Afghanistan stands on the verge of a withdrawal agreement and an end to the occupation since 2001. The nation once again ponders the meanings of peace after a period of conflict dating back to the 1970s. On 19 August 2019, Afghanistan also celebrated the centenary of the restitution of its independence from British imperial rule.
In the eighteenth year of the (current) Afghan war, ‘peace’ talks are taking place with the Taliban movement, the remnants of the very regime that the US-led NATO coalition dislodged in response to the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaeda on 9/11. Important decisions on the future government of Afghanistan are being made far away from home, in Doha with the USA and in Moscow with Russia. Another imperially forged peace is on the horizon, but it spells a problem for the future of Afghanistan: the tragedy of the postcolonial present lies in the escalating deployment of rationales of power that were developed in the age of empire.
The signing of the peace treaty between British India and Afghanistan in Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919 has been captured as the moment when Afghanistan’s independence was restored. Between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Afghanistan was part of British India’s empire of the Raj, whose economic, political and cultural influence stretched far beyond India itself: from Southeast Asia to East Africa, from the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia.
In effect, Afghanistan was a dependence of a colony. In April 1919, at a time when colonial violence was particularly tangible, Amir Amanullah Khan declared his government’s independence. Armed jihad, or struggle, became the chosen means to achieve its recognition. The Third Anglo-Afghan War became Afghanistan’s War of Independence. Fighting took place from May to June 1919 along the border with India, a conflict that sits in a longer history of empire-state-tribe interaction on the frontier.
The purpose of military violence was not just the recapture of historical Afghan territory or an opportune extension of anti-colonial resistance in India. It also lay in the logic of imperial diplomacy. Afghanistan had been excluded from the peace conference in Paris, where a new global post-war order was being shaped. The road to self-determination for colonial peoples did not lie in the appeal to egalitarian ideals. Independence was not granted. It had to be won; and the path from imperial subjecthood to the international recognition of sovereignty led through military conflict. One hundred years ago, independence necessitated ‘belligerency’. Today’s practitioners of insurgency have likewise fought their way to the table of international diplomacy.
The history of empire has certified the capacity for violence that kills and maims as a path to power. The US government prides itself in the organised production of destructive force, like the Massive Ordnance Air Blast of 2017, also fetishised as the “mother of all bombs”. A US president casually articulates the mass murder of millions of Afghans as a potential path to peace.
In 1919, a bombing raid on Kabul conducted by the nascent Royal Air Force during the Afghan War of Independence led to similar fantasies of military dominance. Meanwhile, the numbers of civilian casualties effected by occupation and Afghan National Army forces, the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State, are rising. On 7 August 2019, a Taliban bomb exploded in Kabul. And yet, for empires and their insurgents, the reward for violence is a seat at the table of peace negotiations.
The USA and Russia are legitimising the Pakistan-backed Taliban as stakeholders in an Afghan peace, generating the movement’s legitimacy as an international negotiating partner. In exchange for their promise to abstain from supporting global terrorism, the Taliban are offered the prospect of partaking in a future government of Afghanistan. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, successive amirs of Afghanistan reached agreements with regional neighbours. They even forfeited the right to conduct independent international relations to British India in exchange for their rulership of Afghanistan.
As a result of the Great Game, the nineteenth-century imperial contest between the British-Indian and Tsarist empires in South and Central Asia, modern Afghanistan emerged as a ‘buffer state’. Today, Afghanistan is being shaped as its modern-day variant, a geopolitical container required by the War on Terror. Meanwhile, as the most important stakeholders, the majority of Afghans do not endorse these foreign power brokers. In the context of empire, political convenience and opportunity often trump accountability and democracy. The decolonisation of these power-driven rationales in international relations has never been more urgent.
About the author: Maximilian Drephal is Lecturer in History at the University of Suffolk. He is the author of Afghanistan and the Coloniality of Diplomacy, which is published in the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series by Palgrave Macmillan. As Lecturer in International History at Sheffield, he has taught a class on “Afghanistan from the ‘Great Game’ to the ‘War on Terror’”, engaging with the subject also in previous publications in Modern Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press) and the edited collection Sport and Diplomacy: Games within Games (Manchester University Press).
This piece first appeared on History Matters. It was edited on 26 September 2019.