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Afghanistan: The Devastation of a Virtual Country

[Self-published, March 23, 2012. Permission granted to repost.]

In view of the recent string of tensions and controversies surrounding US-NATO operations in Afghanistan—the desecration of corpses, Quran burning, a killing spree—it is worth reviewing the big historical picture. When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says "war is hell," of course, he is right. But as is usually the case, war and conflict are created, preventable events, with hell being an anticipated and acceptable corollary for policy architects.

The Cold War dynamic

After World War II, European and American leaders and planners finally learned an elementary lesson: confrontations between powerful, industrial states are best managed in a "low-intensity" manner. They should be carried out in a contrived atmosphere of antagonism among Third World proxies. In other words, it was determined that the best way to avoid the near self-immolation of earlier years was to export armed conflict.

During the Cold War, the US-Soviet contest was conducted in an array of locales spanning the globe. The Kremlin generally preferred to operate within its immediate periphery, in the interest of maintaining a defensive buffer in the event of future European cataclysm. Policymakers in Washington, on the other hand, sought to establish ascendancy well beyond those areas in the US periphery.

While the official explanations for the tensions between Washington and Moscow were ideological in nature—capitalism versus communism—the standard scholarship on the Cold War consistently indicates that the early postwar experience had to do principally with expansionism, and more so on the part of Washington. Yet, the official reasons provided a ready justification for foreign adventures, regardless of the realities. The United States would very much go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy" (disregarding John Quincy Adams's cautionary advice) and do so with its hand having been forced by the Kremlin and its alleged Third World disciples. Excessive talk of "national security" should always strain credulity.

The actual reasons were based on a simple, programmatic interest in projection of power and securement of global economic advantage, with Soviet Russia's state ideology being merely a pretext. As George F. Kennan, a key US policy architect, stated in a lecture at the Naval War College in 1949, the United States should not "get too violently indignant over the fact that such a complication [as communism] exists." He then related, "As one of my associates recently said: 'If it had never existed, we would have had to invent it, to create the sense of urgency we need to bring us to the point of decisive action.'"

So it was that the United States wielded economic and military power throughout the world, save for the areas bordering Russia, where it was agreed the Soviets would operate uninterruptedly. Among the list of places subjected to "decisive action" were the Middle East and, even more problematical to the Cold War gentleman's agreement between Moscow and Washington: Central Asia.

The Central Asian dynamic

Between the Middle East and East Asia, US and Soviet geo-strategic interests literally overlapped, a situation that was bound to occur given the post-1945 arrangement. The United States, in its pursuit of influence in the Middle East, predictably took interest in Central Asia, including Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Looking at a map, as well as through the Cold War prism, it is perhaps understandable that Moscow would take a measure of interest in the region itself, not to mention US machinations alongside and within it.

In the early years of the Cold War, Afghanistan was "non-aligned," basically maintaining a balance in its relations with Washington and Moscow. But in the mid-1960s, progressive, leftist groups began to take root in Afghanistan, an increasing trend in Third World nations looking to modernize and develop full independence in the postcolonial era. The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) emerged, seeking broad reform and a departure from the country's monarchical era. In 1978, the PDPA took control of Kabul, the country's capital, in what became called the April Revolution.

The new government cultivated closer relations with the Soviets; but apart from being socialist in viewpoint, the goal was not to become a Soviet satellite. Regardless, the situation offered Moscow increased influence, and therefore greater perceived security along its southern flank. The White House, however, was underwhelmed, specifically President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The hawkish Brzezinski adopted the usual Cold War hysteria and hypothesized that the Kremlin would use its newly acquired puppet regime in Afghanistan (as the PDPA was generally viewed in Washington) as a gateway to the Arabian Sea, conquering all in its path.

Owing to divisions within the PDPA, along with tribal uprisings and increasing Islamist dissent and revolt across the country, the future of the Afghan government was soon in jeopardy. (The Islamism factor was part of a larger development taking place throughout the Middle East and in particular Iran, where in 1979 the US-supported shah was ousted and Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power—becoming an official US enemy and starting a narrative that is even now in play, absurdly.)

On account of its myriad problems, the leadership in Kabul appealed to Moscow for military support. Watching the situation very closely, and growing increasingly concerned, the Soviets were nevertheless hesitant, for rational reasons that would eventually and unfortunately come to pass. But logic notwithstanding, the fears held by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the inner circle of the Politburo won the day. Among these fears were Islamic militancy spreading to Russia's southern boundary, and Washington looking for a replacement client now that Iran had undergone its Islamic revolution. Rational or not, they hardly warranted mobilization.

Invasion, insurgency, civil war....

In December 1979, the Soviets commenced their invasion of Afghanistan, and got their "Vietnam" that Brzezinski and company eagerly sought to help create for them. In fact, the eagerness among Carter's advisers was so sharp that covert aid to the resistance fighters, called the mujahedin, was authorized by the White House in July 1979, six months prior to the Soviets even entering the country. As Brzezinski stated later in a 1998 interview (quoted in John Cooley, Unholy Wars): "We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we consciously increased the probability that they would do so." The statement's lack of clarity is only outweighed by its depravity.

Over the entirety of the Russian occupation (1979-89) the Soviets lost approximately 15,000 of their own, while roughly one million Afghans were dead. Lasting until 1992, the successor leadership of Mohammed Najibullah, from within the PDPA's ranks, maintained power under remote Soviet support. Even after withdrawal, the United States continued to supply the mujahedin in an attempt to undermine the regime, a point well emphasized in Jonathan Steele's superb Ghosts of Afghanistan. By this time, Soviet Russia was now under Mikhail Gorbachev and on the verge of collapse, and pulled its funding from Najibullah. In a surreal unfolding of history, as a mujahedin-based government was replacing Najibullah, Moscow offered its acknowledgment of the new Islamic regime.

Between 1992 and 1996, Afghanistan convulsed in a vicious civil war, with various mujahedin militias vying for power. During this time, an Afghan religious-study group called the Taliban formed in the refugee camps in Pakistan. Led by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban eventually moved into the southern provinces of Afghanistan, and by 1996 had taken Kabul and formed the new government.

Also at this time, al-Qaida, who in the 1980s were part of the Arab anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan, had entered the picture. However, Osama bin Laden and his organization, and Mullah Omar and his organization had very little in common. The former was pursuing a global agenda of terrorism, while the latter was a local movement focused on implementing law and order (as they defined it) in Afghanistan. The two never had much to do with one another.

The Bush II administration's decision to invade Afghanistan after 9/11 was just that, a decision. Simply put, someone had to pay for what had happened. The Bush White House, at the time, did not have direct evidence al-Qaida was responsible for the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. It also did not possess a UN Security Council mandate to attack Afghanistan, nor authority to do so under the UN charter (not even Article 51). Furthermore, 9/11 was not the work of a state actor, but instead an organization.

In essence, Operation Enduring Freedom was unleashed because of one person—bin Laden—who quickly went from less to unimportant owing to Bush-Cheney intrigue in the wholly unrelated subject of Iraq. Beyond abstract talk of fighting terror and nation building, there was never a plan going into Afghanistan. Toppling the Taliban served merely as easy proof that objectives were being met, that something was being accomplished.

Having campaigned on a promise to focus on Afghanistan, President Obama entered office with little to nothing in the way of a strategy—perhaps unsurprisingly given the project and how it was started. Bob Woodward's account of Obama's first National Security Council meeting on the subject is telling. In Woodward's book Obama's Wars, he summarizes: "The ultimate strategy [for Afghanistan, which they did not have] must explain the logic for adding more troops and show how the fight would be carried out going forward." Naturally, the plan should always conform to its implementation.

Tragedy and farce

Four years later, there is little to show that is positive. Quite similar to its Soviet experience, the country has been further demolished and sent backwards culturally, politically, economically. The insurgency has only increased—due to foreign military presence, same as before—and a new generation of Afghans have grown up amidst guerilla warfare.

As the Soviet chief of the General Staff said during the Red Army's operations there, "After seven years in Afghanistan, there is not one square kilometer left untouched by a boot of a Soviet soldier. But as soon as they leave a place, the enemy returns and restores it all back the way it used to be" (quoted in Steele, Ghosts). When we compare the officer's observation with a headline that appeared in the American parody newspaper the Onion (March 7, 2011), one hovers somewhere between laughter and tears: "U.S. forces take over key Afghan city that will be retaken by Taliban when Marines leave."

Following long years of British hegemony and stagnant monarchical rule, Afghanistan in the 1960s was on the verge of moving forward. Though the PDPA was factionally unstable and dominated by its worst elements, it was a start. A new vocabulary was being introduced. But Soviet influence and operations helped destroy what Moscow was initially, if superficially, looking to preserve—and a client no less. Instead, an insurgency was fomented, the country devastated, and the conditions for a savage civil war created.

Into the bargain, US manipulation during and after the Soviet occupation supported the most reactionary groups and gave a large boost to Islamic militancy there and elsewhere, the repercussions of which would find their way to New York and Washington, DC. The Taliban, a byproduct of the mujahedin civil war that owed much to US-Soviet intervention, have now been the declared cause for yet another decade-long situation where a superpower tries to decide simultaneously what it's doing and how and when it's going to exit.

And what the United States is likely to leave behind is a country only in name: one that could have been, one that could be, but in actual fact is not.

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© MMXII Gregory Harms