We’ve Forgotten How the Soviets Brutalized Afghanistan

The New Ledger
By Joshua Stanton
Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Nothing is so toxic to good analysis as a bad analogy. Now that Afghanistan looks to be a difficult place to fight after all, opponents of our war effort against the Taliban are grasping at a particularly inapt and offensive analogy — that of the Soviet Union’s invasion thirty years ago today. Much of the analysis that compares the Soviet invasion to our own wears the drag of things it is not, most especially a sincere interest in, or compassion for, the people of Afghanistan. Ironically, no one with enough regard for the Afghan people to know anything about Soviet atrocities against them then would draw that analogy now.

Afghanistan became a matter of intense interest to me after the Soviet invasion, and that interest was personified in 1984 when a local church sponsored a small number of Afghan refugee families to immigrate to my home town. One of them was Alif, who remains my friend to this day, and who arrived at my high school speaking no English as a former child soldier with the anti-Soviet guerrillas in a ruthless war that did not recognize civilians. This friendship led to too much scouring of newspapers and magazines for scarce scraps of news from my friend’s homeland, and too many hours trying to pick up scratchy short-wave broadcasts from the sunset years of the old BBC’s stodgy glory as a source of objective news.

Like five million of his countrymen — a staggering one-third of Afghanistan’s pre-war population — Alif and his family were forced out of their homeland by the Soviet invasion. In the fall of 1984, around the time I first met Alif, Soviet troops entered the town of Istalef, near the Salang road that connected Kabul to the Soviet border like a slender jugular. Like nearly all of Afghanistan’s countryside by then, Istalef, a town once known for its orchards, was under the control of one or more bands of Afghan mujaheddin. I cannot state with certainly why the Soviets chose to destroy Istalef, but the desire to terrorize the civilian population seems as likely a guess as any other. The sole epitaph for the unknowable numbers of dead consists of these two sentences in an old issue of the Department of State Bulletin:

In late October during a Soviet/ Afghan operation in the Shomali, at least half of the historic town of Istalef was leveled by aerial bombardment and artillery shellings in reprisal for Soviet losses in the area. Civilian casualties totaled several hundred women and children were bayoneted and village elders shot.

A just world would remember Istalef like it remembers Guernica, but because our world is not just, I have carried the name of Istalef in my memory since the time it was destroyed, thinking perhaps that I might write a better epitaph one day. And this was just one incident among many like it in 1984, the fourth full year of the Soviet Union’s ten-year war against Afghanistan:

A disturbing trend has been the increasing use of reprisal attacks in response to mujahidin successes. The level of violence against the civilian population by Soviet firepower has reached new heights. Attacks against Soviet convoys have led to the destruction of nearby villages, cultivated fields and orchards, and the execution of male inhabitants. In July, Soviet forces excuted 20-30 elders in the provincial capital of Ghazni in reprisal for the deaths of several Soviet personnel. In October, following a series of hit-and-run attacks on convoys outside Qandahar, reprisals were launched against villages n the area resulting in significant destruction and the deaths of some 100 civilians.

In the Shomali region, the sustained bombing of villages has created virtual free-fire zones along the highway. The vineyards and orchards of what was once the showcase of Afghan agriculture have suffered irreparable damage from repeated Soviet attacks.

What happened at Istalef and so many other places like it was not the result of “collateral damage” or errant bombs, but of a deliberate policy. In an interview for a televised documentary, Col. Vladimir Kotsuchenka, who commanded a squadron of Mi-24 “Hind” gunships in Afghanistan, recalled,

“We were told that we had free hunting — that we should go and shoot any people not using official roads. But it wasn’t right. What if a man in the desert is just moving to the nearest village?”

No one will ever know how many Afghans the Soviet bombs, bayonets, and butterfly mines killed, but most estimates vary between one to two million. As a percentage of Afghanistan’s pre-war population, the higher estimate compares to the mortality the Soviet Union itself suffered during World War II. Soviet “tactics” successfully depopulated large parts of the country. U.N. Special Rapporteur Felix Ermacora concluded that this was a matter of deliberate Soviet policy and called it “migratory genocide.” The Soviets used chemical weapons, destroyed villages and irrigation systems, carpet-combed whole sections of the cities of Herat and Kandahar, and seeded the country with millions of land mines, some of them disguised as toys. Soviet mines are still killing and maiming people to this day, and large areas of arable land are still out of production because of them. Much of the challenge we face in Afghanistan today lies in undoing the reversible portions of the horror wrought by the Soviets — a horror that Mikhail Gorbachev initially escalated and eventually abandoned. New restrictions on our own rules of engagement in Afghanistan reflect Afghans’ enduring resentment the Soviet terror-bombing campaign.

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It is fashionable now to recite lists of failed foreign invasions of Afghanistan. When Americans do this, they always mention Alexander the Great, but they never talk about the hippies. Back in the 70’s, Afghanistan had a reputation for being a friendly, peaceful, laid-back place to get better and cheaper drugs or go skiing (and hopefully not both).

One thing that Afghanistan has never been, and which it should not aspire to be soon, is a unitary state. Its tribal, ethic, linguistic, and sectarian differences wouldn’t tolerate it, nor would the tribal leaders who control the countryside, and who stand to lose too much from radical social change.

Some have tried, of course. A succession of bloody-minded Soviet-leaning politicians tried to reset Afghanistan’s tribal character, starting with Mohammad Daoud, who overthrew his cousin the king in 1973. And so it went: Daoud was a Pushtun nationalist who sought Soviet support to “modernize” Afghanistan and agitate for control of the Pushtun parts of Pakistan; Nur Taraki, who killed Daoud and his family in 1978, wanted to herd Afghans into Maoist collectives; another Maoist, Hafizullah Amin, killed Taraki because he thought Taraki was trying to kill him (he probably was). By 1979, the Afghan countryside was in revolt and Soviet advisors were being killed in the restive cities. The Soviets invaded on December 27, 1979 and installed Babrak Karmal, the leader of a competing Communist faction, who was himself replaced by the Soviets in 1986, by the head of the Afghan Secret Police, Najibullah. So much for any pretense of a popular mandate. Najibullah spent much of his time during those years giving his personal attention to affairs of state at the infamous Pol-e-Charki Prison, where 27,000 bodies — so far — have been found in mass graves dating back to that era. Many criticisms can be leveled at the imperfectly elected Hamid Karzai, but thankfully for us and for Afghanistan, he is no Najibullah.

Afghanistan wasn’t known for its religious fundamentalism before the Soviets invaded, and the mujaheddin commanders who rose against the Soviets varied from the tolerant and western-oriented (the legendary French-speaking Ahmad Shah Massoud, murdered by al-Qaeda on September 10, 2001; Abdul Haq, killed by the Taliban later that year; and Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s current defense minister), to the moderate (Ismail Khan, who fought the Soviets and the Taliban in Herat), to the fundamentalist (Yunnus Khalis), to the extremist (Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar). Over time, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia channeled most American and foreign aid and weapons to the more fundamentalist commanders, and eventually, built and backed the Taliban to overthrow the feuding mujaheddin factions after the Soviets and their Afghan puppets were defeated.

Afghanistan still grows dope, and it still isn’t a unitary state. Its government today is criticized for tolerating warlordism and dope-growing, as if it it had a choice. But Afghanistan has always been a loose confederation of tribes, and with many of them deprived of other means to survive (see above) they’ve turned to growing poppies, which happen to be grow well in dry places. I don’t excuse this, but I can understand it: put yourself in the place of people who can either grow poppies or starve on principle. Darwin tends to favor corruption in those circumstances. At present, enough of Afghanistan’s network of tribal truces is holding that most of the fighting is happening in the south and east, while the north, west, and center are relatively (but not completely) secure. That’s a vast improvement over the state the Soviets found themselves in: virtually every tribe aligned against them, virtually all of the countryside in mujaheddin hands, and most of their soldiers stoned all the time anyway.

There is no quick formula for socially engineering the order of Singapore from a fragmented and brutalized place gone feral (as Michael Yon puts it). If that were possible, someone else would have done it, and Osama Bin Laden would never have found a haven there.

Afghanistan will only change when it’s secure enough for the tribal regions to re-grow their orchards and rebuild their irrigation systems, and for industry to take hold and grow in the cities. The cities will then draw off young, unemployed men, who will take root in new neighborhoods. At first, those neighborhoods will be slums, and the new residents will earn a pittance for wages, but they will be removed from their tribal villages to the proximity of other men — and their daughters — from other tribes. The process of economic and social integration will take generations, but eventually, it can result in some kind of national assimilation and a gradual reduction in the influence of tribes. The central government will be enriched by this, too, as long as it maintains good relations with the tribal leaders (or, if you insist, warlords) until it’s strong enough to assert its writ in the mountains. Our function is to secure the population sufficiently for that process to begin and build some momentum. Without having either been to or served in Afghanistan, I will state with confidence that it this will not happen by 2011. The process may not advance significantly for 20 years, though that will not mean 20 years of heavy casualties. Most of the hard fighting will be within the next 5 years. We can win that fight and buy ourselves the time Afghanistan needs because fundamentally, the Afghan people despise the Taliban.

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I am not an expert on Afghanistan, nor do I possess any qualification to speak about it other than my own contemporaneous study of events much of the world ignored then, despite their great consequence. One commonly overlooked consequence is the role of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in catalyzing the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, something for which history owes the people of Afghanistan a great debt.

This, too, has been lost in all of the strained analysis and bad analogies that have sought to switch our national consensus from calling Afghanistan a war of necessity to the graveyard of all empires (ours especially) in the eyeblink of a presidential transition. Some opponents of the war are understandably overawed by the task at hand, which is fair enough, though they still fail to answer for the consequence of failure there. For others, Afghanistan is becoming what Iraq refuses to become — the next object of potential consummation to those who pleasure themselves to images of the fall of Saigon.

The inescapable fact for opponents of our effort in Afghanistan is that people based and trained there attacked and killed 3,000 Americans on our own soil, a fact that’s stark enough for me to leave the question of the war’s necessity for another time. Time and thought are better spent on how to fight and win. To that end, neither migratory genocide nor a punitive expedition can prevent the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies from reestablishing their control of Afghanistan. Any end state that leaves Afghanistan in chaos (see 1993) means al Qaeda will dominate enough of Afghanistan to claim victory, impunity, and an incalculable psychological boost in the Muslim world. We can’t prevent that without plenty of nation rebuilding.

2 thoughts on “We’ve Forgotten How the Soviets Brutalized Afghanistan

    1. Смешно
      Интересно, когда это Дауд был пуштунским националистом, не зная языка пушту? Смешно, да и только. Попытки модернизировать Афганистан за счет Советского Союза были мерой вынужденной, поскольку США поддерживали Пакистан.
      Хекматьяр и Ахмад-шах Масуд еще в студенческие годы участвовали в различных тайных исламских организациях, типа “Братьев-мусульман”.
      Задолго до прихода Дауда к власти, а уж тем более ввода ОКСВ.

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