Twenty years ago this week the Soviet Union began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, eight and a half years after it was invited by the desperate People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had degenerated into intra-party squabbling and was beset by Islamic rebels massively financed by the United States. The straw that broke the Soviets’ back was when the US began providing Stinger missiles to Osama bin Laden and his friends.
Now, after eight years of US/NATO occupation, the parallels — and differences — between the two occupation are many and stark, as confirmed by the current Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov.
“There is no mistake made by the Soviet Union that was not repeated by the international community here in Afghanistan,” Kabulov said. “Underestimation of the Afghan nation, the belief that we have superiority over Afghans, that they are inferior and cannot be trusted to run affairs in this country. A lack of knowledge of the social and ethnic structure of this country; a lack of sufficient understanding of traditions and religion.”
Not only that, but the country’s new patrons are making lots of new mistakes as well.
“NATO soldiers and officers alienate themselves from Afghans — they are not in touch in an everyday manner. They communicate with them from the barrels of guns in their bullet-proof Humvees.” As a career diplomat who was posted to Afghanistan in 1977, he sees some divine justice in the US’s current predicament. “But I am even more satisfied by not having Russian soldiers among ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] because I don’t want them to suffer the same results.”
Kabulov explains that things are even harder now than they were in the 1980s. “The structures of government then were very much there and our task was very much to support and to win loyalty — if you will, hearts and minds — but we had a working administration.” These are long gone, though, ironically, in Helmand province and elsewhere, NATO forces are fighting from military posts originally built by the Soviets.
At least the Soviets were invited in, if only by one faction — Parcham, by far the most benign one — of the ruling PDPA. The US merely issued an ultimatum to the ruling Taliban to hand over their own erstwhile ally, Osama bin Laden, knowing full well no devout Muslim would turn a guest over to the enemy. The offer of the Taliban to send him to a neutral third country until proof of his masterminding of 9/11 was made was dismissed out of hand, and US and eventually NATO forces proceeded to illegally invade and depose the legitimate government, launching a merciless air attack, using depleted uranium “bunker busting” bombs, that makes the horrors of Vietnam and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan pale in comparison.
Another difference is that the US managed to con the world into supporting its invasion, while when the Soviet troops arrived in 1979, the US was already arming Islamic rebels with the most advanced military hardware, as Under-Secretary of Defense Slocumbe said at the time, “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.” President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski made a point of maintaining the flow of arms, even after Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear the troops would be withdrawn, intending to use this golden opportunity to stick the knife as deep as possible into the now unravelling Soviet Union. On this basis alone, the current invasion should be miles ahead of where the Soviets were after eight years. But no.
Yet another contrast is that while the Soviets were providing massive aid, effectively dragging Afghanistan into the 20th century with universal education, equal rights for women, safe drinking water — the standard communist fare — the US/NATO strategy has been mostly to fight the remnants of the Taliban, with aid well down the list. As for the quality of the aid, while Soviet teachers and engineers earned not much more than locals, and were generally selected for their idealism, Western-backed aid is channelled almost exclusively through foreign NGOs, with Western professionals earning the bulk of the money and living in conditions that locals can only dream of, causing well-earned resentment.
It should be noted that from the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 till the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan was mostly forgotten, with no Western programme of reconstruction. Russia, of course, had been bankrupt by then and there was nothing to be expected from it either. Ahmed Shah Ahmadzai, a mujahideen leader and prime minister in exile during the 1990s, admits the mujahideen failed in the years following the Soviet withdrawal. He is now an opponent of the government who stood against President Hamid Karzai in the last election. “To my opinion the ground situation is no different because the Soviets were imposing their Communist regime on us. The present forces — they are imposing their so-called democracy on us. They were wrong then and the present NATO forces are doing wrong now by killing innocent people — men, women and children.”
Given the huge advantages over the Soviet experience, and given the possibility to learn from Soviet mistakes, there really is no excuse for the current tragedy unfolding with no end in sight. But then, in carrying out their invasion of Iraq, the Americans apparently learned nothing from the British invasion of the 1920s, repeating to the letter all the horrors the Brits inflicted on the Iraqis.
Is it possible the chaos and murder is intentional? While the Taliban were no sweethearts, they did completely disarm the nation and wipe out the production of opium. Similarly, while Saddam Hussein would hardly be one’s favourite uncle, he presided over a stable welfare state where its many ethnic groups were at least not blowing each other up. In contrast, the US has destroyed the state structures in both countries, and made both into arms dumps. It has managed to turn the peoples of both countries against each other, with the likely prospect of civil war and disintegration into various malleable statelets.
All in keeping with Israeli plans first published in 1982 as “A Strategy for Israel”, a plan to ensure its “security” (read: expansion) with the Middle East a patchwork of small ethnically-based states which it could keep in order.
One brilliant innovation by the US, with Israel’s Haganah and Irgun as possible inspirations, is the use of private mercenaries to carry out murder and espionage that the NATO troops can’t do because of their “concern” for international law. This policy is already well known to Iraqis in the guise of Blackwater. Special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council Philip Alston referred to three such recent raids in south and east Afghanistan during a visit last week, clearly alluding to US intelligence agencies, though he didn’t dare state this publicly. Alston said the raids were part of a wider problem of unlawful killings of civilians and lack of accountability in Afghanistan. In one incident, two brothers were killed by troops operating out of an American Special Forces base in Kandahar. Another group, known as Shaheen, operates out of Nangahar, in eastern Afghanistan, where US forces are in charge. “Essentially, they are companies of Afghans but with a handful, at most, of international people directing them. I’m not aware that they fall under any command.”
A Western official close to the investigation said the secret units are known as Campaign Forces, from the time when American Special Forces and CIA spies recruited Afghan troops to help overthrow the Taliban during the US-led invasion in 2001. “The brightest, smartest guys in these militias were kept on,” the official said. “They were trained and rearmed and they are still being used. The level of complacency in response to these killings is staggeringly high,” he said.
Yet another innovation — the most frightening of all — is the role of the US in allowing, perhaps even facilitating, the huge increase in opium production, which, as already mentioned, was wiped out by the Taliban, which will be discussed in Part II.
It is very hard to exaggerate the extent of the abyss that is Afghanistan under US/NATO occupation or to conceive of an honourable exit for the occupiers. Mercenaries, opium and who-knows-what, in a script written in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
ERIC WALBERG writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at www.geocities.com/walberg2002/