THE SCENERY EVOKED the past, near and distant. As I rode the paved highway into the southern Afghan city of Qandahar, the rusted carcasses of Soviet tanks lined the way for over a mile. The wreckage of more tanks, and of armored personnel carriers and transport trucks, was strewn for quite some distance out along the dust-packed, gravelly waste on both sides of the road. The scene conjured up visions of the Afrika Korps and the Six-Day War. At the same time, the Afghan mujahideen, with their turbans, bandoliers, and Lee-Enfield rifles, called to mind a very different conflict: the nineteenth-century British-Afghan wars. And Qandahar itself, when I glimpsed it from atop a cliff, brought me face-to-face with antiquity. Stuck in the Central Asian outback, Qandahar probably carries the only Greek place-name to have survived in Afghanistan. The name is widely thought to derive from Iskandar, the Arabic form of Alexander; Alexander the Great led his army through here in 329 B.C. By late 1988, after years of Soviet aerial bombardment, Qandahar had been reduced to a rubble of collapsed stone walls and archways. It looked similar to any number of ancient Hellenistic sites in the Near East.
The significance of what has happened in Afghanistan remains largely concealed by an overlay of the exotic and by the richness of ready-made historical associations. The relatively few journalists reporting from the scene have mainly looked backward. The Soviet invasion was explained as the continuation of a Kiplingesque Great Game for the control of India. Soviet troops, when they were not likened to the Americans in Vietnam, were likened to the nineteenth-century British, who had also tried unsuccessfully to subdue the Afghans. Such comparisons gave Americans a contextual framework. But they obscured a reality that diplomats and military analysts have begun to perceive with horrifying clarity: Afghanistan may evoke the military past, but its importance is as a preview of the battleground of the future.