Asian country bordered by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. The Soviet Union tried to invade it after backing a government coup in 1978 but found they'd gotten in way over their heads, and in 1989 finally withdrew all the troops.

As of 16 February 2000, the majority of the country, including its major cities, are under the rule of Islamic group the Taliban (also spelled Taleban). Much of the rest of the country is under the control of the United Front. The Taliban have recently declared the country an Emirate, however, to their opponents, it is still called the Islamic State of Afghanistan.

As of 6 February 2002, the Taliban have largely been expelled from power in Afghanistan after their shelter of Osama bin Laden caused the country to be attacked by the U.S. and other countries interested in stopping bin Laden's terrorism. The United Nations sponsored talks which led to an accord between the various ethnic groups of the country. Signed on 5 December 2001, this agreement set up an interim government with a cabinet of 29 members, representing the different ethnic groups, headed by Hamid Kazai. This cabinet is supposed to govern for six months starting 22 December 2001, after which a permanent government should be in place.

Source: various pages on

Afghanistan is a country in Asia with around 28.6 million inhabitants. It borders Pakistan and Iran, the former USSR, and China at a small point. It's landlocked and mountainous. Its main languages are Pashtu and Dari, the latter of which is like an Afghan dialect of Farsi. Its recent history over the last century is characterized by war and civil strife, with intermittent periods of relative calm and stability. It's international signifigance came into effect in the 20th and 21st centuries. War has shaped every generation in Afghanistan since.

The Soviet Union helped back a government coup in 1978 by the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), and the PDPA immediately signs a treaty with the Soviet Union. The Soviets invaded in 1979, continuing the Brezhnev Doctrine, sending over 50,000 troops into Afghanistan by the end of the year.

Why? What made it so important, especially since Afghanistan has very few natural resources? There is more than one theory or reason. Some believe it was to keep the surrounding SSR's (Soviet countries) from breaking away by building up strength nearby. Another reason was so it could flank neighboring Iran, who was becoming another force to be reckoned with in the area, along with NATO and China.

Afghanistan is primarily rural and agrarian. Capturing the cities did virtually nothing, since the government at the time was and still is basically feudalism. More on that later.

The USSR sent around 175,000 troops to take control of the country, about 20% of the Soviet military. They laid waste to the countryside and committed some of the worst atrocities to subdue the people, including chemical weapons and over 20 million mines. The Afghanis had nothing to fight back with.

People did oppose the Soviets; fighters known as the mujahideen (Arabic for "strugglers," and Islamically known as resistance fighters for the sake of God). They fought fiercely against the overwhelming Soviet invasion, at great cost to their own lives. Approximately 90,000 of them were killed, and 90,000 more wounded.

In 1979, the US government provided aid to these muhajideen, "the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA." With the active encouragement of the CIA and Pakistan's ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), who wanted to turn the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, some 35,000 Muslims from 40 Islamic countries joined Afghanistan's fight between 1982 and 1992. Tens of thousands more came to study in Pakistani madrasahs. Eventually more than 100,000 foreign Muslims were directly influenced by the Afghan jihad.(1)

In March 1985, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166,...which authorized stepped-up covert military aid to the mujahideen, and it made clear that the secret Afghan war had a new goal: to defeat Soviet troops in Afghanistan through covert action and encourage a Soviet withdrawal. The new covert U.S. assistance began with a dramatic increase in arms supplies -- a steady rise to 65,000 tons annually by 1987, as well as a "ceaseless stream" of CIA and Pentagon specialists who traveled to the secret headquarters of Pakistan's ISI on the main road near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. There the CIA specialists met with Pakistani intelligence officers to help plan operations for the Afghan rebels.(2)

The CIA and ISI trained thousands of rebels in how to oppose and overthrow the Soviet troops, including one individual known as Osama Bin Laden. The US government provided arms and training in subversive and guerilla warfare. They helped spread propaganda, that Islam was being threatened by atheist Soviet armies, that to struggle(jihad) against them was the duty of a Muslim and a mujahid(struggler). (3) Motivated by nationalism and religious fervor, the mujahideen were unaware that they were fighting the Soviet Army on behalf of Uncle Sam.

Meanwhile, the death toll was rising to catastrophic levels. By the time the war ended 10 years later, the country would be ruined, economically, infrastructurally, and politically. It was already very bad before the invasion, but it was much worse afterwards. Including civilian casualities, estimates are that 10% of the total population was killed, 13.5% of the male population was killed, or 1.5 million were killed overall. 70% of the paved roads were destroyed, and 6 million refugees were driven out of the country. Of 15,000 villages in the country, 5,000 were destroyed.(4)

Ten years later, in 1989, the Soviets were successfully driven out by the mujahideen forces that were supplied and trained by the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others. But instead of laying down their arms and building a new society, these groups began fighting amongst themselves, further exacerbating the poverty of the nation. Individual warlords carved out their own private fiefs, and banditry and chaos were the order of the day throughout much of the 1990's. Meanwhile, a new force was rising within, the Taliban. The word Taliban is Arabic for "students," and that's what they were. While the mujahideen were busy fighting. they were staying behind in Islamic schools since they were too young to join the fight. In the early 1990s, they battled the local warlords and managed to seize power. They organized and recruited other Afghans who were sick of the suffering, and eventually the Taliban steamrolled over most of the warlords. They were able to seize something like 95% of the country, aside from Northern Alliance strongholds primarily in the northeast.

The Taliban had taken much of their influence from the Pakistani Deobandis, which is an offshoot of the Hanafi Islamic school of thought and contains anti-modernism, as well as their political party the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). Their teachings have been linked to Wahhabism, the most strict and extreme sect of Islam. Also, the Taliban mixed elements of Deobandism with their ethnic-Pashtun tribal traditions, along with isolation from the modern world, which gave it a radical fringe element. With this, they attempted to create a "true" Islamic government, but did so in a much stricter manner.

By 1996, the Taliban had inherited a country where people were starving, cities were in ruins, and the economy was of Stone Age proportions. Women were just as poor and desperate as the men were. Their idea for reform was that first husbands and fathers had to become stable with steady work and then women could take their place in society as well. Unfortunately, their logic backfired, and the lot of women worsened while that of their men failed to improve. One such example was they decided to create schools segregated by gender, which would comply with what the right-wing religious leaders wanted. Unforunately, they didn't have enough money for two schools, so only kept them open for males and prohibited women from participating. They simply implemented policies as they saw fit, which were disapproved of by many Muslims worldwide. In their devastated land probably nothing they could have done would have worked.

Many Muslims and the international community criticized the Taliban for going overboard, in many ways. They made beards mandatory for all men, and banned all women from working, and required women to cover themselves in large robes called Burquas. They banned music and the internet, and smashed statues of Buddha. They sentenced two missionary women to death for preaching Christianity. According to CNN reports, they killed adulterers and gays. It is important to note that the before the events of September 11, 2001, many Muslims and other groups had already condemned much of the Taliban's actions.

The Taliban are not considered politically legitimate in most of the Muslim world. Only three governments officially recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government; Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.

British Journalist Yvonne Ridley was critical of the way Afghanistan under the Taliban was ostracized. The Afghans told her that nobody cared for them when they needed food for their people, but when they decided to destroy some "rocks" (the Buddha statues), "suddenly the whole world wanted to talk to us." (5)

Within an extremely short time, the US declared Osama Bin Laden as the prime suspect behind the September 11, 2001 attacks. He had been exiled from Saudi Arabia since 1996, and was in Afghanistan since. The US asked the Taliban government to hand him over to US authorities for questioning in his involvement and to charge him. While condemning what had happened, the Taliban refused, saying that since he was a "guest" they would not hand him over without proof of his involvement, with which he would be tried under Afghanistan's laws. The US threatened to send in military unless the Taliban complied. Neighboring Pakistan rushed delegates over to help persuade the Taliban not to oppose the US, but they didn't relent. A few days later, the United Arab Emirates withdrew support for the Taliban, giving them only two countries that recognized their government.

The US and allied military forces quickly thereafter entered the country, and began their campaign Operation Infinite Justice. (The name was quickly changed to Operation Enduring Freedom to avoid offending anyone.) Its goal was to capture Osama Bin Laden, "dead or alive" as President George W. Bush put it, and to dismantle the Taliban. They did this by aiding the minority Northern Alliance in the country, and combing the area for signs of Al Qaeda, working with the Pakistan military to prevent Al Qaeda from escaping across the border into Pakistan, and carpet bombing the Tora Bora mountains in hopes of killing Bin Laden in one of the caves.

Before November, nearly three months into the incursion, the Taliban had fled the cities and the Northern Alliance had taken over. Hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda members and suspected pro-Taliban fighters were handed over to the US, who is currently detaining them in Camp X-Ray.

The four largest Afghan opposition groups met in Bonn, Germany, in late 2001 and agreed on a plan for the formulation of a new secular government structure. By December 22, 2001, Hamid Karzai was inaugurated as the Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA). He is currently the leader of Afghanistan, though many consider him a puppet ruler, since the US military is still present. There are also rumors that the Taliban is amassing in the rural areas, building up strength and support to retake the cities.

In addition to occasionally violent political jockeying and ongoing military action to root out remaining terrorists and Taliban elements, the country suffers from enormous poverty, a crumbling infrastructure, and widespread land mines. As of today, a famine threatening five million people has blanketed the nation's countryside.

As of today, there are over 8,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, nearly 80% of the world's opium supply come from Afghanistan, which is orders of magnitude higher then during the Taliban rule.

1. Ahmed Rashid, The Taliban: Exporting Extremism, Foreign Affairs, November-December 1999.
2. Steve Coll, Washington Post, July 19, 1992.
3. Dilip Hiro, Fallout from the Afghan Jihad, Inter Press Services, 21 November 1995.

Understandings of Afghanistan

'The genuine arrival of morning brought a worrying report from a Canadian patrol: The night before, the soldiers had laid tripwire in the grape fields around their positions and rigged flares to give away the presence of intruders -- but now the flares were gone. It seemed that insurgents had snuck to within a few dozen metres of the Canadians, snipped the tripwires, and stolen the flares.

Later in the day, Captain Piers Pappin, the Nomads' commander, stood on the farmhouse rooftop and showed Lieutenant-Colonel Omer Lavoie the spot where the flares disappeared. "It's pretty ballsy," Capt. Pappin said.

"I'm surprised they could even find them, out there," replied Col. Lavoie, the Canadian battle-group commander, peering over the mud parapet at the dense warren of grape vines.

"Well, the only explanation for that, sir, is that they watched us put them in," the captain said.'

-- from Graeme Smith's article in the Globe and Mail, Sept. 9 2006


Laments for a lack of clear understanding, on the part of the Canadian populace, for this country's military presence in Afghanistan are rapidly taking on the feel of an emerged trend. Typically, this fogginess with regards to public apprehension is blamed primarily -- and, I would say, rightly -- on the failure of the Harper Machine to provide sufficient explanation and justification for our most recent military excursion.

However, 'understanding' can and does take on a number of different forms. We might expect the government to provide a clear strategic or moral rationale for our presence in Afghanistan -- and for the media to exert pressure on the government to proffer these things, and to provide adequate explanation of the government's motives if/when they become clear. Yet if what we're looking for is a sense of what how things 'really are' on the ground in that country, we would presumably do best to seek that information elsewhere. To wit: while I confess to having so far paid much less attention than should be the case to the Afghanistan conflict and Canada's role in it, it has only taken one extremely well-written newspaper article to convince me that my willed state of semi-ignorance is a patently self-defeating one.

The article, 'Canadian and U.S. troops score victory in rural battle', runs in today's Globe and Mail, nestled towards the back of the paper's front section (though it is teased on the cover, while the lead piece on the war actually begins on A1 and talks about, among other things, sending more Canadian troops into the Hot Zone and about Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor's 'clarification' of previous remarks which I would prefer not to go into here, since to do so would only serve to perpetuate what some call Substantive Controversy but which might be more aptly labeled Farcical Drivel).

In any event, the reporter who wrote the non-lead piece, Graeme Smith, is in Afghanistan and has been traveling with Canadian troops on the ground there. Granted, his article focuses only on one particular offensive and does not aim to shed any penetrating light on why Canadians are in that country engaged in that offensive in the first place. Yet the quality of his writing and his observations of both the soldiers and their immediate environment, provide a kind of understanding of what is happening in that country which could never be gleaned from Ottawa's hacks and flacks.

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