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"The Forever War" at its Worst: Afghanistan

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

I think one of the reasons we don’t understand Afghanistan is that we don’t understand how long it has been at war. Ever since the communists deposed Mohammad Daoud Khan in 1978, the country has been at war. Take, for example, this brief history a hotel keeper told Dexter Filkins:

“Then things started to slip, Ahmad said, and his nostalgic air retreated. The coups and reprisals, the Soviet invasion and its retreat. Then the mujahiddin, who had beaten the Soviets, turned on one another...

“By the mid-1990s, Kabul had become a battleground of competing warlords. Each held his own corner of the city: Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik commander; Dostum, the Uzbek butcher; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Islamist fanatic. There was a galaxy of lesser hoods and gangsters, ever ready to switch sides for a bigger bag of cash.

“Every warlord had a fief, and every fief its own checkpoint, where neither a man’s cash nor his daughter were safe. At one point, Kabul was divided by forty-two separate militia checkpoints. Hekmatyar’s missiles rained from the outside. For two years the capital was dark, without electricity...

“For a time, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik professor close to Massoud, took possession of Kabul and proclaimed a government. The United Nations bestowed its recognition. Massoud was the real power, though his fighters were beholden to no one. In neighborhood after neighborhood, they plundered and raped...

“In 1996, after four years of street fighting, and more than forty thousand civilian deaths, Taliban fighters swept into the city.”

Some takeaways:

- The people of Afghanistan aren’t primitive. They are just struggling to survive in a country that’s been at war for over thirty years.

- But this isn’t a country that’s always been in perpetual war. Before the coups, they had peace and stability that lasted for forty years. They are just in a ugly cycle right now.

- Be wary of revolutions. In the case of Afghanistan, a revolution caused a war that persists to this day.

- Reading the passage, you almost wish for the brutal, totalitarian rule of the Taliban. You pray for law and order. I can’t condone what they did, but I can understand how they gained the approval and support of the average Afghan. As Filkins writes, “You’d ask someone about the Talibs and the first thing they would say is they tamed the warlords.” The Talibs gained the emotional support of the people.

- This entire ugly cycle was a by product of another war, the Cold War. Maybe this is what Filkins means by The Forever War.

seven comments

This passage reminded me a lot of A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner—neither of which can be debunked because they are novels.


@ Michael – And I’ll be reviewing those works soon. hopefully.


The same can be said for Iraq. Israel in 1973. COIN against the Kurds throughout the 70s. Iran from 1980-1988. Kuwait and the US in 90-91. Sanctions and sporadic bombing through the 90s. Invasion in 2003. And now this.

When I deployed as a 20 yr old kid in 2003, I had no sense of the history. Do you think a 20 yr old deploying to either Afghanistan or Iraq today has that sense of history,even going back to 2001/2003, when they were preteens?


I think Filkins’ book is one of the best out there.


“Reading the passage, you almost wish for the brutal, totalitarian rule of the Taliban. You pray for law and order.”

I understand what you mean but disagree with how you said it. While the chaos makes you pray for strict order, strict order makes you long for complete freedom. I think when you move from one extreme it’s easy to hyperpolarize to the extreme opposite. Going from order to chaos can be a swift thing. But going from chaos to totalitarian has to be a creeping thing.


Creepy but satisfying. Humans crave order, not chaos.

I like Don’s point. Iraq seemed like a chaotic place that only knew violence to soldiers who deployed there, because that in large part is what is was. But its history is much longer.

Which is another challenge of the counter-insurgent in Iraq/Arabia, understanding the massive knowledge of history of Muslim culture. They understand and believe many things in their culture that take years of study. It is easy to misread and therefore insult that knowledge.


@ Will – I read it on your recommendation. and I’m glad I did.