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. 

As the drums beat for a war with Afghanistan, it has fallen to a skittish few to warn that such a campaign almost certainly won't be a Gulf War-style cakewalk. As we've been reminded in the last few days, the Soviet Union failed miserably in the 1980s to defeat the Muslim mujahideen who resisted Marxist rule in their nation—not only humiliating a superpower but helping to speed its utter collapse.

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Cautionary though it is, the Soviet Union's rout was hardly the first of its kind. On the contrary, it was one more chapter in a centuries-long history of great powers blundering their way to defeat in the Afghan mountains. Just as harrowing as the Soviet failure were those of the cocksure British army during the heyday of Queen Victoria's empire, which found itself massacred and humiliated in a series of ill-advised forays.

Situated between great nations and lucrative trade routes, Afghanistan (which used to include some of present-day Pakistan) has long suffered the depredations of conquest. Since the sixth century B.C., when it was first recorded as part of the Persian Empire, it has been overrun by conquerors ranging from Alexander the Great (circa 330 B.C.) to Genghis Khan (circa 1220) to Tamerlane (late 14th century). Indians from the south and Turkic peoples from the north, Mongols from the east, and Arabs from the west—who in the 10th century brought Islam to the region—all made the land their own. But always temporarily.

Before the Soviets, it was the British who learned this lesson the hard way. In the 19th century, the British, who controlled India, and the Russians, who wanted to, angled for advantage in the Afghan terrain separating their empires. So dramatic were these diplomatic and military adventures that the British writer Rudyard Kipling, taken with the coinage of a British army captain, affixed a name to the imperial contest for control of Afghanistan: the Great Game. (In 1990, Peter Hopkirk, an English journalist, used the phrase as the title of his spellbinding, if distressingly Orientalist, history of that imperial struggle.)

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The First Afghan War was set in motion in 1837, when neighboring Persia, encouraged by Czar Nicholas of Russia, attacked Herat, one of Afghanistan's westernmost cities. Fearing a joint Persian-Russian takeover of all Afghanistan, Britain allied with Dost Mohammed—the powerful emir who, starting in 1818, had largely united the Afghan people after decades of warfare among the region's scattered principalities. Dost Mohammed, however, insisted that the British help him in his jihad to recapture Peshawar, in the East, which had fallen to the Sikhs. Dost Mohammed turned to the Russians.

Threatened, Britain resolved to invade and depose its former friend. At first the swaggering imperial officers scored big victories. Between April and August 1839, they conquered Kandahar, Ghazni, and eventually Kabul, the capital. Ousting Dost Mohammed, they installed Shah Shujah, who had briefly ruled some 30 years earlier during the intramural Afghan turmoil.

The British, however, had no exit strategy, and they couldn't sustain their occupation. Countrywide uprisings kept them under ongoing siege. Shah Shujah raised taxes to sustain his lavish lifestyle, while British soldiers fueled popular resentment by drinking heavily and dallying with local women. On Nov. 1, 1841, a mob surrounded the high-walled Kabul compound that housed senior British officer Alexander Burnes and his entourage. Swelling with the hours, the unappeasable crowd rebuffed Burnes' attempt to bribe them into dispersing. Finally they stormed and torched the compound, blindfolded Burnes, and sliced his body into ribbons—as well as those of his fellow officers and their Indian aides.

Unsure how to proceed in the ensuing weeks, British Gen. William Elphinstone and his political aide William Macnaghten tried to entice Dost Mohammed's son Akbar Khan into a financial settlement. But the haughty Macnaghten, approaching the negotiating session undermanned, was ambushed and killed. (Some accounts say Akbar personally shot him with pistols that Macnaghten himself had once presented to the Afghan.) Then, on Jan. 6, 1842, 4,500 British and Indian troops and 12,000 civilians fled Kabul. Despite Akbar's promise of an escort, Afghan soldiers chased the British party through the snow-covered mountain passes, slaughtering them almost to a man, woman, and child. One man, William Brydon, reached the safe haven of Jalalabad, arriving on Jan. 13 with tales of horror. Back in Kabul, Shujah was assassinated and Dost Mohammed restored to the throne for 20 years.

Resigned, the British accepted Dost Mohammed. His son and successor, however, Sher Ali Khan, drew their ire when he made diplomatic overtures to Russia in 1878. Backed by Indian support, the British invaded Afghanistan in November, commencing the Second Afghan War. Again, the British fared well at first. They took Kabul and forced the Afghans to sign a treaty pledging to allow a British presence in Kabul and to conduct their foreign relations "with the wishes and advice" of the British. But the humiliating settlement enraged Afghans, who fought back ferociously.

On Sept. 3, 1879, mutinous Afghan soldiers, angry at not having been paid in months, besieged the Bala Hissar, the Kabul citadel where British officers lived. The British resisted for a day, but Yakub Khan, Sher Ali Khan's brother and successor, offered no aid. In a replay of the 1841 massacre, the Afghans entered the compound and killed every Briton and Indian they found. Hearing the news, 60,000 Afghans from tribes around the country—led by a 90-year-old Muslim cleric declaring a jihad against the infidels and enlisting zealous suicide warriors known as ghazis—headed for Kabul.

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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.

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 of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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