Setting the Stage for the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
Throughout history, foreign armies who happened to be in the neighborhood of Central Asia often stopped by Afghanistan for an invasion or two. The Greeks and Persians in ancient times and the Arabs and Mongols in the Medieval period set great precedents for modern incursions. Afghanistan’s geography has always placed it in peril. Snuggled between Iran to the west, Russian-influenced Central Asia to the north, and British India (today Pakistan) to the south, Afghanistan in the 19th century became the perfect playing field for the “Greatest Game” on earth.
Playing the “Greatest Game”
The Great Game became the term to describe the 19th-century strategic struggle of espionage, treachery, and military incursions in Afghanistan between Russia and England. The Great Game represented a cold war of sorts, in which both imperial powers attempted to assert influence over Central Asia without actually coming to blows. Czarist Russia hoped to reach the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean, and the British — already in charge of Indian affairs — sought to foil those Russian designs by extending their own influence deep into the no man’s land of Central Asia, and particularly into Afghanistan.
Obsessed with fears that Russia would encroach on Afghan territory, the British made a number of tactical blunders in their relationship with Afghanistan’s rulers that led to three wars and racked up three defeats. The most famous of these wars was the first.
The First British-Afghan War
Emir Dost Muhammad assumed power in Afghanistan in 1826. In their superior wisdom, the British decided that Dost Muhammad wasn’t the man for the job, and seeking instead to install someone more pliable, they chose to restore former-emir Shah Shuja. In order to switch leadership and make it stick, the British sent an army to Kabul. Approximately 20,000 British troops, with an entourage of 38,000 camp followers, set off for Afghanistan through the Bolan Pass. When the huge British contingent reached Kabul, Dost Muhammad fled, and the British installed Shuja on August 7, 1839. Shuja’s forces and resources were much too small to support him, so the British stuck around hoping the situation would improve.
By the winter of 1841, the situation on the surface indeed appeared to improve, and London employed a series of budget cuts that included reducing the number of troops in Kabul and lowering subsidies to the Ghilzai tribes who policed the road to Peshawar through the Khyber Pass. Without Ghilzai support, safe travel was impossible. British drinking in public and cavorting with local women in Kabul further increased the Muslim discontent with the British and their puppet regime. Frustration finally boiled over into violence.
- November 2, 1841: A mob attacks the home of British officer Alexander Burnes, where the treasury is kept. The mob kills Burnes and his brother.
- November 22, 1841: British forces sent to disband a group of Afghan insurgents surrounding the cantonment retreat under heavy fire.
- December 23, 1841: The insurgents decapitate British envoy William MacNaghten and hang his body for display at the entrance of the Kabul bazaar.
- January 1842: The Ghilzais, whose subsidies the British had slashed earlier, agree to provide safe passage to Jalalabad at the mouth of the Khyber Pass. Approximately 4,500 British troops and 12,000 camp followers set off for Jalalabad.
• Many die of exposure to the cruel winter elements the first 24 hours. Eager for blood, the Ghilzais turn on the British and launch a series of attacks against the wayfarers on the second day. More than 3,000 die that day alone while others flee or defect.
• Of the 16,500 who started the journey, only one — Dr. William Brydon — succeeds in reaching Jalalabad.
The next year more than 100 British captives still held by the tribes were rescued, as well as more than 2,000 Indian soldiers and camp followers. Over time other stragglers made their way back to India.
Afghan tribes, ethnicity, and Pashtunistan
Before proceeding, you need to understand something about the tribal configuration of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ever wonder why the dual phrase Afghanistan and Pakistan keeps popping up in the news and on TV? Well, news services often reference the two countries together because of the makeup and location of Pashtuns (Pashtu speakers). Pashtu is the first language for about 35 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Pashtuns (who also call themselves Pathans) live in tribal areas on the Afghan side of the Pakistani border and spill over into the Pakistani provinces of the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan (see Figure 1). Besides a common language, these Pashtuns share a common culture and, frequently, religious and political perspectives. Combined, the Pashtuns on both sides of the border constitute a force to be reckoned with.
The Tajiks, speakers of an Afghan dialect of Persian (or Farsi in Iran), called Dari, comprise about half of Afghanistan’s population. Turkmen and Uzbeks speaking Turkic languages account for another 10 percent. Ethnic friction and violence has frequented Afghanistan in the past. Often one ethnic group sought to dominate the others. Whenever the British gave India its independence, India split into two parts: the northwestern chunk, calling itself Pakistan, and the remainder, calling itself India. In the 1950s, the Pashtuns in Pakistan and Pashtuns in Afghanistan decided they too wanted a separate nation called Pashtunistan. Their bid for an autonomous region was foiled in the 1960s and then again in the 1970s. Subsequent Pakistani and Afghan governments have been alert to Pashtun discontent that may spill over into secessionist violence.
Although no official autonomous region for the Pashtuns exists, these tribes have traditionally operated with little interference from either government in the Pashtun belt resting along both sides of the border. This region, called the tribal areas, has for centuries remained an untamed frontier, hostile to outsiders. For this reason, beginning in the 19th century, the British army sent spies dressed as local tribesmen to gather intelligence on this region and beyond.
Today the Pakistani tribal areas are off limits to foreign travelers without special permission and escort from the Pakistani government. Often compared to 19th-century United States Wild West cowboys, the rugged, bearded Pashtun tribesmen tote weapons and exact revenge. Hostage taking and generation-long blood feuds among hostile clans are commonplace. Legal and civil disputes aren’t settled in government courts but before tribal councils called jirgas. In the towns and villages, tribesmen produce and sell weapons in shops beside sweets and cigarettes. The fact that women are conspicuously absent from the streets reflects the conservative religious nature of the Pashtun culture.