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The Faraway War

Both coups depended upon military units whose leaders had been exposed to Soviet political indoctrination during military training courses and therefore had, if not become Communists, at least been inspired to revolutionary dissatisfaction with their homeland’s status quo. More broadly, the coups involved a political movement that had been fostered, aided and even, when differences between feuding factions were papered over in 1977, steered by direct or indirect Soviet tactics. The Soviet Union had provided encouragement for the ideological impatience with successive Afghan regimes that exploded into the coups….

The foreground is less certain. Knowledge of what was going on is the minimum assumption that should be made about Soviet responsibility. If Soviet officials had really wanted Afghanistan to maintain the nonaligned position to which they paid public tribute, rather than having it turn to a Soviet bloc embrace, they might have warned endangered governments of danger and also tamped down or discouraged the leftist sources of danger…. But the Soviet Union had no motive in 1973 or 1978 for helping governments that were drifting away from policies it preferred; it had motives for wanting their replacement.

The Soviet advance, Bradsher argues, “was not a revival of the old imperialistic march toward warm water ports. The Soviet Union does have motives for wanting to expand its power toward the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, but [the invasion of] Afghanistan in 1979 was not immediately pertinent to any strategic plan. A more likely motive was the age-old tendency for any powerful nation to seek the territorial limits of its power, to seek to fix a secure and stable frontier.” And in this connection he produces a remarkable quotation from a Russian foreign minister of the last century, which perfectly expresses the dynamic of imperialism in every age:

The interests of security on the frontier, and of commercial relations, compel the more civilized state to exercise a certain ascendancy over neighbors whose turbulence and nomadic instincts render them difficult to live with…. The state…must abandon the incessant struggle and deliver its frontier over to disorder, which renders property, security and civilization impossible; or it must plunge into the depths of savage countries, where the difficulties and sacrifices to which it is exposed increase with each step in advance…. The greatest difficulty is in knowing where to stop.

In the nineteenth century the Russian advance was stopped, with some help from British diplomacy, at the Amu-Dar’ya (Oxus) river. In the same period the British advance was stopped, mainly by Afghan resistance, at the Durand line. The British also compelled Persia to withdraw from Herat, and so Afghanistan was preserved in all its savagery. The irony is that in the present century it caused more problems to Britain, and to Britain’s successor on the northwest frontier, Pakistan, than it did to the Soviet Union. The division of the Pathan people by the Durand line, creating the issue of “Pushtunistan,” caused more instability than the division of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkomans by the Amu-Dar’ya river. Afghanistan did, it is true, provide asylum for central Asian Muslims fleeing from Bolshevik rule in the 1920s and 1930s, but it seems to have done little actively to foment unrest in central Asia. Under Stalin’s rule, central Asia was ruthlessly and successfully pacified.

It was only after Afghan communists of the faction led by Nur Mohammed Tarakki and Hafizullah Amin seized power in Afghanistan in 1978 that the country’s “turbulence” began to make it “difficult to live with” for its northern neighbor. Even then it is by no means certain that fear of trouble spilling over into central Asia was the main reason for the Soviet intervention. Had it been, it seems hardly likely that the Kremlin would have sent in, as it did, an initial invasion force which was 40 percent central Asian Muslims.

More plausible motives are, first, the fear that Hafizullah Amin’s harsh social policies, by pitting communism against Islam, would prevent the Soviet Union from exploiting anti-Western Islamic movements in Iran and elsewhere, and/or, second, the fear that Amin would soon provoke a counterrevolution which, in a country that had officially “chosen socialism,” would contradict Soviet ideology and strike a devastating blow to the prestige of the communist system both at home and abroad.

If such were the considerations that brought the Russians into Afghanistan, it makes it all the more difficult for them to get out, unless or until they can create conditions in Afghanistan that would enable communists to stay in power there without their help—a task in which, by all accounts, they have so far made very little progress. It is hard to find anyone, left or right, Afghan or foreigner, who believes that Amin’s successor Babrak Karmal could stay in power for five minutes once Soviet troops were withdrawn.

Accordingly, both reporters who have visited the resistance and analysts of the Soviet system such as Bradsher and Hammond are highly skeptical about current efforts by the United Nations to achieve a solution through indirect negotiations between Pakistan and the Karmal regime. Yet the Pakistan government is evidently taking these negotiations seriously, though without prejudging their outcome. The government has insisted that it will not sign an agreement with Karmal himself, but has reportedly indicated that it would do so with a different communist leader of Afghanistan, provided that the agreement includes a firm timetable for Soviet withdrawal—accepted, of course, by the Soviet Union itself.

The main dissenting voice from the chorus of Western skepticism about this procedure is that of Selig S. Harrison, an experienced and respected analyst of south Asian affairs now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In a series of carefully argued articles and speeches, Harrison has put the case for a “Finland” solution for Afghanistan, suggesting that the Soviet Union may be persuaded to withdraw if, as in Finland, it can obtain guarantees that future Afghan governments will be respectful of its interests and refrain both from allying with powers it considers hostile and from providing any kind of platform or base for Soviet dissidents.

This would be in essence a return to the pre-1978 status quo. If they look at the situation objectively, Soviet political leaders may well consider that they were better off with Afghanistan as it was then than as it is now. That does not mean, however, that they would necessarily be happy to put the clock back. There are several good reasons, indeed, why they would be unlikely to do so.

In a historicist ideology such as Marxism-Leninism the notion of putting the clock back is in itself unacceptable, particularly if it involves reversing the dialectic and reverting from a more highly developed social system to a less developed one—e.g., going backward from socialism to a capitalist or feudal mode of production. The odd thing about this, however, is that Soviet ideological pronouncements seem to suggest it has already happened. The “Saur Revolution” of April 1978, hailed at the time as socialist, has now been downgraded to a “national democratic” revolution—something that happens within the capitalist system and that, while it creates opportunities for socialist transformation, is not in itself immune to setbacks. But Afghanistan is still “on the road to socialism”—behind the countries of the Soviet bloc, but ahead of Nicaragua, Angola, and Ethiopia. It is not a road on which one easily turns back.

The investment of Soviet resources—material and above all moral—in Afghanistan is by now very considerable. A retreat leaving anything but a communist government in power will accordingly be very difficult to disguise as other than a humiliating defeat, very damaging to the external prestige and perhaps even to the internal authority of the Soviet system. It can reasonably be assumed that the Soviet leadership would pay a very high price to avoid this, probably much higher than the present level of hostilities involves.

Within the Soviet system itself, the prestige of the armed forces must to some extent now be at stake in Afghanistan; and, like other armies involved in other local wars, the Red Army must value the opportunity it has gained both for testing new weapons and for giving its troops, of which more than 100,000 are reportedly deployed in Afghanistan, combat experience. Accordingly it can be assumed that military leaders will throw their weight against withdrawal in any discussion within the Soviet leadership—and most analysts believe the influence of the military in Moscow has been growing in recent years.

Finally, even if they want to put the clock back, Soviet leaders may well doubt whether it is feasible. It is not certain that a stable nonaligned government can now be re-created in Afghanistan. As in any liberation war, experience has tended to make the population and the political leadership more radical, strengthening hostility to Soviet influence. Some “fundamentalist” groups would almost certainly continue to struggle against whatever regime came to power as a party to a negotiated settlement, and this would make the durability of the settlement hard to guarantee.

Such considerations lead analysts like Bradsher and Hammond to very pessimistic conclusions. “Although one naturally admires the rebels and cheers their victories,” writes Hammond, “it is difficult to see how they can win in the long run.” And Bradsher concludes: “It is difficult to foresee a level of expense at which the costs would outweigh Soviet apprehension of abandoning Afghanistan.” In spite of this, both argue in favor of aid from the noncommunist world to “those in Afghanistan who chose to fight.” “It was not for outsiders to make a determination that the cause was hopeless, that greater resistance would only cause greater suffering for the Afghan people. So long as they asked for support against Soviet imperialism, it should be given” (Bradsher). “We should do this not only because we admire these brave people but also because it serves our own interests. The longer the Soviets have to fight in Afghanistan, the harder it will be for them to cause trouble elsewhere” (Hammond). The latter argument is known as the “bleeder” school of thought, because it involves sacrificing Afghans to bleed the Soviet Union rather than for their own good. That sounds unethical but, as Bradsher says, if the Afghans are not worried about it, perhaps it is not for us to be.

Some aid clearly is reaching the resistance from Western, including US, sources, mainly in the form of weapons of Soviet origin—which makes it harder to distinguish from what is captured, or brought in by defectors, from the Afghan army. It is hardly surprising that resistance leaders are reluctant to acknowledge this aid, and regard it as insufficient. No doubt more could be done, especially in the field of training, for at present not all the resistance troops are making the best use of the equipment they do have. Some, indeed, seem to regard the possession of weapons as the object of the war rather than the means of waging it.

But the main difficulty about giving aid on a larger scale, which could in time become a difficulty about giving it at all, is that it requires a degree of cooperation or connivance from Pakistan: and Pakistanis know very well the dangers of being the base country for a guerrilla struggle. If it comes to a choice between being Jordan and being Lebanon, they will prefer to be Jordan. So far the Russians have not forced the choice upon them: Soviet policy for the moment appears to be to contain the Afghan conflict rather than to escalate it. But if the resistance continues to grow stronger, that policy may become untenable.

Resistance leaders are clearly aware of the importance of continued Pakistani support. But if they are to ensure it there are two aspects of the Palestinian experience which they should perhaps consider. One is the danger of being too closely identified with one party in an internal conflict in the host country. It may seem unavoidable for the Afghan resistance to side with President Zia, just as in 1975 it seemed unavoidable for the Palestinians to side with the left in Lebanon, in view of the hostility they encountered in the opposite camp. But the Palestinians might have done better to concentrate on looking for ways of overcoming the hostility of the Lebanese right, and similarly it might be a good idea for the Afghans to start a discreet dialogue with Zia’s opponents, with a view to convincing them that preventing an outright Soviet victory in Afghanistan is in the Pakistani national interest and not (as they tend at present to think) a device for keeping Zia in power. Those in the West and in the Arab world who genuinely want to help Afghanistan could assist in this process by making their support for Zia less unconditional and showing more interest in the aspirations of the peoples of Pakistan. At the moment, by identifying the defense of the “free world” with that of Zia’s unpopular military dictatorship, we are inciting many Pakistanis to the grotesque error of looking to Soviet influence as an agent of liberation.

Secondly, given the obvious Pakistani interest in a peaceful settlement, the Afghans should be careful not to let it appear that their own intransigence (or lack of realism) is the main obstacle to one. Their skepticism about Soviet willingness to withdraw is, for the reasons given above, almost certainly justified. As things stand, the Soviet aim in negotiating is, probably, to wean Pakistan away from the Afghan cause rather than genuinely to prepare the way for withdrawal. But precisely to reduce the risk of that strategy succeeding, the resistance groups should make it known that they will not be the obstacle to any agreement that does provide for Soviet withdrawal, since that after all is the primary and unifying objective of the resistance itself.

Clearly the Afghans do not share the defeatism of Bradsher and Hammond. They know less than these authors about what has happened to central Asia, Outer Mongolia, Eastern Europe. But they know more about their own society and what is happening to it. None of the works reviewed here can match the comprehensive knowledge of the French scholar Olivier Roy, who has traveled extensively in Afghanistan both before and since the invasion and speaks Persian fluently. His report on his latest journey, which took him to the Hazarajat, in the very center of the country, gives us the fullest picture yet available of this most elusive and confusing war, and his shrewdly balanced conclusion is probably the nearest we can get to certainty about it at this stage:6

Afghanistan’s traditional role as an outwork in the Russian defense system, the constant policy of integrating the country with the USSR, and the terminology the Soviet use…all this leaves little doubt about their determination not to withdraw. In that sense, the fuss made about the Geneva negotiations is pointless. But the stubbornness of the Afghan resistance, its dynamism, both political and military, and the gut rejection of the Soviet system by the entire population, show clearly that Afghanistan will be in a different category from Turkestan, Mongolia and Poland. The empire is expanding, but the more it expands the more fragile it becomes. In spite of all those who would like to close the file, we have not heard the last of Afghanistan yet.

  1. 6

    Le Monde, November 15, 16, and 17, 1983.

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