H-Diplo Article Review 965 on Buck. “Brokering a Buffer State: Afghan Neutrality and American Diplomacy, 1973–1979.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 965

16 July 2020

Brandan P. Buck.  “Brokering a Buffer State: Afghan Neutrality and American Diplomacy, 1973–1979.”  The International History Review 41:3 (2019):  493-512.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2018.1437761.

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Gregory H. Winger, University of Cincinnati

December 1979 marked the last time that Afghanistan could credibly claim to be at peace.  While in the United States Americans weather the wintry month; the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) teetered on the brink of collapse.  A festering insurgency was steadily gaining strength throughout the country and threatened to overthrow the rule of Afghanistan’s young Communist government.  The ensuing Soviet invasion and four decades of war have become central to our view of Afghanistan and have informed our understanding of its place in the world.

Yet the fall of Afghanistan was neither inevitable nor accidental.  Before Afghanistan became a perpetual war zone it was a flawed but functional state that played a critical role in Central Asian affairs as well as in the Non-Aligned Movement.[1] While the war years have continued to attract the bulk of scholarly attention, a recent wave of scholarship has endeavored to resurrect this pre-war history of Afghanistan.[2] 

Brandan Buck’s article, “Brokering a Buffer State: Afghan Neutrality and American Diplomacy, 1973–1979,” provides an interesting and useful addition to this reconsideration of pre-invasion Afghanistan.  Buck uses a selection of American diplomatic cables, congressional records, memoirs, and oral histories to provide a window into American foreign policy towards Afghanistan in the era immediately preceding the Soviet invasion.  Specifically, he holds that American diplomats working in Central Asia, especially in Kabul, were keenly aware of Afghanistan’s perilous state and worked to bolster Afghan neutrality as a means of containing the Soviet Union.  This effort faltered with the murder of U.S. Ambassador Adolph “Spike” Dubs in February 1979.  After the killing of the ambassador, Washington withdrew its support from Afghanistan and the United States became merely an observer to Afghanistan’s drift towards becoming a Soviet satellite and ultimately its occupation by Soviet forces.

Buck begins his examination of U.S.-Afghan relations with the overthrow of the Afghan monarchy in 1973 by former prime minister Mohammed Daoud Khan.  Daoud’s coup succeeded with assistance from the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and marked an important point of transition in Afghanistan.[3] The hybrid government to emerge after the coup combined stalwarts from Afghanistan’s traditional political establishment like Daoud with elements of the PDPA who gained their first toehold within the Afghan government.

The combination of conventional and Communist politicians inside Daoud’s administration posed a unique challenge to American policymakers.  As Buck details, far from viewing Afghanistan as a geopolitical backwater, American diplomats in Kabul were acutely aware of the country’s larger regional significance.  Although the United States did not necessarily gain from a stable Afghanistan, an unstable or adversarial government in Kabul could endanger the entire region and become a major irritant to key American allies in Iran and Pakistan (497-498).  Despite the PDPA’s presence within the post-1973 regime, American diplomats counseled that Washington did not necessarily need to fear the new Afghan government.  Specifically, the embassy believed that Daoud was principally a nationalist who would abide by Afghanistan’s non-aligned foreign policy rather than succumb to any pro-Soviet fervor (499-500).  This was shrewd analysis based on a deep familiarity with Afghan political traditions and ultimately proved to be correct.  After some early difficulties, Daoud emerged as a paragon of Afghan neutrality.  He purged the Communists from his government, strengthened ties with Iran and Pakistan, and even actively sought American assistance to balance untoward Soviet influence in his own country (500-501).

This appreciation for neutrality and balance as core tenets of Afghan foreign policy was instructive after Daoud’s own government was violently overthrown by the PDPA in the Saur Revolution of April 1978.  Unlike in 1973, there was no doubt about the nature of this second coup, as the PDPA emerged firmly entrenched in Kabul following the coup.  It is here, in the discussion of the aftermath of the Saur Revolution, where Buck’s efforts are most significant and insightful.  Although the PDPA had certainly seized power, questions emerged about how ardent the new regime’s Communist bona fides truly were.  In particular, American discussions about the PDPA General Secretary Nur Muhammad Taraki closely paralleled the earlier debate about Daoud, with key officials arguing that Taraki was more of an Afghan nationalist than a pro-Soviet Communist who might not inherently undermine U.S. regional interests (501-502).

Buck holds that American officials believed that the model of Afghan neutrality was not intrinsically tied to Daoud, and was in fact emblematic of a wider Afghan national prerogative that could be preserved despite the violent change in Afghan administrations.  As such, the Carter administration opted not to cut aid to Afghanistan and to continue working with the rebranded Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in order to uphold Washington’s overarching objective of stability in Central Asia (500-502).

By highlighting the Carter administration’s decision to continue U.S. commitments to Afghanistan despite the PDPA takeover, Buck’s article makes an important and undervalued contribution to Cold War scholarship.  This moment simultaneously encapsulated a clear evolution in American strategic thinking in terms of the United States’ treatment of ostensibly Communist governments whilst also offering one of the last tangible gasps of détente.  Although the article focuses exclusively on Afghanistan and Central Asia, more engagement with the secondary source literature would have enabled a greater exploration of how these larger trends in U.S. foreign policy intersect in 1978 Kabul and more robustly demonstrated pre-war Afghanistan’s contribution to international history.[4]

However, American engagement with the DRA proved tumultuous and ultimately short-lived.  During the summer of 1978 it became increasingly apparent that the PDPA government was not offering a continuation of Afghan neutrality, but was instead an increasingly assertive pro-Soviet regime (502-503).  Buck’s article traces Washington’s growing trepidations about the DRA and detailing Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s desire to continue American engagement instead of ceding Afghanistan to the Soviets (501-503).  Although this geopolitical perspective is enlightening, the absence of a more detailed discussion of American views on the internal dynamics within the notoriously fractious PDPA is an unfortunate oversight.  An unhappy marriage of convenience at the best of times, the PDPA was plagued by rival personalities, factions and ideologies throughout its history.[5] The Carter administration’s understanding of these internal division within the PDPA would have provided valuable context for its policy decisions and potentially offered an alternative explanation for Washington’s actions.

The murder of Ambassador Dubs in February 1979 ultimately soured Washington on its ongoing relations with the DRA.  There is still a lot of unknowns about Dubs’s kidnapping and subsequent death during a bungled rescue attempt, but Buck successfully outlines the drama and especially how the DRA’s mishandling of the situation infuriated the United States (503-504).  It was only after the killing of Dubs that the U.S. cut aid to Afghanistan and significantly reduced its presence in the country (504-505).  Whereas Washington, and especially Vance, had been reluctant to give the Soviets free reign in Afghanistan, Buck contends that this is effectively what happened in 1979.  In Kabul, the American diplomats became primarily observers rather than participants in national affairs as PDPA hardliners consolidated power within the government and a growing insurgency increased the DRA reliance on Soviet assistance.  

Buck concludes with an interesting analysis of competing views within the U.S. government during 1979 on the prospect of a direct Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  The Soviet decision-making process remains a common topic of discussion and controversy.[6]  However, Buck describes an ambiguous assessment of Soviet intentions that seemingly pervaded every echelon of the U.S. government.  The burgeoning evidence of increased Soviet involvement in Afghanistan was apparent and well documented.  Buck detects a persistent incredulity that hobbled American analysis despite this mounting evidence.  The issue was not whether a Soviet invasion was possible, but the prevailing disbelief that Moscow would undertake such a reckless and potentially disastrous course of action (507-508).  There is a bitter irony to this assessment that is worth further investigating, but perhaps historians must wait for additional materials to become declassified.

Decades removed from Moscow’s critical decision to intervene, a critical question nevertheless still weighs heavily over the second half of Buck’s article.  Would Afghanistan’s fate have been different if Washington had sustained its engagement with the DRA in 1979 instead of reducing its involvement after the murder of Ambassador Duds?  Throughout the 1970s, American diplomats had successfully leveraged aid and Afghanistan’s own historic preference for balance to mitigate pro-Soviet elements in Kabul and uphold regional stability.  Yet, even as cracks emerged in Kabul’s neutrality following the Saur Revolution, Washington abandoned its previous policy formula in favor of withdrawal.  But what if the U.S. had not reversed course?  Could American assistance have strengthened the hand of more moderate members of the PDPA like Taraki against their hardline opponents?  At the very least, would sustained American activities in Afghanistan been a sufficiently strong signal of interest from Washington to forestall a Soviet invasion? 

It is of course impossible to answer these hypotheticals, but they do illustrate the importance of pre-war Afghanistan and its continued salience for world affairs.  Forty years after the United States washed its hands of the DRA, Washington is yet again wrestling with its role in Afghanistan.  Although the question today is not a Soviet invasion, but the aftermath of America’s own intervention, the overarching issues of regional stability and the consequences of disengagement remain stubbornly persistent.  By adding context to this debate and illuminating the longevity to these issues, Buck’s “Brokering a Buffer State” makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of U.S.-Afghan relations and potentially their future as well. 


Gregory H. Winger is assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati where he teaches international security and cybersecurity.  He has written articles on several aspects of U.S. foreign relations including “The Nixon Doctrine and US Relations with the Republic of Afghanistan, 1973-1978: Stuck in the Middle with Daoud,” which appeared in The Journal of Cold War Studies 19:4 (2017).



[1]Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Trenton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Benjamin Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); The long history of Afghan-Pakistan relations in particular has become a prominent area of focus.  Elisabeth Leake and Daniel Haines, “Lines of (In) Convenience: Sovereignty and Border-Making in Postcolonial South Asia, 1947–1965,” The Journal of Asian Studies 76:4 (2017): 963-985; Elisabeth Leake, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Faridullah Bezhan, “The Pashtunistan Issue and Politics in Afghanistan, 1947–1952,” The Middle East Journal 68:2 (2014): 197-209; Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi, “The Forgotten History of Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations,” Yale Journal of International Affairs 7 (March 2012): 38-45.  For more specific studies of Afghanistan and the Non-Aligned Movement see, V.P. Vaidik, “Afghan Non-Alignment: Changing Faces,” International Studies 20:1-2 (1981): 239-255; Alvin Rubinstein, “The Last Years of Peaceful Coexistence: Soviet-Afghan Relations 1963-1978,” Middle East Journal 36:2 (1982): 165-183; Robert Rakov, “The Rise and Fall of Non-Aligned Mediation,” International History Review 37:5 (2015): 991-1013.

[2] Examples of this reexamination of pre-war Afghanistan include: Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State,” The Journal of American History 89:2 (2002): 512-537; Robert D. Crews, Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015); Timothy Nunan, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Gregory Winger, “The Nixon Doctrine and US Relations with the Republic of Afghanistan, 1973–1978: Stuck in the Middle with Daoud,” Journal of Cold War Studies 19:4 (2017): 4-41; Elisabeth Leake, “Afghan Internationalism and the Question of Afghanistan's Political Legitimacy,” Afghanistan 1:1 (2018): 68-94.

[3] Hasan Kakar, “The Fall of the Afghan Monarchy in 1973,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 9:2 (Winter 1981): 195-214.

[4] Buck principally relies on a few State Department cables for his sources most of which are available through the State Departments Foreign Relations of the United States series.  Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[5] Fred Halliday and Zahir Tanin, “The Communist Regime in Afghanistan 1978–1992: Institutions and Conflicts,” Europe-Asia Studies 50:8 (1998): 1357-1380; Alam Payind, “Soviet-Afghan Relations from Cooperation to Occupation,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 21:1 (1989): 113-115; John Griffiths, Afghanistan: Key to a Continent (Boulder: Westview Press, 1981),173–175; Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006).

[6] Gregory Feifer, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (New York: Harper, 2009); Rodric Braithwaite.  Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Artemy Kalinovsky, “Decision-Making and the Soviet War in Afghanistan: From Intervention to Withdrawal” Journal of Cold War Studies 11:4 (2009): 46-73.