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The Faraway War

Report from Afghanistan

by Gérard Chaliand, translated by Tamar Jacoby
Viking/Penguin, 112 pp., $13.95; $4.95 (paper)

In Afghanistan: An American Odyssey

by Jere Van Dyk
Coward-McCann, 253 pp., $18.95

A Hitch or Two in Afghanistan: A Journey behind Russian Lines

by Nigel Ryan
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 210 pp., £8.95

Behind Russian Lines: An Afghan Journal

by Sandy Gall
Sidgwick & Jackson, 194 pp., £8.95

Afghanistan and the Soviet Union

by Henry S. Bradsher
Duke University Press, 324 pp., $32.50; $12.75 (paper)

Red Flag over Afghanistan: The Communist Coup, the Soviet Invasion and Their Consequences

by Thomas T. Hammond
Westview Press, 300 pp., $25.00; $10.95 (paper)

Four years have passed since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and we in the West still do not seem to know what to think about it, let alone what to do about it. For most of us it is still, as Czechoslovakia was for Chamberlain in 1938, “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” In fact the Afghans are a great deal further away than the Czechs, both geographically and culturally; so our excuse for knowing nothing about them is somewhat better. But at least the Westerner who wants to know something about Afghanistan now has quite a lot to read.

Four of the books reviewed here are the work of Westerners who have been in Afghanistan, escorted by resistance fighters, since the Soviet invasion. Of these only Gérard Chaliand does not dwell on the physical hardships involved in the enterprise. No doubt he was hardened by his previous extensive experience of reporting guerrilla warfare in various continents. Jere Van Dyk, an athlete of international standard, became seriously footsore. Ryan and Gall, middle-aged television executives, used, in Ryan’s words, to a “soft urban lifestyle,” suffered agonies of privation and fatigue. William Branigin, who made the same journey a year later for The Washington Post, refers to part of it as “a nightmare that made me curse my editors, the entire newspaper business and my own folly for ever having accepted [the] assignment.”1 The trip, he writes, “made me painfully aware of a major reason for the relatively paltry international coverage of Afghanistan: the difficulty of gaining access to the country.”2

All credit, then, to those reporters who have made the trip, at the cost of great physical discomfort and considerable physical risk. Their reports make it that much more difficult for us to forget all about Afghanistan. They give the people there faces and names, reminding us that what is at stake is not simply a remote but potentially strategic space on the board of the Great Game. And each year so far they have brought the important news that the war is still going on, and that the Russians are not winning it.

Chronologically, the first of these authors in the field was Gérard Chaliand, who made two trips in 1980. But his book has a misleading title. It contains very little eyewitness reporting and is really more in the nature of a short essay. Whereas his successors have been content to give us an account of their own raw experience, Chaliand uses his experience to help him assess and analyze information from other sources, seeking to place the Afghan war in a global setting—both in the sense of its geopolitical significance and in the sense of comparing it to other guerrilla or liberation wars in other parts of the world. He summarizes his conclusion about the Afghan resistance as follows: “It is an extremely popular movement that has arisen spontaneously among many different kinds of people with varying motives,” but “in its leadership organization, coordination, and strategy, the Afghan movement is one of the weakest liberation struggles in the world today.”

Jere Van Dyk went in the fall of 1981, making two separate but immediately consecutive trips to different parts of the country: first to Paktia province, south of Kabul, with one of the socalled fundamentalist Islamic groups; then to Kandahar, much further south and west, this time with a “tribal” resistance group. The second experience was particularly valuable, both because he was able to witness a large-scale battle on the edges of Kandahar city (making it clear that resistance is by no means confined to the countryside) and because the “tribal” resistance is much less well known in the outside world than are the various fronts and parties that have their headquarters in the Pakistani town of Peshawar.

Sandy Gall and Nigel Ryan, old friends and big names in British commercial television, went together in late summer 1982 on an expedition to the Panjshir valley, northeast of Kabul, where the local resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Massud, was at the age of twenty-eight already something of a legend. On meeting him they felt themselves, as many others have, “in the presence of a man with a quite exceptional talent for leadership.” Ryan writes:

To the Russians, Massud was officially a “bandit” to be wiped out; but they had not been able to do it. By other standards he was a smalltime leader of a minority sect in a remote and puzzling country. Just then he was the absolute monarch of the 80,000 people in the Panjsher and had an almost mesmeric power over them; and besides them a growing adherence from over three and a half million Tajiks, a quarter of the nation, in other areas of the north-east.

From Massud’s elder brother Yahya, Ryan learned something of the leader’s biography: son of a soldier and of a mother who, most unusually for a woman in her position in Afghanistan at the time, had taught herself to read and write, Massud was a student at Kabul University in the early 1970s during the rise of the Afghan left. Rejecting Marxism, he chose the rival brand of student radicalism which the West has come to call “fundamentalist,” though the French word islamiste conveys it better—its essence being the adoption of Islam as an ideology and a sociopolitical project rather than its mere acceptance as a tradition.3

From Kabul Massud moved back to his birthplace in the Panjshir. Working on behalf of the Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic society), a predominantly Tajik fundamentalist party, he staged a coup in the valley, designed to coincide with a rising elsewhere by another fundamentalist party, the Hizb-i Islami, which is predominantly Pathan.4 By the account that Massud himself gave to Ryan, the coup failed because “the Pathans had changed their mind at the last minute.” Massud fled to Pakistan and somehow obtained training in guerrilla warfare, returning to the Panjshir valley after the communists came to power in Kabul in 1978.

Then in his mid-twenties, and starting out with less than fifty men, he built up a force of 1,000 or so in the Panjsher, taking care that everywhere he went he used locally recruited manpower and local organizations. Paradoxically, the result was to earn him what so few Afghan leaders in the past had earned: adherence in regions outside his own, as well as a nationwide reputation.

Ryan and Gall witnessed the second of three major Soviet offensives in 1982 against the Panjshir in which somehow, despite their enormous superiority in firepower, the Russians were unable to prevail. Early in 1983, in perhaps the most surprising development of the war so far, they pulled back to the entrance of the valley and negotiated a truce with Massud, which took effect in mid-March. The imposition of a truce on his followers is one of the severest tests of his leadership a guerrilla commander can face, and Massud appears to have passed it. In September 1983 William Branigin of The Washington Post found that “his writ appears to be spreading well beyond his Panjshir Valley.” 5

Branigin, whose series of seven articles in The Washington Post (October 16-22) is a model of foreign reporting and certainly deserves to be published as a book or pamphlet on its own, speculates on the Soviet motives for accepting the truce. They may have calculated, he says, “that it would further split the resistance and discredit Massoud.” If so, they were partially correct. Relations between him and the Hizb-i Islami group were already so bad that it may not have made much difference in this respect, but other groups too—and even the headquarters of Jamiat-e Islami in Peshawar—were, at least initally, confused and demoralized by reports of the truce, which Massud himself made the mistake of trying to keep secret. It may also be true that the truce freed Soviet forces to attack the resistance elsewhere, but if the Russians thought it would keep the Panjshir guerrillas out of action they were evidently wrong:

That was not the way Massoud chose to interpret the agreement. While observing the cease-fire in the Panjshir, he has sent his fighters outside the valley to attack communist targets and help other guerrilla commanders. During my visit, teams of 50 to 100 men were sent to ambush convoys at the Salang Pass [the crucial link between Kabul and the Soviet Union] to the west and to attack positions in Badakhshan and Parwan provinces to the north and south.

According to Massoud’s aides, at least 500 Panjshir guerrillas currently are operating outside the valley, and more are being sent.

The truce, which took effect in mid-March, was for six months. Massud told Branigin he would like it renewed “for the time being,” but “there were indications that he is under some pressure from the guerrilla commanders under him to break the cease-fire,” while he himself “said he has received word from informants inside the Afghan government that the Soviets are preparing a new attack.” (In 1982 Ryan had been impressed by the accuracy of Massud’s advance intelligence about Soviet and Afghan army attacks.) The truce, Branigin writes, “is now at an end”—though how exactly it came to an end is not clear, since Branigin had by then left the country.

All these reporters have in common a lack of specialist knowledge of Afghanistan. Although Van Dyk and Gall had made brief visits there before the Soviet invasion, and Branigin immediately after it, none had lived there for any length of time, or had more than a smattering of any of its languages, or had made a special study of its society and culture. The same is true of Thomas T. Hammond, author of Red Flag over Afghanistan, who is “an authority on Communist coups” rather than on Afghanistan as such. Henry S. Bradsher, author of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, worked in Kabul as an Associated Press correspondent in the early 1960s and visited the country again for the Washington Star in the 1970s, but is primarily a specialist in Soviet affairs. Neither writer has used sources in Persian, other than radio broadcasts made available in translation by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service—though both have drawn on the expertise of the leading American scholar on Afghanistan, Professor Louis Dupree.

As a general history of the process by which Afghanistan came to find itself under Soviet occupation, Bradsher’s book is unlikely to be bettered. It is painstakingly thorough, clearly expounded, and eminently sane. Bradsher shows how the US, by refusing or ignoring Afghan requests for military and economic aid in the 1940s and 1950s, virtually obliged the country to rely on Soviet help, to a point where, by 1973, even a modest attempt to improve relations with its pro-Western neighbors “had an automatic but unfortunate connotation of moving away from Soviet influence.” He weighs very carefully the evidence for direct Soviet involvement in the coups of 1973 and 1978, and refrains from forcing out of it a more positive conclusion than it will sustain:

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. 1

    The Washington Post, October 17, 1983.

  2. 2

    The Washington Post, October 16, 1983.

  3. 3

    See Olivier Roy, “La question de ‘l’idéologie’ Islamique,” in L’Islam en Afghanistan, supplement to no. 12-13 of Les Nouvelles d’Afghanistan (Paris), March 1983.

  4. 4

    The Tajiks, a Persian-speaking ethnic group, comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the Afghan population, grouped mainly in the northeast. The Pathans, who speak Pushtun, make up 40 percent, mainly in the south, and are traditionally the dominant group, having provided the dynasty which unified the country—although, confusingly, Persian was the official language used at court. (The word “Afghan” is actually the Persian for “Pathan.”)

  5. 5

    The Washington Post, October 18, 1983.

  6. 6

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

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