From Napoleon to Najibullah – Jostling for Control in & around Afghanistan

BamyanFrench Emperor Napoleon and Russian Emperor Alexander II approached the Peace of Tilsit on July 7, 1807 to settle, mostly, the questions of war and peace. The agenda included the fate of French possessions in Europe and the future of Prussia, yet Napoleon had included several secret clauses that were not made public at that time. The undisclosed Franco-Russian understanding was about Napoleon’s wish to aim at Britain’s eastern source of opulence. India needed to be relieved from its British burden. That is how William Dalrymple touches upon the story of the genesis of the great game in Hindukash/Khurasan/Afghanistan in his Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan.

Dalrymple informs that the seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its growing economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon and of several previous French strategists. Few years earlier, in 1798, French Emperor had based his troops in Egypt. “‘Through Egypt we shall invade India,’ he wrote. ‘We shall re-establish the old route through Suez.'” To the military assistance plea of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the Emperor’s response was, “You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an invincible army, full of the desire of releasing you from the iron yoke of England. May the Almighty increase your power, and destroy your enemies.”

But Admiral Nelson, then, intercepted Napoleon’s plans in the Nile. Relentless in vacating India from Britain, the Emperor now turned his attention towards the land routes through Persia and Afghanistan. Persian Emperor was asked to grant passage to the French army. Dalrymple tells, “At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 50,000 French troops of the Grand Armée across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan.”

British Governor General in India, Lord Minto had soon been made privy to the secret clauses of Tilsit Peace by his effective British intelligence. To this, Minto sent four separate diplomatic expeditions to ‘warn and win over’ the in-between authorities. British Indian emissaries went to Fatteh Ali Shah Qajar in Tehran, to Ranjit Singh in Lahore, to the rulers of Sindh states and to Shah Shuja in Kabul. According to Dalrymple Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. “A French invasion of India through Persia was not ‘beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France’, he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the ‘very active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.'”

Henceforth, William Dalrymple goes deeper into the story of Shah Shuja and of his handling by the British Indian administration.

On the other hand, Napoleon’s military expedition to India through Persia never took shape as the French Emperor got embroiled in subsequent European politics. His accord with the Russians had collapsed. In the east, Persia was passing through its own post-Safavid turbulence. Yet, Britain was consolidating its presence in northern India. As the 19th century advanced, British merchants were broaching the Central Asian markets; its intelligence agents were surveying the geopolitical dimensions of the region. The Russians were not pleased.

It was in such a setting that Governor of Orenburg, General Perovski, had argued to his Russian superiors that if the British succeeded in establishing themselves in Kabul ‘it would be only a step for the British to reach Bukhara; Central Asia would be subjected to their influence, our Asian trade would be ruined, they might arm…our Asian neighbours against us, and supply them with powder, weapons and money.’ This argument is borrowed from Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, written by retired British diplomat Rodric Braithwaite, who, in a pithy style, introduces the elementary moments in the genesis of the great game, especially from the Russian perspective: “One confidential analysis after another argued that the British were aiming at establishing control over Central Asia and driving out the Russian trade; and that it was essential for the Russians to pre-empt them. Whether the British ever had any such intention is not so important. The belief affected and distorted policymaking in St Petersburg and Orenburg, just as policy-making in London and Delhi was effected and distorted by the belief that the Russians intended to come through Afghanistan into India. Paranoia affected judgement in all four cities.”

As the 19th century approached its end, German ascendancy in Europe impelled a hesitant Anglo-Russian arrangement over Afghanistan. Amu Darya was agreed as a frontier between Afghanistan and Russia. The British insisted that the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman assume sovereignty over the Wakhan Corridor, in the north east corner, so that British India and Russian Empire could remain noncontagious.

Still, most derisive for the local inhabitants – with grave and lasting international and strategic consequences – was the sketching of the Durand Line among the tribal lands of Pushtun. On one hand, the line delineated British India from Afghanistan, but on the other hand, it had split the Pushtuns who were the principal regional ethnicity. Peshawar went under the Hindustani Durbar. Successive Afghan regimes never acquiesced to the loss of territories. Kabul voted against Karachi when the Pakistani inclusion was sought to the United Nations in 1947. Daud Khan, Afghan Prime Minister and later President, backed the cause of ‘Pushtunistan’ which called for the recovery of the Pushtun lands on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line. Islamabad, in its discontent in the nineteen seventies, was beginning to experiment with retaliation and control tactics on its smaller eastern neighbor.

Yet, how the local Pushtuns responded to the imposed borders? Braithwaite has an interesting account, “The local people took no notice of the Durand Line except when they were compelled: they feuded, smuggled, traded, and fought indifferently on both sides of the border. The British attempted to control the border in the 1920s and the and the 1930s by a policy of ‘butcher and bolt’, with punitive raids against errant tribesmen, including the destruction their villages from the air. Soviet attempts to seal the border during the war of 1979-89 were almost a total failure.” The US intelligence was made aware of this situation during ‘the Mujahideen’ resistance against the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Washington would also, militarily, try its luck in and around the steppes, gorges, defiles and cliffs of Hindukash by the turn of the twenty-first century.

For the Soviet administration, US threat had replaced the waning British presence in Afghanistan after 1945. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had shown attention to the landlocked country by visiting Kabul in 1974 and 1976. Before in 1955, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Party Secretary of the Soviet Union had visited Kabul. Khrushchev’s thinking was that Washington was enticing Kabul into the American camp, because it intended to set up military bases in Afghanistan (Khrushchev Remembers, London, 1971, cited in Braithwaite’s Afgantsy) Such concerns played a part in the Soviet decision to militarily intervene in Afghanistan in 1979.

Soviet Union had to respond to many questions. First, how should they react to Kabul’s increasingly desperate pleas for Soviet troops to help put down the insurgency? then, What could the Russians do about the deviousness, brutality and incompetence of their Communist allies in Kabul? finally and after being ensnared, What was the real Soviet interest in Afghanistan? Historians and strategic experts would continue to grapple with such puzzling enquires, however Soviet government’s official justification for intervention was provided by its Defense Minister Dmitriy Feodorovich Ustinov as follows: “In view of the political and military situation in the Middle East the latest appeal by the government of Afghanistan has been considered positively. It has been decided to introduce a few contingents of Soviet forces, deployed in the southern regions of the country, on the territory of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in order to provide international help to the friendly Afghan people, and also to create favourable conditions for the prevention of possible anti-Afghan actions on the part of neighbouring states…”   

That Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan was a Soviet thrust for the sake of Great Game was a canard. No one in New Delhi felt threatened. India was, on the contrary, the only South Asian country which recognized the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government and the presence of Soviet military personnel. General Zia of Pakistan was made aware of the limited scope of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by his able Foreign Minister Agha Shahi. But, Pakistani General, nevertheless, went on to paint the Soviet intervention with the semantics of the Great Game. He was part of fostering a belief among the people of region that the Russians were aiming for warm Indian ocean. In this endeavor, General Zia was assisted by the US administration, and was especially prompted by the Congressman Charlie Wilson to do more than just keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan. The water did boil over in the region and General Zia did fatally burned from its spill. Some twenty years later, and just before his death, Senator Charlie Wilson, with a nonchalant demeanor, would share that he had always considered the Soviet intervention as Afghanistan specific sans any Russian desire to cross the Durand Line.

The cold war ideological construct is more suitable to ponder over the events related to the Russians in Afghanistan. The last days of Soviet intervention substantiate. When the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze forwarded to Moscow a proposal from the Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah to help protect the southern city of Kandahar from Mujahideen blockade in the late 1988, Anatoly Sergeevich Chernyaev, leading foreign policy adviser during the final days of the Soviet Union, was livid in his response, “Has he gone off his head? Doesn’t he see Najibullah is laying a trap to ensure we don’t leave, and to embroil us with the Americans and the whole of the rest of the world? Or hasn’t he got the guts to produce the counter-arguments?” An argument ensued:

Shevardnadze: You’ve not been there. You’ve no idea all the things we have done there in the past ten years.

Chernyaev: But why should we compound our crimes! What’s the logic in that? We’re not going to be able to save Najibullah anyway…

Shevardnadze: But he says that if he can hold out for a year after we leave, he will be able to survive indefinitely…

Chernyaev: And you believe that? And for that you’re ready to sacrifice our boys and break the engagement we gave in Geneva?

The cold war dynamics were in full swing. Dr Mohammad Najibullah’s fate was sealed. Later, he would naively expect to remain unaffected thinking of the Pashtun makeup of Taliban. Najibullah himself belonged to the Ahmadzai sub-tribe of the Ghilzai Pashtun tribe.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukash. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.