The War on Terrorism
A collection of features from The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.
More on defense from The Atlantic monthly.
More on foreign affairs and foreign policy from The Atlantic monthly.
From the archives:
"The Amazon of Peshawar" (April 1986)
In which an Englishman explores the frontiers of feminism.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Triumph of Terrorism" (September 11, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic articles gives insight into the terrorist mind—and how the U.S. may have both inflamed and encouraged terrorist groups.
Flashbacks: "Coming to Grips with Jihad" (September 12, 2001)
Several Atlantic articles suggest that Osama bin Laden represents only the tip of the iceberg.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
October 26, 2001
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
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
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
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.
Afghans have no tradition of waging conventional war and no shame about
preferring irregular tactics, of which they are masters.
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....
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:
"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.
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
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
In the end what "worked" in Afghanistan was not reason or negotiation or the
advent of perestroika but the Afghans' willingness to die.
Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
Sage Stossel is a senior editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.