Afghanistan: The Imperial Dream

Turkestan, Afghanistan, Transcaspia, Persia—to many these words breath only a sense of utter remoteness or a memory of strange vicissitudes and of moribund romance. To me, I confess, they are the pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the domination of the world.

—George Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India

It is too early to attempt a full evaluation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Only the principal events have become known in the outside world. Causes, motives, methods, and intentions are still obscure. What is clear is that on December 27 Soviet troops suddenly appeared in Kabul. Hours later the radio announced that they had been invited to come by the Afghan government which sought Soviet protection against unidentified and sinister forces. Fighting broke out in the capital. Soon the president, Hafizullah Amin, who had presumably issued an invitation to the Russians, was captured and executed, his place being taken by another Marxist militant, Babrak Karmal, who was abroad and did not appear in Kabul for several days.

Soviet troops firmly established themselves around the capital and in the principal provincial cities: Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Ghazni. There was little or no resistance from the Afghan regular army which had been thoroughly demoralized by the long struggle to put down a powerful tribal rebellion inspired by the fundamentalist Moslem clergy. However, the same tribal forces that had fought the government of Hafizullah Amin were now resisting the Russians, and they continue to do so as I write.

Though the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seemed to surprise Washington, it should have been expected. Moscow had every reason to prevent the collapse of a regime installed with its help and to defeat hostile tribal forces possibly supported by Russia’s enemies. The downfall of the Shah in Iran had removed the threat of American or Iranian intervention and made it possible for the Soviets to occupy Afghanistan without running a serious risk. Moreover, the power vacuum that has recently emerged in the Middle East gave Russia an opportunity to achieve goals it had been pursuing for well over a century.

Before the eighteenth century the Moslem tribes called Afghan, some speaking Pashto, an Iranian language, others speaking Persian, had been dominated by Iran and by Mughal India and had not been firmly united under the rule of any native Afghan prince. A measure of unity was achieved only in the middle of the eighteenth century with the rise of Ahmad Khan Abdali of the Durrani tribe, a powerful warlord and a capable politician who laid the foundation of the Afghan kingdom.

Afghanistan was first drawn into modern international politics by Napoleon, who conceived a number of rather unrealistic plans to expel the British from India with the help of three leaders: Tsar Paul of Russia, Fath Ali Shah of Iran, and Zaman Shah, ruler of one of the states that later came to constitute Afghanistan. To forestall an invasion of India the British…

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