Blundering Into Afghanistan

The history behind current events.
Sept. 20 2001 3:00 AM

Blundering Into Afghanistan

The Great Game has repeatedly foiled the great powers. 

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Meanwhile, the British set up a garrison armed with Gatling machine guns and other heavy artillery. When the warriors came, the British mowed down 3,000 while losing just five men. But the victory was pyrrhic, for the British realized that occupation was impossible. In what Hopkirk calls "a rare stroke of imagination," British leaders placed on the throne Abdur Rahman, a grandson of Dost Mohammed with ties to Russia—appeasing the Russians, the British themselves, and the Afghans, who considered him one of their own. To shirk any stigma of disloyalty, Abdur Rahman made it seem that he had forced the British exodus, securing his people's support for a healthy 21-year reign. Equally popular, his son Habibollah Khan reigned for another 20.

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Habibollah was assassinated by anti-British nationalists in 1919, who considered him too close to the colonialists. The Third Afghan War followed. By this point, Britain knew its empire was waning, and it made little effort to resist the demands of Habibollah's son Amanollah Khan for autonomy. Aug. 19, the date Amanollah signed a treaty with Britain in 1919, became Afghan Independence Day.

Having driven out the British, Amanollah struck up a friendship with the Soviet Union, which Afghanistan was among the first states to recognize. Amanollah also changed his title from emir to the secular pasha, or king, and oversaw such reforms as the abolition of nobility, the provision of constitutional rights, education for women, and modernization. For 60 years Afghanistan, though hardly free from political turmoil—internal coups continued with clockwork regularity—kept a close relationship with the U.S.S.R. and kept foreigners outside its borders.

In the 1970s, finally, that relationship unraveled. For some time, Afghanistan had been improving its relations with the United States. Then a series of coups weakened Soviet influence while emboldening a restive Muslim population to rebel. Hafizullah Amin, a secular Marxist dictator, sought support from the U.S.S.R., but when he clashed with his sponsors on how to consolidate his regime, they sent in troops and, on Dec. 26, 1979, murdered him. An army swooped in from the north to shore up the new government. Which is, more or less, where we came in.

Since history only recounts the past and can't predict the future, it's by no means assured that American invaders meet the fate of their British and Russian predecessors. Before the Gulf War, it may be recalled, scores of so-called experts, from Zbigniew Brzezinski to George Ball to John McCain, warned hysterically about the bloodshed that would flow during any assault on Iraq. (In March 1991, Slate's Jacob Weisberg, then at the New Republic, gave out "Zbig Awards" for the most hysterical offenders.) They feared another Vietnam.

Whatever America's military response, it won't be without unforeseen horrors. Most of the president's men are urging caution and prudence. They seem to know that the coming war won't be great, and it's not going to be a game.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.