R. Bruce Anderson
Dōst Moḥammad Khan had difficult decisions to make.
He had just fought a bloody civil war with the supporters of the dissolute and incompetent Shah Shojā, the former ruler, and had ascended to the throne of Afghanistan in 1826. He was 33 years old, chief of the powerful Barakzay clan, and the dust s ‘finally installed.
After years of internal strife – a common occurrence in Afghanistan then and today – Dōst Moḥammad faced a new threat – indeed, several threats – from the outside world for which he had neither had the time nor the the patience to think a lot in his short life.
The major problem was not the Afghans per se, but their geopolitical position on the map, between British-held India and the growing Russian Empire to the north. Afghanistan, the British believed, could be a buffer between the two, preventing the Russian bear from trying to engulf India, or at least the trade routes that lead to it. They weren’t sure about the current government, so they invaded.
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Seizing the exiled Shah Shojā, they crashed into the place, captured Kabul, and installed the hapless (but docile) Shojā on the throne. It took less than a year for the Afghans to rise up, slaughter their British occupiers and demand the return of Dōst Moḥammad. The British reoccupied Kabul, but placed Dōst Moḥammad on the throne and left the area.
It was the first of three Afghan wars the British would fight – all ending in much the same way. Bellicosity, followed by extreme violence, and finally their departure in a state of bewilderment and defeat.
The Russians, not to be outdone in the stupid adventures of ordinary Englishmen, also had their crack at the place. Without going into painful details, the Soviet war in Afghanistan was costly and bloody, and ultimately may have been at least in part responsible for the collapse of the USSR. Broken, the Russians left with much the same bewilderment as the British before them, leaving a power vacuum then filled by the Afghans they initially attempted to displace.
Let’s review: in about 150 years, four great wars waged by great powers have taken place in this place, all having less to do with Afghans than with geopolitics or opium or a perceived (or real) threat than someone else can use Afghanistan. as a launching pad for evil.
Our war in Afghanistan – we had been there for 20 years – ended like the other four. A story of shifting goalposts (from preventing terrorism to reforming a society, creating a democracy), erratic engagement and no exit plan doomed the effort.
As the chaos was barely contained at Kabul airport, we brought out the last Americans and our Afghan allies (which must be done – all of them) and the Afghan “president” was running like a marten – we threw the keys to them . To the Taliban, but really to the heirs of the ghost of Dōst Moḥammad, a crew of people seen by many Afghans as a flicker of legitimate autonomy, even brutally violent and cruelly sectarian.
When former President Trump examined the geography of the war in Afghanistan, he saw the opportunity to get us out of it and seized it. President Biden held on and pocketed the political blow, just as Trump likely would have.
They both acted publicly on something everyone privately knew: the war in Afghanistan was a horrible mistake – and we had to get out. Nation-building (indeed, nation-building) by force is a futile endeavor. The Russian model (see: East Germany, Hungary, Romania) was a colossal failure; the British, well …
We’ve never really tried it on for size. We have never had “colonies” in the classic sense of the term. Caution – and rotten examples in history – have stopped us. And where we have come close to it, it does not suit us, and it certainly did not, with a terrible tragedy in Afghanistan.
Is there a “lesson” here for us? Yes.
R. Bruce Anderson is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay, Jr. Chair in American History, Government and Civics Education and Miller Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Florida Southern College. He is also a columnist for The Ledger and political consultant and on-air commentator for WLKF Radio.