The Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan

Hoping to bolster its geopolitical position, a great power sends troops to Afghanistan and installs a puppet leader.  That leader has little authority with the influential tribal chieftains and insufficient means to buy their complicity.  Resistance soon grows into a full-blown insurgency, which leads to harsh reprisals by the occupying forces.  The vicious circle becomes untenable, the great power withdraws in ignominy, and Afghanistan reverts to its usual state of Hobbesian premodernity.

That, in short, is the story not only of the Soviet invasion started on Christmas Day 1979, but of the British intervention known as the First Afghan War (1839-42).  After two miserable years, 16,000 soldiers and camp followers retreated from Kabul in January 1842; only one British survivor made it back alive.  Scottish poet Thomas Campbell left the war’s fitting epitaph:

Few, few shall part, where many meet!

The snow shall be their winding-sheet,

And every turf beneath their feet

Shall be a soldier’s sepulchre.

Another British intervention came four decades later, when this same land was seen as central to the security of the Raj amid the ongoing “Great Game” in Central Asia.  The Second Afghan War is remembered, if at all, through Kipling’s grim verses:

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