Afghanistan Conflict

Ebrahim Afsah

University of Copenhagen – Faculty of Law

March 1, 2008

Encyclopedia of Public International Law, ed. by Rüdiger Wolfrum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)


Inaccessible peripheral location, rugged terrain, and relative lack of natural resources have considerably encumbered state-building in Afghanistan. For most of its modern history since 1747 it has thus be defined primarily as a ‘buffer state’ separating the Russian and British empires. In the 19th and 20th centuries the exceedingly weak central state repeatedly attempted ambitious modernisation efforts that faltered on its insufficient institutional strength and massive resistance of an extremely conservative rural population. Competing outside powers have supported opposite sides in this ongoing socio-economic struggle, with the British-Russian rivalry being replaced by the German-British competition during the two World Wars, ultimately superseded during the Cold War by the competition between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. From the 1950s until 1978 this competition was played out by peaceful means through development assistance. Following the Socialist and later Communist takeover of power in 1978/1979, Afghanistan became a major front of the Cold War. After the negotiated withdrawal of foreign troops in 1989 the conflict continued as a civil war with considerable involvement of regional powers. Since 2001 the internal conflict has abated under considerable international military and aid presence but has not been resolved.

Afghanistan Conflict – Introduction

Genesis and Evolution of the Conflict

Throughout the 20th century narrow urban elites periodically embarked upon ambitious social engineering schemes violently resisted by a conservative rural society seeking to defend traditional ways of life and local autonomies. The weakness of formal state structures has generally not been commensurate with the ambitious goals of the governing elite. As the Afghan state had historically depended on external aid rather than domestic revenue, this essentially domestic conflict became a battleground for -> super power competition. For valid geo-strategic reasons, the West allied itself during this conflict with the anti-modern forces of extreme religious conservatism. In the strategic context of the -> Cold War the immediate outcome of the first phase of the Afghanistan conflict constituted an unmitigated success for the West.

The withdrawal of the Soviet Union was followed by a general civil war during which most formal and traditional institutions were severely damaged. Eventually, religious radicalism and lawlessness produced international -> terrorism that necessitated a concerted military, political, and economic intervention in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.

The resulting United Nations brokered settlement and the subsequent reconstruction process required a particularly careful, non-intrusive approach. This has been complicated by the peace process running in parallel —and often been subservient— to the ongoing American-led ‘war on terror.’

1747-1978: Buffer-State and Contentious Modernisation

Afghanistan belongs to the handful non-European states that have never been subject to -> colonialism. The precursor of the Afghan state was created in 1747, after an earlier attempt at secession from the Persian empire had failed in 1707. Restrictions on the conduct of its foreign policy imposed by Great Britain were ultimately lifted in 1919. The modern state remained institutionally weak and depended for most of its revenue on military and economic contributions by foreign powers.

From 1953-1963 the country pursued an aggressive -> irredentist foreign policy against Pakistan supported by the Soviet Union. Its heavy economic costs led from 1963-1973 to a period of political liberalisation, détente with Pakistan, and rapprochement with the United States. A Soviet-supported bloodless coup d’etat deposed the monarchy in 1973. The ensuing modernist social engineering provoked an Islamist resistance sheltered by Pakistan and the United States.

1978-1992: Communist Period

Following increasing domestic tensions and souring relations with the Soviet Union, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan staged on 28 April 1978a bloody coup. The party had historically been sharply divided into two rival factions, the mostly Pashtun Khalq and the predominantly Tajik Parcham. Ideological intransigence and ill-advised social engineering almost immediately provoked massive domestic resistance, while factional infighting drastically reduced the coherence of the government. The Islamist resistance was enjoying significant foreign backing, mostly from the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. The communist Afghan government proved unable to meet the challenge and repeatedly asked for Soviet military support, including the deployment of ground troops according to the terms of the 1978 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighbourliness (-> Treaties of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation) that permitted Soviet deployment in case of an Afghan request (-> Intervention on Invitation).

Afghanistan Conflict
Source: Pixabay

See full PDF below.