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 is a special pleasure to introduce our guest tonight because he is an old friend. I had the privilege of working with him at the Voice of America, and I am 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, counterterrorism, and criminal investigation, he has 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 am sure Ambassador Jalali will be happy to sign them for you. The book was released at $35. Through a special arrangement it is 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.

And in 1983, in a conference in Monterrey, California, I was at the VOA at that time, but at the same time I had a paper there. The conference was Afghan Alternatives. It was an international conference. We had leading experts from all over the world, and I was one of the very few people that believed that the Soviet Union would one day leave Afghanistan, so I was thinking about what was going to happen after the war. As a military man, if the situation after the war is not better than the situation before the war, why should you fight that war?

And my argument was based on two premises, or two facts, actually. One was I argued that the people in Afghanistan who fight the Soviet Army do not care whether they are losing or winning, they think this is the right thing to do, so how long is the Soviet Union going to do that? That was 1983. That was the year that General Algarkov wrote that treatise, Always Ready to Defend the Fatherland. Maybe you know about that, you are familiar with that. It was translated in Washington into English, and everybody was reading it.

In that treatise, he said that the correlation of forces and means is now based on quality, not quantity. You can produce millions of tanks, millions of all of these APCs or others, but the West is ahead of us in high technology. If the Soviet Union does not catchup in high technology, in ten years, the Soviet Union will turn into a Third World country. In order to catchup, he said, the Soviet Union has to change technologically. In order to change technologically, it had to change economically. In order to change economically, it had to change politically.

So that was 1983. I said, okay, if that is the case, the first change should come from Afghanistan because that is what undermines all prestige, all of the image of the Soviet Union, and everybody is against it. So, the Soviet Union will leave one day. When it leaves, think about what the fallout will be from the kind of wars now being waged in that country. All extremists were supported. The national parties got the least assistance, but the extremist fundamentalists were receiving more. That is because I am not going to talk more about what happened in Pakistan, the ISI and others, but that created an environment where extremists thrived. And when the war finally ended, the Soviet Union was out, but the fallout of the war actually again undermined the stability and security of Afghanistan, particularly when others also helped it.

Now, this brings me to another point, a historical point, that in Afghanistan, every foreign invasion is followed by an internal war or internal instability. Why? Because the nature of armed forces in Afghanistan is such that beside the state armies, you have public armies. Very few Afghan leaders or Afghan states could monopolize the deadly use of force, as they say is the prerequisite for legitimacy of a government.

[This is] because the governments in Afghanistan, the states, traditionally, could not reach out to every part of the country, so it was a localism. Each locality had to rely on its own resources. They had their own militias. When they need them for their security, they will use those militias. So when the war came, when the invasion took place, this war was fought not by armies only but these militias, by local people.

In the process, some people became very prominent during the war. After the war, these – you can call them ‘warlords,’ you can call them ‘local strongmen,’ you can call them ‘patronage networks’ – became the real factors in the country, and quite often they competed with each other and destabilized the country after the war. This is what happened in the 1990s. This is the same thing that happened in the First Anglo-Afghan War from 1838 to 1842. The same thing happened in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878 to 1880. So what happens after an invasion? Okay, the Afghans succeeded in forcing the outsider outside of the country. They suffer, many were killed, the economy was destroyed, institutions were killed, but the most devastating thing was after the war.

In Afghan tradition, there are two centers of authority, formal, which is the government, the state, and traditional. Traditional is the tribal leaders, the mosque, landlords, and others, people of influence. They do not compete with the government, but the government can use them in order to bring stability or security. During the war, a third center of authority emerged. I call it a derivative center of authority. That is dangerous because it not only challenges the formal centers of authority but also the traditional center of authority.

After the Soviet war, the people who reemerged as powerful people were not necessarily the traditional leaders of tribes and others. They actually during the war, which actually happened to be the last battlefield of the Cold War supported by others. People with the money and guns of others became prominent. They do not want to be called warlords, but they are warlords. And they actually in the 1990s – the Taliban were Taliban when they emerged in the 1990s.

Three major factors helped them to export their power. Three factors actually made them unpopular and made them easier to overthrow. The three things that helped them to come to power were [as follows]. One was the promise to end lawlessness and infighting. People liked that because in each street in the cities, somebody was dominant. The roadblocks, checkpoints of local warlord leaders created a miserable life for people. Second, they said they would disarm people. Third, [they said they would] unify the country.

People liked that. They helped them, but when they actually made their way, three other things made them very unpopular. One, they interpreted Islam against what Afghans knew what Islam is, a moderate Islam. They are very pragmatic, very moderate, Pashtuns particularly. They are very moderate. Second, they discriminated against other ethnicities. Afghanistan is comprised of different ethnicities, but it is a very unique country where you do not have ethnic wars. In fact, they brought foreigners, Pakistanis and Arabs. These three elements made them unpopular in those days.

I was in Washington at that time. When the war started, people thought, okay, this is going to drag on to the next year. No, no, it was very easy. They just wanted someone to help people overthrow these people. In two months, the Taliban’s regime was overthrown, the Al Qaeda network was disrupted, and the leaders [were] on the run. So what happened in Afghanistan was fallout of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.

I can talk about [this] more [later], but [for now] let me talk about one more thing of [how] historical [events] impacted on military operations in Afghanistan, which this book is all about. Three trends actually affect any military invasion [or] operation in Afghanistan. First, no invaders can deploy more than a certain level of troops in Afghanistan because of logistical problems. [If] they deploy a smaller force, [they] can get defeated. The largest force cannot be supplied.

In the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Army of the Indus, which came all the way from Shikarpur, going to Kandahar, and then to Kabul, and then from Peshawar through Khyber Pass to Kabul. It was about thirty thousand fighting men, and twice this amount [served as] support elements. And you remember Major-General [William George Keith] Elphinstone’s division was destroyed between Kabul and Jalalabad. It was 16,000 to 17,000, 16,500. Of this, 4,500 were combat units, soldiers, troops. The rest were service people. That was the level of troops that the British could deploy in Afghanistan.

In the Second Anglo-Afghan War, initially, the combat troops in the division of the Khyber direction, in Khorram, and in Quetta direction altogether was [a force of] fifty thousand combat troops. They had twice that troops to maintain the communication lines in order to supply these troops. And they could do this for only two years. During the Soviet period, the Soviet Union could not deploy more than 110,000-120,000 troops in Afghanistan because they could not support them. On top of this support, initially in the early ’80s, only 9 percent of these troops were able to launch combat operations. The rest were doing security duties.

In the late ’80s, they improved it so 30 percent of the troops were fighting. The rest were all in logistics, or supply, or security duties. The Soviet Union had a better situation because across the border they maintained large forces and they would use them for operations inside Afghanistan and then took them back, particularly in the northern parts of Afghanistan.

That actually created this terminology in Afghanistan that there were internal Russians and [external] Russians, foreign Russians. The foreign Russians were very brutal, they say, because they came, they were indoctrinated in Tashkent that they were going to fight Americans, Pakistanis, and Arabs. And they were fighting villagers in Afghanistan, but they were really brutal because they thought they were fighting others.

Those who were inside Afghanistan thought the Soviet Union could not deploy – I think in one study of the Soviet General Staff they said in order to control the country, if you want to control the country, you need thirty to thirty-five divisions, the kind of Czechoslovakia that you want. And at that time, the Soviet Union had 565,000 troops in Eastern Europe and 65,000 in other countries, in Cuba and other countries. While in Vietnam, the United States deployed half a million troops.

So what this means is when you cannot deploy large [numbers of] troops in Afghanistan, the smaller troops get defeated, or they can only control key areas, cities, major networks. And that creates a large space of ungoverned area. That is where the resistance emerges. And if that space, the population in that space, supports the government, it is difficult for the occupying forces. If they do not [support the government], or they are on the fence, then the situation is better [for the occupying forces], something like what we see today in Afghanistan. According to Asia Foundation’s surveys, only 9-11 percent of people want the Taliban to come back. [If that is true, then] why can they use that open space against the government? [It is] because they are not sure whether the government can protect them or not. So they either defend [themselves] or they are forced to cooperate.

The second trend is the decentralization of forces in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a country that [has] annual precipitation [of] 300 mm of water, so life is where the water is. People are settled, the villagers and all that, in areas where water is available, so they are separated from one another. When they are in the village area, they have to become self-reliant. This is a subsistence economy. Then a village, traditionally, I am not talking about today, traditionally, a village is a village state, actually. It has a government, and that is the chief of the village or the tribal leader. It has a school, that is the mosque.

It has private property. Anybody in a village has property, land, that is part of his identity. Those who do not have that land are either Mullahs, who live off other people, or they are artisans who come from time to time to the village. So the private property is part of the identity of the village. And there is public property, that is the irrigation system. And then there is a judicial system, that is the Mullah, who makes decisions. And then every able man when the village is attacked become the army of the village.

When an invader comes, he is never short on enemies. He has to fight for every village because there is no centralized power, that has been [the case] for a long time, you know, even from the time of the Greeks, Alexander the Great, invaded and occupied Syria, Medea, Persia, Parthia, one thousand miles wide in one year, July 331 BC to July 330 BC. But then he arrived in Bactria and Sogdiana, according to some calculations, he spent two years only to dominate 325 square kilometers because he could easily have won the wars of kings. If the army is defeated, that is it. But there, [in Bactria and Sogdiana], he had to fight every village, and then that village will stand again.

That is another trend in Afghanistan. I think it was General [Mikhail] Gromov, who once reported to the Politburo that there is no spot in Afghanistan that the Soviet Army did not visit, but 70 percent of this area is under mujahideen control, not our control, because they go there, they destroy whatever. When they, [the Soviets], leave, they [the mujahideen], come back. So this is the trend that makes it very difficult for occupation.

And the third [trend] is

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