Afghanistan emerged as an independent kingdom in the 18th century, though its frontiers would change many times and it would always be more a confederation of tribes and lesser khanates than a centralised state. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, determined to halt Russia's Inner Asian advance and 'secure' its own North Indian frontier, Britain fought three wars with the Afghans. It failed to subdue them but acquired substantial influence over Afghan foreign relations. Britain also sought to counter Russia by colonising oil-rich Iran, a far greater prize, but achieved only limited success; and after the Second World War, the United States replaced it as the 'barrier' to Moscow's penetration of Iran. Following Britain's departure from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the Soviets became Afghanistan's principal source of military hardware and economic aid, building hospitals and hydroelectric dams as well as military airfields and a strategic tunnel. In the mid-1960s, an Afghan Leninist party appeared - surely one of the last to be founded anywhere - and in 1978 it stunned Moscow by seizing power in Kabul. The senescent Soviet establishment recognised the frail revolutionary regime it had not created and did not control, but after unsanctioned assassinations and uprisings, the Kremlin faced increasing instability in a country on its border and became paranoid about the possibility of American penetration. Late in 1979 - the year the Islamic Revolution in Iran toppled the Shah, whom the CIA had returned to power in a nearly bungled coup in 1953 - the KGB engineered a putsch among Afghanistan's Leninist gangsters. It was backed by an expeditionary force that was intended to stay a few months or perhaps a year, two at the most. Nearly a decade went by before the remnants of this force withdrew ignominiously across the Friendship Bridge to Soviet Tajikistan. Just over two years later, the Soviet state itself dissolved.
LRB 18 October 2001 | PDF Download