COLOMBO: Afghanistan, a link between South and Central Asia, has been coveted by external powers for its strategic location from the earliest times. This has led to endless invasions, leaving in their wake devastation and disruption of colossal proportions.

But the more interesting part of the disturbing story is that none of the powers has been able to hold Afghanistan for long. This could be attributed to the fierce resistance put up by its hardy, intrepid, clannish and well-armed tribal people holed up in inaccessible and rugged mountains.

Among the invaders were: Alexander the Great of Macedonia who took Afghanistan in 330 BC; the Indian prince Chandragupta Maurya, who ruled much of North India and parts of Afghanistan between 321 and 297 BC; the Persians; the Central Asian Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13 th.Century AD; the Sikhs of Punjab in the 18 th. and 19 th.Centuries; the British in the 19 th.Century; the Soviet Russians in the 20 th. Century and the Americans and NATO troops in the 21 st. Century.

The Sikhs had successfully fought several wars with Afghans to seize from them control over vast areas from Peshawar to Kashmir which are now distributed between India and Pakistan. But the Sikh Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s bold bid to enter Afghanistan proper and capture Kabul in 1847, was unsuccessful.

Anglo-Russian “Great Game”

The British, then ensconced in India, invaded Afghanistan in 1839 to prevent the ever-expanding Czarist Russian Empire from further increasing it influence in Central Asian and invading India eventually. On its part, Czarist Russia was afraid that the British effort to take Bukhara in Uzbekistan and use it as a trading post will weaken its hold on its Central Asian possessions. The cold war between the British in India and Czarist Russia was known as “the Great Game” which was a prominent feature of 19 th.Century Asian politics.

Although the British military action against Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842 resulted in a complete victory, the British could not handle post-war Afghanistan. They had to quit Kabul under an agreement .But en route, their troops were ambushed by Ghilzai tribesmen hiding in the mountains. Everyone except the regimental doctor was killed. It was the doctor who broke the story to the world when he managed to trek back to India.

The British took revenge by invading Afghanistan in 1878 and took Khyber Pass and other frontier regions. In 1919 the Afghan King Amanullah Khan invaded India, but was forced to retreat after British planes bombed Kabul in one of the first displays of airpower in Asia.

Soviet Invasion

The Soviet Union was the next to invade Afghanistan as it was then in competition with the US and Western powers in the Central Asian region. The Soviets invaded in 1979 to keep in power a local communist regime led by Noor Mohammad Taraki and later Babrak Karmal. But the US, supported by its allies including Pakistan, formed local resistance groups called Mujahideen who were anti-Communist and fanatically Islamic.

The Soviets bombed and depopulated the rural areas, triggering a massive exodus out of Afghanistan. By 1982, 2.8 million Afghans had sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan and another 1.5 million in Iran. Eventually, the West-backed, funded and armed Mujahideen were able to neutralize Soviet air power with shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. The war had cost tens of thousands of Afghan and Soviet lives. The badly-going war had also coincided with a political movement in Soviet Russia to dismantle the USSR.

In 1988, the Soviet Union signed an accord with the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and agreed to withdraw its troops. The Soviet withdrawal was completed on February 15, 1989.

US Invasion

But peace in Afghanistan was short-lived, due to “9/11”. Osama bin Laden of al-Qaeda had authorized the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York which claimed 3000 lives. President George W.Bush demanded that the Taliban deliver bin Laden or risk US military action. The Taliban, who were ruling Afghanistan at that time, were disdainful. On October 7, 2001, US planes bombed Taliban forces. In December, the Taliban abandoned Kabul and Kandahar. The US-educated Hamid Karzai became head of the US-backed interim administration.

Osama bin Laden escaped to Pakistan on December 16, 2001. But the Taliban came back to fight. In March 2002, the U.S. military launched Operation Anaconda against the Taliban. Bush promised to reconstruct Afghanistan, but provided only US$ 38 billion between 2001 and 2009.

In May 2003, the Bush administration announced that major combat had ceased in Afghanistan and NATO forces began a peacekeeping mission with 65,000 troops from 42 countries. In 2004, Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement giving the US military, access to Afghan military facilities in return for training and equipment.

Afghans voted in the national and local councils in which, out of the six million voters, three million were women. But by 2006, the Karzai government was struggling to provide basic services, including police protection to the people. Violence increased. In 2007, Western troops assassinated a Taliban commander, Mullah Dadullah. In 2009, with the situation worsening, President Barack Obama sent 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but promised to withdraw them by 2011.

Meanwhile, the Karzai regime had failed to deliver the goods and give a corruption-free government. Its unpopularity led to the common man looking up to the Taliban to give a clean, incorrupt, Islamic government.

However, in 2010, NATO deployed more troops. In May 2011, US Special Forces captured and killed Osama bin Laden who was hiding in Abbotabad in Pakistan. The killing resulted in Obama’s announcement that he would withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and 23,000 by the end of 2012. In between, the US held preliminary peace talks with the Taliban, in which it was agreed that US and NATO troops will quit in 2013.

But the constant talk of withdrawal by successive US Presidents only emboldened the Taliban. The Taliban canceled talks with the US. Under pressure, the US changed its role to supporting and training Afghan government forces.

However, in 2014, the Taliban said it wants to resume talks and Obama promised to withdraw troops keeping only 9,800 in Afghanistan. Nevertheless fighting continued. And by 2018, the US had dropped more bombs than it did during any other year of the 18-year old Afghan war.

Trump’s Goal

After Donald Trump came to power in the US, there was a dramatic change. In his election campaign, he had promised to withdraw US troops by 2020. He appointed the veteran Afghan-origin US diplomat ,Zalmay Khalilzad, as a Special Envoy for Afghanistan to work out a peace deal which would require the Taliban to implement a ceasefire, cut ties with the al Qaeda and talk to and share power with the West-backed Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul.

Trump knew that the war was pinching the US badly. According the war had cost Washington U$ 975 billion between 2001 and 2019.

Nine rounds of talks were held in Doha in Qatar between Khalilzad and the Taliban even though fighting and terrorist bombings were on. But just before final round of talks with Trump himself at Camp David in the US in September this year, Trump, under mounting pressure from the national security lobby in Washington, called off the summit.

A shocked Taliban condemned Trump’s move. But it is well known that the Taliban is secretly happy rather than sad, as it believes in fighting to the finish to acquire monopolistic power. The Taliban prefer fighting to accommodating the US-backed Afghan regime of Ashraf Ghani which is considered a US puppet. Furthermore, for the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan is “Jihad”, the Islamic Holy War, with the clear and unalterable objective of establishing an Islamic dictatorship there.