Note: This article is the first article in a four-part series about Afghanistan. This article will cover the military history of Afghanistan from Alexander the Great to the present day.
From a historical perspective, it should come as little surprise that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan were thwarted. Neither Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire nor the Soviet Union have succeeded in their attempts to subjugate Afghani mountain tribesmen.
While Afghanistan’s land may have been occupied by outsiders, the people living in the high, mountainous areas of Afghanistan have remained unconquerable for millennia, opposing all who have tried to impose an outsider’s will upon them. But to truly understand the recent debacle in Afghanistan and gain a better appreciation of the situation, it is helpful to first consider Afghanistan’s military history over the centuries.
Early Afghan Military History
From 323 BCE until 1219 AD, the area that would develop into the modern country of Afghanistan had vibrant populations living in its valleys and mountains. Its people faced widespread conflict from both internal disputes related to geographic, ethnic, and religious differences (among others) and external invaders.
The first external invader was Macedonia’s Alexander the Great. While Alexander won his battles in Afghanistan, military operations took a tremendous toll on his army. It took a political settlement involving his own marriage, rather than military victory, to subdue ferocious Afghan mountain tribes.
The cost was high on both sides, but conquering Afghanistan was essential to provide Alexander with a secure base from which to launch his invasion into India. Alexander’s appearance left little lasting impact in Afghanistan; however, the arrival of Islam in the region around the 900s had a far greater impact.
The Mongols’ arrival in 1219 had a devastating effect on Afghanistan, driving much of the population from the valleys and into the mountains due to the massive devastation the Mongols wrought at a level unparalleled until the 20th century. For example, Mongols destroyed one resisting town so completely that all living things – humans and animals – were killed.
Islam, invasions, and internal conflict characterized the region during this period. The Moghul, Safavid, and Uzbek empires dominated Afghanistan for the next 500 years.
The Great Game
Afghani revolts against outside rule at the beginning of the 18th century and the establishment of the Durrani Empire in 1747 began the process of establishing a modern Afghan nation. However, Afghanistan’s location as both a meeting point for and a buffer zone between the competing interests of Russia (coming from its southwestern border area) and the U.K. (coming from India), ensured that Afghanistan would remain involved in conflicts. Afghanistan would also be a part of “The Great Game” between Britain and Russia.
The British made several concerted efforts to control Afghanistan and prevent Russia from gaining control. The First Afghan War, fought between 1838 and 1842, was Britain’s initial failed attempt to gain control of Afghanistan.
After several decades and with the emergence of the Afghanis’ pro-Russian stance that threatened British hegemony in the region, the British tried again to gain control of Afghanistan during the Second Afghan War in 1878-1880. This time, the U.K. succeeded in bringing about a meaningful change of regime with pro-British Abdur Rahman in power but left him to rule largely on his own. Regardless of the outcome, both wars showed that attempts to occupy Afghanistan would be very costly, as Alexander the Great had previously learned.
Afghanistan remained neutral during both world wars of the 20th century. A third Afghan war in 1919 resulted in Afghanistan becoming an independent country.
Afghanistan after ‘The Great Game’
After WWII and with India achieving independence in 1947, the Great Game ended. However, Russian (now Soviet) interest in the region remained. The Soviets began supporting Afghanistan in 1956, and the Communist-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was established in 1965.
Mohammed Daoud Khan seized power on July 17, 1973, and declared Afghanistan a republic. However, his assumption of control did little to bring peace to the region.
During the late 1970s, Afghanistan was engulfed by civil war, partially between Communist and non-Communist forces. To further complicate matters, there was internal strife among different Communist factions.
Native Afghans fought one another as they had for centuries, and the Soviets became involved, just like their Russian predecessors. The Communist factions took advantage of the unrest and seized power on April 27, 1978.
The Soviet Union intervened in support of the new Afghan communist government in its conflict with anti-Communist Muslim guerrillas, seizing the capital of Kabul in December 1979 with 30,000 troops in an attempt to reduce unrest. This action, not surprisingly, set off the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War between 1979 and 1989.
The Soviet-Afghan War
During the Soviet-Afghan war, the Soviets begin using sophisticated weapons such as the Mi-24 helicopter (essentially a flying tank) and air assault tactics to eliminate Afghani mujahadeen. The mujahadeen initially had no defense against the Soviet’s air assaults and suffered tremendous losses.
The U.S. responded to the outbreak of war by providing significant support to the mujahadeen beginning in 1982. Technology like Stinger missiles helped the mujahadeen defeat Soviet air assault tactics and regain the initiative.
Based upon their renewed success in defeating an outside invader, the seven major mujahedeen groups formed a united front in 1985. Their alliance drove the Soviets from the country between May 1988 and February 1989.
The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan
In the wake of the Soviet-Afghan War, the Taliban rose to power, beginning with rebel Afghans rising up and gaining control of rural areas. By 1994, the Taliban had fully formed and began increasing its influence over Afghanistan. The Taliban was opposed by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which was based north of Kabul and in the country’s mountainous northeast.
By 1996, the Taliban had sufficiently increased its control over the country – using support from Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, among others – to take control of Kabul and the government. By 1998, the Taliban controlled 90% of the country, and the Northern Alliance controlled the remaining 10%.
In September 2001, Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated on September 9. Two days later, terrorists attacked the U.S., causing several thousand deaths.
Within one month of the September 11 attack, the U.S. began active combat operations in Afghanistan. These operations continued until the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan in August 2021.
Three Enduring Facts to Remember about Afghanistan
Based upon Afghanistan’s history, there are three important facts to ultimately remember:
- Afghanistan’s location – along the old Silk Road and at the nexus of British, Russian/Soviet, and Middle East concerns – has subjected it to countless invasions.
- Afghanistan’s people are fiercely independent, demonstrating remarkable martial prowess and the ability to resist subjugation from outsiders.
- Foreign invaders appear to be the only force capable of unifying Afghanis and temporarily halting internal conflicts.
Part II of this series will discuss the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan between 2001-2021.