Two great powers have attempted to conquer Afghanistan in recent history.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) failed miserably, thanks in part to US help to the Afghan resistance. And then, following the 9/11 attacks, the US spent the best part of the last two decades trying to control Afghanistan. Once again, the Afghans have prevailed.
Throughout its history, several great powers have tried to exert their influence on Afghanistan, including the British and Russian Empires of the 19th and 20th century.
Different powers came to Afghanistan for different reasons. But all of them failed in the same manner. One wonders why? After all, neither is Afghanistan blessed with economic resources nor did it ever possess advanced military technology.
Historians have some explanations. For starters, none of the superpowers had a comprehensive plan to fight insurgencies. Secondly, the political and military goals were not always clearly defined, and they occasionally overlapped.
For all the invaders, Afghanistan was not the primary goal, and after devoting so many resources and paying such high costs in terms of money and sacrifices, they lost domestic support and were obliged to leave. Although no Great Power was able to conquer Afghanistan, several of those powers were able to achieve their political objectives.
The British did not triumph militarily in invading Afghanistan, but they did succeed politically, since they accomplished their fundamental goal: they kept Afghanistan free of Russian control.
There are several additional variables that contribute to Afghanistan being a difficult area to fight a war. Logistically, the geographic terrain makes moving people and equipment challenging. Furthermore, outside forces do not always comprehend the country's 14 recognised ethnic groups and their numerous tribes.
The geography is, first and foremost, what makes Afghanistan so difficult to capture and control. It's a massive desert basin encircled by some of the world's tallest peaks. An invader army could just fade away into the mountains until the next fighting season came.
In present times as well, the high peaks nullify the benefit of armor and tanks, just as they did in ancient times for heavy cavalry.
The main reason no one could conquer Afghanistan is that no invader could fully subdue the populace. And the population in Afghanistan is as varied as they come. Pashtun, Turkmen, Baloch, Palaw, Tajik, and Uzbek, to name a few, are only a handful of the country's ethnic groupings.
Forget about Taliban or Mujaheddin allegiance for a moment and consider the life of an ordinary Afghan guy. Their loyalty is based on their clan, tribe, unit, sheikh, nationality, religion, and maybe their province or central government. Consider attempting to subjugate 34 million of them, as you must, if you attack Afghanistan.
Ask the British, conquering those people in pitched battles did not work. Ask the Soviets, how trying to massacre them failed. And, the American nation-building plan also did not go anywhere.
Great Britain makes treaty with Afghanistan's ruler Sultan Shuja Durrani
As a major European power in the Indian subcontinent, the British showed an interest in Afghanistan as early as 1809 when they made a Treaty with the ruler Sultan Shah
Shuja Durrani. He allied with Great Britain against an invasion of Afghanistan by France.
The initiation of 'the Great Game' between Russia and Great Britain
During the 19th century Afghanistan was greatly impacted by the rivalry between the rising British and Russian empires in so-called 'The Great Game.'
It began in 1830 with the British intention to gain control over the Emirate of Afghanistan and make it a protectorate, whereas Russia proposed Afghanistan be turned into a neutral zone.
The First Anglo-Afghan War took place between British Empire and Afghanistan during this period. The war is known by the British as the 'Disaster in Afghanistan'
In 1826, Dṓst Mohammad Khan of the Bārakzay clan ascended the throne in Afghanistan. With Russia and the British both attempting to exert influence on Dṓst Mohammad Khan, Dṓst was forced to balance both countries.
However, the British felt that he was hostile towards them or too weak towards the Russian and decided to take matters into their own hands. Following a failed negotiation with Dṓst, the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, ordered an invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, to reinstate the exiled ruler Shah Shojā to the throne.
Despite the invasion being successful at dethroning Dṓst Mohammad Khan, growing unrest across the country against foreign rule forced the British to abandon their position and to strike a deal with Akbar Khan, Dōst Moḥammad's son.
The most important day in this invasion was on January 6, 1842, when around 4,500 British and Indian troops, with 12,000 camp followers, marched out of Kabul. But bands of Afghans swarmed around them, and their retreat ended in a bloodbath.
In 1843, the new governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, ordered the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. Consequently, Dṓst Mohammad Khan returned to Kabul and was restored to the throne.
The second Anglo-Afghan War
Apprehensive of the growing Russian influence on Afghanistan, the then governor-general of India, Lord Lytton, wanted to secure a strong frontier even if it required force.
At first, Lytton notified Shīr ʿAlī Khan – the ruler of Afghanistan – that he would be sending a so-called mission to Kabul, but the latter refused. Following his refusal, Lytton reprimanded Afghanistan and called them nothing but 'an earthen pipkin between two metal pots'. However, in 1878, Shīr ʿAlī Khan did allow Russia's general Stolyetov to visit Kabul.
Enraged, Viceroy Lytton decided to crush the neighbouring 'pipkin' and launched the Second Anglo-Afghan War on November 21, 1878.
Shīr ʿAlī Khan fled the capital and the Brits recognised his son, Yaʿqūb Khan, as Emir. Yaʿqūb agreed to the establishment of a permanent British Embassy in Kabul as well as the right of the British to determine its foreign policy.
However, this triumph was short-lived as the British envoy Sir Louis Cavagnari and his escort were murdered in Kabul. In response, the British forces occupied Kabul and Yaʿqūb abdicated the throne. Independent Afghanistan succumbed to the British.
The third Anglo-Afghan War began in 1919 when Emir Amanullah Khan proclaimed independence from Britain.
Despite the Afghans rallying behind the Ottoman Turkey in World War I, Ḥabībullāh Khan, the ruler of Afghanistan maintained a neutral position and stayed away from the war. However, in 1919, he was assassinated by factions of the anti-British movement and his son, Amānullāh Khan ascended the throne.
Amānullāh immediately declared total independence from Great Britain. This declaration launched the Third Anglo-Afghan War in May 1919.
This war was inconclusive, as neither the Afghan army nor the exhausted British Indian army could gain some advantage over the other. Finally, a peace treaty was signed at Rawalpindi, recognising the independence of Afghanistan in 1919.
Failed attempts at social reforms during the rule of King Amanullah
King Amanullah tried to introduce several social reforms in order to modernise Afghanistan. While some of the changes were really implemented, many tribal and religious leaders were immediately alienated. As a result, it gave rise to a civil war. Eventually Amanullah had to flee.
Mohammad Zahir Shah becomes king
Mohammad Zahir Shah was the last king of Afghanistan. He ruled for forty years from 1933 to 1973. He ascended the throne at the age of 19, following the assassination of his father in November 1933. During his rule, the Afghan government maintained a delicate balance in their relationship with both sides of the Cold War and maintained relative stability in the country.
General Mohammad Daud becomes Prime Minister
Becoming the Prime Minister, General Mohammed Daud turned to Soviet Union for economic and military aid. Some social changes also followed, such as the elimination of purdah. However, disputes with Pakistan led to an economic crisis and he was asked to resign in 1963.
Former Prime Minister Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan seized power in a non-violent coup. Daud abolished monarchy and ousted Zahir Shah as the king. He also tried to play off the USSR against Western powers.
Nur Mohammad Turaki comes to power
In a pro-Soviet attack, General Daud was ousted and assassinated in a military coup. The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), led by Nur Mohammad Turaki, came to power. Nevertheless, the party was crippled by US opposition and violent aggression from US supported mujahideen groups.
PDPA signs agreement with Soviet Union allowing military support
After coming to power, the PDPA tried to impose a Marxist–Leninist agenda. In December 1978, the PDPA leadership signed an agreement with the Soviet Union which would allow military support for the PDPA in Afghanistan if needed.
In April 1978, Afghanistan's centrist government Mohammad Daud Khan was ousted by a left-wing military coup led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. The new government formed by the Marxist-Leninist political groups - Khalq Party and the Banner Party – had very little popular support as they formed close ties with the Soviet Union. The coalition introduced extensive land and social reforms that were bitterly resented by the devoutly Muslim Afghan populace.
Insurgents arose against the government, the most prominent of which was the Mujahideen (aided and abetted by the US). On top of that, infighting broke out within the Khalq Party and the Banner Party. Eventually, a civil war broke out between the communist and the Islamist factions. These insurgencies and coups within the government prompted the USSR to invade the country on December 27, 1979.
The soviet army endorses Babrak Karmal as the ruler.
In opposition to Babrak Karmal, insurgencies rose up, with many mujahideen groups fighting against the Soviet soldiers. The United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were providing the groups with money, weaponry and other resources.
Mujahideen groups forge alliances with Pakistan
In Pakistan, Mujahideen groups were gathering power to forge an alliance against the Soviet Army. It is currently believed that half of the Afghan people were displaced by the conflict, with most of them having migrated to neighbouring Iran or Pakistan.
US provides missiles to the Mujahideen
The US provided Stinger missiles to Mujahideen so that they could fire Soviet helicopter weapons. As head of the soviet-backed administration, Babrak Karmal was replaced by Mohammad Najibullah.
Peace agreements signed by Afghanistan, the USSR, the USA and Pakistan. The Soviet Union started withdrawing soldiers.
Red Army quits
The last Soviet forces left Afghanistan. But civil unrest continued as mujahideens pushed to oust Mohammad Najibullah.
With the collapse of the regime of Mohammad Najibullah, a disastrous civil war followed
In March 1992, Soviet leaning Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah agreed to resign and make way for a neutral interim government. Several Mujahideen groups started negotiations to form a coalition government. But Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar wanted to take it all alone.
With Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence's (ISI's) backup, the group refused to join the coalition government and announced they would conquer Kabul all alone. Hekmatyar moved his troops to Kabul, and was allowed into the town soon after 17 April. This left the other mujahideen groups no other choice than to also enter Kabul, on 24 April, to prevent Hekmatyar from taking over the city and the country.
Within days, a civil war erupted. At first a few mujahideen armies joined. But soon five to six armies joined the fight. Some major players in the civil war include Jamiat-e Islami, Hezb-e Islami Khalis, Ittehad-e Islami, Harakat-e-Inqilab-e-Islami, Hezb-i Wahdat, Junbish-i Milli, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin. After four months, already half a million residents of Kabul had fled the heavily bombarded city.
The Taliban take control of Kabul
Mullah Omar founded Taliban with 50 students in September 1994 in his hometown of Kandahar. Within months, around 15,000 students joined the group. By 1994, when Pakistan's favourite Hekmatyar couldn't create a government in Kabul, they found a new favourite in the Taliban.
In a surprise attack on Kandahar City on November 3, 1994, the Taliban conquered the city. By January 1995, they controlled around 12 Afghan provinces. They conquered different cities without any obstacle as the militias controlling the different areas often surrendered without a fight.
In early 1995 the Taliban moved towards Kabul, but they were defeated by the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud. In retaliation for the defeat, the Taliban fighters started shelling the city and killing civilians. Again on September 26, 1996, the Taliban invaded Kabul. This time Massoud ordered a full retreat from Kabul to continue anti-Taliban resistance in the north-eastern Hindu Kush Mountains. The Taliban entered Kabul triumphant on September 27, 1996. By 1998, the Taliban's Emirate controlled 90% of Afghanistan.
After taking control, the Taliban imposed a radical form of Islam. The Taliban prohibited women from working and introduced severe Shariah punishments that include canning, death-stoning, amputation.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia recognise the Taliban as legitimate authority. At the time, the Taliban reigned over roughly 2/3 of Afghanistan
US launches missile strikes at suspected bases of militant Osama bin Laden, accused of bombing US embassies in Africa
America initiated missile attacks on suspected militant camps of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Laden was charged with attacking US embassies in Africa.
In order for Afghanistan to hand Osama bin Laden to trial, the UN imposes an air embargo and other financial penalties.
September 11, 2001: The 9/11 attack on the US
On September 11, 2001, four coordinated terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda changed everything in Afghanistan. Nineteen terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers ultimately collapsed because of the damage sustained from the impacts and the resulting fires. The attacks killed 2,977 people from 93 nations.
After the September 11 attacks on the US, a US-backed bombing operation in Afghanistan began. Northern Alliance soldiers arrived in Kabul to fight the Taliban.
Various factions in Afghanistan agreed on an interim government in Bonn, Germany. Hamid Karzai became the leader of the transitional power-sharing administration.
The first squadron of peacekeepers led by NATO is deployed
This marked the beginning of a lengthy fight against the Taliban. In the meantime, Hamid Karzai became the head of the state elected by the grand council Loya Jirga.
The grand council validates the new constitution
The new constitution granted much power to the presidency. Later that year, Hamid Karzai was declared winner of the presidential elections.
Afghan people vote in their first parliamentary elections in 30 years.
NATO takes the responsibility for Afghanistan's security.
The Kabul Indian Embassy suicide bomb assault kills around 50.
President Karzai threatens that if Islamabad fails to take action against them, Afghanistan would deploy soldiers to Pakistan to combat extremists.
Military pact/ New US approach
After the announcement by the US of 17,000 additional soldiers, NATO countries commit to raising military and other commitments in Afghanistan.
Barack Obama, the newly elected US President, advances a new plan for Afghanistan. An additional 4,000 US soldiers were deployed to train and support the Afghan military and police. Obama also decided to increase the number of US troops to 30,000, totalling 100,000 in Afghanistan.
In a suicide strike on a US base in Khost an Al-Qaeda dual agent kills seven CIA operatives.
NATO agrees to give security controls to Afghan forces
During the Lisbon Summit, NATO agrees that by 2014 Afghan forces would be given security controls.
President Karzai negotiates a 10-year military pact with the US.
According to the deal, the US troops would remain after 2014 but all foreign troops have to leave the country.
During the same year, more than 500 Taliban prisoners fled from a jail in Kandahar.
In addition, the governor of Kandahar and Karzai's half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai is assassinated in a Taliban operation against important persons.
May 2, 2011
Osama Bin Laden is killed by the US forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
NATO withdrawal plan
Taliban decides to build an office in Dubai to facilitate peace talks
As a step towards peace talks with the United States and the Government of Afghanistan, Taliban decided to build an office in Dubai.
The Summit of NATO supports the proposal for the removal of foreign combat forces by the end of 2014.
President Karzai and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari agree to work for an Afghan peace deal within six months.
The peace talks were hosted by Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron. They back the opening of an Afghan office in Doha and urge the Taliban to do the same for talks to take place.
President Karzai suspends security talks with the US after Washington announces its plan to hold direct talks with the Taliban. Afghanistan insists on conducting the talks with the Taliban in Qatar itself.
The US and Britain ended their combat operations in Afghanistan.
US President Barack Obama announces that 9,800 US troops will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2016
He backtracked on an earlier pledge to pull all but 1,000 troops from the country.
Barack Obama says 8,400 US troops will remain in Afghanistan into 2017
US President Barack Obama took this decision given the so-called 'precarious security situation'. NATO also agrees to maintain troop numbers and reiterates a funding pledge for local security forces until 2020.
Rise in IS activities reported in a number of northern and southern provinces.
US President Donald Trump says he is sending more troops to fight a resurgent Taliban.
Taliban Launches Major Attacks Amid U.S. Escalation
The Taliban carry out a series of bold terror attacks in Kabul that kill more than 115 people amid a broader upsurge in violence.
Representatives of the Taliban and of the Afghan government and civil society meet face to face for the first time in Doha, Qatar, after nearly twenty years of war.
The government pushes for a cease-fire, while the Taliban reiterates its call for the country to be governed through an Islamic system.
Rise of the Taliban, Again!
The Talibans retreated, but the United States and its allies never really defeated them. They began to claim back territorial control of Afghanistan within years of NATO leaving the country. Today, the Taliban claims that they control more than 80% of the territory in Afghanistan.
President Biden announces that the US will plan for a full withdrawal by September 11, 2021.
This deadline would not meet the one set under the U.S.-Taliban agreement to withdraw all troops by May 1.