America and Afghanistan: A Troubled History : With the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, American Interest Quicklly Lapsed, Even Though the Afghan Conflict Had Helped to End the Cold War

By Ewans, Martin | The World and I, March 2002 | Go to article overview

America and Afghanistan: A Troubled History : With the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, American Interest Quicklly Lapsed, Even Though the Afghan Conflict Had Helped to End the Cold War


Ewans, Martin, The World and I


Although Afghanistan won its independence from British control in 1919, it was not until a quarter century later that the Afghan and U.S. administrations, just about as geographically remote from each other as was possible, considered there was sufficient content in their official relations to an exchanging of diplomatic missions. Following World War II, Afghans were anxious to develop a relationship with what they saw as a strong, influential nation with sound anticolonial credentials, but they found themselves rebuffed.

Keen to obtain external assistance for their postwar development, they approached the United States in 1947 for help with an ambitious hydroelectric and irrigation project on the country's longest river, the Helmand. There was, however, little enthusiasm for the scheme in Washington, and it was left to a private U.S. company, Morrison-Knudson, to assist in its construction. Money soon ran out, and a request for a $120 million loan from the Import-Export Bank was whittled down to an inadequate $23 million. Essential surveys were neglected or cut short, and relationships deteriorated. Salination and waterlogging compromised the project, dooming it, to a large extent, to failure.

From 1948 on, Afghanistan approached the United States for help in equipping and training its antiquated armed forces but was similarly cold- shouldered. In 1955, a final request was turned down by John Foster Dulles. This seemed odd in the context of his Cold War policy of constructing treaty relationships around the periphery of the Soviet Union and communist China as a safeguard against the spread of communism.

Although Afghanistan was well placed geographically as a buffer along the Soviet Union's southern frontiers, it was politically at odds with Pakistan, a linchpin of the Central Treaty Organization. Unwisely in view of its landlocked position, Afghanistan had been supporting a movement among the Pashtun tribes for an independent state in the northwest region of Pakistan, contiguous to Afghanistan. Additionally, the United States was reluctant to incur any obligation to assist Afghanistan should it be threatened militarily by the Soviet Union. The country was felt to be too remote and exposed for any such guarantee to be successful.

Pushed toward the Soviet Union

The reasons for the United States not becoming involved were rational enough, but they effectively delivered the country into the hands of the Soviet Union. In 1955, Moscow hastened to supply Afghanistan with arms and military training, as well as a generous program of economic development.

After some delay, the Americans changed tack and decided that Afghanistan should not be left exclusively to the communist bloc, so they, too, went into the business of developmental assistance. Among other projects, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to build a strategic network of roads across the country (which later facilitated the Soviet invasion), while the United States also concentrated on assisting the University of Kabul and Afghanistan's national airline, Ariana.

It was fortunate for American interests, although not for Afghanistan itself, that during the 1960s and '70s, the Soviets proceeded to overreach themselves. An independent, nonaligned, but friendly Afghanistan, closely associated in their sphere of interest, would have suited them well, but they could not resist the temptation to engage in subversion.

Military personnel who went to the Soviet Union for training were routinely indoctrinated, while the Soviet Union also supported the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a party founded in 1965 that was, in all but name, the Afghan Communist Party. The first communist president of Afghanistan, Nur Mohammed Taraki, was financially assisted by Moscow, and his successor, Hafizullah Amin, was almost certainly recruited by the KGB while doing postgraduate studies in the United States. …

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