The Return of ‘The Runaway General’

Life and Fate

by Vasily Grossman
New York Review Books, 905 pp., $24.95 (paper)
Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama and General Stanley McChrystal at the White House, May 2009

When Soviet forces began to pull out of Afghanistan in 1988 they were leaving behind a mixed group of Afghan forces, much as the Americans will be leaving behind a mixed group when they complete their pullout in 2014.

First, there was the president of the pro-Soviet Republic of Afghanistan, a Communist-turned-Afghan-nationalist strongman named Mohammad Najibullah, whom the CIA thought could survive only a few weeks once the Soviets left. In fact, his regime would last until 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the money and supplies it had been providing the Afghan government stopped. There were also many local militias led by warlords created by Soviet Special Forces and the KGB, as well as rival ethnic groups, drug lords, and a Pakistan-based opposition collectively called the Mujahideen. This group, which hoped to topple the Communist regime, was riven by deep factionalism and overt interference by the CIA and Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI), which the Communist government in Kabul used to its advantage by playing divide and rule among the Mujahideen’s various components. There were also large numbers of urban Afghans who supported Najibullah and who had benefited from Soviet rule.

The Afghan government had little control of the countryside outside the major cities. Afghanistan had been left in a state of near chaos by the widespread corruption in the country fueled by drug trafficking, an army and economy totally dependent on Soviet aid, and advisers facing increasing interference by Afghanistan’s neighbors—such as Iran and Pakistan—and by the Mujahideen in safe havens in Pakistan.

This may sound all too familiar. Still, there is an important difference between Afghanistan in 1992 and Afghanistan today. Unlike the Americans, before they left the Soviets (and their protégé Najibullah) had tried hard to carry out a political reconciliation process not only with the Mujahideen leaders and field commanders but also with their backers, the United States and Pakistan. Though their attempts at political reconciliation did not succeed, the Soviets’ contact with Afghan commanders allowed the Red Army to withdraw with few casualties in just nine months because Afghan commanders had agreed not to fire on departing Soviet soldiers. The US withdrawal will in comparison be carried out in stages and ultimately take two years and be very bloody.

Najibullah’s political strategy was based on Afghan nationalism. It included introducing a new constitution, a multiparty system, and an Islamic legal system. His army held on for three years defending all the major cities against the Mujahideen until the collapse of the Soviet Union stopped aid and money supplies. Meanwhile, the United Nations, having organized the five-year-long negotiations that led to the Soviet withdrawal, did not give up. The UN envoys Diego Cordovez and later Benon Sevan continued actively to try to lay the groundwork for an…

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