War and Society in Afghanistan (From The Mughals to the Americans 1500-2013)
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War and Society in Afghanistan (From The Mughals to the Americans 1500-2013)

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Item Code: NAL138
Author: Kaushik Roy
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9780198099109
Pages: 344
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 490 gm
Back of the Book

The Afghan state even under strong rulers both in the pre-modern and modern eras was like the wizard of OZ: strong in appearance but weak in the reality. Ahmad Shah Abdali had to depend on loot and plunder from India to sustain state building in Afghanistan. When his successors failed in raiding India for booties, the Abdali polity cracked. Powerful rulers like Amir Dost Muhammad and Amir Abdal-Rahman Khan were partly dependent on British subsidy, which did not amount to much. Hence, their regimes faced frequent rebellions. However, Rubin’s ‘rentier state’ model applies well during the 1950-80 era in Afghanistan. Even the Hamid Karzai government in the new millennium was dependent on financial aid from Western countries.

About the Book

Over the last five centuries, Mughals, British, Soviets, and Americans won many conventional campaigns in Afghanistan but were not very successful in the unconventional ones. Taking a comprehensive view of the troubled history of the region, and with a narrative revolving around three interrelated concepts –weak state, great power rivalry, and counter –insurgency –this book provides a political and military account of war in Afghanistan, both conventional and unconventional, from the sixteenth century to present times.

The book covers wide- ranging aspects such as empire building and military operations in the region in the pre-modern period, regular and irregular warfare during the British era, as also the Russian intervention and the emergence of the fragile ‘rentier state’ after the Second World War. It further examines the recent American and NATO activities and the changing character of conflict in the twenty-first century.

With a special emphasis on ecology, terrain, and logistics, and through an analysis of Afghan tribal communities, their social structure and institutions, and their effective use of guerrilla warfare, this book explores in depth the trajectory of state building in Afghanistan.

About the Author

Kaushik Roy is Guru Nanak Professor at the Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, Iindia, and Global Fellow at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway.


This monograph has been partly possible due to the moral and material support provided by the Centre for the study of Civil War (CSCW), Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway, in 2011. Special thanks to the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Which funded a project of Professor Scott Gates (I was also a member of this project)in 2012. The conference held at Oslo (organized by Professor Scott Gates and myself ) in February 2012 on the nature of counter- insurgency in Afghanistan enriched my thinking regarding the dynamics of warfare on the rugged land. The Norwegian Ministry of Defence’s funding of the project under Professor Scott Gates and others on Future Warfare in 2013 has also partly aided work on this monograph. It goes without saying that the excellent library facilities of PRIO has been of great help to me. At PRIO, two individuals deserve special mention: Professor Scott Gates and the present director, Professor Kristian Berg Harpviken, without whose help the monograph could not have seen the light of the day. A portion of chapter 5 has published in an issue of International Area Studies Review (Vol.15, No.3, and September 2012). Oxford university Press, New Delhi, deserves praise for taking interest in the Afghanistan project special thanks to my undergraduate students at Jadavpur University, who, during the first half of 2011 and of 2013, had to ‘bear’ the series of lectures on insurgency and counter- insurgency in Afghanistan as part of their course. I am indebted to my PhD student Moumita for collecting some sources on my behalf. Without a stable domestic base, a successful counter- insurgency campaign cannot be waged. Similarly, without a stable domestic front, I cannot write a book. Hence, special thanks to my wife for keeping the ‘home front’ stable. This book is slated to be published when the Americans are pulling out of Afghanistan and international interest once again is declining as regards this ‘unfortunate’ country. And for the future, it might have disastrous consequences as it had been the case in the past. Here lies the importance of this volume.


AFTER OPERATION ENDURING FREESOM (OEF), publications regarding the insurgency in Afghanistan have proliferated. Most of the books and articles focus on the recent development. Some of them trace the lineages of the present fragmentation of Afghanistan back to the soviet invasion of the 1980a. A few scholars go back to the triple British invasion of Afghanistan. Some have even attempted to show that the Afghans from the dawn of civilization have proved to be tough opponents. David Loyn’s and Paddy Docherty’s narratives attempt to provide a clinical perspective by the ‘men from the spot’. Both had travelled around Afghanistan and tried to cull out the specific features of warfare in Afghanistan. Moreover, Loyn’s and Docherty’s monographs somewhat forcibly try to assert what the British and Americans at present can learn from Afghan military history. On the other hand, several historical works do not strictly follow a utilitarian perspective T.A. Heathcote, Edgar O’ Ballance, and Stephen Tanner, despite following a historical perspective, do not use archival sources in a critical manner.

In contrast, this volume attempts to understand the formation and breakdown of the state and its effect on society in Afghanistan due to the dynamics of warfare on a longue duree. Our journey starts from the pre-modern era. This is because great power rivalries, attempts at empire building, and in reaction to it, internal rebellions by the Afghans started long before the arrive of the British and Americans on the frontier of Afghanistan. This book tries to analyse why the Mughals, British, Soviets, and Americans won the conventional wars but were defeated in the unconventional wars in Afghanistan.

In this book, the tern ‘counter –insurgency’ (hereafter COIN) comprises all sorts of non-conventional operations. So, COIN is equivalent to irregular war/unconventional war/small war/sub- conventional operations /low –intensity conflicts, and so on. Special emphasis is given to ecology, terrain, and logistics to explain sub-conventional operations and state building in Afghanistan. Thought the focus remains on unconventional warfare, conventional warfare is not neglected totally. This is because throughout history, COIN and conventional warfare have been interrelated. Hence, attention will be given to conventional operations to show the linkages between the two forms of war. Politics and diplomacy, the two crucial components of COIN, remain in the background. The result is roughly a political and military narrative of Afghanistan’s conventional and unconventional warfare for the last five centuries based on a synthesis of primary and secondary sources. An attempt is made here to contextualize the Afghan ‘problem’ as part of the wider struggle among the great powers for controlling the ‘heart’ of Eurasia. The Afghan response, that is, guerrilla war against the imperial power with conventional military superiority, is also contextualized in the wider context of such a struggle led by other Eurasian tribes like the Basmachi and the Chechens against the Soviets/Russians. Further, unlike most of the present western account of warfare in Afghanistan, this volume also delineates the role of regional power like lran (Persia of pre –modern era), central Asia, and India (and after 1947, Pakistan) in shaping the contours of the Afghan fought but also how the great power fought in Afghanistan. Unlike most of the present publications, the objective is not to privilege the last 50 years over the last 500 years of Afghanistan’s history.

Chapter 1 charts empire building, conventional military operations, and COIN in Afghanistan in the pre-modern era, that is, under the Mughals. The tripolar Mughal –Safavid-Uzbek rivalry and its effect on Afghanistan are brought under the scanner. Since Afghanistan is an economically deficit region, poppy cultivation, loot and plunder of the surrounding sedentary civilizations, along with military service was the mainstay for the male populace of the region. The Mughals failed to control the tribal sirdars at the local levels who sponsored insurgencies in the ‘badlands’ of present Pakistan. This in turn resulted in the Mughals launching regular annual expeditions against the tribal areas. The heavy Mughal cavalry columns were often ambushed along the narrow mountainous tracks by the nimble Afghans fighting from the mountain tops. Inter –state rivalry between Persia and Mughal India over Kandahar and decline of the safavids resulted in a unified Afghan monarchy which became a threat to both the Safavid and Mughal empires. At this stage (i.e., during the 1750s), the Afghan threat escalated from sub-conventional to the conventional level.

Chapter 2 analyses regular and irregular warfare in Afghanistan under the British era. The dialectical relationship between social and political conditions within Afghanistan and turbulence in its foreign policy has been chalked out in detail. By the mid-nineteenth century, the previous tripolar struggle over Afghanistan was replaced by bipolar struggle between Russia and British. The complex interconnections between North-West frontier defence against the Pathans/ Pashtuns/ Pushtuns and power projection in Afghanistan in response to the Russian threat remain the focus of this chapter. The British doctrine of small war partly developed in relation to operations in Afghanistan during the late nineteenth century. This doctrine gave birth to British’s COIN doctrine of the twentieth century (which was used in Malaya, and so on). Just like the Mughals, the British realized that continuous instability in Afghanistan resulted in the small wars becoming hot wars, that is, the three Afghans wars (1839-42, 1878-80, and 1919). The Mughal mansabdars and the British generals during operations in Afghanistan from their bases in north-west India found out that more than 50 per cent of the units were tied up in guarding the long line of communications (LOCs). And the LOCs suffered from continuous harassing attacks from the Afghan lashkars. Both the British and the Mughal invading armies had to retreat because there was no permanent objective to capture and the land was not a state in the Westphalian model, the capture of the capital, Kabul, did not result in control over the territory of Afghanistan. And once the Afghan regular army was destroyed, innumerable war bands under the clan leaders emerged all along the countryside like a hydra-headed monster. During the 1919 Third Afghan War and the subsequent Waziristan Campaign, the British found out that light tanks and armoured cars were useless when the Afghans blocked the marrow roads in the valleys by rolling boulders. Rather, light infantry skilled in road –opening duties and escorting convoys were more important. Continuous pacification campaigns were conducted by the British in Waziristan to seal off the (present Pakistan) border with Afghanistan in order to prevent the local Pathans/ Pushtuns in Waziristan from providing logistical support to the insurgents roaming in southern Afghanistan. It is to be noted that the Taliban –Al-Qaeda Pushtun personnel, even now, acquire logistical support from the Pushtuns of north Pakistan. And at present, Waziristan is witnessing a massive pacification campaign by the Pakistan army (due to US pressure) in order to prevent infiltration of the insurgents from southern Afghanistan into Pakistan and vice versa.

Chapter 3 deals with the Russian intervention in Afghanistan. This chapter focuses on the emergence of the fragile ‘rentier state’ in the post- World War II era. A political scientist, Barnett R. Rubin, introduced the concept of rentier state in an article published in 1992 and then elaborated it in a book published in 1995. In his paradigm, the roots of the rentier state could be traced back to the era after the second Anglo –Afghan war (1878-80), when the afghan ruling elites became dependent on subsidy from foreign countries for expanding the state apparatus. Due to flow of cash from a neighbouring strong power, the ruling elites had no incentive to bargain or enter into negotiations with the local elites within the country. The net result was expansion of the state apparatus but there was no concomitant representation by the citizens. Instead of taxation and representation, a patron-client relationship held the state together. Such a state was mot accountable to its subjects. Hence, such a state, thought superficially strong, was weak in reality. And once the foreign aid ceased, the state was bound to disintegrate. Rubin continues that during the latter half of the nineteenth century. State building in Afghanistan was dependent on subsidies from British. In the post-world war II era, the principal supplier of cash (as foreign aid and in return for purchase of natural gas) from abroad was the USSR. Till 1991, aid to Kabul constituted the largest item in the soviet foreign aid budget. Once the USSR collapsed, without foreign aid, the Najibullah regime cracked.

It is true that the Afghan state even under strong rulers in both the pre-modern and modern eras was like the wizard of OZ: strong in appearance but weak in reality. Ahmad shah Abdali had to depend on loot and plunder in India to sustain state building in Afghanistan when his successors failed in raiding India for booties, as chapter 1 shows, the Abdali polity cracked. Chapter 2 shows that powerful rulers like Amir Dost Muhammad and Amir Abd al Rahman khan were not overtly dependent on British subsidy which amounted to little. Besides our analysis of archival documents, two books by Christine Noelle and Hasan kakar which detail the internal conditions of Afghanistan under Dost Muhammad and Abd al Rahman khan respectively, show no trace of a rentier state emerging in late nineteenth-century Afghanistan. However, Rubin’s rentier state model applies well during the 1950-80 eras in Afghanistan. Even the Hamid Karzai government in the new millennium is dependent on financial aid from western countries (especially the USA).


List of Mapsix
List of Abbreviationsxiii
1Mughal Empire and Warfare in Afghanistan: 1500-181013
2British Indian Empire and Warfare in Afghanistan: 1810-194769
3The Soviet Invastion of Afghanistan: 1979-88155
4US and NATO Intervention in Afghanistan192
5Afghanistan and the Nature of Future Conflicts229
About the Author313

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