Afghanistan and the Lessons of Soviet Intervention

3-31-09, 10:29 am

The Obama administration, as it seeks to withdraw from Iraq, finds itself in a far more difficult and complicated situation in Afghanistan. In February, the National Security Archive, a Washington-based institute that uncovers classified documents from the Cold War era, released a collection of fascinating documents from Soviet sources in the Gorbachev era. These primary source documents concern the Gorbachev leadership’s attempts to extricate the USSR from its years-long military intervention in Afghanistan. From these documents, we might glean some important historical lessons about military intervention in Central Asia and look for alternatives to the Obama administration's plan to increase troop numbers there.

While I do not share the sympathetic portrayal of the “reformers” in the Gorbachev leadership of the USSR put forward by the analysts at the National Security Archive, particularly Gorbachev’s naïve, or worse, effort to cooperate with the Reagan administration and the Pakistani dictatorship, the documents could be a valuable source of information on the region for the Obama administration, as it seeks to learn from the past in order not to repeat the errors of the past.


First, let us look from the US bloc side at how we arrived at the present situation 30 years after Zbigniew Brzezinski successfully convinced Jimmy Carter to throw US support to the right-wing Muslim guerrillas fighting a Communist-led government in Afghanistan. Brzezinski correctly argued that US intervention there could provoke the Soviets to fall into what he called “the Afghan trap,” a political military quagmire that could be “their Vietnam.”

Out of that policy, greatly expanded by the Reagan administration, came the victory of corrupt regional warlords and ultra-right religionists who formed the so-called mujahideen, the latter favored especially by the Pakistani regime. In 1988, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, who had previously led the Saudi Arabian contingent of the tens of thousands of foreign Muslim “holy warriors,' Al Qaeda, or “the base,' was founded and joined the mujahideen.

Backed and funded by the US, this ultra-right group strove to fight to “purify” the Muslim world of all secular forces and regimes, drive out all “foreign” influences and establish an idealized multinational theocratic state founded on a distorted view of early Islam and governed by a fundamentalist interpretation of religious law.

Al Qaeda, along with the other US-backed groups and warlords that formed the mujahideen, literally drowned the Afghan revolution in blood at the beginning of the 1990s. Afghanistan's Communists, who had struggled since the late 1970s to achieve a social revolution based on land reform, secular government, education and gender equality, faced relentless terror and murder. Unfortunately, their seizure of power by force, subsequent internecine violence, and a general failure by the Communists to build popular support for a broad democratic and social justice program hurt their cause.

With the support of Pakistan, the Taliban, those sections of the guerrilla movement led by fundamentalist religious students, won out over the warlords and established a regime based on clerical dictatorship, which even the Iranian clerical regime would call 'medieval.'

Slouching towards 9/11

Among other horrendous acts, the new regime outlawed female education and employment and directly terrorized all Afghan citizens who failed to conform to its dictates and standards.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Al Qaeda, whose leadership was expelled from Saudi Arabia because of its threat to the feudal monarchy, focused all of its energy against the US and its allies, the “immoral West” under the influence of “Christian crusaders' and 'Zionist Jews” against whom a defensive “holy war” (jihad) had to be fought throughout the world, a war without boundaries or rules.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan became in the late 1990s the ally and protector of Al Qaeda. This and the ongoing atrocities of the Taliban regime led virtually the entire international community (including the US) to break diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. Only its staunchest backers in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia stayed true.

This was the situation when members of Al Qaeda, mostly citizens of Saudi Arabia, seized four commercial airlines in the US and successfully crashed them into the World Trade Center, a remote field in Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, taking the lives of nearly three thousand people.

Following this event, the US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan and quickly ousted the Taliban regime. The action had wide US and international support and was considered a “just war,” given the regime’s direct relationship with Al Qaeda and its brutal oppression of its own people in complete violation of all standards of international law and human rights.

The Iraq distraction

However, the subsequent phase of reconstruction in Afghanistan was moved to the backburner as the Bush administration prepared for invading Iraq over the next few months. In contrast to the attack on Afghanistan, this invasion was launched with widespread international and US opposition. The Bush administration based its justifications for attacking Iraq on self-serving lies, and followed the opening 'shock and awe' with an occupation of spectacular and unremitting disasters.

As the Iraq quagmire worsened, the Taliban-Al Qaeda forces regrouped in the very Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas in which they were created in the 1980s. The Pakistani government under the Musharaff dictatorship took billions from the Bush administration to fight these groups in what was a diplomatic version of a Ponzi scheme, that is, killing and capturing a few terrorists now and then to satisfy the US while diverting funds to support its own terrorists in Kashmir against India. In addition, Pakistan's right-wing military dictatorship maintained all sorts of alliances through its intelligence services with the terrorists it was supposed to be fighting.

This was the situation when President Obama, who had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, campaigned for ending that war and re-focusing US military, intelligence, economic, and diplomatic efforts at Afghanistan. While Obama's position on this issue deeply concerned US peace activists, for most Americans it wasn't a problem.

Many of the Taliban forces remain, in terms of ideology and policy, virtually indistinguishable from Al Qaeda and their closest allies.

But military intervention, if history is any guide, is not a solution to the problems of Afghanistan. On the contrary, a surge in military action may create even larger problems.

Afghanistan has been throughout its history what Napoleon called Italy at the end of the 18th century, a 'geographical expression' rather than a nation. Nomadic warrior tribes centered in Afghanistan have wreaked havoc through South Asia over and over again. In the 19th century, the British and Czarist Russian empires competed for predominance, fighting numerous wars of conquest. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union in the 1980s and today the US and its NATO allies have fallen into the 'Afghan trap.'

Soviet intervention

The documents recently unearthed and assembled by the National Security Archive are Soviet records of high-level discussions along with personal impressions of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. It is important to examine these documents closely. They consist of notes on Political Bureau meetings (the top leadership circles of the Communist Party), transcripts of meetings between officials from different countries, and diary entries, a trove of “official documents” that both tell scholars important things and hide things from them. Careful study of these documents, however, can provide important insights into understanding today’s Afghan policy.

The documents are written in the language of Soviet policy and the concepts of a 'national democratic revolution.' Questions of when and how to construct socialism pervade them. Ending in 1989, they reflect the language of conventional power politics, which is itself a commentary on Gorbachev's leadership. Significantly, however, the documents seem to show that Gorbachev, who can justly be blamed for many things, cannot really be blamed for the disaster in Afghanistan.

The documents begin with Gorbachev’s accession to power in 1985. By that time, it seems clear that the Soviet political leadership had already begun to understand the need to change its policy in Afghanistan. From his first meeting with Afghan leader Barbak Karmal in March of that year, Gorbachev, along with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, stressed the necessity of the Afghans to secure their own borders and prepare for a Soviet military withdrawal.

Karmal countered by using the Soviets' commitment to internationalism to emphasize the need for continued military assistance to protect his country's borders, through which the foreign assistance to the mujahideen moved. Interestingly enough, both Gorbachev and Karmal spoke to each other using a Marxist-Leninist framework, with Gorbachev especially citing Lenin when it suited him to support his policy of military withdrawal, coupled with continued, albeit not so clear support, for the Afghan democratic revolution. For his part, Karmal also cited Lenin when it suited his arguments for a continued Soviet presence.

Gorbachev and a timeline for withdrawal

By 1986 and 1987, the documents show, the Soviet leadership had grown increasingly wary of public disaffection with the Soviet role in Afghanistan. Expressed through citizen letters and other means, the Soviet leadership took this disapproval of the ongoing conflict very seriously. Gorbachev's top foreign policy advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, described receiving a 'torrent of letters' in opposition to the war from military families and from soldiers themselves. Public opinion led Chernyaev to ruminate that the top Soviet leadership needed to estimate the cost of war in lives and treasure and 'what the prospects are.' 'It is obvious,' he wrote in his diary in early 1985, 'that there are no alternatives. We must pull out.'

Meanwhile, divisions emerged among top military and civilian leaders across the USSR and at times between military and civilian leaders. These divisions were reflected in Gorbachev's indecisiveness on the matter. In his reports to the Political Bureau and his responses to other leaders, Gorbachev stressed consistently the need to withdraw troops while continuing military and other forms of aid. At times he favored a rapid withdrawal. At other times he feared the consequences of how such a withdrawal would look to the world. In a June 1986 meeting, for example, Gorbachev said, 'We just need to be sure the final result does not look like a humiliating defeat: to have lost so many men and to have abandoned it all!'

Through 1986 and 1987, Gorbachev continued to push for withdrawal, which as a practical matter became more difficult to accomplish the longer it was postponed, and the longer a substitute policy to provide support for the Afghan state was delayed. Politics overtook his ability to make the right decision. As Gorbachev noted, 'we need the process to continue, so that it does not pause.'

As time went on, the wishes and the input of the Afghan leadership became less important in Soviet calculations. Soviet leaders, however, appeared to discuss the possibility of appointing representatives to the Afghan government on their own. By 1986, the new Afghan leader Najibullah pursued a policy of “national reconciliation” which sought to gain broader support for his government in the country and to resolve the conflict with the mujahideen. The successes and failures of the reconciliation policy, which had broad Soviet support, were debated by the leadership.

By January of 1987, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who had replaced Gromyko, reported that sections of the mujahideen had refused Najibullah's offers of reconciliation and that the general situation was bleak. 'The economy of the country is in a state of destruction. ... Very little is left of the friendly feeling toward the Soviet people, which existed for decades. ... Not a single problem was solved in favor of the peasants. ... In essence [we] waged war against the peasants.' During this meeting, Gorbachev recommends handing over the military operations to the Najibullah government, withdrawing Soviet troops, and reducing Soviet involvement to cash assistance.

Soviet leaders, however, found themselves faced with a conundrum that is remarkably familiar. Unwilling to suffer humiliation and concerned about the national security implications of failure, they insisted that immediate withdrawal would embolden the mujahideen and cause the collapse of their allies in the Najibullah government. In a February meeting of the Political Bureau, Gromyko urged a timetable for withdrawal. Shevardnadze responded, 'A pullout would not be possible in under two years. Every day is important for building up the Afghan army.'

Grasping for some solution to the problem, at that same meeting Gorbachev suggested negotiating with the US and Pakistan for a Soviet withdrawal. Because Pakistan was a base of support for the mujahideen, Gorbachev even suggested the possibility of paying off the brutal Pakistani tyrant General Zia to open talks about closing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Here, Gorbachev shows the leadership abilities that would characterize his tenure, acting as an “opportunist without opportunities.” On the one hand, Soviet leaders, including Gorbachev, often made insightful and realistic assessments as to what was happening in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Gorbachev alone believed that he could win the confidence and support of the two states which were training and funding the right-wing guerrillas his military was fighting, providing them with bases and safe havens on Pakistan's territory.

Lessons for today

What value does this small cache of documents have for the Obama administration? They provide support for the view that all of the Soviet leadership, whatever their attitudes toward Gorbachev’s larger policies, realized that the intervention in Afghanistan had been a major error. There appeared to be a consensus that no military solution to the situation existed and that the USSR should cut its losses and protect the Soviet Union's southern borders, while continuing to provide aid to the Afghan government and people.

Ultimately, neither action was taken in time. After ten years, the Soviets completely withdrew from Afghanistan in early 1989. Emboldened, the Bush I administration pushed its advantage by intensifying its support for the warlords and right-wing guerrillas. These groups seized the capital city of Kabul in 1991, shortly after the downfall of the USSR. These “freedom fighters,” whose victory was hailed by George W. Bush, then savagely murdered Najibullah and displayed his bloated body to the world (to the horror even of hard-line anti-Communists). They then proceeded to terrorize the Afghan people and launch a brutal five-year civil war.

Although one cannot remake history, one can learn from it. When the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan in 1979, they sought to aid a revolutionary state on their borders threatened by foreign-supported counter-revolution. For them, the situation posed both a national security threat and the need to express international solidarity. They saw it as their internationalist duty to assist one of the most oppressed people in the world in making a national democratic revolution and ultimately develop socialism.

Nevertheless, they fell into the “Afghan trap” US policy makers had laid for them.

After the failed revolution in Afghanistan, a weak, corrupt feudal state was followed by a gangster warlord regime, which was subsequently ousted by the Taliban. The Taliban, in turn, fell to US/NATO forces and were replaced by a Kabul-centered regime led by Hamid Karzai, who today appears to have little power beyond the capital city's boundaries.

While one might argue that a war against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the warlords is a just war, it is not in any serious way a winnable one for the Obama administration. Firstly, the Kabul government has no revolutionary democratic program to advance, as did the Afghan Communists in the 1980s, and no social program that can defeat its enemies. Other nations, Russia, China and India, have important security stakes in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and are, given their geopolitical and demographic realities, much more threatened by terrorist assaults by right-wing Muslim groups.

The Obama administration can learn from this disaster by improving relations with China, India and Russia, and working to improve relations between those countries. Obama could lead all of the regional powers to create, among other things, regional economic cooperation (which would hopefully draw in and benefit Pakistan), and also broader police cooperation against terrorist activities. Any military actions against Al Qaeda or Taliban groups in Afghanistan should be multilateral efforts.

When the Soviets fell into the “Afghan trap,” they created a disaster for themselves that distracted from them from dealing realistically with their own large internal problems and developing responses to Reagan’s Cold War revival. The Obama administration must avoid falling into a second Afghan trap, which would distract it from dealing with our own huge internal problems, strengthen its enemies at home, and alienate its friends abroad.

It can do avoid this trap by refusing to escalate military action. As the Soviet’s recent history and the history of Afghanistan over the centuries show, escalation there will only make matters worse in the short-run, and make an eventual disengagement much harder and more destructive in the long-run.

--Norman Markowitz is an historian and a contributing editor of Political Affairs.