Unconquerable: A History of War and Conflict in Afghanistan

Will New Goals and Tactics Help NATO Succeed In a Land Where Others Have Failed

by Moises Diaz, age 17

There is an ethnic group that has successfully faced down the most powerful empires of modern times. For thousands of years the Pashtun people of Afghanistan and Pakistan have battled powerful foreign adversaries. Through it all they have maintained their independence and sovereignty. They have seen plenty of conflict, both foreign and domestic.   

The Pashtun repelled three invasions by British colonial armies, and they endured a decade of long sieges by the Soviet Empire. More recently many have resisted NATO troops.


More than a few historians and military experts consider these people essentially unconquerable. The Pashtun people exist today as farmers, herdsmen, and warriors. They live in the mountains of modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Numbering roughly 20 million people, two-thirds of their population lives in Pakistan. The remainder live in Afghanistan.
The Pashtun are organized into networks of Sunni Islam tribes and sub-tribal groups led by lashkars.
These tribal bonds are centuries old and transcend national borders. Over the years various foreign powers have attempted to sever this network by creating divisions. For instance, the Durand Line was drawn by the British in 1893 and remains to this day the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

This line is simply that: a line on a map. It was put there by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, a diplomat serving the British army during the days that England ruled India and much of southern Asia as a colony. Durand hoped to separate the various Pashtun tribes from each other and defeat their network.
In 1840, as a preemptive strike against Russian southward expansion, the British Empire sent a force of 17,000 English and Indian troops into Afghanistan. The objective of the first Anglo-Afghan War was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a Russian staging zone for an invasion of India. After two years, the war ended when a Pashtun mob forced the British out of the capital, Kabul. While retreating, the mob slaughtered every member of the British force, save one to tell the tale.
More than 30 years later, in 1878, the British invaded Afghanistan for a second time. This time they succeeded in installing a puppet king, Abdur Rahman Khan, on the Afghani throne. As in the first Afghan War, their goal was to stop growing Russian influence.
These struggles for Afghanistan between the Russian Empire and the British became known as the “Great Game.” The Great Game ended with the 1907 Anglo-Russian convention, which also divided Persia. Russia agreed to let Afghanistan be autonomous if Great Britain didn’t interfere with Afghani affairs.
During the era of the Great Game Pashtun lashkars led insurgencies that eventually grew to become a jihad, a holy war for full independence of Pashtuns. Efforts to rid Afghanistan of British influence continued until independence, which was gained in 1919 at the Treaty of Rawalpindi.
Even though British influence was gone from an independent Afghanistan, the British still controlled half of the Pashtun people, those living east of the Durand Line in British India (today’s Pakistan).
Leaders in Kabul, still the capital of Afghanistan, mobilized lashkars in the mountains to join the insurgency against the British. Even after 1919, attack against the British across the Durand Line continued.
In 1947, the British Empire created Pakistan out of British India. With that, the Pashtun people no longer had to deal with the British Empire, although they had to split their loyalties between two independent Muslim nations. Many had to choose between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both countries contained sizeable Pashtun populations.
The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan asked for Soviet military aid in the late 1970s to help fight Islamic rebels. Eventually the Afghan government asked for Soviet deployment of troops to defend the cities of Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded on Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet military deposed the Afghan Prime Minister, replaced his government and created a Soviet puppet state. The war continued as the Russians attempted to keep Afghanistan under communist control.
Pakistan, an ally of the West and the United States, funneled money and other supplies through the mountains to support the jihad in Afghanistan. The Pashtun-dominated mujahadin fought an extremely bloody war with the Soviets, eventually winning in 1989. Massive military aid from Western powers and private donations from wealthy Arabs were instrumental in the Soviet defeat. 
Soon after the Russians left, civil war broke out between warlords vying for power in Afghanistan. A little known Pashtun group called the Taliban gained the upper hand. Supported by Pakistan, they were led by Mullah Mohammed Omar from the Kandahar province. The Taliban used madrassahs, a sort of Islamic seminary to recruit fighters for the Taliban. This method helped them win the Civil War and gain control of Afghanistan.
One important goal of the Taliban was to unify the Pashtun people. This helped them gain wide support, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. In the tribal regions of Pakistan, the Taliban movement was seen as a Pashtun attempt to create an independent state.

For many generations the Pashtun people have been used as a tool for strategic purposes. This strategy has never worked. Pashtun tribes have always resisted imperial control and always remained unconquered. No one knows the outcome of the NATO invasion, but the task at hand is not an easy one.
NATO forces will undoubtedly act differently than the Soviets or British did in the past. The goal of fighting off Taliban forces and creating a new and stable nation makes the NATO mission far different than those of the past. Forcing a puppet ruler on an unwilling people also seems unlikely.
Some experts say that NATO’s mission is different enough that chances of enlisting support from non-Taliban Pashtun tribes is strong. History proves this kind of popular support is necessary in the remote and war-torn country of Afghanistan.

[Sources: Britannica.com; United States Institute of Peace Special Report: Resolving the Pakistan-Afghanistan Stalemate; Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid: From Great Game to Grand Bargain, afghan-network.net; CIA World Facebook]