Imperial Designs

A Deep History of Afghanistan

Author: David Seddon


For a very short period after the attacks on 9/11, as the United States bombarded Taliban positions and the alleged training camps of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, Afghanistan was center stage. Then, as the mundane mopping up, the political haggling, and the international community's efforts to manage the postwar mess took over, the spotlight turned to Iraq. Yet even while Afghan landscapes, politics, and economic and social practices were the focus of the world's attention, the country's history and its place in Central Asia and in the wider realm of Asian and global geopolitics were little covered by the media. This essay outlines how Afghanistan has figured in the imperial designs of regional and international powers for more than two thousand years. From the Mongol invasions of the "civilized" world in the thirteenth century to the U.S. intervention just after the turn of the second millennium C.E., the "deep" political history of Afghanistan is described with a view to "locating" the country in a wider political-economic context. Afghanistan's relationship to the great regional empires of Persia, India, and China in the late medieval and early modern periods is discussed, as is its role in "the Great Game" of imperial politics between Russia and British India during the nineteenth century. The regional impact of the Russian Revolution and of efforts to consolidate the USSR are described, as is the rising nationalism and Islamism of the peoples of the region during the final years of the Soviet Union. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the longer term implications of U.S. support for the mujahiddin — support that ironically contributed to the movement that gave rise to al-Qaida — are analyzed as the final episodes before 9/11 and the recent dramatic U.S. military and political intervention.

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© E.D. Starin