Reasons for Afghan debacles

Daniel Lazare reviews: Rodric Braithwaite ‘Afgantsy: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89’ Oxford University Press, 2011, pp448, £10.28; Artemy M Kalinovsky ‘A long goodbye: the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan’ Harvard University Press, 2011, pp290, £22.95; Bruce Riedel ‘What we won: America’s secret war in Afghanistan, 1979-89’ Brookings, 2014, pp189, £17

In 1978, a powerful revolution erupted in Afghanistan - one of the most backward and isolated places on earth. Less a country in its own right, Afghanistan emerged in the modern era as a no man’s land, separating the Russian empire to the north and British-occupied India to the south. It thus resembled Mongolia - another inter-imperial buffer zone, in which a revolution erupted under Soviet sponsorship in 1921.

But where Mongolia saw the establishment of a powerful workers’ state that lasted nearly 70 years, the Afghan revolution led to the opposite - which is to say counterrevolution, civil war and a rightwing reaction that continues to build and build. What went wrong?

This is the question of the hour, now that the United States is pulling out after a 20-year war that has left Afghanistan in worse shape than ever. US intervention was doomed, because all the advanced weaponry in the world could not make up for the fact that it relied on the same anarchic warlords who had torn the country apart in the 1980s and 90s and then - surprise, surprise - set about doing the same thing, once the Americans returned them to power in 2001.

But Soviet intervention was not foredoomed. Its allies in Afghanistan were not corrupt warlords, but military officers, intellectuals and urban radicals - the “flower of their generation,” as the CPGB’s Jack Conrad described them in 2003, echoing Jonathan Neale of the Socialist Workers Party.1 This was infinitely better material with which to create a stable, progressive society. Yet the Soviet effort flopped.

Thanks to two recent accounts, we have a much better understanding as to why. Both appeared in 2011: Artemy M Kalinovsky’s A long goodbye, which makes ample use of the newly-opened Politburo files; and Afgantsy - a comprehensive account by Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador to Moscow in 1988-92 and currently chairman of the international advisory council to the Moscow School of Political Studies. Both are indispensable guides as to what went wrong and both are newly relevant, now that US intervention is following an even more disastrous trajectory.

For what it is worth, we also have What we won by Bruce Riedel - an intelligence analyst turned Washington think-tank pundit, whose book is essentially an extended apologia on behalf of the CIA. Riedel sets himself the impossible task of arguing that American intervention had nothing to do with the growth of al Qa’eda, even though it emerged out of the anti-Soviet jihad. This is rather like arguing that Hitler’s Wehrmacht had nothing to do with the Final Solution. Still, his Washington’s eye view serves as a useful complement to the more Moscow- and Kabul-centric viewpoints of Kalinovsky and Braithwaite.

Riedel, indeed, is not at all bad with regard to the sheer quantitative inadequacy of the Soviet effort. In August 1945, the Soviets assembled a 1.6-million-man army to cut through Japanese-occupied Manchukuo - a task they accomplished in just 11 days. In 1968, they assembled a 500,000-strong force for the subjugation of Czechoslovakia, which took place in a matter of hours. Yet Soviet intervention in Afghanistan topped out at 110,000 troops in a country five times bigger, with some of the most rugged terrain in the world and a fierce martial tradition to boot. Thanks to the severe deficiency in manpower, Soviet commanders had no choice but to rely on force-multipliers, such as aircraft, artillery and tanks - weapons that are very good at smashing up villages, but which did little to deter a growing swarm of US, Saudi and Chinese-armed mujahideen.

“In short, the Russians, trying to win as cheaply as possible, put a grossly inadequate amount of resources into the Afghan effort,” Riedel says, not inaccurately. An anonymous Soviet officer quoted by Kalinovsky agrees:

Throughout the whole of that war, practically every operation ended in the same way. Military operations began, soldiers and officers died, Afghan soldiers died, the mujahideen and the peaceful population died and, when the operation was over, our forces would leave and everything would return to what it had been before (Kalinovsky, p40).

Trying to stop a massive jihad with such a small force was like trying to plough the sea. But that was not the only factor hampering the Soviet effort. There were also political problems, such as the yawning gulf between town and country, which neither Kabul nor Moscow could begin to overcome; conservatism and timidity on the part of key Politburo figures like Brezhnev, Gromyko and Andropov; and, on the other side of the ledger, a growing realisation that “we now had the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam war”, as US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski advised Jimmy Carter in mid-1979, six months before the Soviets went in.


Then there was Stalinism, a system that, 25 years or so after the death of its founder, was clearly at the end of its rope. The Soviet economy was stagnant, it was desperate for western technology, its grip on eastern Europe was weakening, and it lacked all legitimacy and self-confidence. In 1980, Brezhnev pulled French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing aside at an international conference and told him that criticisms of Soviet intervention were not unjustified: “I also wanted to tell you this, one on one,” Kalinovsky quotes him as saying. “…I will make it my personal business to impose [a political] solution. You can count on me!” (p62).

All that was lacking was a click of the heels and a salute. Soviet subservience to the capitalist west had never been more explicit, which is why intervention in Afghanistan would never be more than half-hearted and incomplete.

Thanks to Afghanistan’s position as a buffer zone, its rulers have long faced an intractable dilemma. To maintain independence, they needed to modernise - to build up the military, improve transportation, promote education and women’s rights, etc. At the same time, however, they needed to avoid arousing a rural hornet’s nest, consisting of landowners, mullahs and tribal elders - all committed to running their affairs the old-fashioned way, without interference from Kabul. The south-east Asia expert, Barnett Rubin, described the results as a “tribally-based monarchy overs[eeing] a weak administration imposed on a mosaic of peoples not integrated into a common economy or nationality”. Government was legitimate, he went on, to the degree it respected “traditional forms of representation and consultation”. Otherwise, its primary obligation was to “observ[e] strict limits against unwanted intervention in local or private affairs”.2

Kabul needed to modernise, in other words, so that the rest of the country could remain in a state of pre-modern stagnation. The cold war compounded this ‘Gattopardian’ arrangement by allowing the government to draw on foreign aid rather than internal resources to pull itself up. The Soviets thus provided Kabul with a $100 million development loan following a visit by Khrushchev in 1955, while the Afghans graciously allowed the Americans to construct a concrete highway linking Kabul, Herat and Kandahar following a visit by Eisenhower in 1959. The results by the late 1970s were impressive. A million students were enrolled in school, while Kabul University was dotted with stylish young women in mini-skirts who would not have been out of place in London or New York. But, the more Kabul pulled ahead, the more the countryside fell behind. As Conrad notes, Afghanistan was still among the 20 poorest countries in the world, with illiteracy running at over 90%.

The situation was untenable. The great unravelling began in 1973, when Daoud Khan - King Zahir Shah’s cousin and former prime minister - abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. Since Daoud leaned toward the Soviets, the effect was to exacerbate a split in the local communist movement (formally known as the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) between a faction calling itself Parcham, or ‘Banner’, which favoured collaboration with the new government, and another known as Khalq (‘Masses’), which held itself aloof. But Daoud, fearing growing leftwing influence, then turned on his erstwhile allies and began executing PDPA members at the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi prison on Kabul’s eastern outskirts.

The April 1978 murder of Mir Akbar Khyber, a leading Parcham ideologist, proved a turning point. With a major crackdown looming, Khalq launched a pre-emptive coup with the help of Soviet-trained military officers. Daoud went down in a hail of gunfire, along with members of his family, as fighting raged across the city. But the takeover was soon victorious.

This was the Saur Revolution - so called after the month in the Persian calendar in which it occurred. But it was an upside-down version of 1917, in that, rather than soldiers’ soviets arresting their officers, leftwing officers barked commands at soldiers who were either passive or, judging from subsequent sky-high desertion rates, downright hostile. Rather than overturning the current order, Khalq sought to maintain a hierarchical state in order to use it to advance a revolutionary agenda.

Sensing the precariousness of their position, communists issued a flurry of revolutionary commands. “Our aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world of how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society,” said one PDPA member quoted by Braithwaite:

Our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would ... [Our] very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being … Our programme was clear: land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all. We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly, so that the masses could see where their real interests lay (Braithwaite, p5).

But, rather than detaching the peasantry from the traditional rural leadership, the effect was to drive them together in opposition to the radical regime in Kabul. When Herat - a city of 140,000 some 500 miles west of Kabul - rose in revolt 11 months later, the regime responded the only way it knew how, which is to say with tanks and military aircraft. The PDPA succeeded in crushing the uprising after five days of combat, yet violence continued bubbling up: in Kunar province, about a hundred miles to Kabul’s east, where guerrilla attacks led to a brutal government response; in a half-dozen other provinces, where local uprisings also occurred; in the capital, where thousands of Shi’ite Hazaras took to the streets with knives, rifles and machine guns, and so on. When Alexei Kosygin suggested arming 50,000 students, peasants and workers and sending them out against the reactionaries, president Nur Muhammad Taraki “pointed out drily that there were very few workers even in Kabul,” Braithwaite writes.

The rest were under the influence of Islamic propaganda, which denounced the government as heathen. The Afghan army simply did not have enough trained crews to man more tanks and aircraft, even if the Soviets supplied them. (p50).

By mid-1979, just 15 months or so after taking power, government control was down to just half the country.

But why would peasants rise up against land reform, when ownership was so lopsided that 40% of the irrigated land was in the hands of just four percent of the population? Quoting the third world insurgency expert, Gérard Chaliand, Conrad speculates that the answer lies in the control of complex irrigation systems that village headmen, or khans, traditionally used to maintain their power. Kalinovsky argues, not dissimilarly, that the blizzard of revolutionary decrees ran afoul of “long-standing economic and social relations affecting issues such as bride-price, marriage age, tenancy and mortgages” that the regime had no idea how to overcome (p9).


Then there is Islam, the ideological glue that held the rural power structure together, which neither Braithwaite nor Kalinovsky discuss in any detail. Whether it was more or less malevolent than the Mongolian Buddhism that had consigned half the male population to the monasteries by the 1921 revolution is unknown. But, with a powerful global resurgence underway, there is no doubt that it would be an especially tough nut to crack.

Yet the revolutionaries in Kabul thought they could do it overnight. When Vladimir Kryuchkov, the Soviet chief of foreign intelligence, visited Kabul on a fact-finding mission three months after the revolution, Taraki assured him, according to Braithwaite, that the mosques would be empty in a year. It was yet another example of the PDPA’s extraordinary ignorance of its own society.

Kalinovsky says that Khalq’s response was to unleash a reign of terror on two fronts: “against traditionalist elements, especially members of the clergy, followers of the Muslim Brotherhood or of Ayatollah Khomeini; and, simultaneously, against the ‘enemy within’ - primarily Parchamists”. Braithwaite writes that Hafizullah Amin, who overthrew and killed Taraki, his fellow Khalq, in September 1979, kept a portrait of Stalin on his desk and brushed off Soviet remonstrations that he was going too far: “Comrade Stalin showed how to build socialism in a backward country; it’s painful to begin with, but afterwards everything turns out to be just fine,” he said (p76).

These, then, were the two poles of PDPA thought: the popular-front reformism of Parcham, on the one hand; and the bureaucratic repression of Khalq, on the other. Amin’s execution of Taraki took the Soviets aback. “President Taraki was my friend,” Brezhnev told Giscard d’Estaing. “He came to see me in September, and just after he returned, Amin had him assassinated. That is a provocation. I could not pardon it.” Brezhnev added, according to another source: “What a bastard, Amin, to murder the man with whom he made the revolution” (Braithwaite, p73).

But there were other reasons for concern - most notably Amin’s overtures to the US. Conrad describes subsequent charges that Amin was a CIA agent as “outrageous … a slander mindlessly repeated by the ‘official communist’ press in Britain, including the Morning Star”. But the truth was not so clear. Rumours of Amin’s links to American intelligence were so persistent that even US ambassador Adolph Dubs - who would later die at the hands of Islamic terrorists - was moved to ask if they were true. (The local CIA station chief assured him they were not.) Still, Amin met five times with Dubs’ replacement at the US embassy at a time when relations with the Soviets were under growing strain. Braithwaite says that KGB chief Yuri Andropov feared that the CIA wanted to use the mercurial Amin to create a new Ottoman empire extending into Soviet central Asia. Riedel says that rumours were afoot that Amin would ‘pull a Sadat’ by taking Afghanistan out of the Soviet orbit and aligning it with the US.

Regardless of whether such fears were overblown or not, the Soviets had every reason to be alarmed about the deterioration along their southern rim. Even though they launched an invasion in response, the overall thrust was defensive, as even Riedel concedes: “There is little in the records available about Soviet decision-making in 1979,” he writes, “to suggest that the idea of invading Afghanistan was the first step in a Soviet march to the Indian Ocean. Moscow’s overriding goal was to defend the communist regime, not to take further offensive action” (p26).

Still, intervention was a bloody affair. Braithwaite says that Soviet troops may have killed 250 Afghan palace guards in the 43-minute battle to take control of Kabul’s Taj Bek Palace, where the president and his family were staying. Amin and his five-year-old son also died in the assault, as did five Soviet soldiers and five members of KGB special forces. The Soviets launched simultaneous raids on the army command centre, military intelligence, the city’s radio and television centre, and other such facilities. By the morning of December 28 1979, the city was under Soviet control.

Yet the downward spiral only intensified. Rather than socialising the country, the Soviets placed a Parchamite named Babrak Karmal at the helm and threw Khalq-style radicalism into reverse. The government returned land it had confiscated from middle peasants and even large landholders, and rolled back women’s literacy programmes in an effort to placate the mullahs. But, within two months of the Soviet intervention, Kabul erupted in the largest protests the city had ever seen, as some 300,000 people took to the streets, shouting anti-government and anti-Soviet slogans, besieging government buildings, throwing stones at the Soviet embassy, looting shops, burning cars and setting fire to a major hotel.

Attempts to stop the flow of arms to the mujahideen across the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border also failed, as did efforts to stem desertions in the military. “The rule of thumb,” Braithwaite writes, “was that if the desertion rate was no more than about 30% a year you were alright. If it went much beyond that you were in trouble, [while] 60% was bad news” (p137).

Individual Afghan soldiers changed sides as many as seven times. The Kabul government was in a state of advanced disintegration by the time Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, yet the only answer he could come up with was to offer more of the same. He thus told Karmal to forget about socialism once and for all, to restore religious rights and offer to share power with the mujahideen. In January 1987, the Afghan government unveiled a “national reconciliation” programme featuring a ceasefire, a general amnesty and free markets. Kabul even removed the word ‘Democratic’ at Soviet behest, so that henceforth the country would be known merely as the Republic of Afghanistan.

But that did not work either, for the simple reason that holy warriors had less and less incentive to compromise when they obviously had the regime on the run.

Braithwaite is particularly good on the resultant demoralisation in Soviet ranks. He writes:

Around the middle of the war, a new theme emerged: nostalgia and sympathy for the White Guards - the soldiers who fought on the losing side of the civil war after the revolution in 1917 and who had upheld the heroism and discipline of Russian arms, even as their country fell apart around them.

The Red Army had given rise to a lively music scene, as soldier bards singing about the pointlessness of intervention hearkened back to the anti-Bolsheviks of yesteryear. One army bard, an interpreter named Alexander Karpenko, wondered:

… why in the years of my youth did nobody publicly speak of the self-sacrifice of the White generals? And at this point my thoughts about the White Army’s role in the fate of Russia came to mingle with what was happening in Afghanistan. The prohibitions and silence which surrounded the White idea also stimulated the creative energies of the Afgantsy [as the Soviet soldiers were known], including my own (p193).

Reaction was intensifying on both sides of the Soviet-Afghan divide. Gorbachev started the clock running for a troop withdrawal in 1986, although he assured Kabul that military supplies would continue to flow. But by 1991 the Soviets were able to make good on only 10% of promised fuel deliveries. An Afghan delegate remarked after visiting the USSR that year: “We saw all these empty stores in Moscow and long queues for a loaf of bread, and we thought, ‘What can the Russians give us?’” (Kalinovsky, p200).

The answer was nothing. The final collapse of the Soviet Union occurred in December 1991, while the dissolution of the Soviet-backed government in Kabul followed four months later. Unable to save Afghanistan, the Soviets in the end were unable to save themselves.


What are the lessons of such a prolonged and miserable experience? One is that the Soviets had every right to do what was necessary to shore up their southern flank, even though their reliance on brute military force was itself symptomatic of their growing internal decay. Western liberals who raised a hue and cry over Moscow’s violation of Afghan national sovereignty should have taken a look at their own countries, whose violations of the third world are as massive and ongoing.

Besides, the Soviet Union did not go into Afghanistan to steal its resources or to foster neo-medieval jihad. It went in, rather, to free women, build schools and universities, and spread economic development. Yet western leftwingers refused to criticise the CIA, while western feminists stayed silent as well. But, ultimately, Soviet intervention could only make matters worse. The more neo-Stalinists tried to outrun failure at home, the more they ended up compounding it by spreading it abroad.

However, another lesson concerns the nature of imperialism. Social democratic delusions about a golden age of democracy that would supposedly blossom, once the Soviets pulled out and the cold war was at an end, were just that - delusions. In fact, Soviet withdrawal paved the way for a new era of imperialism that was even more nihilistic than before. When a British journalist named Anatol Lieven asked why the US was backing a bloodthirsty Islamist named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a US diplomat told him that it was because people like Hekmatyar were helping to build a “successful free-market democracy”, because the destruction of the Kabul regime was necessary for the defeat of communism, and because, finally, “the Russians did it to us in Vietnam, and we’re going to do that to them in Afghanistan” (Kalinovsky, p188).

The mujahideen as a force for democracy? The idea was laughable. Braithwaite quotes a top Islamist named Burhanuddin Rabbani as bragging:

We forced the communists out of our country ... Had it not been for the jihad, the whole world would still be in the communist grip. The Berlin Wall fell because of the wounds which we inflicted on the Soviet Union, and the inspiration we gave all oppressed people. We broke the Soviet Union up into 15 parts. We liberated people from communism. Jihad led to a free world (p330).

But the equation of jihad and freedom was laughable as well. Still, the United States continued to believe it, even after al Qa’eda launched a jihad against the world’s sole remaining superpower on 9/11. The US unleashed a rampage of violence from Libya to Yemen in response. Yet by 2014 al Qa’eda and its radical offshoot, Islamic State, had emerged all the stronger as a consequence - just as it will likely emerge stronger from the latest debacle as well.

“Rarely does a country fight the same war twice in one generation; to fight it twice from opposite sides is even rarer,” Riedel observes. But, rather than learning from the Soviet experience, the US made the same mistakes - and then some. America did not go into Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden; indeed, secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld refused to send in reinforcements when the CIA and its allies succeeded in cornering him in Tora Bora - his mountain redoubt just a half-dozen miles from the Pakistani border - and instead allowed him to slip away. The US did not go in to put a stop to al Qa’eda, since by that point it was an international network whose main base was in Pakistan and which continued to draw support from members of the Saudi royal family.

On the contrary, it went into Afghanistan for two reasons only: to prove the Rumsfeld thesis that a well-trained skeletal force was all that was needed to topple the Taliban; and to pave the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which the ‘Vulcans’, as Bush II’s foreign-policy team was known, persisted in believing was the real force behind the World Trade Center attack.

It is an example of the genuine insanity that gripped Washington’s uppermost ranks. Once the Americans ensconced themselves in Kabul, they then brought back the same worthless militia leaders whom the Taliban had driven out in 1996 and unleashed a tidal wave of development funds, in the hope that money alone would somehow turn the country into a central Asian showcase. Yet all the money did was drive up corruption to unprecedented levels on the part of local political bosses, whose only concern was loot and kidnapping young boys for use as sex slaves.3 Where the Soviet-backed government was able to hold on for three years after the Soviet pullout, the US-backed regime, to no-one’s surprise, is collapsing in the face of a Taliban offensive that has been going for just three months.

“The bottom line is that if - an important ‘if’ - the United States and Nato fail in Afghanistan, the burden of blame lies at home.” So Riedel noted in 2014 (p140). He is right: the burden of blame does indeed lie at home - for going into Afghanistan in the first place. The US went in because it thought it would be easy, and then, once it got stuck, spent the next 20 years trying to figure out what to do.

What lies ahead? The outlook for Afghanistan is grim. Up to 2,000 Afghan refugees per day are currently entering Turkey, while tens of thousands per week are being washed up in other countries like Iran and Pakistan.4 The Middle East refugee crisis that peaked in 2015 may thus be poised for a rebound. With Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and the People’s Republic of China all jockeying for dominance in central Asia, Afghanistan could once again find itself a regional battlefield. Meanwhile, hopes that a Taliban takeover will be less destructive a second time around are unpersuasive.5 Ultra-reactionary forces do not miraculously transform themselves merely because western liberals hope they do.

As for the US, it is now suffering its worst defeat since Vietnam. Washington had clearly hoped to use Afghanistan to spread jihad into the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, with which Afghanistan shares a 47-mile border, but now those plans are on the back burner. It had hoped to use Afghanistan to influence the former Soviet Muslim republics of Kazakhstan, Turkestan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but those plans are in abeyance as well. It had hoped to use Afghanistan to encircle Iran, but that strategy has also been dashed.

Just about its only remaining option is to fall back on Saudi Arabia, its oldest partner in the Middle East, in the hope that it will use its minions in al Qa’eda and IS to attack the Taliban from the rear. Farfetched? Not at all. Once the Taliban march into Kabul, we can expect car bombs to start going off with increasing regularity. If so, it will be a sign that the Saudis and al Qa’eda are stirring the pot - and that the United States is signalling its approval.

Daniel Lazare

  1. See ‘Looking back over the ruins’ Weekly Worker July 15 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1356/looking-back-over-the-ruins.↩︎

  2. www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/1989-12-01/fragmentation-afghanistan.↩︎

  3. www.nytimes.com/2018/01/23/world/asia/afghanistan-military-abuse.html?searchResultPosition=3.↩︎

  4. www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2021/8/4/the-afghan-refugee-crisis-brewing-on-turkeys-eastern-border.↩︎

  5. For an especially unconvincing version of this argument, see Ted Rall, ‘Afghanistan under the Taliban: it won’t be like last time’ Counterpunch April 23 2021. Noting that cities like Herat are now “dotted with pizzerias”, he argues: “The Taliban - or more precisely the neo-Taliban who have replaced them - are more moderate because they operate in a modernized environment.” But this is just an updating of the old Washington argument that a veneer of capitalism eliminates all political sins, when in fact it makes them worse. See www.counterpunch.org/2021/04/23/afghanistan-under-the-taliban-it-wont-be-like-last-time.↩︎