Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The communication lines to the palace were cut, so Amin had no way of knowing what was happening. When the horrendous noise of the bombing campaign reverberated through the city, he asked Jahandad, the commander of his presidential guards, what was happening. Jahandad reported that the Soviet Union was invading. Amin did not believe that the USSR would let him down in that fashion, and rebuked his subordinate. Within hours he was dead, and Jahandad's troops were being annihilated by napalm bombs and other incendiary weapons as they attempted to fight off the invaders. (Underscoring the fragility of Amin's support, his officers across the country largely did not resist the Soviet invasion.) The USSR would later claim that they had been 'invited' by the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to send troops into the country to defend socialism. As a matter of fact, Amin had pleaded with Russia to send forces to defend his narrow regime, based as it was upon the support of a fractious military cadre (mainly the officer corps rather than the rank and file), a layer of urban intellectuals, and practically no one else. He had not pleaded with them to overthrow his government and impose their preferred client regime.
What did the USSR want with Afghanistan? Even some of their supporters had difficulty working it out. Alexander Cockburn ironically extolled the virtues of the invasion as a civilising mission: "I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it's Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too..." Others insisted that Russia was there to defend the gains of the 'Saur revolution', support womens' rights, build schools for the people, overthrow the khans, etc. There is no doubt that this is what the Afghan communists wanted, and had sought to achieve through the disastrous strategy of military dictatorship.
But the idea that an exploitative and oppressive bureaucratic state like the USSR approached Afghanistan as modernising revolutionaries is tweaking the nose of credulity. The USSR valued a loyal Afghan state, from which it had been able to extract energy on its own imposed price schedules. In 1968, it had constructed a hugely successful gas pipeline from the country, so that only 3% of 2.4bn cubic meters of gas produced in the country by 1985 went to serving Afghan needs - all the rest went to Russia. The USSR also did not want that state to fall to a Muslim uprising, adding to the example of Iran and potentially setting a new example for the largely Muslim populations of the energy rich central Asian Soviet republics. Already in March 1979, inspired by the Iranian revolution, a bloody uprising had taken place in Herat against the Khalki government. Russian 'advisers' were tracked down and killed by the insurgents, before Russian bombers dropped their payloads over the city, crushing the revolt. 25,000 people were killed during that single uprising. During this revolt, a major rift emerged in the administration.
The USSR was concerned that Amin, who belonged to the 'Khalk' (People) faction of the communists, was too radical. In his place, therefore, they installed Babrak Karmal of the moderate 'Parcham' (Flag) faction. They imagined that it would be possible, through a more conservative client-state, to forge a rapprochement with the existing ruling class. Such, after all, had been their strategy in the "people's democracies" - in Romania, they rallied to the King, in Bulgaria they pledged to protect private property, in Poland and Czechoslovakia, they took already nationalised economies and preserved more or less the same personnel running them - so why should they come over all revolutionary in Afghanistan? Just to make the break with any radicalism dramatically clear, Amin's bullet-ridden body was displayed to the selected leadership of the new client regime.
The Russians, eager to scotch rumours that they had overthrown a 'socialist' ally, put it about that Amin had been making deals with the Ikhwanis (Muslim Brothers) and the CIA, and was intent on turning Afghanistan into another Chile. This claim had initially been made by Amin's rival, Taraki, and Soviet diplomats who saw Amin as a rough-hewn 'extreme Pushtu nationalist' among other things, were inclined to believe it. Amin's independent tendencies, his attempts to keep Soviet 'advisers' in their place, and pleading that the USSR revise its gas price schedule (since gas was the state's single biggest source of revenue), surely added to the suspicion. The claim would later feature in the official documentary record of the Brehznev administration recording the reasons for invasion. But it was patently false, and unsupported by any evidence. If anything, it was the USSR that would shortly be applying the methods of Pinochet against the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Of course, the CIA along with ultra-reactionary Wahabbis trained in Pakistan did have their say in Afghanistan. The US had been anxious to overthrow the Amin administration and was also, if Brzezinski is to be believed, desperate to goad the Soviet Union into invading, the better to dissipate increasingly scarce resources in an unwinnable war. From 1978, the US had been training insurgents in Pakistan, and CIA aid was being sent to Afghan insurgents six months before the USSR invaded. The division of labour that emerged was that the CIA would manage the overall project, Special Forces would train managers, and Pakistani ISI would train mujahideen. Money and support was later raised from Saudi Arabia, and logisitical cooperation developed with China. US involvement in stimulating revolt was part of the rationale offered by Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko for having voted in favour of invasion. The realpolitik analysis was the US intended to replace its lost ally in Iran with anti-Soviet bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which could then become the basis for destabilising Russia's Muslim republics. There is some truth in this. It would be utterly foolish and misleading, though, to pretend that the tribal rebellions that had been breaking out could be credited exclusively to American shit-stirring. The truth is that the Amin regime had made itself unpopular by attempting to impose dramatic change from above, without ever attempting to engage the popular majority.
As Jonathan Neale has pointed out, the rebellion against the Soviet occupation began with public protests and strikes, sometimes from those who would have been expected to support the communists. The civil servants, whom the Afghan communists had looked to as a base, went on strike. The students at a girls high school in Kabul, who had led the struggle for womens' rights, now demanded that the men fight the occupiers. In Herat, protesters gathered on the rooftops in imitation of the Iranian revolutionaries, chanting 'God is great'. More importantly, ttens of housands of ordinary Afghans outside of the cities which the Russians successfully controlled, sought out parties and organisations that could supply weapons and organisation. Many were not interested in following the line of an established party, such as the Jamiat or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb, so what emerged was a number of loose party structures based on coalitions between potentially rivalrous factions, generally pursuing the same right-wing Islamist politics with Saudi money. Given that the left, the secularists and the feminists were overwhelmingly backing the Russian invaders, the growth and appeal of such fronts was a logical - though tragic - development.
In response to this, and to the growing cost of an invasion that was supposed to be a cakewalk, the USSR sought to 'Afghanise' the war. They proposed to gradually transfer military responsibility to a well-trained Afghan army that could hold off the terrorists and defend Russian security interests. It was a complete failure. The Afghan military was well-armed, and well-trained, but it was consistently defeated by the popular resistance. In the Spring of 1988, the USSR began its withdrawal, leaving their beleaguered Afghan allies to their fate.
The war killed half a million people, wounded millions, forced millions more into fleeing as refugees. It cost Russia a total of 60 billion rubles, purely in operational terms. A Stiglitz-style report on its total costs might put the figure much higher, and it certainly kept military investment artificially high when the imperative was to reduce such spending as growth slowed down throughout the 1980s. In combination with a crippling economic crisis, (which shouldn't have affected the 'socialist countries', shurely?), the war was one of the major reasons why the USSR collapsed when it did. The defeat of Russian imperialism created a space for dissidents in the "people's republics". How could an army exhausted from defeat at the hands of Afghan peasants be expected come to the rescue of Stalinist elites in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc? And with what? Moscow's rulers were staring into an empty treasury. For the Berlin Wall to fall, the Alpha antiterrorist squad of the KGB had to fall.
But the fact that the resistance had been monopolised by the right also strengthened the landlords, the mullahs, the narco-capitalists, the warlords. The sources of oppression and exploitation that the Afghan communists had sought to defeat were left victorious to fight over the scraps of a wrecked Afghanistan. The communists lost because their understanding of socialism was that it was something that had to be imposed from above - their models were Castro, Nasser, Sukarno, developmentalist states resting on a coalition between the officer corps and the intelligentsia. And if it could be imposed by Amin, it could just as well be imposed by Brehznev. The result is that today, US imperialism can offer a nepotistic coalition of khans, drug-dealers and right-wing ruling class thieves as if it were some kind of progress. And, oh yes, they're building schools and supporting womens' rights, and...