How Foreign Interventions Unmade Modern Afghanistan

Tribalism, corruption, and the absence of modern institutions have been blamed for Afghanistan’s troubles, overlooking political modernization and the creation of features of a modern secular state by the 1970s before foreign interventions unmade them

Political modernization created features of a modern secular state in Afghanistan by the 1970s before foreign interventions undid it

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Afghan poet Khalilullah Khalili was in Baghdad serving as the ambassador to Iraq when communists seized power in Kabul in April 1978. He feared the Soviets would follow. Khalili decided to act immediately, taking it upon himself. He called up his son, future Afghan diplomat Masood Khalili, who had just enrolled for a PhD at Delhi University, to break the news and warn him about the impending Soviet threat.

Khalili senior told his son it was time to act fast and asked him to get his PhD from the ‘mountains of Afghanistan.’ Khalilullah junior, who was just 28 then, heeded his father’s advice and immediately left Delhi. He would join Afghan rebels as a political officer in Pakistan’s Peshawar, which became the center for resistance to the Soviets over the next decade, before entering Afghanistan.

Khalilullah Khalili’s fears came true in December 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The invasion marked his son’s nine-year struggle of crisscrossing the country to mobilise people for the heroic Afghan resistance. No matter what Masood Khalili ensured he wrote diaries in between avoiding bullets, the Soviet Red Army, and agents of the security and intelligence agency KGB.

As he moved from one place to another mostly on his donkey, Masood Khalili addressed the diaries to his wife, Sohaillah, who had taken refuge in Pakistan along with their son, Mahmood. Sage Publications published the 42 diaries he wrote by the end of the war over nine years in the form of the book, Whispers of War, in 2017. In an interview at a Delhi hotel about the book, Masood Khalili told me he wrote sometimes every hour about the plight, suffering, fears, faith, lament, laughter, and above all the people’s hope.

Three decades later, the suffering continues. It is back to square one with the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. The Taliban have not changed their spots and have virtually erased women from public life, denying them even basic rights and freedoms of seeking education and employment.

Masood Khalili, 74, saw this coming. He acknowledged in the 2017 interview that they were unable to create honest leadership. He said Afghanistan had a president, ministers, and ambassadors, but no leaders. With the benefit of hindsight, he concluded the Afghans won against the Soviets but eventually lost. Masood blamed a lack of vision for this.

The Americans left Afghanistan without helping create a viable state despite over 20 years of occupation and reconstruction. In their paper, Afghanistan: The Making and Unmaking of a Modern State, Jawied Nawabi and Peter Kolozi of the City University of New York blamed the neoliberal approach to nation-building for it.

The paper highlights the dominant discourse that attributes failures in creating a strong state to inherent tribalism, a culture of corruption, and a historical absence of modern state institutions. It challenges the discourse citing a history of Afghan state formation and political modernization in the 20th century.

Nawabi and Kolozi argue Afghanistan’s modernization was internally contested, but the country had the features of a modern secular state by the 1970s. They cite foreign intervention and say it has unmade the modern Afghan state over the last 40 years with the support of anti-modern and reactionary forces.

The two argue the neoliberal approach adopted the language of good governance and capacity-building, making Afghanistan perpetually dependent on foreign assistance. Nawabi and Kolozi write it rendered it a phantom state erasing its history and undermining the political and institutional structures for a united, independent, and peaceful Afghanistan.

Khalilullah Khalili (1907–1987) saw the making and unmaking of the modern Afghan state in his lifetime. He was a teenager when Amir Amanullah Khan began a campaign for reform when Afghanistan gained independence after defeating Britain in the third British-Afghan War (1919-21. He pushed an education programme and the emancipation of women. In 1953, pro-Soviet Mohammed Daoud Khan became the prime minister and introduced reforms expanding the rights of women including their right to education and work.

Paul Fishstein, a fellow at Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, has called the myth that there was never an Afghan state one of the most persistent about Afghanistan. In a Globalist piece, he called it an especially troubling myth, not just because it meant that the international community would get much of post-2001 state-building wrong, but also because it ignores the role that the West played post-1978 in hobbling and decimating the state that was.

Amir Abdur Rahman Khan created a unitary Afghan state with administrative, political, and economic power centralized in Kabul. His son Habibullah (1901-1919) succeeded him and created a premier high school, a military academy, a state hospital, a newspaper, and a hydroelectric plant before Amanullah’s decade of modernization and the creation of the first constitution (1923). Amanullah drew inspiration from Ataturk’s Turkey for the emancipation of women, compulsory education, coeducational schools, separation of mosque and state, the promotion of Western clothing, etc.

A state bank, the first professional army, Kabul University, and the national airline Ariana were built between 1933 and 1978. Afghanistan enjoyed a largely peaceful 50-year period from 1929 to 1978 before foreign intervention tore the country apart. Fishstein wrote what is pointed to as evidence of the lack of a state are the consequences of the US-backed jihad against the Soviets between 1979 and 1992.

The lives of the Khalilis mirrored this tumultuous Afghan history. But Masood Khalili remained hopeful. He pinned his hopes on the new generation, whom he described as really strong. ‘I am expecting leadership from them,’ he told me. That was not to be at least in the shorter run with the Taliban taking over the country again.

Masood Khalili’s own life gave him much hope despite the odds. He survived the war against the Soviets but was nearly killed when two suicide bombers detonated explosives to assassinate Afghan Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in September 2001.

Masood Khalili struggled for his life in Tajikistan and Germany for months but survived with partial loss of vision and countless shrapnel in his body. When a doctor saw his X-ray, he went, ‘Ah, it looks beautiful.’ He told me the doctor said all kinds of poetic things: ‘It looks like a night with thousands of stars; all shrapnel.’

Masood Khalili looked up to Massoud as a visionary and fearless leader. He recalled chatting with Massoud until midnight before his killing and talking about Al Qaida and the Taliban while they were besieged in their stronghold of Panjsher Valley with around 3000 Taliban surrounding them. Massoud told Khalili that he did not care because people were with him while reciting the poetry of the legendary Persian poet Hafez.

Khalili was sitting barely a metre from Massoud when the suicide bombers posing as an interviewer and a cameraman blew themselves up after persisting for around a fortnight to get an appointment. He recalled Massoud, a humble man, saying sorry to his killers for making them wait for 14 days before they killed him.

The attackers had 15 questions, including eight about Osama bin Laden, and wanted to know why Massoud was against the al-Qaida founder. Massoud did not like the questions but said okay the interview could start. Khalili had just murmured something into Massoud’s ear when the attackers blew themselves up. He saw blue fire and Massoud’s hand before passing out.

The Taliban would be decimated post-9/11 American invasion with the help of Massoud’s loyalists two months later. Taliban’s fall was a bittersweet event for Khalili. He lay on his hospital bed. The victory was not the same without Massoud.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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