Letter to the Editor: History Offers Lessons on Afghanistan


Shortly before departing England for the Munich Conference in 1938, Neville Chamberlain publicly dismissed the burgeoning crisis in Czechoslovakia as "a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing."

While these words were false and disingenuous then, they certainly could apply to Afghanistan now.

It is a logical expectation that after thousands of American and allied casualties, 20 years of persistent effort and $2 trillion of expenditure, the government in Kabul could have stood on its own for more than a few minutes. But the Kabul cabal had no more  stamina than a soap bubble — and simply vanished.

A greater knowledge of Afghanistan may have thwarted this vapid tragedy.

For a century or more, this small, backward country was an arena for the "Great Game" between an expansionist Russia and a Britain determined to defend its imperial preeminence.

These were the halcyon days of Empire, long before the evolution into the Commonwealth.     

Under direct British rule were Canada, Australia, New Zealand, much of the Caribbean, a swath of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, and the vastness and teeming multitudes of the entire Indian subcontinent.

What are now the sovereign republics of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka were jewels in the crown of Queen Victoria. Defending this domain from Russian intrigue and possible invasion was the highest priority.

A shadowy menace during much of this period was the sinister Russian Count Nicolai Ignatieff, a merciless agent provocateur and spy. Ignatieff had helped to ignite the savage Indian Mutiny against British rule in 1857 by disseminating mendacious rumors that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifle were lubricated by animal fat, a heresy to both Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

Britain needed Afghanistan as a buffer on the northwest frontier of India. On three separate occasions, in 1838, 1878 and 1919, British regiments occupied the country and installed friendly regimes in the capital. 

But when British support inevitably waned, these regimes invariably collapsed. Even at its imperial zenith, with unprecedented worldwide power and the will to use it, Britain could not subdue Afghanistan.

Even more disastrous was the Russian attempt to cow Afghanistan in 1979. The fading regime of communist tyrant Leonid Brezhnev, a tired and confused old man, strove to revitalize its dynamism by conquering its southern neighbor.

But Marxism is anathema to Muslims. The 10-year Soviet campaign devastated the countryside, slaughtering scores of thousands of Afghans and Russians alike — and accomplished nothing other than to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

These were the heirs to the army that had defended Stalingrad and conquered Berlin.

Remote, mountainous, primitive and furiously independent, Afghanistan is quicksand to foreign armies, a deathtrap to foreign empires. Would-be conquerors are best advised to look elsewhere.


Joseph Tipler



No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here