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
Afghanistanthe desecration of corpses, Quran burning, a killing spreeit 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
While the official explanations for the tensions between Washington and Moscow were ideological in
naturecapitalism versus communismthe 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 powerbecoming
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 personbin Ladenwho 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 strategyperhaps 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 increaseddue to foreign military presence, same as beforeand 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 preserveand 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.
| Home |