Why Did the Great Powers Lose Over and Over Again in Afghanistan?

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Originally published 7-5-02

Mr. Greenberg writes Slate’s "History Lesson" column and is finishing a book about Richard Nixon's place in American politics and culture.

"[Afghanistan] is the graveyard of imperial ambitions." Peter Maass (New York Times Magazine, 9/30/01

After much cowboy swagger, cooler heads seem to have persuaded the president that a war on terrorism won't be a Gulf War-style cakewalk. In particular, the administration has heard chastening reminders of how in the 1980s Afghanistan's Muslim mujahideen repulsed Soviet armies from their land - and thus helped speed the superpower's collapse.

Yet cautionary though it is, the Soviet Union's loss was just the latest chapter in a centuries-long history of great powers blundering their way to defeat in Central Asia. In the 19th century, the British Empire repeatedly met similar failure. Thus, it is not any single instance but a recurring pattern of catastrophe that should give American war-makers pause in the days ahead.

Two hundred years ago, the British, who controlled India, and the Russians, who wanted to, both angled for advantage in Afghanistan, which separated their empires. The dramatic adventures of their generals and diplomats earned the romantic name"The Great Game."

The first British undoing commenced in 1837, when Persia, encouraged by Czar Nicholas of Russia, attacked Herat, one of Afghanistan's western cities. Fearing a Persian-Russian takeover of Afghanistan, Britain allied with its emir, Dost Mohammed, who had recently united the country after years of internal strife.

Dost Mohammed insisted that the British help him recapture Peshawar, in the East, from the rival Sikhs. Britain refused, and Dost Mohammed turned to the Russians.

Threatened, Britain resolved to depose its former friend, and the First Afghan War began. Between April and August 1839, the imperial army conquered key cities, ousted Dost Mohammed, and installed a puppet.

But the British had no exit strategy. Nor could they sustain an occupation. And British soldiers in Kabul angered the Afghans by drinking heavily and dallying with local women.

On November 1, 1841, a mob surrounded the British officers' compound. Swelling with the hours, the crowd rebuffed British attempts to disperse it. Afghans stormed and torched the compound, blindfolded Alexander Burnes, the senior officer, and sliced his body into ribbons. His fellow officers and their Indian aides also perished.

Then, when the British political agent in Afghanistan, William Macnaghten, went to negotiate with with Dost Mohammed's son, Akbar Khan, he was ambushed and killed.

On January 6, 1842, 4,500 British and Indian troops and 12,000 civilians, fled Kabul. Afghan warriors chased them across the snow-covered mountain passes, slaughtering them en masse. Just one man survived. Back in Kabul, the puppet was assassinated and Dost Mohammed restored.

Resignedly, the British accepted Dost Mohammed. But decades later, his son and successor, Sher Ali Khan, drew suspicion when he made overtures to Russia. In 1878 the British invaded again, launching the Second Afghan War.

Once more, the British fared well at first. They took Kabul and forced the Afghans to let them stay there. The Afghans pledged to conduct their foreign relations"with the wishes and advice" of the British.

The peace was humiliating and fragile. On September 3, 1879, Afghan soldiers, angry at not having been paid, besieged the Kabul citadel where British officers lived. In a replay of the 1841 massacre, Afghans stormed the compound and killed every Briton and Indian.

Quickly, 60,000 Afghans from tribes around the country marched on Kabul, led by a 90-year-old cleric who declared a jihad against the infidels. Suicide warriors known as ghazis joined the advance.

The British erected a garrison armed with Gatling machine guns and artillery. When the onslaught came, they mowed down 3,000 Afghans while losing just five men.

But the victory was pyrrhic, for occupation was impossible. Showing unusual cleverness, British leaders placed on the throne Abdur Rahman, a grandson of Dost Mohammed with ties to Russia. The move pleased the Russians and the Afghans, who considered Abdur Rahman one of their own.

The Third Afghan War came in 1919, when Habibollah Khan, Abdur Rahman's son and successor, was assassinated by anti-British nationalists. But now Britain foresaw its empire's demise. It granted Habibollah's son, Amanollah Khan, autonomy. Amanollah began secularizing and modernizing the country.

For half a century, Afghanistan's close relationship with the Soviet Union kept foreigners out - though internal coups continued like clockwork. Ultimately, in the 1970s, a restive Muslim population rose up, and Afghanistan's Marxist dictators sought Soviet help. But when rifts emerged in 1979 between the Afghan Marxists and the Soviets, the superpower invaded and instituted a new regime.

By 1989 the Soviets had gone the way of the British.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan may not meet the same fate. Before the Gulf War, scores of experts mistakenly predicted a debacle. But whatever America's military response, the Bush Administration should know that the coming war won't be great, and it is not going to be a game.


This article first appeared in Slate.com and is reprinted with permission.