The jacket of Fred Halliday’s book shows a photograph of a characteristic group of Islamic Afghan rebels, sub-machine guns and rifles in hand, standing atop a captured Soviet armoured vehicle, east of Kabul. It is probably the most potent image of that country – one that has been effectively propagandized in the West ever since that ‘small far away country of which we know little’ was thrust into our headlines by the Soviet invasion of the country in Christmas 1979. We all like to be on the side of the goodies even if they are quite as obscurantist and impossible as the Afghan rebels, and the Soviet ‘Vietnam’ has provided a field day for creative journalism of the most remarkable kind.
Among western foreign journalists it symbolises virility to sneak into Afghanistan from the rebel side and photograph the guerilla war, and for a few months after the Russian intervention New Delhi’s Palam airport was a second home for some of the leading Fleet Street experts on South Asia. Rather charmingly they were reported to be always predicting the next Russian moves on the basis of ‘travellers’’ tales from Kabul, which subsequent events invariably proved to be the fanciful hopes of