July 4th – United States Independence Day – could have become an important date in Afghan history as well. On the previous Friday night, July 2nd, the Americans abandoned Bagram airport without notifying their Afghan allies, leaving behind a pile of military equipment that they had intentionally destroyed. They also cut off the electricity supply, among other measures. It had been known that the Americans would shortly withdraw and it became absolutely certain after President Biden’s speech on April 14, 2021, but no one imagined they would do it in the way they did. The number of foreign soldiers in recent times had been greatly reduced – 2,500 Americans as of January 15, 2021 – but their support for the Afghan army (particularly air support) was essential for the government to maintain control of some important cities, even though the countryside was largely controlled by the Taliban. As soon as they left, the Taliban announced that they had won the war.
History of Afghanistan
Knowing the history of Afghanistan is important because it helps us understand what happened. It gives us a clear picture of the ethnic diversity in the country – Pashtuns 42 percent, Tajiks 27 percent, Hazaras 9 percent, Turkic populations, such as Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Kazakhs, 12 percent – and allows us to get to know the Hazaras (Shiites, unlike all the other inhabitants of Afghanistan), who have lived in these lands since the time of the Mongol conquest.
But let us start with what happened during the Cold War.
The traditional conflict between colonial powers, such as Russia and Britain during the 19th century, was replaced by the ideological conflict between the USSR and the United States. After the Second World War, both the Soviets and the Americans sought to maintain their influence in Afghanistan. During that period they did so only through economic aid and training: both sides built factories, roads and canals, and also schools and universities. In 1954 when the US entered into a pact with Pakistan, Afghanistan, then still a monarchy, turned to the Soviets for support.
Zahir Shah, the then monarch, was ousted in 1973 by his cousin, Muhammad Daud, who had allied himself with the Marxist-Leninist Parcham (“The Flag”) Party. The alliance lasted until the party decided to break the agreement and stage a coup, seizing power on April 27, 1978. The radical reforms that were introduced – education for all, women’s rights, etc. – were accompanied by repression of all those who were against the new rulers, and there were many of them in a country that is mostly Islamic and conservative.