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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 promoted strife among the Afghans and urged Iran to recover the long lost province of Herat, on Iran’s northeast border, with its Persian-speaking, though Sunnite, population. In spite of many changes of fortune, complications, and reversals of alliances, the British succeeded in preventing an invasion of India. Yet their fears on that score never entirely disappeared. From then on they looked upon the land of the Afghans as either a buffer against, or a potential base for, such an invasion; and the successors of the British, whether in Pakistan or Iran, have shared the same view.

When Russia annexed Georgia (1801), conquered the Khanates, or local fiefdoms, in the eastern Caucasus mountains, and strongly increased its influence in Tehran after the conclusion of the Russo-Persian treaty of Turkamanchay (1828), Britain’s policy toward the Afghan state changed. The British now began to fear that Persian sovereignty over Herat would be no more than a veil for the extension of Russian influence in Central Asia and a further step on the road to India. When the Turkish sultan, defeated by his Egyptian vassal, Muhammad Ali, appealed to Russia for assistance, the tsar gladly sent his troops to the rescue in exchange for a treaty that gave him a dominant position in the Turkish Straits. To counteract this Russian advance in the Balkans, Britain’s combative foreign minister Lord Palmerston decided to bring pressure on the tsar by intervening in Afghanistan and Persia.

Iran lost its territory in the Caucasus in the 1820s and was anxious to make up for it. With Russian encouragement and support, the Iranians staged a military campaign against Herat. The venture was on the verge of success when Britain intervened, saved Herat’s autonomy, and compelled the Persians to withdraw. The British felt that Afghanistan itself must be controlled through compliant and friendly rulers. England began to support Shah Shoja, ruler of the Sadozai tribe, against other claimants to supreme authority in Afghanistan. But Shoja’s rival, Dust Mohammad, controlled most of the country and would not be dislodged by diplomatic attacks.

In 1838 the British sent an Anglo-Indian army of some 30,000 into Afghanistan, occupying Kandahar, Ghazni, and Kabul. The invasion set off an explosion of anger and hatred among the tribes and momentarily unified them against the British infidels. In November 1841 the people of Kabul rose against Shah Shoja, killed him, and massacred the British. Of the 4,500 Englishmen only one, Dr. Broyden, lived to tell the tale. Though the British dispatched another army into Afghanistan, they realized that the cost in lives and treasure of subduing the fiercely independent tribes would be excessive and that the struggle might last for decades. Late in 1842 the British withdrew and saw their old antagonist, Dust Mohammad, regain power. Thus the first Anglo-Afghan War failed to destroy Afghan independence. On the contrary, it dealt a blow to British prestige in the East. “There is not a Moslem heart from Pekin to Constantinople,” wrote the Duke of Wellington, “which will not vibrate…. It is impossible that that fact should not produce a moral effect injurious to British influence and power throughout the whole extent of Asia.”

Almost simultaneously a similar disaster struck a Russian army advancing on Khiva, a Khanate some 500 miles north of Kabul which Russia had tried but failed to conquer in 1605, 1717, 1739, and 1825. Marching through the desert in bitter cold, the poorly equipped, poorly clad, and poorly supplied Russian troops lost over 3,000 men and abandoned the campaign. The reverses suffered by the two great powers between 1839 and 1842 postponed their confrontation in Central Asia, leaving a buffer zone of independent states between the Russians in the Kirghiz steppes and the British in India. In the next decade the Ottoman Empire was the main theater of the Anglo-Russian conflict, leading the two powers to the Crimean War, and, as a consequence of Russia’s defeat, to a temporary decline in its activity in the Balkans.

Scholars and diplomats sometimes refer to the “pendulum” theory of Russian expansion, according to which Russia, when checked in the West, turns East, and vice versa. After the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Crimean War, Russia could no longer expand in the Balkans, and its borders with Turkey and Iran in Transcaucasia were also fixed. It was only beyond the Caspian Sea, in the immense plains that stretched from its eastern shores to the borders of China and from the southern edge of Siberia to the Kopet Dagh, the Paropamisus, and the Alai mountain chains, that Russia could expand without fear of European intervention.

And expand it did. General Dmitrii Alekseevich Miliutin, soldier, statesman, teacher, reformer, and close collaborator of Tsar Alexander II, was the principal strategist of the next phase of Russia’s Asian conquests. Prince A.M. Gorchakov and N.K. Giers, brilliant diplomats both, provided skillful tactical support to the military. It was Gorchakov who in December 1864 formulated his famous theory justifying Russia’s advance:

The position of Russia in Central Asia is that of all civilized states which are brought into contact with half savage, nomad populations possessing no fixed social organization. In such cases it always happens that the more civilized State is forced, in the interests of security of its frontiers and its commercial relations, to exercise a certain ascendency over those whom their turbulent and unsettled character makes undesirable neighbors….

First the civilized state must put a stop to raids and pillage. Once the wild tribes are pacified, they acquire a right to protection against their neighbors. The civilized state is thereby compelled to advance “deeper and deeper into barbarous countries,” Gorchakov wrote.

Such has been the fate of every country which has found itself in a similar position. The United States in America, France in Algeria, Holland in her colonies, England in India, all have been irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward movement where the greatest difficulty is to know where to stop.

Russia would stop only at the frontier of settled agricultural states such as the Khanate of Kokand in the Uzbek region of Central Asia, Gorchakov concluded.

Six months later Russian troops invaded that settled Khanate, taking the large and prosperous city of Tashkent by storm in 1865. A year later the tsar’s forces also attacked and defeated the Khanate of Bukhara. The British, seeing Russian armies racing toward Iran and Afghanistan from the north, made polite inquiries in St. Petersburg, pointing out that the “changes which were being made in Russian borders are scarcely consistent with the professed intention of the Russian government to respect the independence of the States of Central Asia.” Sir Andrew Buchanan, Britain’s ambassador to Russia, wrote that “Russia seems to have made a steady advance in this direction, taking permanent possession of territory….”

The pattern was set. Every year Russian troops would advance deeper into Central Asia. The British would be alarmed. Their ambassador would ask the Russian government for explanations and would be told that the tsar had no intention of annexing even an inch of new territory. The British would accept the explanation and leave the matter there until Russia made its next move. Negotiations, exchanges of notes, and expressions of dissatisfaction had not the slightest effect on Russian policy which had acquired the momentum of an elemental force.

In November 1869 a small Russian detachment landed on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea near the Turkoman village of Qizil-Su (Red Water or, in Russian, Krasnovodsk). Persian protests that this constituted encroachment on Iran’s territory were flatly rejected by Russia whose minister in Tehran maintained that Persia had never exercised authority over the Turkomans “who professed to be, and in reality were, an independent population.” The issue was closed therewith.

Next came Khiva. The decision to conquer it was made in 1872 when, at a meeting presided over by Tsar Alexander II, he turned to General K.P. von Kaufmann and said: “Konstantin Petrovich, take Khiva for me.” In January 1873 Count Peter Shuvalov was sent to London to persuade the British that the tsar had no intention of annexing Khiva. Next spring the Khanate was conquered. Shuvalov blamed the invasion on insubordinate Russian generals. The British protested but, realizing their own impotence, accepted the Russian version, one of the most unlikely diplomatic stories of the nineteenth century.

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