and the ban on usury didn’t go over well either, as they were poorly executed and enforced, and they may have contributed to low agricultural yields and, eventually, famine. They thought the reforms were too Western and too radical for their extremely conservative sensibilities, and they weren’t keen on the separation of church and state.
This is kind of a hard one for Americans to grasp, especially conservative ones. We’ve been led to believe that all Marxism, communism, socialism, etc. is completely, hands-down, no-discussion-necessary bad, but many of the reforms that were enacted by a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist leftist regime were right in line with our own American values. Here in the States, we tend to see Russia as our “bad guy,” fighting for communism against our own fight for capitalistic democracy. Really, though, their function and operations on the world stage more often than not mimic our own. That’s why you see nations, like Afghanistan, switching allegiances between the US and Russia throughout history. They’re loyal to whoever helps them the most, either economically, socially, militarily, or diplomatically. They don’t draw such hard-lined distinctions between the two superpowers because maybe those distinctions aren’t as deep as we over here seem to think.
You know, it’s like the Spider-Man meme.
What we start to see in Afghanistan from the 50s onward is a struggle between progressive secularists on the left and religious fundamentalists on the right. Spoiler alert: by the 90s, the religious right takes over, and it sucks.
That feels like as good a stopping point as any. When we come back for Part 2, we’ll jump right into Sharia law, the Taliban and the Afghan Civil War, Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 attacks, and of course, everything that followed.
Thank you so much for being here. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, you can do so at globalthread.org, and if you’d like to support my work, you are more than welcome to do so at patreon.com/globalthread. See you all for Part 2!