Afghanistan: A Tale of Three Afghan Wars


It has become fashionable to say that Afghanistan has been a graveyard of foreign empires throughout its history It has been accepted by everyone as a gospel truth without even have a cursory look at the history-ancient or modern. Not totally untrue but a bit exaggerated claim, fairly farther than the truth

In its 5000 years of recorded history, Afghanistan has remained under the foreign rule for more than 4500 years. In the last 200 years, Afghanistan has been invaded three times by three super powers of the time i.e., British in 1843, USSR in 1979 and USA in 2002 respectively.  All three defeated the Afghan forces; however, they left after realising that occupation was not worth the costs

Here is a comparative study of their invasions from five different perspectives


Saying that Afghanistan has been a graveyard of foreign empires throughout its history is one of the most persistent myths of Afghan history. It has been accepted by everyone as a gospel truth without even have a cursory look at the history-ancient or modern.

Six thousand years ago, this region was part of Indus Valley Civilization. Then it came under the Iranian king Cyrus and remained a satrapy of the Persian Empire for more than 500 years. Then came Alexander the Macedonian who dealt a crushing blow to the Afghans; his successors ruled Afghanistan for 500 years till it became a province of Indian ruler Chandar Gupt Mauria.

Arab Muslims came all the way from Baghdad in 10th century, conquered it and converted everyone to Islam. Afterwards, it remained either part of Iranian kingdom or Turkish empire. The Mongol leader Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan and left his legacy in the form of the word “Khan” which they very proudly use as part of their name.

Afghanistan has been invaded three times by three super powers of the time in the last 200 years i.e., British in 1843, USSR in 1979 and USA in 2002 respectively. Here is a comparative study of their invasions from five different perspectives namely

  1. Context: What was the context of each invasion
  2. Casus Belli: What were the reasons advanced for the invasion
  3. Strategy: What strategies were used to invade Afghanistan
  4. Outcome: What was the results in each case
  5. Failure Reasons: Why they failed to rule Afghanistan after conquering it
  1. Context

We cannot properly appreciate the reasons of these three invasions of Afghanistan by the respective global powers of the day without keeping in view the geopolitical sitution obtaining at the time.

  • Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1843 at the height of its cold war, euphemistically known as the Great Game, with the Russian Empire for gaining influence in the Central Asian states. It started in January 1830 when the British started to establish a new trade route to the Emirate of Bukhara for which control over Afghanistan was essential. This move started a political and diplomatic confrontation between the British Empire and the Russian Empire. Russia was fearful of British commercial and military inroads into its traditional soft belly, Central Asia. On the other hand, Britain was fearful of Russia invading India-“the jewel in the crown” and adding it to the vast empire that Russia was building in Asia. This resulted in an atmosphere of distrust and the constant threat of war between the two empires
  • On December 25, 1979, the 40th Army of the Soviet Union entered her neighbouring country, Afghanistan to prop up the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). PDPA, a steadfast ally of the Soviet Union, was facing an existential threat from a bloody insurgency, apparently home-grown but covertly sponsored by arch rival of USSR, namely USA in the hey days of the Cold War. While the Americans were fomenting trouble in Afghanistan to lure USSR into the killing fields of Afghanistan to avenge their humiliating defeat in Vietnam, former USSR was interested to safeguard its soft belly from falling under the influence of its rivals.
  • USA invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 in the wake of worldwide sympathy it was enjoying after the fateful 9/11 attack. Although it was the worst intelligence failure of the American security establishment, Afghanistan was picked as the target of US vengeance even though it had absolutely no role in it. Even the devil incarnate Osama, who no doubt appreciated the cowardly act, kept on pleading his non-involvement in the 9/11 attack. In fact, plans to remove Taliban and install a Western-friendly regime in Afghanistan were already on the cards. It was all to do with oil and gas, the same reason for which Iraq was invaded, Libya was destroyed and Syrian people are suffering.

Casus Belli

While the main reasons for starting a war are invariably economic interests and pursuit of hegemonic designs, , it is generally justified on the basis of some high moral grounds. What were the casus belli used by the three global powers of the day to justify their respective invasions of Afghanistan?

  • British Invasion: The British used the pretext of re-installing a former king of Afghanistan namely Shah Shuja who, according to the British was illegally dethroned by Dost Mohammed Khan.
  • Soviet Invasion: Soviet Union used the request of the legal government of Afghanistan at that time to assist it in fighting a bloody insurgency, covertly sponsored by the USA, as a legitimate reason for sending its armed forces into Afghanistan.
  • American Invasion: USA used 9/11 attacks as its cassis belli for invading Afghanistan although Afghanistan, as stated earlier, had nothing to do with these attacks. U.S. demand for handing over Osama bin Laden was not acceptable to the Taliban government without any convincing evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Later on, they agreed to hand him over to a neutral country but describing this as delaying tactics, the USA launched Operation Enduring Freedom on 7 October 2001 with the United Kingdom. Other NATO forces later joined this Afghan War.


All the three powers invading Afghanistan at different times used almost the same strategies

  • British Invasion: British attacked Afghanistan by regular armed forces while co-opting the anti-regime tribes through bribes and coercion. Once successful in toppling the regime and reinstalling their own puppet, they retained their military presence, albeit reduced level of military.
  • Soviet Invasion: USSR also used its regular armed forces, occupied the key urban areas where it established its bases and started massive programmes of economic development and social reformation.
  • American Invasion: USA assembled a massive coalition, bombed the cities and used local anti-regime segments to topple the Taliban regime. Once removed, US led coalition forces entered the country in a big way to control the country by installing a puppet regime. Then started the ambitious programme of nation building and state building for which billions of US$ were pumped in the political economy of Afghanistan.


Interestingly, the immediate outcome of all the three invasions were the same-defeat of the locals but once victorious, the invaders failed miserably to control the situation and rule effectively

  • British Invasion: Although the British invasion of 1839 was a complete victory for the Indus Army, they could not properly handle the post-occupation Afghanistan. Consequently, they had to leave Kabul under an agreement but were ambushed by the Ghilzai tribesmen who killed everyone except a doctor. However, the British soon took revenge by again invading and conquering it in 1878 and re-drew the frontier of British India upwards to the Khyber Pass. Afghanistan lost its frontier regions in this process. The Third Anglo-Afghan war was launched by the Afghan king Amanullah Khan in 1919. Within a month they were forced to retreat after the British planes bombed Kabul in one of the first displays of air-power in Asia. The war was described by GR Gleigh, a chaplain attached to the defeated army in the following words:

“It was a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.”

  • Soviet Invasion: The Soviet Army, after losing more than 15,000 of its soldiers, withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989 under a UN-sponsored agreement. Its puppet Najeeb Ullah survived till 1991. Afghan mujahedeen did not defeat the Soviets on the battlefield. They won some important encounters, notably in the Punjsher valley, but lost others. In sum, neither side defeated the other. The Soviets could have remained in Afghanistan for several more years but they decided to leave when Gorbachev calculated that the war had become a stalemate and was no longer worth the high price in men, money and international prestige. The Soviet withdrawal created a power vaccum
  • American Invasion: USA invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and according to the official records of the USA, 2,216 American soldiers have died in USA’s 17-year-old war in Afghanistan and more than 20,050 were seriously wounded. Estimates vary but conservative calculation will put the costs of Afghan War anywhere between 4 to 5 trillion US$ of American citizens’ tax money. However, there seems to be no end to this war. Americans know it is an unwinnable war but do not have the guts to admit it and enter into meaningful negotiations with the Taliban

Causes of Defeat

Similarly, the causes of final defeat in the sense that none of the invading armies could keep their hold for a long time and had to leave unceremoniously are also the same

  • British Invasion: British failed to post-occupation Afghanistan due to three major reasons. Firstly, they deviated from their original plan of reinstalling their puppet and leave; instead, they decided to stay. Secondly, they reduced the strength of their armed forces and stopped making payments to their loyal tribes under austerity measures. Both proved fatal. However, their biggest mistake was to antagonize the local population by not respecting the local culture. Under these conditions, galloping inflation, result of war and ensuing civil war, proved the last straw on camel’s back.
  • Although USSR didn’t lose the war, they lost the will to prolong a useless occupation in the face of foreign sponsored insurgency; they just got tired of fighting an endless war and left Afghanistan under an honourable agreement.
  • American Invasion: USA lost the war in Afghanistan by repeating all the same mistakes committed by the British and the USSR respectively. The invasion was carried out without any proper planning and effective strategy to cope with the situation once the initial objectives were achieved. Rather it started an ambitious project of state building and even nation building- objectives which need decades if not centuries. After the fall of Taliban government, USA installed a government which was overwhelmingly non-Pashtun. It not only created a legitimacy crisis for the new government, it also dis-empowered 60% of population in one go in the new socio-political set-up. For a detailed answer on this issue, please read Shahid Hussain Raja’s answer to Why is the war in Afghanistan taking so long?


It is not true that the Afghanis cannot be defeated. They have been subjugated by Alexander the Macedonian, Genghis Khan, Timur, the Moguls and the Sikhs. Even the British, the Soviets and the Americans have successfully invaded Afghanistan. However, invading a foreign country like Afghanistan which is sparsely populated, mountainous and bleak is one thing; maintaining your occupation for long is impossible. The proverbial bravery and tenacity of the Pashtun tribes through their wars of attrition ultimately saps the morale and drains the finances of the occupying power. Same is happening with the USA.

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