|The National, Abu Dhabi,
January 30, 2009.
Graveyard of analogies by
the Americans destined to
meet the same fate in Afghanistan
as the Russians? Ahmed
that it is not too late
for Washington to make
good on its promises.
On the morning of December
28 1979, I happened to
be shopping in the main
bazaar of the southern
Afghan city of Kandahar.
It was a beautiful, cold,
crisp Afghan winter morning
with a bright sun and an
azure sky, and the bazaar
was a cacophony of noise,
chatter and traffic. Earlier
I had heard unclear accounts
on the BBC World Service
of a coup the night before
in Kabul that deposed President
Hafizullah Amin, and suddenly,
around midmorning, there
arose a deep-throated rumble
that seemed to be emerging
from the bowels of the
earth. Puffs of dust rose
from cracks in the asphalt
and people began to shout
that an earthquake was
Within minutes the entire road was shaking and the rumble had become a roar
that drowned out the shouting. In the distance we spotted a long line of Soviet
tanks, armoured personnel carriers and lorries, clanking their way down the
main road to the shops. The Soviets had crossed the border at Kushka in Soviet
Turkmenistan and driven over 600 kilometres through the city of Herat to arrive
in Kandahar along the very road that Moscow had built in the 1960s.
Every adult Afghan remembers
where he was and what he
was doing when he saw his
first Soviet soldier in
December 1979. For the
Afghans and for those
who have stood by them
through the years of war,
occupation, civil war and
war on terror that followed it
is a moment burnt into
memory, and it is recalled
with precision, like September
11 or, for Americans of
a certain generation, the
death of John F Kennedy.
I remember it all vividly:
the bazaar in Kandahar
abruptly fell silent the
only time I have ever seen
it so. Everything happened
in silence, in slow motion,
a movie advancing frame
by frame. Afghans frozen
in awe held onto their
shopping bags, rooted to
where they stood. Women
in shock lifted their burqas
from their faces to get
a better view.
The first tanks drove nonchalantly into the bazaar and stopped; their hatches
opened and young Soviet soldiers, barely older than teenagers, jumped out carrying
snub-nosed machine guns. Dusty, tired and stiff, they ambled to the nearest
tea stall and ordered cups of piping hot green tea. We watched them in absolute
silence; the Afghan soldiers and police in the bazaar offered no resistance.
Before long there were hundreds of Soviet soldiers flooding the bazaar, and
large crowds of Afghans gathered to stare at them as if they were visitors
from the moon and they might as well have been, as far as the Afghans were
concerned. The country had been invaded by bands of hippies, but no Afghan
had seen an armed foreigner since the British arrived more than a century before.
Decades later, when the American attack on Afghanistan commenced, there were
so few US soldiers on the ground that most Afghans did not see a single American.
Since the first American
bombs fell on Afghanistan
in October 2001, a cottage
industry of doomsayers
has arisen among academics
and journalists, warning
that the US will fail in
the so-called "graveyard
of empires" just as the
As Barack Obama takes office and reiterates his intention to send 30,000
more troops into Afghanistan, such prophecies have returned anew, insisting
that Afghanistan is a cesspool of ungovernable tribes, unscaleable terrain
and unwinnable wars.
But to compare the American and Soviet invasions is misguided, as Gregory Feifer's
brilliant and timely new history of the Soviet war, The Great Gamble, makes
clear: the Soviets had no support inside or outside the country when they blundered
in with their tanks to prop up an unpopular Afghan communist government that
took power by coup.
The Soviet army, badly underfunded and overwhelmed by adverse conditions in
Afghanistan that drained troop morale, relied on massive firepower to kill
and maim Afghans rather than winning their hearts and minds. So long as the
Afghan mujahideen maintained their sanctuaries in Pakistan, where they were
rearmed and funded by the CIA and where they could recruit from among the
vast pool of Afghan refugees the Soviets could not defeat them.
Feifer, a Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio, dug up old Kremlin
documents and met the officers who planned the war and the soldiers who fought
it to construct an intimate portrait of how it was fought and ultimately lost.
He does not compare the Soviet war to the American one, but it is impossible
to read his account without thinking about how the Afghans have reacted to
their new occupiers. For both the Soviets and the Americans tried to remake
Afghanistan in their own image, and both failed to do so but the Americans,
at least, still have a chance to succeed.
While the UN Security Council condemned the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan
annually, the American attack had universal international backing. There was
overwhelming support among Afghans for the overthrow of the Taliban regime,
because it came with the promise that US and the international community would
rebuild the country and better the lives of ordinary Afghans a promise that
kept most Afghans on the side of the US for several years after the invasion.
The fall of the Taliban was followed by the creation of a new interim government
in Afghanistan led by Hamid Karzai, which for a few years, at least enjoyed
the support of a broad majority of Afghans; presidential and parliamentary
elections followed, legitimising the political system now in place.
Nevertheless, eight years after the American invasion the reinvigorated Taliban
insurgency has now reached the gates of Kabul and neither US objectives nor
Afghan hopes have been fulfilled; those who argued in 2001 that Afghanistan
could never be subdued today press their case with renewed confidence. But
these arguments demonstrate a poor understanding of Afghan history: it is true
that the Afghan state was never colonised in the 19th century, but ultimately
it did become a kind of informal protectorate of the British in India.
For nearly two centuries, until the Soviet invasion, the Afghan kings ensured
that they maintained a modicum of ethnic and tribal peace within their realm
and that Afghanistan did not pose a threat to neighbouring states. It is true
that they were never able to build a modern, centralised and powerful state,
but they did create what I would call a "minimalist state" that ensured a degree
of stability, if not development.
With more modest political and social ambitions in Afghanistan and a broad
regional alliance of neighbouring countries who pledge not to interfere in
Afghanistan an aspect of the conflict the Bush administration ignored even
before turning their attention away from Afghanistan toward Iraq the American
experience in Afghanistan need not end like the Soviet one.
The era of Soviet influence in Afghanistan began in the 1950s, when both the
US and USSR waged a Cold-War competition for influence in the country. Both
superpowers built modern roads, dams and power plants, but in the 1960s the
Americans opted out, preferring to bolster neighbouring Pakistan as a regional
linchpin to prevent Soviet expansion southward to the warm waters of the Gulf.
Soviet influence continued, particularly in training and arming the Afghan
army. Officers were taken to the Soviet Union, where they trained and learned
Russian and became supporters of the communist cause.
In April 1978 a coup from within the army toppled the government of President
Mohammed Daud, killing him and his family. Five years earlier Daud had ousted
his cousin, the former King Zahir Shah, and ended the monarchy to establish
a republic that gradually became a dictatorship. The 1978 coup was led by officers
loyal to the small, communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA),
which was divided into two factions: Khalq (The Masses), a largely Pashtun
group with its roots in rural Afghanistan and Parcham (The Flag), made up of
a wider array of more urbane and better educated individuals that included
some Tajiks and Uzbeks. The Khalqi leader Nur Mohammed Taraki, a journalist
and writer, became president, but a bitter internecine war followed.
Taraki quickly ousted the Parchamis from any positions of power, imprisoning,
killing or exiling them setting in motion an endemic power struggle that
was to devour the party from within. Meanwhile young and enthusiastic but untutored
PDPA cadres were sent into the countryside to carry out rapid communist reforms,
in the process committing cardinal social sins in a deeply conservative and
Islamic land. Tribal chiefs and landlords the rural elite objected to the
expropriation of their property and houses in the guise of "land reform" and
provided the initial resistance to communist rule; tribal and clan ties between
the elites and their peasant workers fostered widespread support for the resistance.
Within months Taraki was begging the Soviets to send in forces to save his
regime, arguing that the Afghan army of 90,000 men was rapidly disintegrating.
In a telephone conversation in March 1979 recounted by Feifer, Taraki begged
the Soviet prime minister Alexei Kosygin for help: "I ask you to extend assistance," he
said. "I suggest you place Afghan markings on your tanks and aircraft and no
one will know the difference."
Old, dithering and unable to inspire confidence, Taraki was soon challenged
by his deputy Hafizullah Amin, who a year after the coup jailed Taraki and
then had him smothered to death with a pillow. The bitter infighting within
the PDPA and the growth of the armed resistance posed a fatal threat to the
party's hold on power. The Soviets, who had provided advisers, massive aid
and military equipment to the PDPA, saw their latest satellite state slipping
away or worse still, falling into the hands of the Americans and their Pakistani
allies, who were backing the Afghan mujahideen.
After much haphazard deliberation in the Kremlin by the ageing fogeys of the
Politburo, which Feifer ably narrates, the Soviets decided to invade Afghanistan
on December 12, 1979. Two weeks later, the Soviets killed Amin and replaced
him with Babrak Karmal, the leader of the Parcham faction. Karmal remained
in power for almost seven years, but never recovered from the fact that he
had been hoisted into power on the back of Soviet tanks. The mujahideen multiplied
under America's lavish patronage, and Afghanistan became the front line in
the most confrontational new phase of the Cold War in Asia since Vietnam, as
a belligerent Ronald Reagan demanded nothing less than victory. By 1988, the
Soviets had had enough and Mikhail Gorbachev, facing enormous economic and
social problems within the USSR, moved to withdraw all Soviet troops by 1989,
bringing an ignominious end to a brutal and costly campaign.
A few weeks after September 11, the US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld
sent a group of generals to Moscow to talk to retired senior former Soviet
officers about their experiences in Afghanistan. The Russians told the Americans
not to even try to conquer and occupy the country or rule it; the Afghans were
impossible to govern and the terrain was too hostile for modern armies. Their
unanimous advice was: "Get al Qa'eda and then get out."
As Washington prepared for war, pundits and commentators pointed to the disastrous
Soviet defeat in Afghanistan as a warning; they penned long thinkpieces explaining
that the Afghans had held every invader since Alexander the Great at bay. Ultimately
Rumsfeld and the CIA chief George Tenet gambled and sent some 600 Special Forces
troops and CIA agents, who with sacks full of money and the use of US air power
mobilised the anti-Taliban resistance called the Northern Alliance and won
a quick victory, routing but not defeating the Taliban and al Qa'eda.
Today the Afghan people are still paying the high cost of Rumsfeld's refusal
to put boots on the ground early enough to actually defeat the Taliban and
stabilise major population centres. It was a mistake Rumsfeld would repeat
Subsequent accounts from American forces in Afghanistan suggest they pressed
Washington with demands for more troops to block the retreat of al Qa'eda and
Taliban leaders into Pakistan. But Rumsfeld, already preoccupied with planning
the war in Iraq, was determined not to utilise the forces he was holding in
reserve for the assault on Baghdad; instead the Americans in Afghanistan were
told to co-operate with unreliable warlords, who were paid heavily to block
escape routes. After taking money from the Americans to prevent the escape
of al Qa'eda, they happily accepted more cash from al Qa'eda to ensure safe
The Bush administration did fail but they failed in a very different manner
than the Soviets. Already intent on confronting Saddam Hussein, the Americans
had no strategy for the day after the fall of the Taliban, for the moment when
Afghanistan needed to be stabilised and rebuilt. Between 2001 and 2004 Washington
did not have any comprehensive strategy for rebuilding the country or providing
adequate security to its citizens beyond attempting to capture al Qa'eda fighters.
The renascent Taliban in their Pakistani safe havens were ignored by America
for too long, while the US lavished $12 billion on Pervez Musharraf, who pursued
a dual strategy: going after al Qa'eda, but clandestinely supporting the Taliban.
The American failures in Afghanistan were not foreordained by Afghanistan's
unyielding terrain or fractious tribal politics: they were failures of decision-making
and commitment in an attempt to achieve ambitious goals with minimal resources.
George W Bush, who disdained "nation-building" as he ran for president in 2000,
had no plans to do it in Afghanistan.
The country's battered infrastructure is still badly in need of repair, without
which the Afghan economy cannot function. The economic development that Afghans
eagerly awaited has not materialised. Poorly co-ordinated international aid
payments were squandered on advisers and high overheads, and large chunks of
the promised aid never reached the Afghans. The incompetence and self-dealing
of the aid process was matched by corruption permeating Afghan government,
fuelled further by the booming drugs trade.
The government's writ barely extended beyond Kabul, while the countryside was
controlled by rapacious warlords empowered by the Americans. Rather than rebuilding
state institutions like the army, civil service and justice system, building
up capacity within government ministries and reconstructing the basic infrastructure
required for economic development, the Americans chose the path of least resistance providing
inadequate funds and handing over security in the countryside to the warlords.
The Soviets did have a nation-building strategy: they wanted to turn a conservative,
largely rural, underdeveloped multi-ethnic country into a modern communist
state. They looked to the rapid spread of communism in Eastern Europe as a
model, ignoring the fact that by 1979 communism was failing in those states
and, indeed, in the Soviet Union. So the Soviets built factories in Kabul to
create an Afghan working class that would carry forward the communist revolution,
forcibly carried out land reforms that would give plots to the peasants, pushed
for mass education and equal rights for women, downplayed Islam and brought
thousands of Afghans to the Soviet Union to turn them into Marxist cadres.
But the Soviets still failed, because they had invaded and then occupied Afghanistan
without international or regional support, and without any real base of support
inside the country.
The Afghan communists were a handful of disparate, bickering, even murderous
ideologues whose only aim was to emulate the Motherland of Socialism the
Soviet Union rather than formulate a gradual, slow modernisation of their
country that would be non-communist in tone and not antagonise the religious,
feudal and tribal codes that really mattered to the people. In fact every Soviet
reform antagonised vast sections of the population. Land reform mobilised the
landlords and khans against the regime, while the peasants went hungry as they
had neither the tools nor the cash to invest in their new plots.
The mullahs rejected coeducation and burnt down schools while declaiming the
lack of reverence the Afghan communists showed toward Islam; factories lacked
markets or raw materials. By crudely emulating the Soviet Union as a model
of perfection, the Afghan communists tied a noose around their own necks.
At the same time the Soviet army carried out a hugely destructive scorched
earth policy to defeat the mujahideen. By the time the Soviets withdrew in
1989, 1.5 million Afghans were dead and five million had become refugees in
Pakistan and Iran. The country lay in ruins and its citizens faced a humanitarian
disaster; even the minimalist state that had existed before 1978 had ceased
to exist, paving the way for the even more brutal destruction wrought by the
civil war that brought the Taliban to power.
The vast majority of Afghans perhaps as many as 90 per cent welcomed the
end of the horrors perpetrated by the Taliban regime. Afghan expectations were
enormous: after 23 years of war and loss they hoped their lives would change
for the better, their country would be rebuilt, stability and security would
be ensured, the role of the gun and the warlords would be reduced and their
children would go to school and have health care.
But for Washington, Afghanistan became a holding operation while the real war
moved to Iraq. The Americans did provide sufficient troops to maintain security but
when more troops and aid finally arrived in 2004, the US military continued
to make serious tactical mistakes in its battle against the Taliban insurgency.
Even today, however, many Afghans continue to support the American presence clinging
to the hope that as long as the Americans stay, there is a chance their country
will be rebuilt.
The Soviet army faced an altogether more difficult environment. Deprived of
any kind of legitimacy or moral sanction by the Afghans, they faced a losing
battle from the start. Some 620,000 Soviet soldiers served in Afghanistan during
the 10-year occupation, and 13,833 were killed, according to official numbers
that are almost certainly a fraction of the real tally. Nearly half a million
Soviet soldiers were forced from the battlefield because of wounds or sickness,
and more than 10,000 became invalids.
Compared to the American forces of today, the Soviets ran a Third World army.
Again and again Feifer draws out the horrors of being a Soviet soldier, the
hazing, the buggery and rape, the lack of modern equipment or vehicles, the
shortage of warm clothes, insufficient food and water and the consequent stealing
and petty crime to which most soldiers resorted so they could survive. When
there was food, there was no fuel for cooking it. There was no heating in the
harsh winter months and no air conditioning in the blistering summer. Basic
diseases were rampant. Malaria, dysentery and hepatitis decimated the troops
far more efficiently than mujahideen bullets. There were never enough chlorine
pills to decontaminate water supplies, and the looted sleeping bags of dead
mujahideen became prized possessions among the Soviet forces. Drug taking became
rampant to the point where some Afghan guerrilla commanders made sure that
Soviet outposts were supplied with free cannabis and heroin so that the garrison
was incapacitated. Moonshine vodka was brewed from anything that was available
including fuel oil and plants. Demoralisation was rampant and desertions multiplied.
The Soviets entered Afghanistan employing the tactics they had been trained
to use against a Nato army invading from Europe, and it took at least five
years for them to embrace the tenets of counterinsurgency warfare. They fought
the mujahideen with overwhelming firepower artillery, aerial bombardment,
ad the wanton destruction of houses and villages to deprive the mujahideen
of cover. I saw peaceful villages razed to the ground, with their farmland
salted or mined to prevent anything ever growing there again.
Instead of halting the resistance such atrocities delivered more recruits to
the mujahideen, while the Afghan army shrank from 90,000 men to just over 30,000
in the first year after the Soviet invasion, due to massive desertions, insurrections
against their Soviet officers, appalling conditions and poor logistics.
The mark of a Third World army is that its discipline and command structure
rapidly deteriorates in a crisis, and that is precisely what happened to the
Soviets in Afghanistan. The highly disciplined US commandos who led the Northern
Alliance forces into battle against the Taliban in 2001 faced no such problems,
though later they too suffered from a lack of critical equipment as the war
in Iraq sucked resources out of the country.
American and Nato forces have also employed excess firepower, in order to make
up for the lack of manpower, and errant aerial bombings have killed thousands
of civilians and elicited harsh criticism from Karzai. But the counterinsurgency
strategies introduced in Iraq and quickly imported into the Afghan theatre
have yielded some positive results, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams
deployed in all of the country's 34 provinces small groups of US or Nato
soldiers aided by civilians who carried out small reconstruction projects as
well as train Afghan army and police have had modest successes.
But the Americans still face the same problem the Soviets found insurmountable:
the safe havens available to militants across the border in Pakistan. In the
1980s the Pakistanis reaped the benefits of becoming a front-line state in
the Cold War, harvesting billions of dollars in aid while acting as the conduit
for Western money and arms secretly funnelled to the mujahideen through Islamabad.
Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) virtually ran the war,
distributing Western largesse to the Afghans, planning battles and campaigns
and recruiting and training fighters. Through the 1990s Pakistan supported
a series of Pashtun warlords, eventually putting their considerable weight
behind the Taliban, whose leaders along with thousands of their followers
and the remnants of al Qa'eda fled to Pakistan and have remained there ever
Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw US troops from Iraq while stepping up
the American commitment in Afghanistan. He has yet to fully flesh out the policy
he will pursue, but seems to understand that what is required is a "comprehensive
surge" that goes beyond new troops and new tactics to increase and coordinate
development and reconstruction, provide security to the Afghan people and embark
on a diplomatic initiative to bring Afghanistan's multiple meddling neighbours
together to stabilise the country and end the sanctuary the Taliban still enjoy
in Pakistan. Obama has appointed a special envoy to the region, the seasoned
senior diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and has begun to get tough with the Karzai
government over corruption and the drugs trade.
The Bush administration lacked an overarching strategy for Afghanistan and
its neighbours, and Obama does not want to repeat that mistake. He has already
announced orders to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and he will soon make
a historic speech in a Muslim capital, where he is likely to repudiate Bush's "global
war on terror" and announce a policy of talking to militant groups, including
the Taliban, while continuing the pursuit of global jihadists. Bush left regional
diplomacy largely in the hands of the Pentagon, while Obama will restore the
role of the State Department. Several senior administration officials have
acknowledged that they cannot "shoot their way to victory" in Afghanistan.
In the interim, however, the situation in Pakistan has worsened substantially,
with the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, heightened post-Mumbai tensions with
India, an insurgency in Balochistan and grave rifts between the elected government
and the powerful army. Ironically it may be the case that Afghanistan poses
less of a challenge: the Taliban, although feared, are still intensely disliked,
and the country can be stabilised with a massive infusion of money and troops
alongside proper strategies for reconstruction and the rebuilding of state
Ultimately Feifer's book reminds us that it is not impossible to rebuild Afghanistan
as a secure and stable state. The Soviets failed because they tried to apply
a model that had nothing to do with the nature and traditions of the Afghan
people. The Americans have also failed, mostly because they have refused to
dedicate resources sufficient to win hearts and minds and defeat Taliban forces.
It is still not too late for the Americans to reverse course: the majority
of the Afghan population has no desire to return to Taliban rule. What gains
the Taliban have made can be attributed to fear and intimidation and the
inability of the Kabul government to provide security and economic development.
Many of the Taliban are fighting for local grievances and it will be worthwhile
for the Americans and the Afghan government to engage these commanders and
soldiers in dialogue with offers of amnesty. Afghanistan is indeed winnable and
it will be won not by military force alone but by giving the Afghan people
what they were promised after September 11: a new life.
Ahmed Rashid is the author of Taliban and Jihad. His most recent book
is Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost
in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.He lives in Lahore, Pakistan.