Outside the presidential palace gate (Arg) in Kabul, the day after revolution on 28 April 1978

Hundred years of independence: cycle of violence & instability in Afghanistan

Ever since King Amanullah’s rule, Afghanistan has undergone through several regime change to consolidate a strong central government but in vain. The country still struggles to bring peace.                             

Ghulam Sakhi was 12-year-old when he began working on the street of Kabul. Sakhi has been on the street of Kabul for nearly 60 years, working and living under King Zahir Shah’s monarchy, Sardar Daud’s republic, Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, Mujahedeen’s Islamic State of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate and the US-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.  

“My life has been the same for years,” said Ghulam Sakhi, now 68-year old. “Working on the street for several years, I finally managed to buy a taxi and make a living, I am just surviving.”

Ghulam Sakhi, 68, is a taxi driver in Kabul

 The country marked its 100th independence on Monday, August 19, 2019, amid uncertainty and a likely US-Taliban peace deal. In the latest episodes of violence, Islamic State suicide bomber ripped through a wedding hall in Kabul, killing 63 and wounding 182 others on Saturday night, before the day of celebration of independence.

“The country has sunk in violence throughout the latest 100 years,” said Ali Amiri, a university lecturer. “The Afghans have sunk in violence so deep as we cannot find a single historian who should reflect why the country has sunk in violence.”

Afghanistan has a long bloody history of violence, and to some, out of 100 years of independency, 80 years of the history of the country has been filled with violence and bloodshed. King Amanullah, who ruled the country from 1919 to 1929, declared the country independent in 1919.

“King Amanullah built a national state,” said Sayed Askar Mousavi, a historian. “At least, King Amanullah did not borrow money or beg to run his kingdom.”

King Amanullah, who was overthrown by Habibullah Kalakani in 1929, eventually escaped to seek asylum in Italy. Mohammad Nader Shah defeated Kalakani and seized power in November 1929, which marked a new period in the turbulent history of the country.

Nader Shah, who had previously served as Afghan minister of war and as Afghan ambassador to France, took a tough stand to rule the country. He imprisoned his opponents and sent renowned intellectuals to exile.   

On November 8, 1933, Abdul Khaliq Hazara, a 17-year old high school student, shot Nader Shah to death while he was on a visit in a high school in the capital Kabul. Following his assassination, his 19-year old son Mohammad Zahir took the lead to rule the country. King Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan for 40 years.   

“We used to go for picnic to Darul Aman palace’s garden,” said Ghulam Sakhi, who was born and raised during the rule of Zahir Shah. “I remember that Zahir Shah ordered to pave Kabul-Herat highway.”

Mohammad Zahir Shah was symbolic king. As de facto king, his cousins used to run his kingdom. Four of his cousins took the chair of prime minister-ship as Mohammad Zahir Shah was too young to fully exercise authority.

“The leadership of the country after 1929 failed to form a nation-state,” said Mousavi. “They built a pseudo-government and pushed the country toward ethno-tribal conflicts, rather than modernizing the country.”

In 1953, the pro-Soviet Mohammad Daud Khan, who was King Zahir’s cousin, became prime minister. Under Daud, Afghanistan underwent social reforms. With differences increasing between the king and his prime minister, on July 17, 1973, Daud Khan launched a bloodless coup against Zahir Shah while he was in Italy.    

In April 1978, Pro-Soviet Afghan army generals launched a coup d’état against Daud Khan. They killed him along with his family members in the place.  

“I was in downtown when the coup happened,” said Ghulam Sakhi. “The battle inside the palace continued for 24 hours. Jets were hitting from air and tanks from the ground.”

The pro-Soviet Afghan politicians, helped by the army, formed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Following this development, the anti-Kabul government mujahedeen leaders, harbored by Pakistan and funded by the West and Saudi Arabia, mobilized ordinary Afghans to fight against the Soviet-backed Kabul government.            

In 1979, The Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) deployed troops to Afghanistan to defend the Kabul government. With the deployment of USSR troops, the country turned into cockpit of the Cold War.   

“Some people subscribed to communist ideology and others subscribed Muslim brotherhood ideology and Islamic ideologies preached by religious preachers in Iran and Pakistan,” said Mousavi. “The ideologies were not developed by Afghans, as the situation was so dire in the country that everyone was just seeking to survive.”

The deteriorated situation pushed many Afghans to depend on foreign countries for survival. At this period of history, the country sank in violence. The Soviet-backed government forces campaigned to eliminate Islamists, in reverse, the Islamist group waged insurgency to overthrow the government.

“With rising to power, the Soviet-backed government suppressed its opponents. It killed many innocent people who had nothing to do with politics,” said Ghulam Sakhi.

“The geostrategic location of Afghanistan, known as the heart of Asia and gate to India, enticed the foreign powers to interfere in Afghanistan,” said Hafez Mansoor, who is a member of Jamait Islami party, a party that fought against the Soviet occupation.

An Afghan leader of Mujahedeen speaks to fighters during war against Soviet-back government in 1980s, Photo by Steve Mccurry

In 1989, the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union inked a peace accord in Geneva to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Following the Geneva peace accord, the Soviet Union pulled out its troops from the country. The Mujahedeen continued to fight against Soviet-backed government of Dr. Najib until 1992. After the debacle of Soviet Union the Kabul government fell apart and the country plunged into a bloody civil war, which destroyed major parts of the capital, forced thousands of Kabul residents to flee the country.   

“In the eastern part of the city, Pashtun fighters, under the leadership of Gulbudden Hekmatyar, took position, in the north, Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massud stationed his forces, and in the west, Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari positioned his forces,” recalled Ghulam Sakhi. “The city was burning in flame and bullet was raining everywhere… one day I went to Kot-e-Sangi neighborhood of the city, there were dead bodies everywhere.”

The Taliban movement took control over Kabul in 1996 but they faced a strong resistance in the north, where North Alliance forces fought against them. The Islamist group imposed a self-style of Islamist government and banned women from working and studying.

Following September 11 attack on World Trade Center in New York, the United States, under Bush administration, toppled the Taliban government. The American-led intervention heartened hopes among Afghans. In December 2001, Afghan politicians met in Bonn, Germany, to sign an agreement on future government of the country. The US-led NATO alliance deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan, installed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and funded the Afghan army and police to restore order and democracy in the country.       

“This government is a pseudo-democratic government,” said Mousavi. “The government is not able to eliminate insurgents, and arrest those who speak against it, otherwise it would not wait for a second.”

The presence of US troops in the country, however, did not help to eliminate the Taliban insurgency. In 2014, the US, under Obama administration, pulled out a large of number of US troops from Afghanistan, as a good gesture to bring the Taliban insurgents to negotiating table.

In July 2018, US President Donald Trump ordered American diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban to put an end to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Many Afghans and Americans, however, fear that a complete US troop withdrawal will mark the beginning of a new phase of violence. Several Afghan security experts and American analysts fear that the country will plunge into another civil war if the US pulls out its troops from the country.