If bloody conflict has a permanent home, it might well be in Afghanistan, where war seems without end.
The relentless push-and-pull of clashing beliefs and ambitions has over the centuries turned the country into a breeding ground for intrigue, dispute and explosion. Today is no exception, and the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran are among interested onlookers to the latest fight.
Afghanistan has long been a crossroad for influences from East and West, from Europe and Asia, from Islam and Buddhism, from communism and capitalism. Alexander the Great of Macedonia and the Mongol conquerors Genghis Khan and Tamerlane passed this way with greater or lesser bloodshed.
One of Afghanistan's earliest rulers, the 12th-century Ala-ud-Din of Ghor, set the standard for national fierceness, earning the sobriquet "World Burner."
Author Peter Hopkirk, in his 1992 book "The Great Game," tells of Lt. Arthur Conolly, a young British cavalry officer, sent in the 1830s to reconnoiter the territory.
After considering the landscape and the inhabitants, he reported on the outlook for any invading army: "If the Afghans, as a nation, were determined to resist the invaders, the difficulties of the march would be rendered well nigh impossible."
The Soviet army and the CIA would learn that same lesson, attempting but failing to control events in an untenable land. In 1978, the Soviet Union installed a Marxist government in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
The war that ensued lasted 10 years and cost the lives of at least 15,000 Soviet soldiers before the Soviet Union accepted defeat.
The CIA helped arm the anti-Soviet guerrillas but the groups were so splintered after the departure of the Soviets, their common enemy, that the result has been only more turmoil. The death count of the struggles now stands at more than 2 million people, with 6 million other Afghans now refugees.
But history has only been repeating itself.
The Afghans -- mainly Pashtuns with their lean bodies, sunken sallow cheeks and aquiline noses, pale-skinned Tajiks, or the Asiatic Uzbeks -- are as rugged and unforgiving as the terrain they endlessly fight over, a point chillingly made by Rudyard Kipling, the poet of barracks-room patriotism in 19th-century imperial England.
In his ditty to "The Young British Soldier," he wrote:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
An' the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Afghanistan has always been a place of extremes, be it of temperature (from subzero to sweltering), geography (steep mountains and flat plains) -- or violence. The home of a warrior people, it has also been a haven for international drifters, dreamers and drug users.
Hopkirk's "The Great Game" records the first impressions of another British officer, Lt. Alexander Burnes, who arrived in Kabul in 1832 and declared it a paradise: "There were peaches, plums, apricots, pears, apples, quinces, cherries, walnuts, mulberries, pomegranates and vines, all growing in one garden. There were also nightingales, blackbirds, thrushes and doves and chattering magpies on almost every tree."
Burnes was later hacked to death there.
Afghanistan's latest conflict has roots that can be traced to its geography on the Iranian plateau. This gives it strong cultural ties to Iran -- and Islam -- but also opens it to the influences of India and Central Asia.
Members of the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban movement, hTC determined to impose absolute religious law, are vying for control with ethnic and ideological foes whose shifting alliances have coalesced in unusual unity -- if only for the next battle.
"Taliban" derives from an Arabic word meaning "seeker of knowledge," and the new controllers of Afghanistan are students, mainly Pashtun graduates of Islamic religious schools in Pakistan. Incensed by the return of anarchy to their country, they took up arms in the name of law and order. Once in power, they immediately imposed strict Islamic law, closing girls' schools, ordering women out of work places and to stay at home.
This semblance of order was barely established when troops of the former government, mainly Tajiks and Muslims of a more liberal persuasion, counterattacked and formed the loose alliance with warlords from the Uzbek and Hazara minorities.
The Soviet experience, and the current chaos, mimic the events of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1800s, the British, already suspicious of Czarist Russian designs on Afghanistan and worried that one day the Kremlin might send its troops marching across Afghanistan and through the Khyber Pass into India, the "jewel" of the Empire, sent their troops toward Kabul.
They advanced in the face of stiff resistance until a peace agreement was reached allowing them to open a British embassy there. Months later the British envoy and his escorts were murdered, provoking a second British invasion and the removal of Afghanistan's then-ruler, Yakub Khan.
In 1890, as the British prepared to withdraw from Kabul after the installation of a new, acceptable Afghan emir, news came that Yakub Khan's brother, Ayub Khan, had slaughtered an entire British force. The British sent 10,000 men to wreak revenge. They handed over the territory they seized from Ayub Khan to the new government. Then they left Afghanistan.
Thirty years later the British marched back to overturn another Afghanistan declaration of independence. They failed.
On Nov. 22, 1921, Afghanistan was recognized as a sovereign nation.
True to form, it was plunged almost immediately into civil war.
"Had the Russians in December 1979 remembered Britain's unhappy experiences in Afghanistan [a century earlier], in not dissimilar circumstances, then they might not have fallen into the same terrible trap," writes Hopkirk.
"The Afghans, Moscow found too late, were an unbeatable foe."
Pub Date: 10/23/96