Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror

Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror
(Ali Jalali, April 26, 2017)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Ambassador Ali Jalali served as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Germany and designated Special Envoy to NATO. He served as Interior Minister from 2003-2005, overseeing the creation of a trained force of 50,000 Afghan National Police and 12,000 Border Police to work effectively in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and criminal investigation.

He recently served as a Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington D.C. His new book is A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror (2017).

A former officer in the Afghan Army, Col. Jalali served as a top military planner with the Afghan Resistance (Mujahedin) following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

He graduated from high command and staff colleges in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

A published writer in three languages (English, Pashto, Dari/Farsi), Ali A. Jalali is the author of numerous books and articles on political, military and security issues in Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. He is the author of The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War.

Ali Jalali has taught at higher education institutions of Afghanistan and extensively lectured at U.S. National Defense University, U.S. Army War College, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the British Army Staff College, Camberley, England.

During his VOA career from 1982 to 2003, Jalali directed broadcasts in Pashto, Dari and Farsi (Persian) languages to Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan. As a journalist, he covered the war in Afghanistan (1982-1993) and the former Soviet Central Asia (1993-2000).

For more on Afghanistan, see Dr. Daniel R. Green’s Westminster talk: In the Warlords’ Shadow: Special Operations Forces, the Afghans, and Their Fight Against the Taliban and Hassan Abbas’s Westminster talk: The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier.


Robert R. Reilly:

It’s a special pleasure to introduce our guest tonight because he’s an old friend. I had the privilege of working with him at the Voice of America and I’m happy to welcome the Voice of America Persian service here tonight, as well as Afghan television, as well as the members of the Afghan Embassy who are with us.

Ali Jalali was the director of the Persian service at VOA, one of the most distinguished services that he ran so well. And in my brief tenure as the Director of Voice of America I asked him to please take over the Afghan service, the Pashto and Dari, with which there were some problems. He did that so capably he became head of the Radio Afghan Project, which included the construction of two giant transmitters outside of Kabul and of course that was another big success.

And then he left us to become Minister of the Interior of Afghanistan. As you shall hear, he is currently serving as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Germany and is the designated special envoy of Afghanistan to NATO.

He served as the Minister of the from 2003 to 2005 during which time he oversaw the creation of an Afghan National Police of 50,000 men. In addition to a 12,000 border police force to work in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and criminal investigation. He’s served for many years as a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University.

He us a former colonel in the Afghan Army, was a military planner with the Afghan Mujahedin in their struggle against the Soviets, and he is the co-author of a seminal book on the tactics used in that struggle by the Afghan resistance called, The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahedin Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War.

Now, he is here with us. There are many other distinctions that he has earned in his career, but he is here tonight to talk about his new book, which is just out. We have copies of it available in the other room. I’m sure Ambassador Jalali will be happy to sign them for you. The book was released at $35. Through a special arrangement it’s there for $20.

For those of you who would like a copy, I can simply tell you that Dr. Fred Starr, who is one of the great scholars of Central Asia, sent me a message when he found out that Jalali was talking here tonight, saying that this is the book on Afghanistan and I quote him, “the best history of Afghanistan in any language.” Please join me in welcoming Ali Jalali, who will tell us about the military history of his country.

Ali Jalali:


Director Reilly, Ambassador Mohib, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for coming here and giving me the opportunity to speak about certain issues in Afghanistan. Any issue about Afghanistan is both complicated but at the same time probably interesting, and news.

I am very pleased to have Bob Reilly here with us. We worked together during very difficult times. After 9/11 when Afghanistan National Transmissions were destroyed and he asked me to head that project for which we actually got about $20 million and then contributed to this during the Tokyo Conference in 2002. And I went back- when I went to Afghanistan later and I saw how effective that project was. I remember that one day the head of the- Chief- Chairman of- Director of the BBG came to Kabul and assured him of all the issues and this all because Bob believes in a war of ideas and he has done a lot on this issue.

Now, first thing first, a disclaimer. My remarks today represent only my own personal opinions and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any any official institution, any government, or anybody else.

Afghanistan Today

Today, the news from Afghanistan is not encouraging. Sometimes when people ask me how is the situation in Afghanistan – everybody asks that – I say, “In one word, good. In two words, not good.”

But good and not good both are very, very charged words, so they have different aspects, different dimensions, and others, and it is a complicated country. And it is in a complicated region and international environments, so if you want to understand that, okay, good luck, but you have to put it in a historical context. That is what I try to do, to put it in historical context. There are certain things, certain trends, although they are changing.

You know after 9/11 many authors wrote very good studies, great books. However, their studies tried to find a typology of the way of war in Afghanistan. Most of them actually focused on stereotypes and misinterpretations, and only focused on the last century.

Some people actually wrote books on Afghanistan being the ‘graveyard of empires’. Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires. In Afghanistan, many empires actually faced military defeat, but Afghanistan is also the hub of empires. Many great powers came to Afghanistan and created great empires, both military empires and cultural empires.

So I think we have to be very careful when we put Afghanistan in this historical context. It is a very unique country, of course. It is locates on the fault-lines of three main regions; Central Asia, Middle East, and South Asia, but at the same time that fault-line continuously becomes a distinctive entity of its own. Although it is on a fault line, it became a major independent kind of historical unit.

Why? In this book I wrote about the geopolitics of a peripheral state because the empires that were created in Central Asia or in the Middle East or in India either crashed the ages of their empires, which Afghanistan suffered, or when they became weakened, they were unable to control the peripheries, so a periphery by itself, by default became independent.

The Centrality of Geography in Afghanistan’s History

Therefore, Afghanistan’s history is not mostly based on geography, but it is most based on history. But geography played a major role in shaping the history. Geography had been static and dynamic. When there was nothing around, it was static. Nobody bothered, it was ignored. But then when it became prominent because of the geopolitical ambitions of others, the miscalculations actually shaped the future of that part of the world.

In the old days, in the old times, India’s only corridor from West to East was Afghanistan. That was when major armies Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Turks crossed. But after the discovery of sea routes, the gates of India became water gates, sea routes, so Afghanistan was important. Then in the Middle Ages, the fifteenth century, when three major gunpowder empires emerged, the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Empire, Uzbeks in South Asia, and the Mongolian Empire in India, then Afghanistan became instead of a gate to India, it was a gate of India to fight these other rival powers. Babur was talking about Kabul and Kandahar, too, major gates for them to fight the Uzbeks in the north, and in Kandahar in the south.

The Great Game Begins

And then the Great Game came. The Great Game again brought Afghanistan to prominence. However, Afghanistan in the nineteenth century suffered from miscalculations and ignorance and neglect. The First Anglo-Afghan War [occurred] when the Great Game started [between] British India and Czarist Russia, [which] were competing for supremacy in Central Asia, and the solutions for each country were very tactical at the expense [of creating] strategic problems for Afghanistan.

First Anglo-Afghan War

Take the First Anglo-Afghan War. Okay, British India wanted to create a friendly state in Afghanistan in order to check the advance of Russians through Persia, [through] which they had led the army to Herat. Dost Mohammad was really an ally to [the British]. He offered to be an ally to the British, but they neglected, they brought a puppet there because they thought Dost Mohammad could not [effectively] support their cause. The war came, the British suffered a lot, and then brought Dost Mohammad back as an ally in Afghanistan, and he became an ally of the British.

Second Anglo-Afghan War

The same thing [happened] in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Sher Ali really wanted to be an ally of the British Empire there in order to check the advance of the Russians there, but [based on] the personal whims of policymakers [who] thought that Sher Ali was too independent to do that, [the British chose not to back Sher Ali], so the Second-Anglo Afghan War took place. And then that was a bloody war, they lost a lot, but [it] did not change the situation very much.

An Alliance Rebuffed

Now, during the civil war we had the same problem. Twelve times Afghans actually thought that in order to check Russian advances [near] Afghanistan or in the area, they wanted [an] alliance with the United States, with the Americans. Twelve times the government of Afghanistan from 1930 to 1954 tried to win [an] alliance with Washington, but during the Second World War, it was blocked by the British because they thought [if] Afghans are [armed by the United States government], these weapons will [probably] go to tribal areas, and they will use [them] against the British Empire.

Okay, then in 1948, when the Prime Minister of Afghanistan came to Washington, and asked for this. Secretary [of State George C.] Marshall asked Shah Mahmud Khan, the Prime Minister, who is the enemy? He said the Russians. And he [said] Afghanistan can fight the Russians. He said no, we are not fighting the Russians, but we do want to defend ourselves [against] the Russians.

At that time, there was a study [produced by the] Pentagon [in which] they actually wrote off Afghanistan as an unimportant place. Let me read that assessment of the Pentagon in 1953. It says that Afghanistan is of “little or no strategic importance to the United States. It is situated on the perimeter of the USSR. It remains nominally independent of Soviet domination, but its geographic location coupled with the realization by Afghan leaders of Soviet capabilities presages Soviet control of the country whenever the situation so dictates.”

You know that this is the time that the strategy of containment was the main strategy of the United States. There were three states [on] the southern border of the Soviet Union; Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. As my old and great friend, Louis Dupree, said that that was a time when many countries were trying to join the American gravy train, not because they were able to block the expansion of the Soviet Union but because [they] benefit from this bandwagon. That is why at that time Pakistan in 1953 joined that alliance, which was not on the border of the Soviet Union, and conspicuously ignored Afghanistan.

At that time, Afghanistan and India noticed that if it is on the border, it is not on the border of the Soviet Union. Otherwise, arming Pakistan could disrupt the balance of power in the subcontinent against India and Afghanistan. Well, the last effort that was made was in 1954 during the presidency of [former] Gen. Eisenhower. When General Daoud, who became Prime Minister of Afghanistan, thought as a military man, Gen. Eisenhower would understand. He tried to win that support. It was declined, and then, three months later, Secretary of the Communist Party Khrushchev and [Nikolai] Bulganin arrived in Afghanistan, and they signed a contract very generously giving $100 million dollars to Afghanistan and started arming the Afghan Army, the armed forces. 1954, that was a year earlier. The Soviet Union, the KGB, recruited the first future leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which was actually formed later on in 1965.

Okay, now, with all of this, Afghanistan was the only country in the region, finally, that fought a bloody war with the Soviet Union, the only country that actually forced the Soviet Union with [the] help of others out of Afghanistan, the country that actually the United States spent the largest [amount of money in] covert assistance to fight the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It was the last battlefield of the Cold War. Afghanistan is the only country from which the United States was attacked. [Afghanistan is] the only country the United States actually invaded in order to overthrow the Taliban. It is the sad fate of Afghanistan to get caught in the crossfire.

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