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The Soviet Invasion in Perspective
By Anthony Arnold
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 1985 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Historical Setting
The policy and practice of the Russian government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other governments would allow it to go; but always to stop and retire when it was met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity, ...
(Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary during the First Anglo-Afghan War, in a later  letter to his eventual successor, Lord Clarendon.)
Where the Indian subcontinent collides with Eurasia, the slow-motion conflict of geologic plates has given birth to the highest mountain chain in the world, the Himalayas. Astride their western end lies Afghanistan, the first opportunity in nearly two thousand miles for unimpaired travel north or south around the mountain barrier. It is a stark land of barren deserts and mountains, one-third the size of Mexico, and home today for about 15,000,000 Muslims, most of whom are engaged in subsistence agriculture.
In earlier centuries its strategic position led to alternate enrichment and devastation, as merchants and armies in turn marched through on their way to other lands. Later, a drying climatic trend, combined with the depredations of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, caused traders to seek an alternative route to the Orient. The opening of the sea lanes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries largely destroyed Afghanistan's importance as a commercial crossroads. Its significance as a potential route for military invasion, however, remained unchanged.
In the nineteenth century, the British were keenly aware of tsarist Russia's expansion into Central Asia and of the eventual menace that such expansion might hold for India. Twice during that century the British invaded Afghanistan to forestall what they perceived as a Russian threat to take over the country and to use it as a staging area for an attack on India. Twice the Afghans made it so uncomfortable for them that, within a few years, the British withdrew. The Russians, witnessing this process and perhaps recalling that their own efforts to pacify mountain Muslims in the Caucasus had taken a full sixty-five years, prudently stayed away.
By the end of the century Russia and Britain had reached agreement: the British would control Afghanistan's foreign policy but would not occupy the country or try to manage its internal affairs; Russia formally conceded that Afghanistan lay outside its sphere of influence; and Afghanistan, perforce accepting British control over its foreign relations, dedicated itself to preserving its internal autonomy.
In 1900 Abdur Rahman Khan, the "Iron Amir," who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, described his country's vulnerable position: "How can a small power like Afghanistan which is like a goat between two lions or a grain of wheat between two strong millstones of the grinding mill, stand in the way of the two stones without being ground to dust?"
Even before putting the question, Abdur Rahman had found the answer. The solution was to keep Afghanistan from becoming a goat, a grain of wheat, or anything else remotely digestible by the hungriest of imperial lions or the most relentless of imperial millstones. His policies, like those of his predecessors and successors in Kabul's royal palace, were aimed at securing an internal toughness, impermeability, and integrity that would deter any foreign power from undertaking adventures on Afghan soil. At the same time he maintained a capability for smooth maneuvering between potential invaders, balancing one against the other. With these attributes, the Afghan tribes must have seemed to the two imperial millstones more like ball bearings than grains of wheat.
In the end, Russia and Britain came to understand that there were some advantages for all concerned in this situation — at least in the short run. Each had some fear of the other's intentions, and each perceived the useful role an independent country could play in keeping the two empires from coming into inadvertent conflict along a common border. Afghanistan became, in short, a model buffer state. So ideal was it for this role that in 1895 Britain and Russia agreed between them to add to it a new piece of territory, the Wakhan Corridor, running from the main body of Afghanistan to the Chinese border and dividing the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of India from the Pamir Mountains in Russia. Abdur Rahman, who had to deal with some twenty major tribal insurrections within his own country during his twenty-one-year reign, had no desire to take on responsibility for this whole new set of independent potential insurgents, but he had little say in the matter. He, better than anyone, understood the limitations that his country's economic backwardness had imposed on its independence in international affairs.
At the same time, that very backwardness was vital to continued Afghan internal self-determination. As long as the country remained poor and inaccessible, it would be unattractive to those with imperial designs. The fastest way to build a modern military deterrent against foreign encroachment would be to develop the nation's economy with the aid of foreign investment, but to take that course would be to invite the enslavement it was designed to forestall.
To identify the problem was not to solve it, but in Abdur Rahman's view there was no question as to priorities: national independence took precedence over all other considerations, with unification of the warring tribes that made up the country taking a close second. Only after these two goals had been secured would he be willing to tolerate the foreign involvement necessary for economic development.
He was particularly adamant in his opposition to any kind of railroad construction in the country. Once a railroad was built, he noted, foreign troops could be called in at any time to protect foreign investments or, indeed, merely at the whim of any great power neighbor, and Afghanistan's primitive military forces would be helpless to stop them. Afghan independence would be the inevitable victim. So trenchant were Abdur Rahman's arguments that to this day there are no railroads in Afghanistan, despite periodic proposals for building them. The old amir's pessimism became bitter reality anyway, however: it was the twentieth century equivalents of foreign-built railroads — airports and highways — that literally paved the way for the 1979 Soviet invasion.
With the death of Abdur Rahman in 1901 and the accession to the throne of his son, Habibullah, the former's rigid policies were relaxed to some degree. Habibullah had a lively curiosity, and, among other innovations, he helped introduce the automobile, photography, and hydroelectric power to Afghanistan. He also permitted far more domestic freedom than had his iron-willed father. Specifically, he permitted émigrés whom Abdur Rahman had exiled to return to Afghanistan and to become politically active.
Habibullah reigned in an age when pan-Islamism was spreading, and the phenomenon found reflection in his own court. There were three basic factions, all of them anti-British and pro-Turkish in their sympathies: (1) the conservative-clericals, who saw in Turkey a state that was grappling successfully with the necessary evil of modernization while still retaining Islam as the anchoring foundation; (2) the moderates, who viewed with favor Turkish modernization (especially the carefully paced nature of that modernization); and (3) the modernist-nationalists, the most anti-British, pro-Turkish of the three, who saw in the Turkish reforms changes that might be introduced in Afghanistan, but at a much faster pace than in Turkey, once their feasibility had been demonstrated. The modernist-nationalist newspaper, Seraj al Akbar, kept up a drum fire of anti-British propaganda that drew occasional royal reprimands when it overstepped what the amir felt were safe bounds.
Thus, with the outbreak of World War I, there was considerable pressure on Habibullah to join the Central Powers in their war with Britain and Russia. The amir, however, was well aware of both the geographic distance between Afghanistan and the Central Powers and the immediacy of his British and Russian borders. Consequently, despite agitation by the modernist-nationalists for a jihad (holy war) against the British, he maintained a careful neutrality throughout the war. Habibullah was no Anglophile, but he had to reckon with the possibility of a joint Anglo-Russian attack on his country, and he could not afford to be at war with either one of those powers, let alone both at once. He was supported, if tepidly, in this realistic policy by some of the more influential moderates and conservative-clericals.
Even after one of the imperial threats had been removed by the disintegration of Russia into revolutionary chaos, Afghanistan remained neutral; the outcome of the war was beginning to become evident, and Habibullah prudently held to his previous policy.
In pursuing a course of relatively benevolent neutrality toward Britain, he was following in the footsteps of an illustrious forebear, Dost Mohammed, who refrained from helping Indian insurgents during the 1857 mutiny, despite heavy pressure from his countrymen to avenge the British victory over Afghanistan in the First Anglo-Afghan War, some fifteen years before. As a prelude to that war, the British had annexed Peshawar and the surrounding territory that was inhabited by Pashtun tribes ethnically associated with the ruling Pashtuns of Afghanistan. Later, in 1893, the British were to fix their permanent Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) border with Afghanistan along an arbitrary boundary called the Durand Line, which left the annexed territories permanently outside Afghan control.
Once World War I hostilities were over, Habibullah tried to capitalize on his restraint by asking the British to return voluntarily the Pashtun territories that they had annexed. Like Dost Mohammed before him, Habibullah met with a firm rebuff by the British, who also turned a deaf ear to his demands for Afghan independence in conducting the country's foreign affairs.
Shortly thereafter, on the first night of a hunting trip near Jalalabad in February 1919, Habibullah was killed by an assassin whose sponsor has never been clearly identified. It is not at all unlikely, however, that his son and successor, Amanullah, was connected in some way with his demise.
The evidence for such a conclusion is only circumstantial, but it is consistent. Amanullah had the twin motives of achieving power and, in line with his clearly modernist-nationalist sympathies, of removing power from a father whom he regarded as pro-British. The swiftness with which he took power immediately on his father's death (neatly thwarting an uncle who tried to preempt the throne) bespeaks prior planning. The investigation of the assassination, which by all logic should have been pushed with great vigor, lasted just long enough to ensure that all of Amanullahs rivals remained in jail until he had secured firm control of the country. Those who survived this ordeal were then declared innocent and released, whereupon the investigation faded away.
In 1978 there appeared in the communist press hitherto unpublished material that adds even further weight to suspicions against Amanullah. In an article covering Habibullah's last months in power, it is stated that, shortly before Habibullah's assassination, one Taj Mohammed Paghman had fired a pistol at him and missed. Spared because of apparently perjured or confused testimony by two eyewitnesses, Taj Mohammed then wrote death-threat notes to Habibullah, to Habibullah's brother Inayatullah, to the foreign minister, and to the court chamberlain. The handwriting having been identified, Habibullah ordered the execution of Taj Mohammed and several accomplices, including a certain Abdur Rahman Ludin. That same night, however, Habibullah himself was assassinated. The death sentences of Taj Mohammed and the other earlier conspirators were quietly lifted. Only ten years later, after Amanullah himself had been deposed, did his successor have Ludin shot by a firing squad and Taj Mohammed blown from a cannon (the traditional Afghan punishment for especially serious crimes). Ludin and Taj Mohammed are cited in this 1978 communist account as having been "constitutionalists" who were very close to and "worked hand-in-glove with" Amanullah.
Whether or not the circumstantial evidence against Amanullah reflects his direct responsibility for the assassination of his father, one must ask whether there was any foreign involvement in plotting the act. Two isolated pieces of information seem to support that thesis.
The first is a biographic note on Abdur Rahman Ludin (written, incidentally, by a different communist author from the one who described his complicity in the anti-Habibullah plot), in which he is described as "a daring Leftist ... Especially after he returned from the Soviet Union, where he met Soviet leaders on Revolution Day, he used to praise the Soviets." This trip to the USSR took place in November 1918, less than three months before Habibullah's assassination. While he was there, did Ludin discuss assassination plans with his Soviet contacts? Given the Soviet policy of world revolution at that time, it is difficult to imagine that he (or the Soviets for that matter) would have passed up the chance for such discussions, assuming that Habibullah's removal was already being contemplated by one side or the other.
The second piece of information is a curious statement made some years later by Fedor F. Raskolnikov, Lenin's envoy to Kabul during the early 1920s. Writing in the British journal Labour Monthly in 1929, Raskolnikov averred that Habibullah had failed "to take into consideration the changes which World War I and the October Revolution had brought about in the international position of Afghanistan ... After the October Revolution the Soviet Union was practically at war with Great Britain [but] Habibullah did not understand how to exploit these differences in favor of the national interests of his country and for this incompetency he paid with his life." (Italics added.)
In other words, Habibullah was murdered for not waging a war that would be mutually advantageous to Afghanistan (to gain full independence from Britain) and to the USSR (to tie down the British forces, with which the USSR was "practically at war"). The fact of Afghan-Soviet collusion in Habibullah's murder may not be definitely established, but the motive and the instrument (Ludin) lend themselves to that interpretation.CHAPTER 2
The First Twenty Years
The October Revolution not only changed fundamentally the fabric of domestic life in what had been tsarist Russia, but also involved the new Soviet state in a series of foreign confrontations. In Afghanistan during the same era, Amanullah's accession to the throne resulted in similar domestic upheaval and foreign complications, derivatives of his own experimentation in too-rapid reform at home and risky initiatives abroad. In the end, unlike Lenin and Stalin, Amanullah failed: Afghan traditional patterns proved too strong for his reformist ambitions, absolute ruler though he was. In the meantime, however, Afghan-Soviet relations developed in an intriguing blend of unacknowledged cooperation and hidden betrayal, much of which, even today, can only be inferred.
In late March 1919, just over a month after Habibullah's assassination, the government of Afghanistan received an official communication from the Soviet government, in which it was noted that the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) would be sending an envoy, one N. Bravin, to Afghanistan and Persia by way of Tashkent. The letter further noted that the RSFSR had annulled all treaties signed by the tsarist government with the rulers of that "global beast of prey," England.
Excerpted from Afghanistan by Anthony Arnold. Copyright © 1985 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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