Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dead End: The Road to Afghanistan (VIRUS A)

The original Russian book
Today, the National Security Archive published the English translation of  ВИРУС A (Virus A), about the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, written by historian and investigative journalist Vladimir Snegirev with the assistance of retired KGB Colonel Valery Samunin, an intelligence veteran who worked in Afghanistan.

Snegirev's book tries to unravel the chain of events and provides a broader view on why and how the Soviets became engaged in a battle they were destined to lose. A battle that proved to be one too many for the Kremlin and the Soviet Union. The book suggests that the Soviet invasion was a case of mission creep, getting involved much more than initially planned. Do take in mind that the book represents the views of Russian authors.

The Soviet invasion force was not the first, nor the last, to miscalculate the strength of the resilient Afghan warriors. The British were there before them and the United States and NATO followed. Each had their own reason to challenge the Afghan people.

The origins of the Soviet intervention are found in the Saur revolution. On April 28, 1978, Mohammad Daoud Khan's government violently came to an end when troops of the Khalq faction of the Communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) stormed the palace in Kabul. The PDPA, headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki, imposed a socialist and secular regime, provoking a fierce opposition by the conservatives. However, already from its inception, the PDPA suffered from internal conflicts between its Khalq and Parcham factions.

To keep themselves in power and address the internal conflicts, the Khalq faction, having seized power in the PDPA, imprisoned, tortured or murdered thousands of Parchamis, members of the intelligentsia and the traditional and religious elite. The violent purge and repression were lead by second in power Hafizullah Amin. A chain of events had started. Neither the Afghan nor the Soviet government had foreseen this chain of events, nor did they had it under control.

In the first half of 1979, the Afghan government repeatedly requested support from Soviet forces to help them with their fight against the Mujaheddin. The first small detachment of Soviet troops and tanks arrived in June of 1979 to help securing the government in Kabul. However, the ambitious pupil Amin staged a coup and eliminated his tutor Tarak in September 1979. Moscow was far from happy with Amin because his repression induced more and more opposition, endangering the young socialist revolution.

Eventually, on December 25 and under the guise of military support for Amin, the Soviet 40th army, including ground and airborne troops, entered Afghanistan  to stabilize the country. Two days later, Alpha and Zenith elite forces, dressed in Afghan uniforms, stormed the presidential palace and killed Amin. Some 700 Spetsnaz took over all government and military buildings and the media.

Soviet troops entering Afghanistan

How did it come that far? How did the Soviets become much more involved that they initially had planned? Were they taken hostage by the chain of events and forced to intervene, or did they made critical political or military mistakes in the run of events, leading up to the invasion?

Snegirev's fascinating book tries to shed a light on the decision making process. The book focuses especially on the conflict between president Taraki and Amin, the September coup with the assassination of Taraki by Amin, how Soviet intelligence and the Kremlin assessed and responded to these events and the operation to eliminate Amin and install Babrak Karmal as new president. Lessons learned? Seeing what happens today in Afghanistan, I doubt that. From the very first chapter, the book has a chilling resemblance with the events that occurred in recent years.

Many questions remain. Did the Soviet Union and the United States both entered Afghanistan to help the Afghan people to emerge from the dark ages, or was it to serve their geopolitical agenda? Would the Soviet Union have succeeded in eliminating fundamentalism and creating a modern Afghanistan without the - some say misplaced - U.S. support to the Mujaheddin and Pakistan in the 1980's? Would that have ended the conflict much sooner, with less bloodshed and fewer refugees seeking shelter in Pakistani camps, the hatchery of the Taliban?

The former Afghan king Nadir Shah, president Daoud and the PDPA consecutively also tried to create a  modern and secular Afghanistan, albeit often with questionable methods. They all failed because they failed to change the situation for the ordinary Afghans. The key to defeating fundamentalism is to help a population to develop its country, at the same time respecting its traditions and religions.

They could have brought prosperity by helping with irrigation projects to stimulate agriculture. The average Afghan peasant is not a wealthy drug dealer but cultivates poppy plants because it's a resilient crop and they have no other means to survive. They also failed to spread education. Take a look at the misleading photos of Afghanistan in the 1950's. They failed because these photos only portrayed the urban life of the lucky few. They failed because they forgot the ordinary Afghans, while all too occupied with fighting fundamentalism and not with winning the support from the people.

Does the United States and its allies stand any change today in achieving those same goals? In fact, for the Afghan peasant, regular agriculture, if any, still stands no chance against the benefits of heroine fields and only a very few enjoy freedom and education outside the large cities, where corruption is rampant. Just like before 1979, young girls get acid thrown in their faces when they walk without hijab or attend school, and just as during the PDPA era, the country's leaders enjoy little support from the population, caught between fundamentalism and modernisation.

Today, ten years after crossing the Afghan borders, foreign powers again fail to consolidate their military victory over the fundamentalists with enduring peace and prosperity. Neighbouring countries still support the adversaries of the Afghan government for various reasons, as they have done for centuries. Many questions remain, but looking at the past gives us a grim glimpse of the future. However, it should also gives us the opportunity to learn from the past. Shouldn't it?

It seems as if nothing can prevent the recurrence of the events after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces in 1989. History has proven that leading this unique Afghan tribal society with its own traditions and values into modernisation, or just even stabilizing the country, proves most difficult, if not impossible. Stability might well be an unpopular outcome for the key players, given the country's strategic location in the region (Pakistan, Iran). Unfortunately, there's no such thing as "the Afghan problem" but a complex mix of inter-regional political and religious problems which cannot be solved by the Afghans themselves, nor - manu military - by the West on their own.

The full-text English translation of the "ВИРУС A" is now on-line available under the title The Dead End: The Road to Afghanistan (pdf). Read and learn! On the NSArchive's Russian pages you can also find 150 original documents and 42 photos. More information by the National Security Archive on the book is found at this page, including 21 translated original documents, related to Afghanistan. If you are unfamiliar with the history of Afghanistan during the Cold War, I recommend a read-up at Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War.

There's a three-part documentary giving a good view on the Soviet war in Afghanistan. At the end of each part, a link to the next part is given in the top-left corner.

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