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Cultural ignorance during war: the uphill battle faced by U.S. forces

July 27, 4:58 PM · Sasha Shaikh - DC South Asia Foreign Policy Examiner
BBC-Soviet forces withdraw from Afghanistan, 1989

Cold War: The beginning of Afghan animosity

During the Cold War, the U.S. attempted to counter-balance Soviet influence in Central Asia by serving as an alternative “great power” that did not try to bully small, less powerful nations.  Nor did the U.S. claim the legitimacy to interfere in the internal affairs of such countries because the lay within its “sphere of influence.”  (Instead, the U.S. engaged in a number of operations in Latin America that typically replaced socialist and socialist-leaning leaders with dictators who pledged loyalty to the United States).
UN-Refugee camp in Pakistan for Afghans who fled

Against this backdrop, the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan in 1979.  A massive operation was staged in the “land where empires die.”  The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was caused significant consternation within the U.S., and it significantly expanded Soviet presence in a region bordering the Middle East to the west, China to the southwest, and South Asia to the East.  Over time the both the Pentagon and 'the legislature aligned their view with regard to the need to remove Soviet forces from Afghanistan.
RAWA-Increase in abuse of women after 2001 U.S.
invasion. First Lady had pledged support for Afghan
women prior to military engagement


Jihad is overwhelmingly interpreted by Islamic scholars simply as “struggle,” which primarily implies the struggle of humans to behave in a manner that is grounded in morality.  So-called “lesser jihad” has been manipulated to mean armed struggle that anyone can claim is consistent with " struggle to fulfill the will of God.”  The nefarious use of this concept results from the removal of context of a verse in the Qur’an encouraging Muslims to fight against the oppressive (Arabian) Quraysh army, which threatened the existence of a small community of people who had adopted Islam.  It did not require much coercion by the U.S. to convince thousands of Afghans that it was their duty under the “Islamic tenet of jihad” to eliminate the Soviet occupiers.

The U.S. subsequently capitalized on its historically friendly position with Pakistan to gain its approval to develop a network of extremist madrassas in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).  Then president Zia al-Huq was provided with $8 billion to develop a network of madrassas that enabled the esablishement of thousands of such extremist training centers.  The "schools" further emphasized the Islamic imperative to fight a “holy war” against the U.S.S.R.  Indeed, the fact that the Soviets were non-believers (in God) was likely to have further fueled the fire within the rag-tag Afghan extremist force assembled by U.S. operatives. 

Once supplied with weaponry, the mujahadeen engaged the Soviets, but were unsuccessful in overcoming the formidable army of the Communist superpower.  It war not until the Afghans were given access to U.S. stinger missiles, which could be deployed from shoulder-held launchers that the Soviets suffered significant losses: Soviet Mi24 helicopters began to fall from the sky at rates so high that the U.S.S.R. could not replace them quickly enough.  The Soviets would come to recognize that meddling in Afghanistan was far too costly. In 1989, the Afghan proxy force declared victory as the massive Red Army began to withdraw its heavy artillery from Afghanistan.  This represented one of the most significant turning points in the Cold War.

Reap what you sow?

After the historic defeat of the Soviet army in 1989, no plan to provide education or transitional services was provided to the torn Afghan country.  With the U.S.S.R. out of Central Asia, the focus of both Congress and the Department of Defense shifted elsewhere, ignorant of the fury that would develop among Afghans at their immediate abandonment.  Concurrently, the world remained dominated by two giants, and no one imagined the magnitude of the resentment harbored by peoples treated as mere pawns in the superpower chess match. 

Herein lies an example of the mistake that has been made again and again by defense policy strategists: the willingness of the opponent to sacrifice his own life to fight against the perceived hegemony of the West.  This miscalculation was made in WWII against the Japanese army, the Vietnam War and now in Afghanistan. Indeed, an insult to a Pashtun is a direct insult to his son. The importance of the Afghan betrayal was so poorly understood because few policymakers had taken any time to understand that Afghans were not merely people that could be molded into religious extremists.  They were not viewed as humans with cultural values, tightly held  for hundreds of years.  Such traditions existed separately from their religious beliefs.  Indeed, friendship to a Pashtun (as this correspondent realized during a three month stay in Peshawar, Pakistan) means that he would willingly sacrifice his life in the effort to defend a companion.  But violating centuries-old Pashtun cultural traditions created a rift that will likely take many more years to be forgotten—especially since the U.S. is now an occupying force.

Rise of the Taliban

Years of instability and factionalism characterized the next decade. President Najibullah was ousted in 1992 by a united front between the forces of Uzbek General Dostum and Ahmed Shah Massoud.  Civil war ensued between 1992-1996; despite the desire of anti-mujahadeen General Hekmatyar to reestablish his power base, he was not successful.  The rising strength of the mujahedeen Taliban enabled them to capture Kabul.  A key turning point was defeat of General Dostum in a collaborative effort by a former subordinate and the Taliban.  Dostum was subsequently forced into exile in Turkey.  By this juncture, however, there were no leaders in Afghanistan who did not have the blood of civilians on their hands.  Dostum is accused of kidnapping or killing thousands of civilians during the 1992 capture of Kabul. (Recent reports regarding Dostum’s alleged participation in the creation of a mass grave will be addressed in Part Two).

As of 1996, the Taliban had enjoyed strong support for ending 17 years of factional warring.  However, in his landmark book Taliban, regional expert Ahmed Rashid notes that it was the U.S. itself—between 1982 and 1992— that facilitated the recruitment of some 35,000 extremist Muslims from the Middle East to the Far East to join the effort to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Eventually, however, approximately 100,000 mujahadeen would study in madrassas established by President Zia al-Huq of Pakistan, thus becoming linked to the fighting in Afghanistan.  Once firmly entrenched in Kabul, the Taliban instituted a stifling religious code that Mullah Muhammad Omar claimed was rooted in the Qur’an.  In fact, the Taliban’s brand of “Islam” was derived from tribal codes and customs that stood in stark contrast with Qur’anic teachings.   

The brutality of the Taliban, particularly toward women, has been well-documented. Under the Taliban, it was quite common for women to be beaten for wearing a burqa of insufficient length or for showing any skin.  Indeed, requiring women to wear a garment that covered them from head to toe, with only tiny holes with which to see through, created a dramatic isolation of women from the rest of society. 

Restrictions on movement combined with the laws regarding dress served to make women invisible.  They were, for instance, unable to leave the home unless accompanied by a male relative.  Because such relatives were often unavailable, many women were rendered virtually house-bound. Moreover, the prohibition of school for females above the age of 5 left them further marginalized.  According to a 2001 Human Rights Watch Study, entitled “Humanity Denied,” as a result of this Taliban policy, the rate of illiteracy for women in 2001 was more than 90%.

 Cold War Impact on Modern Afghanistan

As stated previously, the proxy war fought between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. in Afghanistan generated a great deal of resentment toward the West.  Consequently, it is likely that the Taliban sought to define their identity by restricting all things perceived to be “Western.”  Indeed, Taliban’s policies strongly indicate a desire to establish an insular society that remained impenetrable to Western influence or “corruption.”  Forcing women to wear the burqa was just one aspect of this sentiment. Absolute subjugation of women was likely considered another victory for the Taliban because it separated Afghan society from Western society, where women were free to travel unaccompanied and pursue careers.

The US-led war on Afghanistan was touted by the Bush administration as an effort to remove from power an anti-Western regime with ties to Osama bin Laden.  However, the Bush administration also made several compelling statements explicitly stating that the US also sought to liberate Afghan women from the atrocities of the Taliban regime.  According to a 2008 interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Afghan females feared being raped or kidnapped more post-U.S. invasion than they did under the Taliban.  The maternal mortality rate in 2008 was second only to Sierra Leone. Furthermore number of girls who have resorted to self-immolation because they are so unhappy with their circumstances (e.g. forced marriage) is deeply disturbing.  The security situation for women is disastrous, and the combination of U.S. and allied forces are not likely to be focused on protection of women within the home.

A Welcome Change?

There is much to learn from mistakes made during the Cold War and the recent war, which began in 2001.  Human security must be a top priority of the Af-Pak strategy.  Recent statements by General McChrystal are encouraging, but the effectiveness of this intention remains to be seen.  It is folly to attempt to apply strategies that were successful in Iraq to Afghanistan.  This land, after all, is known as the place where empires die.  The new administration has the unique position of drastically distancing itself from the hard power tactics of the Bush Administration.  It will require great discipline and patience to gain the trust of those who have been ravaged, raped, kidnapped and exploited by its own people.  The Af-Pak strategy must follow through on its intention to garner the support of the masses, as the Afghan people’s support is absolutely necessary for a successful mission.  Understanding the perspective of Afghan civilians, who have suffered unimaginable atrocities from the Cold War to present-day should be an essential aspect of the Obama administration’s revamped Afghanistan mission. 

Kindly take note that Part Two of an in depth of "How we Got Here" will be published later this week.



For Afghanistan's
Cold War chronology:      

For UN report on Women's
insecurity in Afghanistan

For insecurity resulting
from Bush administration
war on Afghanistan:  



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Sasha Shaikh is an Examiner from Washington DC. You can see Sasha's articles at: ""

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