Understanding Afghanistan

Atlantic articles from the 1950s and the 1980s offer background and perspective on a nation in conflict

A bombing campaign against the Taliban that was expected to last only a few days has instead continued for almost three weeks, with little indication that it will soon wind down, and military leaders are gearing up for what may prove to be a lengthy ground war. In the months (and perhaps years) to come, Afghanistan, its terrain, and its people will be well-studied by the media. As yet, however, most Americans know little about the country.

A selection of Atlantic articles on Afghanistan—written from the 1950s through the 1980s, during a time when the country was an important strategic pawn in the contest between the Soviet Union and the United States—may help to provide some background and perspective.

In January, 1958, an unsigned Atlantic "Report on Afghanistan" offered an overview of the country's geography, people, and culture. Because of its prime location between Russia, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, the Soviet Union was eyeing it with a view to expanding its Communist empire to the sea, and the United States was warily watching to prevent such an eventuality. The report described Afghanistan as a destitute and primitive nation that had become the recipient of increasing attention and aid from both the Soviet and the American governments:

Unlike those in the past who came to loot and strip the land, many modern visitors come with gifts. For this is the era of competitive coexistence, and nowhere is the competition more obviously competitive than in Afghanistan. Hearts and minds are the prize, the Soviet Union and the United States the principal competitors, and rubles and dollars the weapons.

More than twenty years later, despite decades of assistance from both the United States and the Soviet Union, conditions in Afghanistan had not significantly improved. In May, 1980, in "Afghanistan: Crossroads of Conflict," Jonathan Kwitny reported that the literacy rate was only 10 percent and, "at a conservative minimum, 80 percent of the people live off the food they grow and the animals they raise."

In 1979 the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, hoping to squelch a Communist movement instigated by an unpopular Afghan leader which seemed to be having the effect of turning the Afghans away from communism rather than attracting them to it. But what the Soviets had hoped would be a decisive military maneuver against a desperate nation was in fact met with surprisingly fierce resistance. On a visit to Afghanistan, one man Kwitny met in a village near the city of Herat declared, in an outburst that Kwitny characterized as typical, "If the Russian people don't come here, I have no business with them. If they do, I fight them to the last drop of blood." Given the vehemence of the adult generation's opposition to the Russians and their ideology, the Soviets intended to let them die off without attempting to dissuade them from their preexisting beliefs; they intended, rather, to focus their efforts on winning over the next generation instead. "Today's tots, thirty years or so from now," Kwitny wrote, "might be more amenable to becoming the Afghan Soviet Socialist Republic."

By 1985 the conflict had dragged on for six years, and there was still no end in sight. In "The Ordeal of Afghanistan" (November 1985), the military historian John Keegan considered why the impoverished Afghan people were proving to be such a difficult opponent, despite the fact that the Soviet superpower had mobilized a brutal campaign against them of bombs, mines, and sabotage of the country's economy and food supply.

In the nineteenth century, Keegan pointed out, the British, too, had attempted to expand their influence into Afghanistan, and in so doing had "under[gone] the greatest single disaster they suffered in the building of their Indian empire." A century later, the Russians were trying to do the same thing, and were encountering many of the same problems.

The Afghan terrain, Keegan explained, is an inhospitable combination of precipitous mountains and barren plains, and the climate is excruciatingly cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The population is composed of widely dispersed autonomous groups of tribespeople, unresponsive to centralized control, and accustomed to subsisting on little and fighting among themselves. When confronted with a foreign enemy on their own soil, the Afghans make use of their warrior skills and superior knowledge of the landscape to fight fiercely and cunningly.

The Afghan is master of the high ground, knows every draw, false crest, goat track, hidden cave, overhang, and pinnacle. Allowed to move at his own pace, he will seize each point of command the mountains offer and from it unmask an ambush that will deal death to any interloping force unwary enough to stray within rifle shot. He will march eighteen hours in twenty-four to reach some favored spot, live for a week on a lump of unleavened bread, and urinate down a straw to keep the silence of the watching night. When the enemy's guard slips, he will deal one deadly blow and then melt into the mountains from which he came....

Afghans have no tradition of waging conventional war and no shame about preferring irregular tactics, of which they are masters.

Though the Soviets' goal was eventually to convert Afghanistan to communism, by 1988 the Afghans had moved farther away from communism than ever. In "Driven Toward God" (September 1988), Robert Kaplan, who took several long trips to Afghanistan during the war, explained that the nearly decade-long Soviet occupation had in fact caused the Afghans to cling more tenaciously to their Islamic heritage. Because every other social institution had been destroyed by the war, Islam, the only institution still remaining, seemed magnified in importance. And as a defense against the chaos caused by the war, Afghani practitioners of Islam became more rigid in their rituals and traditions.

Islam quite naturally became the principal medium of political expression against the Soviets. And the chaos and destruction of the war, Yasir Abdul Rahman, a professor at Kabul University, told me, "drove the people even further toward God, as it was the only thing left for them."

Because the United States had aided Afghanistan in its struggle against the Soviets, however, Kaplan expressed the hope that, unlike many other Arab Islamic states which had become militantly anti-Western, Afghanistan would remain friendly toward the United States:

For the moment, pro-American feelings are widespread in Afghanistan....

"The world must realize that Afghanistan can never be like Sweden," says Abdul Haq, the mujahideen commander in the area around Kabul. At best what it can be, he adds, is simply an Islamic state, but one that leaves its own people, and its neighbors, alone and at peace.

Finally, in "Afghanistan Post Mortem" (April 1989), when the Soviets had at last withdrawn from Afghanistan, Robert Kaplan considered the course the war had taken and its implications for the future. He observed that the Afghans seemed to have succeeded in holding out against the Soviets partly as a consequence of their very desperation:

Because the Afghans lack the material wealth that people in the West are terrified of losing, they were psychologically able to go on fighting and suffering.... The very underdevelopment of the Afghan economy made it difficult to destroy....

In the end what "worked" in Afghanistan was not reason or negotiation or the advent of perestroika but the Afghans' willingness to die.

Kaplan also noted that this war should perhaps be considered instructive for America as an indication of battles to come. "Afghanistan may evoke the military past," he wrote, "but its importance is as a preview of the battleground of the future." The United States should be forewarned, he suggested, that the Soviets' no-holds-barred brutality against the Afghans might be replicated elsewhere, and that the Soviets' long struggle in Afghanistan, though unsuccessful, had honed their skills for future conflicts. Little might Kaplan have imagined that America would one day be fighting not against communism, but—with Russian support—against some of the very people whom America had once aided in their struggle against the Soviet Union.