What if... Soviets hadn't fought Afghans

Last summer, like a growing number of British tourists, I went on holiday to the Soviet Union. The border controls still leave something to be desired, the bureaucracy drives you mad and the food can often be terrible. But the changing of the guard in Red Square remains an awe-inspiring spectacle. And while I was watching it, I slipped away for a moment to inspect one of the more obscure graves in the Kremlin wall: the tomb
of Boris Ponomarev, a name almost unknown in the west, but a man who changed the course of history.

In the spring of 1978, Ponomarev was one of a small number of Politburo members invited on to a secret commission on the problem of Afghanistan, where the local communist regime was facing a growing rebellion from tribal groups hostile to its modernisation drive. Alarmed by the growing anarchy - as well as the threat of Islamic revolution from neighbouring Iran - Soviet officials were pushing for military intervention across
the Afghan border.

But at the last moment, Ponomarev, usually a dour apparatchik, spoke up. A keen history buff, he had recently read an account of Britain's Afghan ordeal during the Victorian era. Going into Afghanistan would be madness, he said; it would be Vietnam all over again. For a moment, there was silence around the table; then others began to speak up. The idea was dropped.

It is tempting to speculate what might have happened if the Russians had invaded after all. Some analysts think they would have got bogged down, losing tens of thousands of men. Others, more plausibly, argue that the Red Army would have wiped the floor with the Afghan insurgents.
Perhaps it would have been better if they had gone in, as Kabul would surely have been spared the Islamic fundamentalist regime that took power in 1981. On the other hand, the western reaction would have been ferocious. It's even possible to imagine Jimmy Carter, in a desperate attempt to regain the initiative, ordering a US boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

As it was, of course, relations between the Kremlin and the White House continued to thaw. By the time Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, he had already embarked on a new round of détente with President Edward Kennedy. Arms talks brought defence cuts and they in turn bought much-needed breathing space for the Soviet economy.By 1988, Kennedy and the new Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, had signed a dramatic peace and co-operation deal, and the liberalisation of the eastern bloc was in full swing.

Ten years later, the USSR threw open its doors to western tourism. Sure, there are probably too many stag parties now. But it's a small price to pay for the end of the cold war.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war