boq header
Conflict Without End – Afghanistan’s Long Bloody History

by Kevin Patterson

In December of 2010, the federal government announced that Canada would keep 950 soldiers in Afghanistan until 2014 in a strictly non-combat role to help train the Afghan military. This extension partially reverses the original plan for a full withdrawal. Earlier in 2009, Canada ’s Chief of Defense Staff, General Walt Natynczyk ordered his commanders to start preparing military plans to pull out of Afghanistan and return thousands of soldiers home to Canada by the summer of 2011. Natynczyk commented, “The withdrawal of the Canadian forces from Afghanistan will be a demanding task.” It will be the largest military pullout for Canada 's military since the Korean War encompassing not only soldiers but weapons, ammunition, spare parts material, kitchens, medical facilities and over 1,200 vehicles. In March of 2010, during a 20-minute meeting in Ottawa with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Prime Minister Stephen Harper clarified his government’s position on the military pullout. " Canada will remain engaged, but this is going to be a civilian-based mission."

Our troop’s participation in the current war and the work of our civilian agencies in reconstructing Afghan institutions represent only a brief moment in time for this war-torn and ravaged land.

For thousands of years Afghanistan has been the point where Civilizations have met. It's mountain passes are the key to the movement of ancient cultures and powerful civilizations. Often called the crossroads of Central Asia , the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, it is a nation made up of many nations. This is the result of thousands of years of conflict, invasion and migration. It has been subject to the whims of global and regional superpowers. To say it has been much fought over is a tragic understatement. In fact it is the word "tragic" that accurately describes this impoverished nation's long history.

Alexander the Great and Afghanistan

Afghanistan boasts a written history that dates back to at least 500 BC to the time when Persia was the dominant superpower. In 330 BC, a year after defeating Persian King Darius III , Alexander the Great launched two years of hard campaigning in Afghanistan , pressing as far north as the Oxus River . Alexander and his army faced serious resistance in the Afghan Tribal areas. Alexander was said to have commented that Afghanistan was "easy to march into, hard to march out of."

In a letter to his mother Alexander describes the people he was struggling against. “I am involved in the land of a 'Leonine' (lion-like) and brave people, where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldiers. You have brought only one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called an Alexander."

The following three centuries after Alexander’s death saw the gradual decline of Greek influence over the area.

Introduction of Islam and the Mongols

By 642 AD, only a decade after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Arab forces had conquered most of Persia . Arab armies now made their way into the region of Afghanistan with the new

religion of Islam. During the mid seventh century Afghanistan had a multi-religious population consisting of Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews, and others. The Arabs met up with the same stiff resistance that Alexander had encountered centuries before. Despite a prolonged struggle for control, the entire region would eventually fall to the invading Arabs. Over the period of the next two or three centuries, most inhabitants of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, southern parts of the Soviet Union, and some of northern India were converted to Sunni Islam.

The Mongol invasion of Afghanistan in1219, led by Genghis Khan, resulted in a massive slaughter of the population, pillaging of many cities and the destruction of fertile agricultural lands. Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, a succession of petty chiefs and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of Khan’s descendants, Tamerlane, incorporated Afghanistan into his own vast Asian empire.

Beginnings of Afghanistan as a nation

In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of what is known today as Afghanistan , was elected king by a tribal council. Throughout his reign Durrani, a Pashtun (speaks the language of Pasht, which account for just over half the population of Afghanistan ), consolidated chieftainships, petty principalities, and fragmented provinces into one country. His rule extended from Mashad in the west to Kashmir and Delhi in the east, and the Arabian Sea in the south. With the exception of a 9-month period in 1929, all of Afghanistan 's rulers up until 1978 were from Durrani's Pashtun tribal confederation.

Anglo-Afghan Wars - The Great Game

By the 19th century, the inhabitants of Afghanistan found themselves caught between two competing empires - an expanding British Empire on the Indian subcontinent and Czarist Russia. The strategic rivalry and conflict between these two 19th century super powers culminated in what was termed "The Great Game." Each competing empire was looking to place Afghanistan under its sphere of influence.

The first major conflict of the Great Game, which became known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, took place from 1838 to 1842. Outraged by the presence of a single Russian diplomat in Kabul, the British demanded that Afghanistan shun any contact with Russia or Iran, and that it hand over vast tracts of Pashtun inhabited land to British India (regions that are today part of Pakistan ). Then Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammad, agreed to these humiliating demands, but the British still invaded the country. They seized most of the major cities in Afghanistan with little resistance, but heavy handed rule exerted by the British soon resulted in a popular uprising. By 1842, mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison was forced to abandon the city due to constant civilian attacks. The retreating British army consisting of approximately 4,500 troops and 12,000 camp followers were slaughtered during a series of attacks by Afghan warriors. A British Surgeon named Dr. Brydon was the only one to survive.

Some forty years later Britain and Russia had at least partially resolved their tensions in Europe . Imperial Russia once again turned it’s attention to Central Asia in July of that same year by sending an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul . The Afghan ruler Amir Sher Ali tried, but failed to keep them out. On 14 August, the British demanded that Sher Ali also accept a British mission. He refused and proceeded to turn back the British diplomatic mission as it approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass , triggering the Second Anglo-Afghan War. A British army of 40,000 were able to occupy all of the major cities, but unlike the last time, the British got wind of an impending rebellion against their occupation, and brutally crushed it in a pre-emptive move. They subsequently withdrew but not before they had forced the country to hand over control of its foreign affairs and installed a new ruler Abdur Rahman Khan. His twenty-one year reign (1880-1901), saw the balancing of British and Russian interests, the consolidation of the Afghan tribes, the establishment of official boundaries and the reorganization of civil administration into what is considered the modern Afghan state.

Afghanistan remained a British protectorate until 1919. Then, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the wave of popular rebellions that rippled throughout Asia , Afghanistan declared full independence by singing a treaty of aid and friendship with Lenin, and declaring war on Britain . This launched the Third Anglo-Afghan war. After a brief period of border skirmishes, and the bombing of Kabul by the Royal Air Force, the war weary British finally conceded Afghanistan ’s independence in August 1919. In commemoration of this event, Afghans celebrate August 19 as their Independence Day.

20th Century - Progress, Conflict and Invasion

The middle years of the twentieth century saw the rule of the last Afghan King (the last ruler of the Durani dynasty) Muhammad Zahir Shah. His forty year rule was characterized by a lengthy span of peace and some pivotal changes in Afghanistan 's political structure, including a liberal constitution providing for a two-chamber legislature to which the king appointed one-third of the deputies. The people elected another third, and the remainder was selected indirectly by provincial assemblies. This experiment in democracy allowed the growth of unofficial extremist parties on both the left and the right. Zahir Shah appointed as Prime Minister his cousin Sardar Mohammad Daoud. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Daoud solicited military and economic assistance from both Washington and Moscow . Daoud's alleged support for the creation of a Pashtun state on the Pakistan-Afghan border area heightened tensions with Pakistan and eventually resulted in Daoud's dismissal in March 1963.

Afghanistan 's last monarchy was officially abolished when former Prime Minister Daoud seized

power in a military coup on July 17, 1973 . To make his move, Daoud took advantage of poor economic conditions created by a severe drought in 1971-72 and charges of corruption and malfeasance against the royal family. Daoud exercised power for a brief five years. On April 27, 1978 , the PDPA (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan - a pro-Moscow communist party) initiated a bloody coup, which resulted in the overthrow and murder of Daoud and most of his family.

Civil war in Afghanistan began when an insurgency broke out against the PDPA which had seized power in 1978. This led indirectly to Soviet military intervention. At first the PDPA invited the Soviet Union to assist in modernizing its economic infrastructure. The Soviet government then sent contractors to build roads, hospitals and schools and to drill water wells as well as train and equip the Afghan army. Most of the population in the Afghan cities welcomed the changes in some of the more traditional 'Islamic' policies. There was resistance amongst the more traditional Afghans in the villages, countryside and mountainous regions. Many of these Afghans had lost their traditional rights under PDPA reforms. A potent force amongst those who resisted were the Mujahideen "holy Muslim warriors". The Mujahideen belonged to various factions, but all shared, to varying degrees, a similarly conservative 'Islamic' ideology.

By the end of 1978, it was becoming clear that the Afghan army was showing signs of collapse under the weight of an increasing number of violent incidents. In December 1979, Soviet invasion forces crushed the growing uprising and attempted to stabilize the floundering government in Kabul . An overwhelming majority of Afghans opposed the newly imposed communist authority. The Mujahideen made it almost impossible for the regime to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers. Aided by the United States , Saudi Arabia , Pakistan , and others, the tenacious Afghan resistance was exacting a high price from the Soviets, both militarily within Afghanistan and by souring the U.S.S.R.'s relations with much of the Western and Islamic world. The cost in lives was soaring as well. By the time Soviet forces finally withdrew in February 1989, 14,500 Soviet troops and an estimated one million Afghan lives had been lost in the ten year struggle.

Unfortunately the conflict did not end with the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Mujahideen had not taken part in the negotiations nor signed the agreement that resulted in the Soviet withdrawal. In fact a number of Mujahadeen warlords continued to bring death and destruction upon the country as they fought over the spoils, and sought to enlarge their new fiefdoms. Those loosely aligned resistance groups who fought against the PDPA and the Soviet occupation were now struggling against each other.

Rise of the Taliban

In reaction to the continuing anarchy and the lack of Pashtun representation in the Kabul government, a movement of former Mujahadeen arose calling themselves the Taliban.

The name "Talib" itself means pupil. Many of the Taliban had been educated in madrassas (a place where learning/studying is done)in Pakistan and were largely from rural Pashtun backgrounds. This group dedicated itself to removing the warlords, providing order, and imposing Islam on the country. It received considerable support from Pakistan . In 1994, the Taliban had developed enough strength to capture the city of Kandahar from a local warlord and proceeded to expand their control throughout Afghanistan , occupying Kabul in September 1996. The Taliban sought to impose an extreme interpretation of Islam--based in part upon rural Pashtun traditions--on the entire country and committed massive human rights violations, particularly directed against women and girls, in the process.

During the mid-1990s the Taliban provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national who had fought with them against the Soviets, and provided a base for his and other terrorist organizations. Bin Laden and his al Qaeda group were charged with the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998. The UN Security Council repeatedly sanctioned the Taliban for these activities. Bin Laden provided both financial and political support to the Taliban. It is believed that Bin Laden and his al Qaeda group were responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist acts in the United States .

As a result of the Taliban's repeated refusal to expel bin Laden and al Qaeda and discontinue its support for international terrorism, the U.S. and its partners in the anti-terrorist coalition began a campaign on October 7, 2001, targeting terrorist facilities and various Taliban military and political assets within Afghanistan. Following weeks of devastating bombing by U.S. air power and attacks by anti-Taliban ground forces, the Taliban rapidly disintegrated. Kabul fell on November 13, 2001. In early December, Afghan groups opposed to the Taliban and committed to restoring stability and governance to Afghanistan met in Bonn Germany. The result was the creation of an interim government and establishment of a process that would move toward a permanent government.

December 2001 also saw the establishment of the UN sanctioned International Security Assistance Force to secure Kabul and the surrounding areas. In 2003, At the UN's request NATO assumed operational control of the ISAF. As one of the signatories to the NATO charter and the UN charter, Canada had a legal and moral obligation to assist in this operation.

So began a new struggle, one that continues to this day. A struggle to rebuild an impoverished nation’s political, economic and social infrastructure while fighting a war against terrorism. The Taliban continue to be a major influence. Since 2006, Afghanistan has seen threats to its stability from increased Taliban-led insurgent activity, record-high levels of illegal drug production, and a fragile government with limited control outside of Kabul . Insurgent activity by the Taliban has continued up until the present. It may take generations before the Afghan people can enjoy a measure of peace and prosperity.

What will Canada ’s role be in Afghanistan ’s future? Hopefully one where the soldiers and citizens of Canada can help restore hope and peace to country too long ravaged by fear and war.

Canadian Forces and CIDA
personnel work on a classroom.
Canadian Engineers triggering a behive device.
Canadian soldiers mentoring Afghan police instructors.
Alexander the Great
Ahmad Shah Durrani
Soldiers during the First
Anglo-Afghan War.
Afghan Soldiers in the Khyber Pass during the Third Anglo-Afghan War.
Muhammad Zahir Shah - the Last Afghan King
Russian Troops in Afghanistan 1989







































Home   Connecting To Canadians   Canada's Place In The World   Changing Canada's Political Culture   Values    Queen's Partnership
The Team   Canada's Rich History   Email Us