Monday, February 23, 2009

20 years ago the last Soviet soldiers left Afghanistan

On February 15th, 1989 the last Soviet soldier crossed the (then) Soviet-Afghan border leaving behind over one million dead Afghans, several millions more wounded and displaced. This war cost the Soviet Union just under 14 thousand lives. This is, for sure, a disastrous tally and nobody in his right mind would attempt to qualify the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as a "success".

Still, while unequivocally a failure and a tragedy, looking back at the Soviet presence in Afghanistan a number of thoughts occur to me which now, twenty years later, make me reassess some of the things I previously had believed.

First, who were the good guys and who were the bad guys in this war? Remember how at the time the Western propaganda had it nice and simple: The Soviet Union was the "Evil Empire" while the Afghans were "Freedom Fighters"? The Soviet system was evil alright, but does that make the Afghan resistance "good"? In hindsight I am inclined to believe that this war was not a war between good and evil but between bad and much, much *worse*?

There can be no doubt at all that the Afghans were defending their own country, that they were fundamentally in their right to oppose the Soviet occupation of their land. But beyond that, what kind of Afghanistan did most - thought not all - of the Afghan resistance fight for? A grotesque medieval Islamic nightmare I would say, the same type of society which Wahabis have always - and still are - trying to establish. Does that sound like typical US propaganda? Sure it does! But whoever said that the US propaganda cannot, at times, say the truth? Why should the US propaganda use only falsehoods when the truth is even more appalling?

Of course, as always, the real picture of what was going on in Afghanistan in these days was more complex than "resistance vs Soviets". The truth is that Afghanistan already had a strong secular left-leaning movement, that a lot of Afghan intellectuals supported the various secular regimes which preceded the Amin government and that even within the Afghan communist parties several distinct factions were fighting for power. The opposition to the Kabul government was also split into various factions, often along ethnic lines. Finally, Afghanistan has a long history of shifting alliances, of local warlords being bought-off by various forces, of endless infighting between clans, groups and local leaders. Very roughly, at least three main parties fought during the Soviet occupation: the Soviet backed communists, the forces under Ahmad Shah Massud in northern Afghanistan and the various Pashtun forces in the rest of the country. At the time, all of the resistance forces called itself "Islamic", but in reality ethnicity played a huge role in their composition.

Ahmad Shah was a very interesting figure. He was arguably the single most effective Afghan commander, but at the same time he was also willing to negotiate with the Soviets. The Russian military had a great deal of respect for him and the Russian military intelligence service GRU secretly negotiated a ceasefire with Masud without the Kremlin being briefed about these talks. Later, the ceasfire was eventually broken under the joint pressure of Nadjibullah and (the then Soviet Foreign Minister) Eduard Shevarnadze. What the ideologues on both failed to see, did not want to see, is what soldiers on both sides understood very well: Masud and the Soviets did not have any other fundamental disagreement besides the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Even more importantly, they had a common enemy: the Wahabi Pashtun extremists which would later become the Taliban.

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Soviet and, later, the Russians provided huge military and technical assistance to Massud and his movement which would eventually be re-branded as the "Northern Alliance". Once the Soviets left Afghanistan they became natural allies of Massud and forces.

In contrast, the Soviets truly despised the Pashtun Islamists. They saw them as illiterate barbarians with plenty of courage, but very little tactical or strategic skills. They saw them as either very corrupt or wholly fanaticized. Sadly, they were essentially correct.

The Soviets also tried their utmost to bring Afghanistan into the modern world: they built schools, promoted equal rights for women, assisted in agricultural project and infrastructure development. They provided much needed health care for thousands of destitute people and they pushed literacy programs. None of that was enough to create a moderate or secular middle class.

On the down side, when their forces were attacked, the Soviet also mercilessly destroyed Afghan villages and killed a huge amount of innocent civilians.

The basic Soviet counter-insurgency tactics was composed of the following elements:

1) occupy mountain tops using helicopter-dropped forces, often Airborne troops.
2) organize raiding counterinsurgency "operational maneuver groups" typically staffed by Border Guard troops lead by KGB Spetsnaz officers
3) maintain an intelligence/recon force supported by a network of local agents. Both the KGB and the GRU used such networks
4) prepare major raids by covertly introducing Spetsnaz GRU operators deep inside enemy territory and then follow up with DShB (air-assault) forces inserted by helicopters.
5) maintain regular military forces in all the large cities and use them to maintain the main roads under Soviet control.

All in all, these were very effective tactics which mostly confined the Afghan resistances to remote mountain valleys. The Soviet 40th Army's military performance in Afghanistan is vastly superior to the abject failure of the US/NATO force. Amazingly, but an under-financed, often under-equipped and under-staffed army of Soviet conscripts managed to achieve much more than the professional US/NATO forces. This is particularly true when one considers the fact that the Soviet had to fight both the Pashtuns and the Tadjiks and Uzbeks of Masud, whereas the US/NATO is only fighting the Pashtuns, clearly the inferior military force.

In many ways, the Soviet policies in Afghanistan were contradictory, and my point is not to make the Soviets look good, but to acknowledge one basic things: the Soviet were trying to prevent Afghanistan to become a base for the worst kind of Wahabi extremism. In contrast, the USA blinded by its hatred for the Soviet Union only succeeded in creating a monster which eventually - and inevitably - would turn against its former patron.

Almost the same situation was repeated in Chechnia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the quasi total collapse of the state in Russia, the West threw its full support behind the Chechen separatists which were, I think, even worse than the Talibans. If the latter at least were sincere in their religious beliefs, the Chechens were first and foremost maniacal thugs, bloodthirsty butchers of the worst kind which only used Islam as a pious cover for their utterly amoral and perverted goals. I strongly suspect that some circles in Russia were actually interested in allowing the situation in Chechnya to degenerate into such a nightmarish chaos that nobody in his/her right mind would oppose the re-establishment of a powerful state. Once Putin came to power the Russian public essentially gave him 'carte blanche' to crush the Chechens, which he did very effectively by a combination of excellent military tactics and by simply buying off a good part of the Chechen leaders.

Though the "Chechen operation" eventually collapsed and, in many ways, made Russia not weaker but much stronger, there is no doubt that the West fully supported the Chechens, at least until 9/11. Only with the Twin Towers collapsing in flames did the Western elites suddenly loose their fancy for bearded gunman shooting at all sorts of "infidels" and "kafirs".

But has anything really changed?

The US and Europe are still automatically supporting anybody and everybody who is perceived as "anti-Russian" (Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, etc. etc. etc.), they are still bitter foes of Iran (a country which borders Afghanistan and which is more aware than any other of the Wahabi threat for the region and the world) and they are still calling Hezbollah "terrorist" even though any logical analysis can only lead to the conclusion that Hezbollah is a national liberation movement and the strongest force to oppose the various Al-Qaeda franchises in Lebanon and the rest of the Middle-East. Instead of reaching out to its natural allies in its war against Islamic extremism, the West is trying to fight everybody at the same time abroad while giving up every civil right one by one at home.

That amazing Western blindness, arrogance and crass ignorance is really the most powerful weapon the Wahabis have in their "arsenal": as long as the West will continue to pursue imaginary enemies its real enemies will have all they need to strike at it, again and again.

As the so-called "redirection" has shown the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT) is nothing but a planetary wide exercise in fostering Wahabi terrorism. 20 years ago the Soviet withdrew from Afghanistan and the idiots in the CIA reported "we won".

I wonder what they thought on 9/11 or if they even managed to connect the dots.

Probably not.