Two Invasions of Afghanistan

'Monumentally bad diplomacy, worse strategy, chaotic military organisation and inept generalship' - Thomas Tulenko describes how great powers have failed in their attacks on Afghanistan. Penned as Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul in December 1979, the BBC's David Loyn offered his own analysis thirty years later.

Lord Lytton, Lord Roberts and Sir Henry Rawlinson would have been alarmed but not surprised. With the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Army the Russians have made a classic knight's move against a key pawn in the Great Game in Asia. The earlier British participants in the Game first thought they had detected the Russians lifting their piece a century and a half ago, and the only surprising feature of their move is that it has taken so long to complete. Many of the rules and several of the players in the Game have changed, although two features of the pawn have remained remarkably constant - the land of Afghanistan and the fiercely independent reaction of its peoples to armed outsiders.

The British rulers of India had considerable experience of the difficulty of trying to fit Afghanistan into their system of imperial diplomacy. In the process they made the same move three times within eighty years. If the earlier Afghan Wars are remembered at all, it is usually the first and last that are recalled. The First Afghan War of 1839-42 provided examples galore of monumentally bad diplomacy, worse strategy, chaotic military organisation and inept generalship. Its spectacular climax was the annihilation of an entire British Army during its mid-winter retreat from Kabul. The brief Third Afghan War of 1919 earns a footnote in the military history of the twentieth century for its early use of aircraft to bomb civilian targets.

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