Afghanistan is not only the graveyard of empires; it’s a graveyard of misconceptions.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden believed that the mujahideen single-handedly defeated the Soviet empire; so a more compact mujahid band, al-Qaeda, would be the vanguard in defeating the American empire. It was never that simple.
In the United States, the myth rules that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) delivered the Soviets “their Vietnam”; thus this was basically a US victory, with the “freedom fighters” (copyright president Ronald Reagan) as supporting actors. It was never that simple.
The Pakistani military-intelligence establishment believes since the late 1970s, that a puppet Afghanistan was essential for its “strategic depth”. It was never that simple.
It’s also useful to remember today that little has changed regarding the Afghan tragedy in these past three decades. And that makes the upcoming US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) surge in Afghanistan a certified road to ruin.
Behind the red curtain
It’s easy to forget in the US that Soviet intelligence in late 1979 was more than aware of an imminent anti-Soviet pact between China and the US – crystallizing what the USSR feared the most: to be encircled by enemy powers.
There were, of course, Afghan political elements that forced the Soviet hand. Moscow was keen to support a communist government in Kabul, and was very wary of the Islamic revolution being exported from Iran to western Afghanistan.
But there was also the fact that around 100 top Soviet officials – including three KGB colonels – had been assassinated by tribal fundamentalists in plain sight of then-resident Hafizullah Amin’s government. (After the Soviet invasion Amin was dispatched to the Lubyanka, the KGB’s headquarters in Moscow, and tortured: he had made such a mess in Kabul that he was believed to be a CIA agent. Amin was finally executed by “administrative process” – a shot in the back of the neck.)
Former US president Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski – today a President Barack Obama foreign policy shadow eminence – of course instrumentalized the mujahideen. After all, what Zbig really wanted – and got – was “to induce a Soviet military intervention”.
But when Carter got his invasion, he interpreted it as the USSR really wanting to invade the Persian Gulf and cut off the oil supply of “our” Western world. Few sane voices in the US remarked that if the USSR ever attempted such a move that would mean a nuclear war with the US.
Historian, diplomat, strategist and US foreign policy establishment icon George Kennan – the author of the “containment” of communism strategy – was one of these voices; he dismissed Carter as “immature”.
Kennan also made two points that remain extremely valid today; that if the Persian Gulf was so “vital” for the US, that was because of US oil greed; and that instability in the Middle East was not due to USSR moves but to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the US blindly backing one side.
When in doubt, pre-empt
Most of all, from the Soviet point of view, the invasion of Afghanistan was classic pre-emptive action – a sort of replay of the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, Fidel Castro informed Moscow that the US was preparing the invasion of Cuba. The Soviet high command then came up with a pre-emptive action – deploying the missiles with the understanding that they would be sent back home if president John F Kennedy protested, thus winning Cuba’s inviolability in the process.
In the invasion of Afghanistan, which had had pro-communist or pro-Soviet governments for the past few years – although its support by Moscow was no exactly enthusiastic – the Soviets were pre-empting the possibility that via a pact with the US, China would enter Afghanistan on the trail of its ally, ultra-conservative Pakistan, and probably using American money.
Thus the Soviet action was justified in terms of its survival strategy. Pakistan at the time was already involved in an operation – alongside China and the US – against political and social sectors in Afghanistan. With the invasion of Afghanistan and Indira Gandhi’s electoral victory in India, the USSR created a pawn.
What nobody could imagine in 1979 was that the mighty Red Army would be, if not defeated, at least paralyzed by a bunch of mountain warriors with rifles. As for Pakistan, its master plan was always to control Afghanistan, even indirectly, in the name of its “strategic depth” theory (and that has not changed to this day).
The influence of leftist movements in Afghanistan could be seen already in a more-or-less free election in 1954, when the left elected 50 congressmen out of a total of 120. A good deal of these leftists were nationalists and radical Islamists. The USSR had been helping Afghanistan ever since the October 1917 revolution. As much as Moscow, Mohammed Daoud – who dethroned his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973 – wanted to modernize Afghanistan by force. The precedent was not very encouraging, namely the failure of King Amanullah in 1919, also supported by the Russians.
Even if Washington under Obama would be interested today (and it’s not), modernization of Afghanistan by force also would not work. What would be really needed is hardcore nation-building – lots of investment in education and infrastructure that would generate real employment opportunities, while making sure the money does not disappear in the Kabul bureaucracy’s ministerial black hole.
To promote socialism, progress or simply democracy in Afghanistan just by distributing aid – without fundamentally changing a centuries-old social structure – is impossible. This was – and will continue to be – the key to the Afghan riddle, and the main reason why the Obama/Pentagon/NATO surge, full or half-full, will fail.
Losing a ‘revolutionary civil war’
As for the end of the Soviet invasion/occupation a little over 20 years ago, the dynamic had changed compared to the late 1970s. There was a detente in place with both the US and China. A US myth rules that the Soviets abandoned Afghanistan because the US (and Pakistan, plus Saudi Arabian money) manipulated the largest guerrilla war of the 20th century, whose coup de grace were those precious Stinger missiles the CIA finally shipped to the mujahideen.
That was only one among a myriad of reasons, all related to a compounded Soviet financial disaster: the fall in oil and gas prices; the fallout from Chernobyl; a horrible earthquake in Armenia; a very bad performance in agriculture; and the perestroika paralysis.
By early 1989, a majority of Russians considered the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 as a major mistake. Plus they had to count their dead. In the first wave the dead were Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and Kyrgyz. Then they were Belorussians, Ukrainians, Estonians and, yes, Russians.
Since the peace of Brest Litovsk in 1918, the Soviets had never suffered a politico-military defeat. For the official ideologues close to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, this was a not a war of conquest, but a revolutionary civil war with the “internationalist” help of the USSR.
But this “revolutionary civil war” was ultimately won by a bunch of Muslim tribals – Rabbani, Khalis, Abdul Haq, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Shah Masoud, Ishmail Khan – and their commanders. (It’s interesting to remember that Abdul Haq was later killed by the Taliban, Masoud was killed by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11, Ishmail Khan still rules in western Afghanistan and Hekmatyar is still a Washington bete noire on the loose.)
From the point of view of Moscow, at least the USSR’s southern frontier was pacified. The special units of General Boris Gromov left behind millions of landmines. But most of all the USSR – and the US – left behind a festering, multi-level guerrilla army divided between seven Sunni parties, based in Pakistan, and eight Shi’ite parties, supported by Iran. The outlook for Kabul was a Saigon scenario or a Beirut scenario. In the end, “Beirut” won: out of this enlarged Lebanese situation emerged the Pakistan Frankenstein – the Taliban.
It’s never enough to stress it: almost every Taliban is a Pashtun but not every Pashtun is a Taliban. The current US and NATO strategy of a war against Pashtun peasants is as pointless as the failed war against the Ba’athists in Iraq. (Almost all Ba’athists were Sunni Arabs, but not every Sunni Arab was a Ba’athist.)
General Gromov, the former commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan – and currently the governor of the Moscow region – did not mince his words “celebrating” the 20th anniversary of the Soviet pull out, on February 15: “I believe that the war was a huge and in many respects irreparable political mistake of the leadership of the Soviet Union at the time.”
Nowadays, Gromov stresses “the Moscow region regularly sends humanitarian aid to Afghanistan”. If Obama placed a call to Gromov he would hear a few sobering words: persist in your “strategy” and you and NATO will be defeated at the “graveyard of empires”.
The freedom fighters return
Unlike standard Obama rhetoric, Afghanistan is not the “central front in the war on terror”. The key to the riddle lies in the middle-echelons of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the army. The ISI “invented” the Taliban – and the middle to upper ranks, as well as some Pashtun army officers, continue to fully support not only the “historic” Taliban of the Mullah Omar group but the neo-Taliban of the Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Sufi Mohammed varieties.
The problem is Washington has no leverage, no credibility and no inside intelligence to conduct a wide-ranging purge of the ISI and the Pakistani army.
And then there’s the problem of endemic Afghan corruption. If you supply 93% of the world’s opium, you are definitely a narco-state. The Taliban may not control the complex web of poppy cultivation – but they profit from its transportation and smuggling.
The Northern Alliance, hegemonic in the Kabul power game, is directly involved, as much as the Pashtun family of President Hamid Karzai. An extra measure of Washington’s puzzlement in Afghanistan is that a new “solution” being floated involves getting rid of Karzai and installing a new asset/puppet dictator.
Obama – even without being familiar with the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater – has got to be clever enough to see the surge per se as a suicidal gambit. The problem is he still seems to believe the war is “winnable”. His latest definition of “winning”, during his short visit to Canada, is “to defeat al-Qaeda” and to make sure the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre is not a “launching pad for attacks against North America”. So, if that is the mission he must acknowledge, the key node is Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
To the detriment of romanticized politics, 9/11 was never organized in a cave in Afghanistan; it was plotted in cells in Germany and Spain by Saudis and Pakistanis, with not a single Afghan among them. All subsequent attacks were planned basically in Western Europe, not in Afghanistan.
For its part, “historic” al-Qaeda today has nothing to do with a terror-oriented Citigroup; it is composed by no more than a few dozen shadowy figures – including Ayman al-Zawahiri – most probably hiding in the Waziristans and the enormous empty spaces of Balochistan.
Obama’s problems are compounded by the fact that he is surrounded by people, such as Pentagon supremo Robert Gates, that remain locked in “war on terror”/Long War mode. Vice President Joe Biden and special envoy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater Richard Holbrooke – not to mention General David “I’m positioning myself for 2012” Petraeus – are certified hawks. They will do everything in their power to steer the conclusions of the Afghanistan strategic policy review Obama is waiting for towards the Long War concept .
For Andrew Bacevich, professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, the last hope for sanity is represented by Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
It’s never enough to stress the Bush “war on terror” framework remains in full effect. Leon Panetta, the Obama nominee as CIA director, said that the CIA will basically continue with extraordinary renditions. Elena Kagan, the Obama nominee for solicitor general, said that indefinite detention without trial still rules – wherever the detainee was captured. And acting Assistant Attorney General Michael Hertz said that detainees in Bagram air base in Afghanistan remain without legal rights. If Obama is serious about closing Guantanamo, he must be serious about closing Bagram.
The two-fold, “Western alliance” strategy at the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, as it stands, consists of the US and NATO occupying the parts of Afghanistan not occupied by the Taliban while Washington bribes Islamabad to let it attack Pashtun peasants inside Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA).
No wonder that after de facto losing a war in Iraq to a bunch of “irregulars” with Kalashnikovs, the Pentagon is now terrified that NATO is about to lose the war in Afghanistan for good, thus proving to the whole world its absolute irrelevancy – and shattering once and for all the shaky pillar of US hegemony over Europe.
NATO is incompetent even at lying. A NATO report in January claimed that “only” 973 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2008, and “only 97” of these by NATO. This month a UN report confirmed that NATO was lying. According to the UN, at least 2,118 Afghan civilians were killed in 2008 – 828 of them by the US or NATO.
Everyone’s talking about US fighter jets and CIA Predator drones raising hell out of three secret Pakistani air bases – with Islamabad’s complicit silence. But nobody talks about the “humint”, or human intelligence, component of the US’s covert war in Afghanistan, conducted by what the New York Times defines, with spectacular hypocrisy, as “military units operating outside the normal chain of command”.
US special forces are part of this deadly mix. A recent UN report identifies these US commandos as the key culprits as far as the killing of Afghan civilians is concerned. Washington happens to identify similar outfits – if they operate under a different banner, or religion – as “terrorists”.
In the case of this new American breed, it’s fair to expect the Pentagon and the Washington establishment to sooner or later start calling them – in a sinister echo of recent Afghan past – “freedom fighters”.