New book unveils untold story of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan prior to Soviet invasion

Robert Rakove sheds new light on the little-known and often surprising history of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan from the 1920s to the Soviet invasion, tracing its evolution and exploring its lasting consequences.
afghanistanu.s.jpg Vice President Richard Nixon's trip to Kabul in December 1953

Whether in 1979, 2001, or 2021, Afghanistan has frequently been seen as a crisis area in U.S. foreign policy. A complex and nuanced region, dialogue about policies there is often focused through the lens of the Cold War and the aftermath of the Soviet invasion.


In a new book, Robert Rakove, a historian and lecturer of U.S. foreign relations for the International Relations Program and an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, offers a deeply researched historical account of U.S. relations with Afghanistan from their outset in 1921, up to the Soviet invasion in 1979. While prior accounts tend to treat the U.S. role in Afghanistan before 1979 as relatively marginal, Days of Opportunity: The United States and Afghanistan Before the Soviet Union demonstrates the impact these earlier decades of U.S. involvement had on Afghanistan, and how choices made in Washington, Moscow, and Kabul ultimately destabilized the region.


Here, Rakove discusses how decades of U.S. and Soviet engagement in Afghanistan gradually morphed into a Cold War battleground, and the lasting consequences this continues to have on policies toward the country today.


What drew you to write about this time period, and why has U.S. engagement in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion generally been given less scholarly attention?


My first book examined U.S. policy toward nonaligned states during the Kennedy and Johnson years. I didn’t do much work with Afghanistan in the course of my research for that project, but it occurred to me while I was working on it that studying Cold War nonalignment by looking at one state over the long term rather than multiple states during a span of several years could be a very interesting lens. This approach would give me the opportunity to examine peaceful phases of Cold War competition and the evolution of U.S. policy across several decades, not just during a specific era or crisis.  


As this project evolved, one of the repeating themes I’ve come across is the tension between grand strategy and local

policy. Moscow ascribed paramount importance to Afghanistan during this time, not because it was especially keen

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to have a communist government in Kabul, but because it sought a quiet southern border. On the other hand, Washington was not prepared to bid as lucratively or invest as highly as the Soviets were, but it was also unwilling to see Afghanistan drift into the Soviet bloc. One does not see much mention of Afghanistan in statements like NSC-68, but diplomats and mid-level officials worked energetically to reconcile their policy there with wider goals.


In accounts of the Cold War within Afghanistan, U.S. efforts are often juxtaposed against the more extensive projects of the Soviet bloc, and this comparison has tended to make the events of 1978-79 seem inevitable, and thus uninteresting. But historians working with Soviet records have refuted the view that the Brezhnev Politburo was expansionist, which was an assumption undergirding many of the early accounts of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. So, there are plenty of reasons to rethink our notions of inevitability in this case.



You mention peaceful phases of Cold War competition. Would you characterize the transition between these phases in Afghanistan as a continuous evolution or as periods of abrupt discontinuity?


There are elements of both. Through the first three decades of the Cold War, Afghan leaders were heirs to a tradition of foreign policy nonalignment. They developed considerable experience in charting a middle path through world politics.  Their predecessors had done so through both world wars. That was a heritage the Afghan government brought to their approach to global conflict.


It’s also important to look at how the external superpowers changed in their approaches to Afghanistan. From Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, U.S. administrations tended to use combinations of aid and diplomacy as the means of pursuing their interests in Afghanistan. And while Joseph Stalin threatened Afghanistan in 1952, his successors generally thought it best to offer carrots rather than sticks. Nikita Khrushchev believed that Afghanistan would be an ideal place to showcase his propaganda about peaceful coexistence.


But then came 1978 and 1979, which were years of terrible, abrupt changes. The overthrow of the government and the execution, exile, or imprisonment of its principal officials ended any meaningful policies of nonalignment in Kabul. This event, coupled with escalating Cold War tensions elsewhere, jolted external actors out of their earlier patterns of competition, and both the U.S. and Soviet Union succumbed to alarmist views of the other.


In your view, what ways did the U.S. succeed and/or fail in its attempt to keep Afghanistan from falling under Soviet



Unfortunately, this is not a success story in the history of U.S. foreign relations. Some elements of U.S. policy in Af

ghanistan proved beneficial, especially the wartime exports program during the Second World War and food aid during moments of scarcity. Americans within Afghanistan often proved quite sympathetic and responsive to Afghan needs. When I attended a reunion of alumni of the American International School of Kabul in Chicago some years ago, the people I spoke to had very fond memories of life there.


But U.S. officials often promised too much and then fumbled in trying to fulfill those promises. British and French diplomats, who had far more experience working within Afghanistan, advised a low-key approach. But by the mid-1950s, both Moscow and Washington believed they were racing to keep Afghanistan out of the other’s arms and making ever more elaborate promises as a consequence.


For example, wartime offers of assistance led Washington to proffer the services of the Morrison-Knudsen construction firm for projects in Afghanistan. The firm over-promised and misled the Afghans. When the U.S. government attempted to bail out the firm, its own efforts led Stalin to suspect some grand American design was unfolding in Afghanistan.


I want to note that Afghans did see benefit from having the two blocs compete for their favors, and the aid contest did give the country a symbolic alternative to the Soviet bloc. But too often the circumstances and poor planning resulted in U.S.-backed development initiatives unfolding in a haphazard way. The Kabul government often had to cover the local currency costs of projects, and never really developed an efficient means of internal taxation. Efforts to raise internal revenue did not endear the central government to its citizens.


A prime example is the core U.S. aid program within Afghanistan in this era, the Helmand Valley project, which was a flailing effort to irrigate marginal land, and settle nomads there as farmers. It was a dubious idea; U.S. experts doubted that it would have been feasible even within the United States. But having committed to it in the 1940s, the United States found itself caught in a multi-decade quagmire to try and stave off calamity.


Another key issue was a failure of dialogue with the Soviets. At key points, the United States and Soviet Union agreed that the status quo within Afghanistan was acceptable. Both sides were content with an independent, nonaligned government in Kabul. But they failed to formalize this understanding during the stable times, which left them open to the possibility of dangerous escalation as the Cold War worsened in the late 1970s.


What are the lasting consequences of Afghanistan being treated as a pawn of the great powers in the 20th century? What would you say is the most unexpected consequence?


The destruction of Afghanistan can seem like a predictable consequence of the Soviet invasion. But Afghanistan’s emergence as a violent battleground in the final decade of the Cold War is bizarre in the context of its earlier history. As far as available records have shown, neither superpower had grand designs for the country. And in 1977, the last truly peaceful year, each side seemingly found the status quo acceptable.


On one level, their subsequent capitulation to alarmism following the Marxist coup in 1978 can be explained. Factions within both the Carter and Brezhnev governments were willing to make wild statements about their adversary. Carter’s national security advisor worried about a Soviet advance toward the Persian Gulf. Brezhnev’s KGB chairman (and successor) warned ominously that the United States might place intelligence outposts or missile bases in Afghanistan. Dialogue between the two sides was already starting to falter in Kabul and elsewhere, and the violence in Afghanistan — including the tragic, bizarre killing of the U.S. ambassador in early 1979 — only accelerated that breakdown.


But on another level – even as one rationally explains a set of disastrous choices – a certain disbelief remains. Soviet leaders, in March 1979, could list a litany of reasons why an Afghan intervention would go poorly. Nevertheless, they invaded nine months later.


How can we apply the findings of your book to understanding modern Afghanistan and its engagement with the world today?


I spent a decade researching and writing this book and had innumerable conversations about it. More often than not, people shook their heads in resignation as if Afghanistan is this eternally hopeless place or the so-called “graveyard of empires.”


But that perspective is unfair to the country. It’s true that Afghanistan’s isolation and poverty during the period I’ve studied created many challenges, but it was also a period of opportunities. Private actors sought profitable contracts there. The superpowers saw Afghanistan as a showcase for one or another model of development. Afghans cannily courted bids and counterbids, helping to accelerate the competition, though not always to their advantage.


This has real resonance today, especially when we think about Afghanistan’s vast, still largely untapped mineral resources. It occupies a critical position in its region and successive Afghan governments have understood the necessity of enlisting outside assistance. Having misplayed its hand badly the last time it held Kabul, the Taliban appears to be investing more in its diplomatic outreach this time.


Afghanistan has undergone four decades of warfare: an undeniable agony exceeding that of any comparable Cold War battleground. It’s understandable, given its history and events of the last few years, why Americans may wish to write it off entirely. I’m loath to predict the future, but history can take sharp turns. Interest in the opportunities Afghanistan presents endures. Americans may be less likely to be involved in any future rounds of competition, but no great power can affect full disinterest. It behooves us to understand how our policy went awry, and what factors were at play during times of peace, as a means of helping us make better informed choices and propositions for whatever may come in the future.

Rakove, Robert

Robert Rakove

Historian and Lecturer of International Relations