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Great Powers' Invasions of Afghanistan

1839, 1878, 1979, 2001


Over the past two centuries, great powers including the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States have invaded the small Central Asian nation of Afghanistan. In at least two of those cases, the Afghan warriors sent the invaders home with their tails between their legs.

Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski expressed it this way: "They (the Afghans) have a curious complex. They don't like foreigners with guns in their country."

The First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-42

In 1839, the British East India Company sent an army to depose the potentially pro-Russian ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad, and install a British puppet in his place. This exercise in intervention ended very poorly for the British; at the Massacre of Elfinstone's Army, only one Briton escaped and a handful of British and Indian troops survived as prisoners of war, out of a force of 16,500.

Find out more about the Afghans' crushing victory over the mighty British Empire in the First Anglo-Afghan War, a debacle the British called "Auckland's Folly."

The Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880

Ever more concerned about Russian intentions in Central Asia, the British invaded Afghanistan again in 1878 to ward off the threat of Russia taking British India from the north. This time, the British were able to defeat (though not entirely conquer) the Afghans, and extract an agreement that Britain would handle Afghanistan's foreign relations. The Afghan king would remain in control of domestic policy.

Although the Afghans did not drive away the British in 1880, it was not a pleasant experience for UK soldiers. Rudyard Kipling's poem The Young British Soldier (1895) advises, "When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains/And the women come out to cut up what remains/Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979-89

Late in the Cold War, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to ensure that a friendly version of communism would prevail in Kabul, and to prevent radical Islam from spreading next door to the Central Asian Soviet Republics. The vaunted Red Army was outflanked and outfought by Afghan mujahideen for a decade; in the end, Afghanistan defeated one of the world's two superpowers.

A Soviet general staff memorandum later ruefully noted that "The Soviet high command did not study Afghanistan's national-historic facts before committing Soviet forces. If they had, they would have found a history of many centuries of resisting various conquerors. The Afghan considers any foreigner carrying weapons as an alien occupier." The Soviet War in Afghanistan is also known as "the Soviet Vietnam" and it hastened the fall of the entire Soviet Union.

US-Led Coalition's War in Afghanistan, 2001-present

In 2001, the world's remaining superpower, the United States, suffered a massive terrorist attack from al Qaeda, a group based in the mountains of Afghanistan. In retaliation, the US and its allies launched a war against the al Qaeda-linked Taliban government of Afghanistan; although that government was toppled in 2001, more than a decade later, the US's War in Afghanistan continues.

It is troubling to note the similarities between the Soviet and American approaches to Afghanistan. A 2009 Guardian article quotes military historian Chris Bellamy as noting, "I remember meeting a Russian general after the Soviet war. He said to me - we should have read Kipling! Now it has come round again, we should have read the Soviet history of Afghanistan."

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