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.

There followed more campaigns and more annexations. The Russian military machine crushed native resistance with astonishing ease: In some engagements the natives suffered casualties two hundred and more times as severe as those suffered by the Russians. After the fall of Kokand came the turn of the Turkomans who inhabited the foothills of the Kopet Dagh mountain range on Iran’s northern border.

Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India, learned that the Russian troops had come within 150 miles of the Afghan town of Herat and of Merv (or Mary), the important town to the north of Herat. “The occupation of Herat,” he wrote to Lord Salisbury in July, 1877, “would mean the establishment of Russian sovereignty or influence throughout Afghanistan and its expansion to the present frontiers of British India, carrying with it the command of the passes into Northwestern India.” Lytton wanted to know “at what point in Russia’s progress action is to be taken by us.” In reply Salisbury lectured Lytton that the occupation of Merv “would be a needless and wanton waste of money and military force,” and was therefore unlikely.

Salisbury was taking a narrow view of Central Asian affairs. Russia had entered a war against the Ottoman Empire. When the tsar’s troops reached Constantinople, they faced the threat of the British navy steaming into the Golden Horn. The only region where Britain was vulnerable to Russian military pressure was Afghanistan, the gate to India. To create such pressure Major General N.G. Stoletov was dispatched to Kabul. His mission was to urge Shir Ali, the amir of Afghanistan, to take advantage of the moment and make himself a great Moslem ruler, taking the place of the defeated sultan of Turkey. Shir Ali and Stoletov signed a treaty establishing diplomatic relations between their two countries. Russia promised Afghanistan technical assistance and military instructors. On the eve of his departure from Kabul Stoletov pledged to return with an army of 30,000 men. Both generals Kaufmann and Miliutin were ready to march. However, the European situation had changed drastically and the tsar had given up the notion of a diversionary attack on India.

Now the British went on the offensive, demanding that Shir Ali receive a British mission in Kabul. Though he knew full well that Russia would give Shir Ali no aid, Stoletov’s successor in Kabul urged the Afghans to resist. The British were in an uncompromising mood, determined to gain control of Afghanistan’s foreign relations and to exclude the Russians from the mountain kingdom. The Second Anglo-Afghan War thus began in 1878 and proved more successful than the first. Shir Ali was overthrown. His successors accepted British control of Afghanistan’s foreign relations but retained full sovereignty in domestic affairs. Britain’s new Liberal government gave up the notion of partitioning Afghanistan and reversed the “forward” policy of their Conservative predecessors.

No such change in policy had occurred in St. Petersburg. Dmitrii Miliutin continued to argue in favor of further advances. With the tsar’s blessings a successful campaign was carried out against the Turkomans of the Akhal region near the Caspian Sea and a new northern border was established with Persia. Three years later, the tsar’s troops occupied Merv, one of the “keys to India.”

Russia had timed the occupation of Merv well. In November 1883 a British force was routed in the Sudan by the followers of Muhammad Ahmad, who had proclaimed himself the Mahdi. After a long siege Khartoum fell on January 26, 1885 to the unconcealed delight of Russian governing circles. The Russian press called for the annexation of Herat.

The Afghan frontier was now directly exposed to a Russian attack and one soon came in the disputed border area called the Penjdeh oasis. This was occupied at the time by Afghans. The Russians, who had earlier agreed to have an international commission decide on where the national boundaries should be placed, moved in troops. A British general, Lumsden was there, with a large military escort. In St. Petersburg the minister of foreign affairs, Giers, accused the British of preparing to fight. In reply the British ambassador warned Giers that “any attempt on the part of the Russian troops to approach Herat would be equivalent to declaration of war….” Ten days later, on March 30, 1885, Russian troops attacked Afghan positions at Penjdeh, killing five hundred and wounding several hundred more. Russian losses were nine dead and forty-seven wounded.

The British public and the government were stirred by the news of the Penjdeh incident. Queen Victoria was in a bellicose mood. Even the conciliatory Gladstone threatened war, and asked the Parliament for 11 million pounds sterling “of which six million and a half were to meet the case for preparations rendered necessary by the incident of Penjdeh.” A spark would have sufficed to ignite a major war.

However, peace was preserved. The government of India did not relish the thought of a campaign north of the Hindu Kush, the formidable mountain range that runs across northeast Afghanistan. London was aware of the weakness of its position in Europe, where Bismarck had compelled the Turks to close the Dardanelles to the British navy. England’s vehement reaction to the battle of Penjdeh nevertheless persuaded the Russians of the real danger of war. They made no further moves. Tensions quickly subsided and in September the Russians and the British signed a protocol defining Afghanistan’s northern border. The agreement on the border and the temporary elimination of the power vacuum put a stop to Russian expansion for several decades. What Kipling called “the Great Game” seemed over. Indeed in 1907 the British and the Russians signed a classic imperialist document affirming Afghanistan’s territorial integrity while leaving the country in Britain’s care.

World War I and the Russian revolution upset the delicate balance in Central Asia and set in motion forces that are still explosive today. Afghanistan had remained neutral, but the sympathies of its population went to the Ottoman Empire and her ally Germany. The small band of Afghans who wanted modern reforms united with traditionalist Moslem leaders in preaching hatred of both Britain and Russia. As the up per layers of the tribal nobility became more aware of the outside world and more influenced by European ideas, and as the Afghan state became more unified during the war years, nationalist feelings emerged among the Pushtuns, the dominant ethnic group in the country. At the same time, with the active support of German agents, the small but sometimes vocal group of educated Afghans promoted the cause of Pan-Islamism, their propaganda appealing not only to Pushtuns but to Tajiks and other nationalities as well. The collapse of the Russian Empire awakened hopes that Western domination would disappear.

Such sentiments were mobilized by the young king, Amanullah Khan, who ascended the throne in 1919 and proclaimed Afghanistan’s full independence in violation of old agreements with Great Britain. In the brief war that followed the newly organized Afghan army was badly beaten. However, the British, beset with difficulties at home and in India, were not prepared to fight a prolonged war against the aroused tribesmen. A compromise was reached and a peace treaty was signed at Rawalpindi on August 8, 1919, recognizing Afghanistan’s complete independence.

No sooner had Amanullah Khan become king than he set up diplomatic relations with the young Soviet Russian republic. Lenin had great hopes for revolution in the Orient. He believed that the destruction of the colonial system in Asia and Africa would lead to political and economic chaos in the principal European countries, sharpening class conflict and leading to proletarian revolutions. Lenin saw Iranian and Afghan advocates of modernization as the natural allies of the Soviets in a world struggle against imperialism whose leading champion was Great Britain. In September 1920, Soviet Russia and Afghanistan signed a treaty which, for the first time, established regular diplomatic and consular relations between the two countries.

However in 1920 when a Soviet regime was imposed on Bukhara, whose independence Moscow had promised to respect, Amanullah Khan began to fear Bolshevik intervention in his own country. He was aware that some Afghans had attended the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East at which Zinoviev and other Comintern leaders called for world revolution. A few communist propagandists appeared in Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, and communist literature began to be smuggled across the border. The government had no difficulty in putting a stop to such activities in a country that was solidly Moslem and violently xenophobic.

Through the mid-1920s Amanullah carried out a series of reforms that touched many aspects of his people’s lives: he set up schools, built roads, tried to reform the army, the economy, the government, the law. Each reform alienated a part of traditional Afghan society. By 1928 the reformer-king had lost the good will of the people and of the tribal leaders, and he was hated by the clergy. A revolt against him broke out late in the year. Amanullah promised to rescind all his westernizing reforms, but it was too late. In April 1929, he left Afghanistan to spend the rest of his life in European exile.

The Soviets have always insisted that Amanullah’s fall was engineered by the British. However, the Soviet ambassador in Afghanistan, F.F. Raskolnikov, wrote in 1929 that “the tragedy of Amanullah’s case lay in the fact that he undertook bourgeois reforms without the existence of any national bourgeoisie in the country….” Whatever one may think of Raskolnikov’s theoretical language, he was correct in finding that Amanullah’s reforms had no popular base.

After Amanullah left for Europe, power fell into the hands of a bandit, Bacha-i-Saqao. The Soviet government, convinced that he was a British puppet, gave support to the few high officials still loyal to the deposed ruler. Ghulam Nabi Khan, the Afghan ambassador to Moscow, was permitted to arm a cavalry unit on Soviet territory and to cross the border into Afghanistan. His bravery was futile, his cause was soon lost. But Bacha-i-Saqao was unable to control the country. Nadir Khan, an aristocrat related to the old ruling family, emerged as the leader of a counter-revolution, overthrew the bandit, and was proclaimed king. He restored domestic peace by returning to traditional tribal and religious customs and virtually abandoning westernization. Under his rule and under the regency which ruled during the minority of his son, Muhammad Zahir, Afghanistan lived apart from the rest of the world. Hardly touched by industrialization, without railways, with a population that was over 90 percent illiterate, Afghanistan seemed to slip out of modern time.

World War II did not affect Afghanistan directly. What changed the terms of the Great Game was the breakup of the British Empire, the departure of the English from the Indian subcontinent, and the re-emergence of a power vacuum in the countries south of the USSR. Immediately after the war the United States began to play at least to some extent the part Britain had played for a century and a half. The Truman doctrine helped Turkey resist Soviet pressure to change the status of the Turkish Straits. American pressure also forced the Soviet troops to withdraw from Azerbaijan in northern Iran in 1946. The Afghan government, long used to a bipolar political world, sought to have friendly relations with both the US and the USSR, and it received technical and economic aid from both.

However, Russia’s proximity and America’s lack of concern for a distant, unfamiliar, and seemingly insignificant country gave the Soviets a serious advantage over the United States. Russia won her first major victory in 1973, when Muhammad Zahir Shah was overthrown in a bloodless coup and a republic was proclaimed. Since then Soviet influence has grown swiftly. Several thousand Soviet advisers and technicians began to take a hand in Afghan affairs as prominent as that played by American advisers and technicians in Iran. Nevertheless, Afghanistan maintained its independence. In 1978 another coup brought to power a group of Marxist radicals, led by Mohammad Taraki, which was openly pro-Soviet, and Afghanistan moved closer to the USSR. In September 1979, Taraki was shot, to be replaced by Amin, another leader close to the Russians. Extensive purges have taken place during these years.

Recent events, confusing though they may seem, are a logical extension of traditional politics, another move in the Great Game. The Vietnam debacle and the receding of American power throughout the world during the 1970s coincided with the growth of Soviet military strength. All states on the periphery of the Soviet Union have had to take the shifting balance of power into account. While the contest for influence in Afghanistan had gone on for a quarter of a century without attracting much attention, with each passing year Russian influence grew stronger. At the same time some of the tribal and religious leaders turned against the Marxist government with an anger that was not greatly different from that directed against Amanullah’s modernism in 1929. The rebels, though lacking unified leadership, strong organization, and adequate weapons, gained control over large areas of the country. The regular army seemed incapable of putting down the uprisings, and the government grew increasingly isolated in Kabul. Had it been left to its own devices, it would probably not have survived. The entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan has radically changed the situation, assuring the ultimate defeat of the insurgents, who cannot indefinitely resist the overwhelmingly superior forces now ranged against them.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is the fulfillment of the old imperial dream I have traced here from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It has enormously increased Russia’s leverage against the shaky government in Iran and the relatively weak one in Pakistan. In both countries there are large Baluchi populations who are estranged from the central government and could be enlisted in the cause of independence. Further east, Soviet encouragement of an “independent Pushtunistan” could attract millions of Pathans who live in the region of Pakistan below Afghanistan and are of the same Pashto-speaking ethnic group as many Afghans. Although it is too soon to analyze Soviet intentions toward Iran and the other Persian Gulf nations, the dismemberment of both Iran and Pakistan is not impossible; nor can one dismiss the possibility that Russia may reach the shores of the Gulf of Oman and emerge as a power in the Indian Ocean.

This Issue

February 21, 1980