Posts Tagged Afghanistan

Events that shaped our world: 2014


As 2014 draws to a close, let’s remind ourselves of the big occurrences that shaped international affairs this year. I’ve kept the list purposefully short (and in no particular order) because I want to hear what you think: what were the important events of 2014? Leave a comment below.


  • February saw the Winter Olympics take place in Sochi, Russia and a spotlight was shone on the country’s human rights record. One month later, Russia annexes Crimea.

  • Ebola breaks out in West Africa and spreads rapidly throughout the region, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, causing over 6,000 deaths thus far.

  • For four days in June London hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, chaired by the then British Foreign Secretary, William Hague and Special UN Envoy, Angelina Jolie.

  • ISIS gains territory in Syria and Iraq, and a reputation for medieval-style violence with the beheading of western journalists and aid-workers.

  • A resounding No was heard around Britain as Scotland voted against independence in the referendum.


  • After a ten-year mission, the Rosetta spacecraft lands on a comet orbiting between Jupiter and Mars and everyone goes wild.

  • Western troops leave Afghanistan and Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as the country’s new president.

  • 219 Nigerian schoolgirls are kidnapped by Boko Haram militants. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls goes viral on social media, but to little effect. The Islamic extremist group claims most of the girls have been converted and ‘married off’.

  • The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is marked with conferences, documentaries, museum exhibitions and art installations.

  • On 8th March Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 goes missing on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing carrying 239 passengers and crew. Despite the largest and most expensive multinational search effort in history, no debris or crash site has been found.


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So What Next for Afghanistan?

On Monday, in the first ever democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as Afghanistan’s new president. The inauguration comes after six months of bitter dispute over the election results and as a result of a power-sharing deal brokered by the US. Ghani’s political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, will become chief executive officer. So, having passed this momentous mile-stone, what is next on the agenda for Afghanistan? In essence, Ghani and Abdullah face the same type of pressures that all leaders do – how to keep people safe, how to create jobs, how to ensure equal rights for all – they just face much more difficult and entrenched problems than most.

Job Sharing

Issue one for both men will be how is this partnership to work? The position of CEO is a new one for Afghanistan and outwith the bounds of the country’s current constitution. Because of this, the Loya Jirga (the tribal leaders’ assembly) will need to meet at some point within the next two years to decide whether the constitution should be amended to create a prime ministerial position of the CEO. In the meantime, Abdullah will head a weekly conference of the Ministers’ Council, and make recommendations to the president, but will not have the power to decide upon policy – this responsibility will remain with the president’s cabinet. How exactly this set-up will work out in practical terms remains to be seen. One thing that is certain, however, is that given Afghanistan’s shaky start to democracy (including accusations of election fraud thrown at Ghani), both the new president and the CEO need to work together to ensure the smooth running of the government from here on out.


Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with rival Abdullah Abdullah

The Economy

As a former World Bank economist, Ghani is perhaps more qualified than most to try to tackle the task of rejuvenating Afghanistan’s economy – which is just as well given its current state. For, despite years of western-led projects designed to make the country economically self-sustaining, the Afghan government still faces a budget short-fall of roughly 20%. The rough election process has also taken its toll on the economy. And while substantial international aid has helped make improvements in areas such as health and education, there is still much left for Ghani to do.


With the withdrawal of international troops from the country to be completed by 2015, Ghani needs to ensure that Afghanistan does not consequently slide backwards when it comes the matter of security. Which is exactly why he signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US on Tuesday, just a day after taking office. The agreement allows for 9,800 US soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to help train, equip and advise the native military and police forces. Both India and China also appear to be taking more of an interest in supporting Afghanistan in its security issues. And although Ghani used his inaugural speech to call for peace talks with the Taliban, previous attempts at coming to an understanding with the group have failed. In fact, with the Taliban taking advantage of the recent political uncertainty to launch concerted offensives in some areas of the country, the president and his CEO will be looking for all the help they can get.

Women’s_Day_in_Afghanistan (1)

Afghan women need to be included in the rebuilding process

International Relations

Unfortunately for Ghani, this reliance on external help comes at a price. In needing to accept foreign aid, the new president will be forced to also accept foreign influence (and, potentially, interference) over Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. The Taliban, for example, have accused Ghani of being a US puppet. Throughout its history, Afghanistan has arguably had to walk a line between the competing interests of foreign powers looking to gain influence over Kabul for their own ends. While the days of Great Game rivalry may be at an end, undoubtedly tensions still remain between the likes of India, Pakistan and China when it comes to their Afghan policies. Having said this, there currently appears to be more of a move towards regional cooperation among these Asian nations, as it becomes increasingly obvious that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan would be of benefit to all concerned parties.

Women’s Rights

Despite some progess in this area, Afghanistan is still one of the worst countries in the world in which to be a woman. In 2013 violence against women reached record levels, despite the Elimination of Violence against Women Act (EVAW) having been passed in 2009. Female adult literacy rates are around the measly 12% range and women still face discrimination in all walks of life, from politics to marriage to access to health care and education. Crucially, progress cannot be made in Afghanistan in any other arena until these issues are addressed. Amnesty International’s campaign, ‘Talk to me, not about me’, highlights the importance of including Afghan women in the national and international political process. Security cannot be attained until women are included in the peace talks; the economy cannot be revived until women are afforded proper education and access to jobs; and Afghanistan cannot address internal issues of violence and extremism until acts such as the EVAW are taken more seriously.

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Muslim Reaction to the First World War

In 1918, Britain was the world’s greatest Muslim power. Its victory in the First World War meant that there were few parts of Asia and the Middle East which did not come under British imperial influence in some shape or form, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Transjordan, Palestine and, of course India. Even nominally independent Persia and Afghanistan were heavily dependent on British patronage. Yet, despite emerging from a conflict which saw the collapse of all the other major empires of the day, the post-war period was a difficult time for Britain, and the future of its empire was less than assured. For, together with (some would say because of) the devastation it wrought on humanity, the First World War served to accelerate the growth of three of the most significant ideologies of the 20th century – Communism, nationalism and pan-Islamism. Despite what some contemporaries in Whitehall might have believed, it was not Communism but in fact the latter two ideologies (particularly in combination) that were to prove the greatest threat to the British Empire in the years immediately after 1918.

Prior to the war

Muslim discontent had been simmering beneath the surface long before the outbreak of the First World War. Since the late nineteenth century, more and more Muslims had come to the realisation that the expansion of European influence in Asia and the Middle East was increasingly subjecting them to Christian rule. Past glories of Islamic power had slowly been replaced with Western hegemony. Instead of the Moghul Emperors, British sovereigns now ruled over India (including modern day Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Burma) while Russian Tsars had absorbed much of Central Asia into their empire. Even those Muslim countries which were retained their own rulers were still weakened by foreign interference: Afghanistan’s foreign relations were controlled by the viceroy in India, Persia had been divided between Britain and Russia and everybody seemed to be sniffing around ‘the sickman of Europe’, the Ottoman Empire. By the start of the twentieth century then, Muslims across the region were feeling decidedly encircled. Fear for the future of Islamic identity resulted in the founding in 1906 of the Muslim League, its aim being to stimulate political awareness among the Muslims of India. Meanwhile, the pre-war period also witnessed the rise of pan-Islamism – the idea that Muslims throughout the world should be unified under one Islamic state with the Caliph as its head. Since the 16th century it just so happened that the Caliph was also the Ottoman Sultan – a fact that would become particularly relevant when the Ottomans decided to enter the First World War on the side of Germany.

During the war

Nevertheless, despite these early pan-Islamic tendencies, Anglo-Muslim relations were relatively stable. Indian Muslims remained loyal to the British crown, and the political reforms sought by the Muslim League had were consistent with the maintenance of British control. Haunted by the spectre of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, successive viceroys were also careful not to alienate their Muslim citizens too much. With the outbreak of war, the League even professed its support for Britain. One million Indians (Muslim, Hindu and Sikh alike) fought during the First World War and even when the Sultan pronounced a jihad against the Allies, Indian Muslim loyalty held. Britain supported the Arab revolt and the government in India even managed to keep Persia and Afghanistan neutral, despite German and Turkish pressure to join the conflict on their side. The Afghan emir, Habibullah, lamented in 1916 that he was ‘between the devil and the deep sea, with a friend on the one hand and a brother in faith, weak and in need of help, on the other hand, asking me for help against the first friend’. In fact, it would appear that it was his support of Britain that came to cause Habibullah’s later assassination and the succession of his anti-British son to the Afghan throne.

Post war

The real trouble began after the conclusion of the First World War. With the defeat of the Central Powers began the Allied debate on what to do with the Ottoman Empire. That this last bastion of Islamic power had lost the war was bad enough for Muslims to stomach but in 1919 it appeared that the Allies (and Britain in particular) were planning to dismember the Sultan’s territories, thereby weakening the power of the Caliph. According to those who accepted the authority of the Sultan/Caliph (and not all Muslims did), the temporal and spiritual power of the Caliph could not be separated. The Caliph needed to retain control of certain territories – including the holy places of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem – in order to be able to act as protector of the Muslim world. A Caliphate movement soon formed in India (with supporters in England) demanding for Turkey the ‘restoration of status quo ante bellum’. A deputation even travelled to Britain to put forward their defence of the Caliph, only to find themselves rebuffed by the prime minister, David Lloyd George, who, together with the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, believed the Caliphate movement to be a lot of hot air.

What those in London failed to realise, however, was that the plight of the Caliph proved the perfect focal point for all Muslim discontent across Asia in the post-war period. This was about much more than the future of Turkey – to Muslims in India, this was about their future, and their relationship with their imperial rulers. For, compounding this idea of being encircled, was the feeling of failure Indian Muslims had hitherto experience in trying to gain greater political say over their lives. A great part of why the Muslim League had supported the empire’s effort in war was the idea that in showing their loyalty thus, Britain would grant political concessions in return. Unfortunately, the enactment of the suppressive Rowlatt Bill in 1919 quickly put paid to this optimism. Muslims who had once shown complete loyalty to the Raj were now angry: ‘They had joined the Christian powers to fight against Muslims and had not received any reward…neither any degree of self-government for India nor any particular advancement in the status of the Muslim community.’ Matters were made worse for Britain when Gandhi lent his support to the Caliphate movement, thereby effecting a collaboration between Muslims and Hindus and a united front against the imperial rulers. Meanwhile, in Egypt violent anti-colonial riots were breaking out and in 1920 Mesopotamia would follow suit.


Emir Amanullah. The Afghan ruler was particularly anti-British and enjoyed stirring up Muslim feeling against the empire.

Emir Amanullah. The Afghan ruler was particularly anti-British and enjoyed stirring up Muslim feeling against the empire.

Indeed, the Caliphate movement epitomised the way in which pan-Islamism blended with rising nationalist feeling in the aftermath of the First World War. The Russian Revolution had been an inspiration to much of the Asian world, with Bolshevik anti-imperial declarations and promises of religious freedom striking a chord. In Persia, for example, Britain would face harsh public opposition to its attempts at imposing an intrusive agreement on the government in Tehran. In Afghanistan the accession of emir Amanullah signalled a great change in Anglo-Afghan relations. To celebrate his new position of power, Amanullah decided in 1919 to invade India and begin the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Enthusiasm for the conflict soon faded with the start of an RAF bombing campaign; however, during the subsequent peace negotiations the emir managed to win back the right for Afghanistan to conduct their own foreign relations. For die-hard imperialists back in London, such as Curzon, this was a real blow to the empire’s prestige; for the viceroy and his men, relinquishing this control over Kabul was an inevitable consequence of the changed state of international relations after the First World War. No longer would popular feeling among Asians allow for such blatant subjugation of their independence.

In August 1920 when the Treaty of Sèvres was signed by Turkey, the Afghan emir decided to take the opportunity to cause even further trouble for the British government in India. The terms of the agreement were harsh in Muslim eyes, removing parts of Turkey to place under Greek control. Amanullah capitalised on this, announcing that all of those who wished to perform Hijrat (religious migration) would be welcome in Afghanistan. With this encouragement, some 20,000–30,000 Muslims left India and travelled to Afghanistan as a protest against the treatment of Turkey by the Allies. This huge exodus of people caused anxiety for the viceroy and his men – although in the end, the Muhajirun (those performing Hijrat) were soon flocking back to India after receiving a less than warm welcome from the Afghan government who had quickly become overwhelmed with the number of Indians seeking refuge. The whole affair was a blow to the prestige of the Caliphate movement hierarchy (who had organised the Hijrat) and to Amanullah’s pan-Islamic credentials.

In the end, the Caliphate movement was curtailed in a way few Indians expected – when in 1924 the new Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliph themselves. In fact, initially Muslim Indians refused to believe the news, although ultimately they had no choice but to come to terms with it. This was not before the issue had created widespread unrest in India and caused the downfall of the secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu (who was forced to resign after publishing a telegram from the viceroy who pleaded with London not to impose harsh terms on Turkey for fear of what it would do to Muslim agitation in India). The cooperation of Hindus and Muslims in India, which had always been something of a marriage of convenience was also on the wane by the mid 1920s. Six years or so after the conclusion of the First World War, Britain could start to breathe a little easier as across Asia things appeared to settle down somewhat. Nonetheless, the conflict had ushered in an era of greater politicisation among the region’s population which could not be put back in the box once released. The Caliphate issue had been a convenient focal point for Muslim unrest – its removal did not mean an end to the growing feelings of alienation that prevailed among Britain’s imperial subjects. By 1947 the force of Muslim demand would result, not only in the independence of India but the creation of Pakistan.

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Reason to be cheerful? Afghanistan’s elections

Being immersed in PhD corrections as I am right now, I unfortunately haven’t had time to write a proper post this week. So I’m cheating and instead pulling together some articles I’ve found interesting regarding the Afghan elections last weekend.

Afghan men wait in line outside a polling station in Kabul to cast their ballots. Fardin Waezi/UN Photo

Afghan men wait in line outside a polling station in Kabul to cast their ballots. Fardin Waezi/UN Photo

Together with affairs in Ukraine and Russia, the elections in Afghanistan have dominated foreign affairs news these past weeks. Which is unsurprising given that many in the west regard them as an early indicator of how well Afghanistan will fair in the wake of the foreign troop withdrawal this year. The creation of a stable and democratic government in Kabul is crucial for the continued progress of the country. As the election drew closer, and Taliban attacks increased (including against foreign journalists and the Independent Election Commission (IEC)), many were understandably worried – poor turnout on election day could bring into question the legitimacy of the winning presidential candidate. As it transpired, participation in the election defied all expectation, with millions of Afghan men and women braving the rain, the queues and the fear of attack to cast their vote. Altogether, seven million voters turned out on Saturday 5th April, a level so unprecedented that polling stations across the country began to run out of ballots. Afgan proclaimed it a great blow for the Taliban. The election was a good sign for women in Afghanistan too, as Foreign Policy noted. The percentage of female voters was very high, as was the number of female candidates, who even campaigned alongside their male counterparts. And while no women ran for president, three did go for the position of vice president. Such news bodes well for the future of women in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in the New Statesman, William Dalrymple looked at what the elections mean for Afghanistan’s future as the west starts to leave, concluding that things are finally starting to look up for the blighted country. I am actually reading Dalrymple’s Return of the King at the moment and highly recommend it. Indeed, I have a soft spot for Dalrymple, given that I too am a historian with an interest in current affairs in Asia. Although, unfortunately for me, I don’t have quite the connections Dalrymple has, as he recalls his personal encounters with the three presidential front-runners Dr Ashraf Ghani (who’s TED talk on rebuilding broken states is well worth a listen), Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul. Together with the high election turnout and the quality of the presidential candidates, Dalrymple gives other reasons for Afghans to be cheerful, including the fact that the cities of the country are growing, schools are opening, literacy is increasing and television, the internet and the media are all helping to broaden minds.

The one anxiety that still remains, as Dalrymple sees it, is Pakistan. Afghanistan’s neighbour has always been wary of a pro-Indian government taking hold in Kabul, which has helped influence its thinking when it comes to the Taliban. And yet, even here things could be developing in Afghanistan’s favour, with Pakistan reportedly growing disillusioned with the Taliban. As Frederic Grare reports for the Carnegie Endowment, however, things are rarely that simple when it comes to Af-Pak relations. Yes the Pakistan army is apparently looking to crack down on the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which operates in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). But there is a danger that should it do so the TTP might then move into Afghanistan to join forces with the Afghan Taliban, causing greater trouble for both countries.

For others, it is not necessarily the Taliban which we should be worried about. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Paul Miller warns that the greatest danger to the future of Afghan democracy is not a resurgent Taliban but the Afghan army itself. In Miller’s opinion, with help from the ISAF, the Afghan army has become increasingly capable and effective. By comparison, the Taliban have proved singularly inept at governing and ‘tactically overmatched’. The fact that the Taliban is still in existence is, according to Miller, due to the weakness of the current Afghanistan government and Pakistan complicity more than anything else. Assessing the risk factors, Miller believes that Afghanistan is ripe for a military coup, and recommends coup-proofing policies from the international community, including supporting competing security forces such as the police and intelligence services, and keeping the Afghan army a mix of ethnicities. Miller’s argument is an important warning about the need for the newly elected Afghan government to be strong – military coups happen when weak and inept governments are in place.

A recent paper from Chatham House also pours some cold water on the excitement of the elections last weekend. As the paper notes, while there was indeed a high turn-out, the enthusiasm of voters was not so much an endorsement of the candidates themselves, rather a ‘rejection of insurgent attempts to disrupt the election’; Afghans were being defiant in the face of Taliban threats. While this in itself is a positive sign for the progress of the country, the paper raises concerns over what could happen should there be accusations of fraud and meddling in the election results. Any good feeling which election day has created will quickly dissipate and turn sour should this become a tussle between the presidential candidates. Importantly, the future government will be weakened should there be any questions over its legitimacy. To guard against this, the paper’s authors call for the international community to help make sure that the counting and the complaints processes are transparent and to commit to continued support of Afghanistan’s electoral institutions for 2015.

Of course, there will always be some who are more cautious and even more pessimistic than others. But altogether, while there still seems a long way to go before Afghanistan is a stable and democratic nation, the pictures last weekend of queues of Afghans waiting to vote have certainly provided reason to be optimistic.


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