Soviet academicians (and their Tsarist predecessors) specializing in Central Asia were close students of the disastrous Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century. Nor could Soviet leaders forget the basmachi (bandit) rebellion, as they called it, led by Muslim nationalists in Central Asia from 1918 onwards against the new Soviet authority. The guerrilla resistance was fierce, fearless and brutal, accompanied by tribal punishments: enemy testicles were often filleted and pocketed. The rebellion lasted for over a decade. An independent-minded Kirghiz intelligentsia, that otherwise might have been won en bloc to modernization, was treated with suspicion by Moscow: later deported, imprisoned, killed and replaced with loyal apparatchiks. The rebellion left an abiding memory in literature and later, the less-gifted Soviet film directors mimicked Hollywood Westerns with the basmachi taking the place of the Indians. Red Army officers sent to ‘pacify’ the locals shuddered when they recalled the conflict. Despite all this the new generations born in the Central Asian Republics of the USSR received the same education as the rest of the country, similar social welfare systems and were modernized on the Soviet pattern with all its shortcomings and advantages. Women, in particular, benefited greatly.
Knowing all this, what possessed the Politburo of old men in Moscow, which had first, repeatedly and unanimously, rejected the option, to succumb to the siren voices in Kabul and send in the specially-created Soviet 40th Army to occupy Afghanistan in December 1979? Opinions varied. The United States and its allies, taken by surprise, unanimously condemned the intervention as a violation of Afghan sovereignty. Those were days when the independence (however nominal) of states outside the Yalta system played an important part in cold war debates. Western ideologues of the woodenheaded variety saw the move as part of a grand Soviet design to gain access to warm-water ports. A majority of the Non-Aligned movement and China denounced the intervention, speaking respectively of ‘great-power chauvinism’ and Soviet ‘social-imperialism’. Braithwaite argues convincingly that it was neither.
Illusions of every sort accompanied what was soon to become a bitter and brutal war, a disaster on virtually every level. If the invasion of Prague in August 1968 was the first nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union (Solzhenitsyn later wrote that it was this disaster that finally convinced him that the system could not be reformed), the attempt, two decades later, to pacify Afghanistan would be the last. Soviet troops were forced to pull out in 1989: two years later, the country itself had ceased to exist. A visionless gerontocracy had ruled the Soviet Union for far too long and virtually ensured that this would happen anyway. The fall-out from Afghanistan merely speeded the process.
Rodric Braithwaite, a highly—respected Foreign Office mandarin, Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1988-92) and author of two previous books on that country, was in Moscow when Soviet troops crossed the Oxus/Amu Darya. He has produced a fascinating account of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, based almost exclusively on Russian sources: interviews with participants, careful monitoring of the websites of individual veterans and their organisations and access to some of the old archives, if not those of the GRU or the KGB, most of which remain sealed. Each page reads like a warning to the current occupiers of the country. Artemy Kalinovsky, an LSE academic attached to the department of cold war studies has utilized the same archives in Moscow and, as a result, the two books complement each other.
Braithwaite expressed his public opposition to the Iraq war and his disgust at the atmosphere of fear created by New Labour propaganda in two devastating critiques published by the Financial Times. The tone was that of cold anger. His stance encouraged many refuseniks still working in the Foreign Office during the Iraq war. Subsequently the outfit underwent a political cleansing. Afgantsy is written in a very different register to the FT commentaries. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan—reluctant, confused, semi-coherent—is viewed as a terrible tragedy for both the Russians (his affection for the country and its people manifest throughout the book) and the Afghans, who hate being occupied. Braithwaite writes of Soviet soldiers lacking in knowledge and experience, short on training dispatched across the historic river to shore up a failing regime that Moscow never wanted in the first place.
The principal aim of Soviet foreign policy since Lenin’s time was to preserve Afghanistan as a neutral state. Even if offered a choice of instituting a social transformation from above, the founder of the Soviet Union was too orthodox a Marxist to believe that tribals and shepherds could make a sudden leap forward to socialism and had mocked all such notions: ‘Herdsmen can’t be transformed into a proletarian mass’.
His successors, likewise, were not at all pleased when, in 1973, a royal cousin, Daud, toppled King Zahir Shah in a palace coup and proclaimed a Republic. Moscow had enjoyed warm relations with the King, a genial old buffer who presided over the tribal confederation that constituted the Afghan state. As Braithwaite documents, the Soviet leaders were even less pleased when a few years later in April 1978 a group of Communist officers in the Army and Air Force organized a coup, together with a few supportive demonstrations in Kabul—ninety percent of Afghans lived in the countryside—and tagged these events as a revolution. Parcham (Flag) and Khalq (People) two rival communist factions, consisting largely of university graduates, urban intellectuals, and several dozen officers and their fellow clansmen in the armed services, had in July 1977 but with great reluctance, united their forces in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a misnomer except for the name of the country. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Khalqi, was appointed the General Secretary, with Babrak Karmal (Parcham) as his deputy. Hafizullah Amin, another leading Khalqi was elected to the Politburo but only after a struggle. His Parcham opponents claimed he was a CIA agent, recruited during his spell as a student at Colombia University.
Accusations of this sort, without any basis whatsoever, were not uncommon on the South Asian Left to discredit political opponents and were usually ignored. Amin’s response, however, was not an outright denial. According to Braithwaite (referencing a Russian work based on Afghan transcripts of the meeting) Amin replied ‘that he was short of money and that he had been merely stringing the CIA along.’ Heard that one before? Whatever the real truth, it should be acknowledged that in the two years that followed, no in-house CIA agent could have done a better job than Amin in isolating and destroying the Afghan Left and effectively offering the country on a platter to the enemies of light. The PDPA claimed a joint membership of 15,000. Parcham, the orthodox pro-Soviet group with 1500 members was in a permanent minority. Both figures were exaggerations and even the narrow base of political support in Kabul evaporated rapidly, forcing the Khalq leaders to rely increasingly on tribal cronyism inside the army, while its Parcham rivals depended on support from the Soviet Embassy.
The KGB preferred Parcham; the GRU [Soviet Military Intelligence] had direct relations and accordingly more confidence in the Khalq, which controlled the military. One of the self-serving myths peddled by PDPA apologists was that the regime was popular and had it not been for Western support to the mujahideen, the PDPA would have held on with the aid of Soviet troops, consolidated power and modernized the country. It’s a farcical notion as this book reveals. Braithwaite is sympathetic to the Soviet developmental model—mainly on the health and housing fronts and education, especially that of women– and contrasts it favourably to subsequent Anglo-American efforts in the region and elsewhere.
The country in which two Communist groupuscules had seized power was one of the most backward in the world. Its antiquated social structure harked back many centuries. The Pashtun tribes dominated the landscape and each unit maintained a semi-sovereignty over its territory, especially land, water and grazing grounds; but common property had long disappeared and the khans or chiefs had become landowners, employing clansmen as tenant farmers and others as virtual serfs. Each tribe had its own band of armed men. Land ownership created a huge gulf between the khans and the peasant-serfs. Of the country’s surface area of 63 million hectares only one-seventh was arable and a shortage of water prevented crop rotation throughout the year.
A king ruled this confederacy of tribes, but till the late 1930’s, monarchs were regularly assassinated or exiled after revolts within their camp or tribal rebellions. A previous attempt to modernize the country by King Amanullah (1919-29) had failed. Amanullah favoured a secular state on the Turkish pattern. His draft Constitution envisaged an elected lower chamber on the basis of universal adult franchise (had this happened Afghan women might have got the vote before most of their counterparts in Western Europe and North America), a co-educational education system, regular free elections; import substitution through the creation of light industries, re-organisation of the tax structure, formation of a National bank and the development of roads and a communications network. This was not to be. British political agents organized a tribal revolt against the reforms and their progenitor. Amanullah and Soraya, his pro-feminist consort, went into exile in 1929 on the Italian Riviera and died there in 1960.
Had the PDPA simply revived this programme in 1978 together with rationally considered land reforms, they might have won more support, but their Khalqi leaders, in particular, were fantasists. Hafizullah Amin boasted that they were going to teach the Russians the meaning of Revolution: ‘ … after our great revolution the toilers should know that there does exist a short-cut from the feudal class to the working class and our revolution proved it.’ The proposed land reforms were intended to leap from landlordism to collectivization, without any mediating force in the countryside. It was lunacy. The peasants were scared to act on their own and the landed proprietors denounced the communist as atheists and infidels. Amin’s statement that ‘98 percent support the reforms, only 2 percent oppose them’ and his pledge to physically exterminate the two percent did not go down well in a region dominated by clans.
The more experienced Soviet leaders, Yuri Andropov (head of the KGB) and veteran foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, were contemptuous of any notion that what had taken place in Kabul was a revolution. Andropov, in particular, excelled his contemporaries in the sharpness of his intellect and an instinctive and instantaneous ability to understand causes and their consequences. His experience as Soviet Ambassador in Hungary during the 1956 uprising had scarred him, but he had learnt a few lessons. Backed by Gromyko, Kosygin and defence minister Ustinov, he correctly analysed the changes in Kabul. It was a coup d’état, carried out in a hurry by a relatively small Communist faction embedded in the Armed Forces. Unlike the South Yemeni revolution of the same period it had limited mass support. That was a huge problem. Sending in the Red Army would be totally counterproductive.
The Afghan leaders, faced with an army mutiny in Herat and expressions of discontent elsewhere, kept up the pressure for ground troops. Moscow’s first response was forceful. Yuri Andropov was particularly sharp and warned the Politburo that given the character of the Afghan regime, Soviet troops, if sent in, would appear as aggressors and would be compelled from the very start to fight the ordinary people. He was strongly backed by the Prime Minister Kosygin and the Defence Minister General Ustinov. Kosygin on the phone to Taraki in Kabul, Braithwaite informs us, ‘naively argued from Marxist first principles’ by suggesting that the Kabul regime, ‘should arm the workers, the petty-bourgeoisie and the white-collars workers in Herat. They should emulate the Iranians, who had thrown out the Americans with no outside help. Could the Afghan government not raise, say, fifty thousand students, peasants and workers in Kabul and arm them with the weapon supplied by Moscow.’ I don’t think this was so much an expression of naivete as a polite way of pointing out that the regime lacked a social base. A bemused Taraki, failing to detect the irony, responded by pointing out that even in Kabul the workers constituted a tiny minority, thus confirming that the vulgarised Marxist categories employed by his propaganda ministry, were useless, a crude device to shield themselves from reality. The Kosygin-Taraki exchange lay at the heart of the problem: A regime without support at home dependent for its survival on the arrival of military support of an outside power. Kosygin might have pointed out the example of Cuba. Despite an ill-fated invasion, numerous attempts to bump off Castro and an economic blockade (partially neutralized by Soviet economic aid), the United States had failed to institute regime change on an off-shore island with 2 million inhabitants. The reasons were obvious. It was a real revolution. It maintained mass support.
The PDPA’s lack of a social base was a huge problem, which could not be surmounted. The attempt to transcend this reality by imposing a repressive regime on the people could only make the situation worse. When Politburo member Kryuchkov visited Kabul in early 1979 for an on-the-spot survey he was horrified to hear Taraki boasting that in a few years the mosques would be empty. There were more political prisoners and executions in the first two years of PDPA rule than in the preceding fifty years of the country’s history. When Puzanov, the Soviet Ambassador, protested the scale of the repression to Amin, he was told that they were merely following the example of the early Soviet Union. Had not comrade Stalin’s purges and forced collectivisations created the foundations of a strong state? The problem, according to the Afghan leaders, was the unwillingness of the Soviet Union to commit ground troops and defend ‘the revolution’.
Having failed to convince the Russians, the Afghan communists now turned on each other. It was this brutal settling of factional and inter-factional scores within the party that ultimately provoked the Soviet intervention. The dominant Khalq faction led by Noor Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin purged their Parcham rivals from the government and three cabinet ministers sought refuge in the Soviet Embassy. They were hidden in containers, taken to the Bagram air base and flown out of the country. Braithewaite reports that their leader, Babrak Karmal, was regarded by the Russians as ‘emotional, inclined to abstraction to the detriment of concrete analysis’, but invaders can never be choosers. They have to make do with the human material on offer (or bring their own baggage). The Parcham leadership was put in mothballs till it was needed, which was sooner than anyone had thought.
Amin decided to get rid of Taraki and organized a classic Stalinist pretext to do so: a fake assassination attempt on his own life, in which one of his bodyguards was killed, which he then blamed on Taraki. Kalinovsky, whose book in most other respects confirms much of what Braithwaite has written, differs on this crucial episode. He speculates that Amin was indeed the intended victim, but produces not a shred of evidence. Everything suggests the opposite. The power-hungry Amin, whose Pol Pot tendencies were never hidden, wanted total control. He imagined that his grip on the army was sufficient to ensure his elevation and would be accepted by the Russians as a fait accompli. His troops surrounded the Presidential palace and arrested Taraki. In Moscow the old men were annoyed but, as Amin had calculated, prepared to accept the new leader. Amin now made a deadly mistake. He proceeded to organize Taraki’s murder. Three intelligence officers from the Presidential guard were deputed to kill and bury the leader they had sworn to protect.
“Taraki was in his dressing gown when the three men came for him”, writes Braithwaite. “Lieutenant Ruzi said, ‘We’ve come to take you to another place.’ Taraki gave him some money and jewellery to pass on to his wife … The party went downstairs to another small room, in which there was a dilapidated bed. Taraki handed over his party card and his watch, which he asked should be given to Amin. Ruzi told Eqbal to bind Taraki’s hands with a sheet and ordered Taraki to lie down on his bed. Taraki did so without protest … Ruzi then covered Taraki’s head with a pillow and when he removed it Taraki was dead. The whole business lasted fifteen minutes. Not bothering with the cotton shroud, they rolled Taraki’s body in a blanket and took him in their Land Rover to the cemetery, where they buried him. They were in tears when they reported back to (their boss) Jandad.” Next morning, the Kabul Times reported the sudden and tragic death of ‘a genius, a great and much-loved leader’ but nobody was deceived.
It was this event that triggered the Soviet intervention. Moscow, in the person of the General Secretary, had promised to protect Taraki. Brezhnev was livid. ‘What a bastard, Amin, to murder the man with whom he made the revolution,’ he said to Andropov, conveniently forgetting the early history of his own country. ‘Who will now believe my promises, if my promises of protection are shown to be no more than empty words’. Andropov, head of the KGB, and till now the staunchest opponent of intervention was shaken by the failure of the KGB to predict and preempt the killing of Taraki. He changed his mind on intervention. Amin had to be removed at all costs to limit the damage. The stage was now set for the direct entry of Soviet troops, after a lengthy discussion that had lasted well over a year and is carefully documented in both books.
For its part, the military high command was still not convinced of the need to replace Amin. The senior most Soviet military advisor in Kabul, General Gorelov, described him as ‘a man of strong will, a very hard worker, an exceptional organiser and a self-proclaimed friend of the Soviet Union. He was, it was true, cunning, deceitful, and ruthlessly repressive’ but they could still do business with him. Few agreed with this assessment. The KGB in particular were convinced that Amin, a man who could not work with people on his own side, was unsuitable because he was incapable of creating a popular coalition that could resist the mujahideen. The Parcham leaders were more likely to do so and in any case they could be fine-tuned by their Soviet advisors. Nobody seemed to have realized that it was already too late. The horrendous goings-on in Kabul had alienated most of the country.
Braithwaite and Kalinovsky explain in gory detail how the intervention turned out to be a military and political disaster. Even with the tame Parcham back in power, the Russians could not prevent the revenge victimizations of Khalq cadres. Many of them were purged, others imprisoned and some killed. Babrak Karmal, the new President, explained that they were merely punishing those who had carried out the repression against ‘innocent’ Afghans but the method chosen was neither transparent nor convincing. This Communist faction, too, found it difficult to garner support from those caught in the middle of the conflict.
The Soviet 40th army had been created in conditions of maximum secrecy to fight in Afghanistan. A bulk of the recruits were drawn from the poor in town and countryside, a quarter from ‘broken families’ and none from the children of the party-bureaucracy-military elite. Braithwaite quotes the military historian, General Krivoshev suggesting ironically that perhaps the time had come to reinstitute ‘the old romantic name of the armed forces—The Workers and Peasants Red Army.’ This hurriedly assembled, but well-stocked strike force was faced with an impossible task.
‘Never before in the history of the Soviet armed forces,’ remarked its last commanding officer, General Gromov, ‘had an army had its own air force. It was particularly well supplied with special forces units—eight battalions in all, alongside the highly trained air assault and reconnaissance units.’ But it had never had to confront a counter-insurgency in a foreign country against the will of a large majority of its people. When compelled to do so it resorted to the time-honored tactics utilized by occupying armies—Napoleon during the Peninsular War, the Americans in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—as outlined by Churchill. Interestingly, the fear that Soviet soldiers from Central Asian Muslim backgrounds would desert in droves to the enemy was disproved on the battlefields. There were relative few desertions and not confined to Central Asians.
The Afghan guerrillas—‘freedom-fighters’ in the Western lexicon at that time—were brutal. So were the Washington-requested ‘international brigades’ despatched by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria and which included the late Osama bin Laden. Before killing them, the Afghans tortured, mutilated and, occasionally, skinned alive the Russians they captured. Braithwaite details a particularly horrific incident in Kunar province (where American soldiers were ambushed a few years ago) where the mujahideen surprised a Russian group. Several soldiers committed suicide rather than surrender. The others were disemboweled and burnt alive. The sole survivor never recovered his sanity. The 40th responded in kind. A veteran wrote:
The thirst for blood … is a terrible desire. It’s so strong you can’t resist it. I saw for myself how the battalion opened a hail of fire on a group that was descending towards our column. And they were OUR (Afghan) soldiers, a detachment from the reconnaissance company who had been guarding us on the flank. They were only two hundred metres away and we were 90 percent sure they were our people. And nevertheless—the thirst for blood, the desire to kill at all costs. Dozens of times I saw with my own eyes how the new recruits would shout and cry with joy after killing their first Afghan, pointing in the direction of the dead man, clapping one another on the back, and firing off a whole magazine into the corpse “just to make sure”… Not everyone can master this feeling, this instinct, and stifle the monster in his soul.’
Another soldier, Vanya Kosogovski from Odessa, described how, after lobbing a grenade in a village house, he went in to inspect the results. He’d killed an old woman and a few children. A younger woman and other children were still moving. He shot them dead, hurling another grenade afterwards, just to make sure.
There were no illusions in Moscow on any front. The late Yuri Andropov’s fears had all been justified. They knew the war was going badly wrong and was unwinnable; that the US and its allies were, via Pakistan’s ISI, arming the mujahideen with the latest weaponry, including the deadly Stinger missiles (which soon became black market bestsellers in Pakistan) to down helicopters. Above all they were aware that their own people running the government in Kabul were mostly useless. They began to discuss an exit strategy.
In April 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the First Secretary of the CPSU and the new leader of the country. As Kalinovsky points out, it took three years before Gorbachev could even circulate a letter within the CPSU in which the Soviet leader confided to party members that ‘by the beginning of May 1988, we lost 13,310 troops [dead] in Afghanistan; 35,478 Soviet officers and soldiers were wounded, many of whom became disabled; 301 are missing in action … Afghan losses, naturally, were much heavier, including the losses among the civilian population.’ In December 1989 the 40th Army left Afghanistan, humbled and defeated in its mission. General Gromov, ever a drama queen, was the last Soviet soldier to march across the bridge and return to his country. Many Afghans, encouraged to bid a fond farewell for the cameras by showering the departing troops with flowers were disobliging; some pelted the soldiers with dried camel dung. They left behind a Parcham government with the former KHAD (Afghan secret police) chief, Najibullah as President in Kabul, a city and regime besieged from within and without.
Some months prior to the departure of the 40th Army, Yevgeni Primakov had met with senior figures from the Pakistan Foreign Office and suggested that it was in everybody’s interests to put a national coalition government in place. If Pakistan attempted a take-over its writ could not extend beyond the Pashtun region. If nothing was done, warned the Soviet leader, Najibullah would fall but the mujahideen would be at each other’s throats before too long. These views were conveyed to Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, but rejected on the advice of the United States.
Kabul had been dented, but had survived foreign occupations. During the early 90’s it would be destroyed by an intra-mujahideen civil war in which the warring factions gave no quarter to each other or the people who lived in the city. Chaos enveloped the country, with rival tribal combinations controlling different cities. Each of them joined the battle for Kabul like stray dogs fighting over an upturned, flea-ridden cadaver. Who were these mujahideen leaders? Where had they sprung from? They were a mirror-image of the divided Left, whose leaders they knew well and against whom they had fought over political space in Kabul University during the Sixties, when the cities functioned normally. It was the ferment within the tiny student movement that produced both Communists and Islamists. The latter insisting that Islam was a complete code of life that covered all aspects of modernity and the former holding up the Soviet Union and/or China as models to be emulated. The clash of ideas led fifteen years later to a clash of arms.
The Afghan Jamaat-i-Islami was founded by Burhannudin Rabbani (a student of theology and specializing in Islamic Law) in 1968 and concentrated its activities on winning cadres and defeating the Left on the campus. It won over Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a sharp-tongued student from the Engineering faculty. A nimble operator, like Amin, he wanted his own outfit. He split on spurious grounds from the parent group and set up the Hizb-e-Islam, with support from Islamabad. Five years after the Soviet withdrawal, Rabbani had became the President of the country with Ahmed Shah Masood, a charismatic Tajik guerrilla leader from the North and the one most respected by the Russians, as his defense minister. Two years later, Hekmatyar, now a highly-regarded asset of Pakistan’s ISI, linked up with a former pro-Soviet warlord, General Dostum and tried to dislodge his old rivals from power. Over a single year (1994), 25,000 people died in Kabul and half the city was reduced to dust. A new wave of refuges began to pour into Pakistan, destabilizing the country’s already fragile social structure.
The Bhutto government, nervous by the growing activities of the Afghan jihadis in Pakistan, decided to arm and train the madrassah matriculates (children of the Afghan refugees who had fled the country in the 80s) back them with armour and Pakistani ‘volunteers’ and take the country. It was the most successful operation in the history of the Pakistan Army. The Taliban took Kabul and ended the disorder by imposing a clerical dictatorship on the country: women in burqas, thieves amputated, rapists executed, poppy fields destroyed, etc. Gradually Mullah Omar’s government acquired autonomy from its patrons in Islamabad and was engaged in friendly negotiations with US oil companies. Their Wahhabi connections proved fatal. The rest we know.
How do the Russians view the Americans in Afghanistan, apart from the obvious schadenfreude? Kalinovsky quotes a NYT op-ed of January 2010, written jointly by General Gromov (currently Governor of the Moscow region) and Dmitri Rogozin, (Moscow’s ambassador in NATO) in which they express strong neo-con-like reservations about a premature withdrawal that will give radical Islam a huge boost. They pledge support: ‘We are utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at NATO headquarters, be it under the cover of a ‘humanitarian pacifism’ or pragmatism.’ Not a word about the suffering of the Afghans. Braithwaite reveals how, on another front, the wheel has come full circle. The flourishing market in arms and mercenaries has resulted in a grotesque synthesis in Afghanistan. A Moscow-based commercial company, Vertical-T, is supplying Russian Mi-8 helicopters and experienced pilots to help NATO in Afghanistan: ‘When one of these helicopters was shot down in 2008, the Russian Ambassador in Kabul contacted the Taliban for the return of the bodies. ‘You mean they were Russians?’ said the Taliban. ‘We thought they were Americans, Of course you can have them back.’ With or without their balls?
in Comment & Debate,London Review of Books, News June 8, 2011