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Afghanistan: When will peace come?

To explore the historical background to the ongoing conflict.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To explore the historical background to the ongoing conflict.

Preparation and materials

  • As this assembly was written in August, you will need to update numbers of deaths in section 1.
  • Please use sensitivity towards your students’ situations; some may have close relations involved in the conflict.
  • This assembly could be led by students.
  • A PowerPoint of pictures of the main people mentioned and some maps of the area, would help the presentation.


  1. It is all over the news that British soldiers, alongside those from other European nations and the United States, are serving in Afghanistan. It seems rare to have a day without news of another casualty. [3,028] British soldiers have so far lost their lives, in comparison with [1,149] troops from the much larger American force. Yet pressure is mounting for an end to the conflict. One of the problems is that the US and Britain have had a long and bloody history in Afghanistan, of which the current situation is only the latest chapter.
  2. In 1839 Britain, then colonial sovereign of India, sought to consolidate her position, especially given Russian expansion at the time. Afghanistan marked a natural buffer between British and Russian spheres of control. An attempt to forge an alliance with Afghanistan failed, and the British concluded that the Emir of Afghanistan was an obstacle. They sought to remove him, and so began the first of three Anglo–Afghan wars. In a major upset for British colonial power and ambition, the British were surrounded in the capital, Kabul, and negotiated a retreat. 16,000 people took part, of whom 4,500 were soldiers. Only one made it back home: William Brydon, a surgeon. This story embedded the notion in the minds of would-be colonialists that Afghanistan is a tough place for a soldier.
  3. Two more wars followed, in which the British reasserted their ambition with a little more success. Fast forward to the Cold War days of 1973, and a socialist government took power in Afghanistan. It began organizing land reform and equality of the sexes. It also executed thousands of the old elites. Supported by the Soviet Union, another player in the colonial struggle over this patch of land, they began to reshape the society. But internal struggles led to a massive Soviet invasion aiming to defend the government, continuing the long war over Afghanistan.
  4. The US, looking to harm the Soviet Union and to stop them expanding their territory, began to fund Islamic militants to fight the Soviet forces as well as the government. Alongside the Pakistani intelligence service (the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI), the CIA poured money, equipment and personnel into Afghanistan. Islamic fighters from around the world came to fight. Among them was a wealthy Saudi known as Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden joined forces with other, more seasoned militants, bringing his vast inherited wealth with him, to work with the CIA against the Soviets. With American money and weapons, the militants successfully drove out the Soviets. At the same time, the Soviet Union was collapsing, so ending the Cold War. But Afghanistan, now unstable, became a lawless place, with well-armed forces clashing for control. In 1996, one militancy, the Taliban, captured the capital. By 2000 they had expanded across 95 per cent of the country.
  5. Following 9/11, the Taliban government offered shelter to Bin Laden, and refused to hand him over to the Americans unless they produced sufficient evidence to indict him, also offering to try him in an Afghan court. The US response was to invade in an attempt to destroy the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and capture Bin Laden and his lieutenants. Although the Taliban government was routed, the US and her allies failed to find Bin Laden. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led to troop numbers being reduced in Afghanistan in favour of Iraq, and a Taliban insurgency gained strength. In 2010, we are still fighting.
  6. There have been two terrible side effects of the instability fostered by the war. The first is the resurgence of Afghan opium. Following the fall of the Taliban, opium production has dramatically increased. Opium is a key ingredient of heroin, so the increased production continues to cause instability, crime and addiction in many places. The other crisis has been the spread of Taliban militancy over the border to Pakistan. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state, struggling to cope following the devastating floods of the summer. A Taliban-controlled bomb would be a major threat to world order.
  7. The real tragedy of Afghanistan is that it is a war grounded in history. US Cold War policies armed Islamic militants against the then perceived communist threat, unaware that they would switch sides at a later date.

Time for reflection

Light a candle, and play some reflective music.


Jesus said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Matthew 5.9).


‘Our young soldiers put their lives on the line in an attempt to correct the mistakes of old men long past.’

How do you feel about this sentiment?
Are you caught up in conflicts in your own life that go back many years?
What can we do as individuals to bring peace to our community?
How could we work to bring peace in our time?


‘Peace is flowing like a river’ (Hymns Old and New, 412)

Publication date: November 2010   (Vol.12 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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