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A Complex and Changing Dynamic: Afghan Responses to Foreign Intervention 1878-2006

Perceptions of Afghanistan have been dominated by stereotypes. The country has been seen as a mountainous, untouched, inhospitable land, populated by an independent and ferocious people who had a well deserved reputation for stubborn resistance to invaders. This stereotype seemingly unravelled when the US-led Coalition swept across the country in late 2001, defeated the Taliban, and replaced its fundamentalist regime with a democratic government. Unlike in the past, the people of Afghanistan greeted the Americans not as conquerors but as liberators.

Explaining this anomaly in Afghan response to foreign invasion is the aim of this monograph. In contrasting the Second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-1881 and the Soviet occupation of 1979-1989 with the current Coalition intervention, it examines three major areas: the social and political organisation of Afghanistan, the objectives and strategies of the interventions, and the interaction between Afghan society and each intervener. What becomes clear is that this process of interaction has been dynamic and multifaceted, and has produced Afghan responses of considerable complexity.

The fabric of Afghan society differs fundamentally from that of the West. Traditionally, Afghanistan has had a weak central government and local and regional players were the true centres of power. The British and the Soviets failed to recognize this relationship. Instead, they tied themselves to illegitimate and powerless central governments and neglected the country's dominant local elites in determining their political and military strategies. The result was to incite and exacerbate Afghan resistance.

The immense destruction caused by the Soviet invasion led to radical changes in Afghanistan. The elimination or repression of traditional elites, the growing power of new and illegitimate power groups, and the rise of the repressive Taliban made the prospect of intervention by external actors a welcome one to many Afghans. However, the inability of the US-led Coalition, and the government it supported in Kabul, to provide for basic services decreased support for the American intervention and gave the deposed Taliban an opportunity to reclaim the country.

In each intervention, Afghan responses have been dictated by a complex interplay between society and intervener. Afghanistan's values, relationships and concepts of legitimacy, have interacted with and been dramatically affected by each group of interveners whose objectives have been based on an often misguided understanding of the society on which they act. Ultimately, the best lesson that can be drawn from this study of interventions in Afghanistan is that assumptions based on a superficial knowledge of history are perilous. Instead, a genuine understanding of the target society, and of the objectives and tools of the intervention, is essential for success.

A Complex and Changing Dynamic

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