For a land-locked nation that is basically a pile of rock and sand, Afghanistan holds some serious sway in the international community. The reasons are many, but they are sometimes difficult to graps until you look more closely.
Afghanistan is bordered on the west by an Islamic nuclear-power wannabe ruled by a mad President in Iran, and on the east by the already nuclear-powered and increasingly fractious Pakistan. There is even a small slice of northeastern Afghanistan that borders up against a Communist behemoth known as China. Along its northern borders lie a trio of former Soviet states in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Its land-locked status means that it has virtually no natural water supplies. There are no seas against which it borders, no rivers running through it, no lakes in which water has gathered. In short, there is very little of the life-sustaining, not to mention economy-sustaining water that is necessary for a country and people to survive, let alone thrive.
The median age is less than 18 years, which might make you wonder where are all the adults? Many of them are simply dead, as the average life expectancy is only a little over 44 years. Because of the poor economic conditions there is a high risk of infectious diseases and wide-scale problems with other illnesses such as malaria, typhoid fever, hepatitis A, and 'bird flu' influenza strains. So why does everyone care so much about a country that is so desolate and so inhospitable? Simply because of its strategic location as a 'buffer zone'.
Afghanistan was founded in 1747 when Ahmad Durrani was able to organized the native Pashtun tribes into one people. For a long time it served as a buffer between the Russian and the British empires before gaining independence from Britain in 1919.
In the 1970's, the Soviets propped up a Communist government there, and then directly invaded the country in 1979 to put down rebellions from various native Afghan tribes and groups. This led to a decade-long war in which the rebels emerged victorious thanks to aid from the international community, most notably the United States (see the film 'Charlie Wilson's War'.)
In the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war there was continual civil war in the country, with the Taliban finally emerging with control in the mid-1990's. The population is 99% Muslim, and the Taliban demanded observance of a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. They also allowed the use of Afghan territories by Osama bin Laden and his radical Islamic followers, which al Qaeda used to operate terrorist training camps.
Following 9/11, the U.S.-led coalition invaded, destroyed the terrorist camps, and drove the Taliban from power. This began a process of attempting to install a democratic government and elected leadership, which ultimately led to the current democratically-elected government of Hamid Karzai (pictured). Many felt that the U.S. lost focus from this important rebuilding program when it switched gears and invaded Iraq.
With the Afghan situation appearing under control, President Bush redeployed many American forces to topple the regime of dictator Sadaam Hussein in Iraq. As noble as removing the evil Hussein from power may have been, it did allow the Taliban to begin slowly regrouping and regaining some influence in Afghanistan.
The new American President Barack Obama inherited both the Iraq and Afghanistan situations when he took office. It is his position that Iraqi defense forces and the Iraqi government are becoming strong enough that they will soon be able to stand on their own, and is planning to slowly draw down U.S. presence in that area. At the same time he plans to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
There is an upcoming international conference on Afghanistan that will take place at The Hague and which will be attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with leaders from all of the world nations having a stake in Afghanistan's short and long term future.
With both the historical and current instability in that region of the world, and with their significant strategic locations, successful democracies in both Iraq and Afghanistan are worthy and important efforts. The Afghans absolutely need and deserve more U.S. support, not just military but also economic and in other areas. But the Iraqis cannot be abandoned to fend for themselves to the point where the loss of 4,000 American lives over a half decade ends up being for nothing.
President Obama is basically taking us back to Afghanistan, and that is a good and necessary thing. But at the same time we need to be very careful in the process of drawing down in Iraq. In the 'big tent' meeting at The Hague, two groups with a stake in Afghanistan's future which will not be represented are the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the groups who do meet should not forget their presence or their interest.
Radical Islamic forces are still fighting in both countries to undermine the American-led efforts, convinced that if they just wait us out we will eventually retreat to our own homeland and leave these Middle East countries with little defense against their continuing Jihad.
NOTE: This is a continuation of the Islam Series, all items of which can be read by clicking the below label of that name.