I spent Christmas of 1979 with friends of mine in Czechoslovakia, then behind the “iron curtain”. It was there that I heard about a massive Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that started on Christmas eve, 24 December 1979. It was the beginning of a war that cost 15,000 Russian lives and countless Afghan ones, driving millions abroad as refugees.
When my friends heard the official report on Czech TV news, that the USSR had been asked for “brotherly assistance” by the Afghan government under a Peace and Friendship Treaty between Afghanistan and Russia, they immediately felt reminded of a similar announcement during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The fact that Afghan president Hafizullah Amin was killed three days later did not exactly help to make it look like the Soviet army did come with an invitation.
The invasion was a watershed event for the Soviet Union, which it demoralized and effectively bankrupted. It has often been called “Russia’s Vietnam” and there were indeed many similarities. Each war was costly to the respective superpower which lost out against insurgents supported by the opposing superpower. Like the US client regime in South Vietnam that survived for another two years after the withdrawal of US troops following the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul under Najibullah managed to hang on to power for another three years, until post-Soviet Russia dropped support for it. Civilian casualties in both wars were huge and vastly outnumbered military casualties by the superpower. About 3,500,000 North and South Vietnamese (about two thirds of them civilians) and between 700,000 and 2,000,000 Afghan civilians were killed.
The pro-Soviet government in Kabul that was overthrown by US-sponsored mujahideen did have a poor human rights record, but at least, unlike the later Taliban regime, it worked to support the rights of women, who could go to work and weren’t forced to go veiled then. Under the Taliban girls could not go to school nor could women see a doctor.
While in 1979 the Soviet invasion was portrayed as an unprovoked aggressive move, as the first invasion outside the direct Soviet sphere of influence since 1945, the picture that has since emerged looks quite different. In an interview with “Le Nouvel Observateur” (Paris), 15-21 January 1998, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski revealed that Carter authorized support for Afghan insurgents almost six months before the Soviet invasion, which came as a response to the US-sponsored insurgency:
According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
In an Interview with Mother Jones (23 July 2009), US journalists Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald explain that stepped up US aid to militant Islamic insurgents had the opposite effect of the declared intention: Instead of driving out the Russians from Afghanistan, it kept them trapped there:
Gould: [Texas congressman] Charlie Wilson came online around 1984 with the idea that the Soviets were never going to leave Afghanistan, so Congress had to increase the supply of arms to insurgents to drive them out. In 1983, a little more than two years after the Soviets had invaded, we took Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project to Afghanistan for Nightline to assess the possibility of negotiating the Soviets out of the country. We came back with the story that the Soviets were actually desperate to get out and really wanted to save face, effectively.
MJ: Why was that?
Gould: The big issue really was the insurgency. The Soviets were in Afghanistan primarily because of the insurgency that was flowing from Pakistan and was basically burning schools and burning down power lines and disrupting the ability of the Afghan government to function. When Charlie Wilson actually did in fact get his budget going, and increase the insurgency, it actually held the Soviets there as opposed to driving them out. Charlie Wilson kept the Soviets in Afghanistan for another six years. He didn’t drive them out.
MJ: So if the U.S. hadn’t funneled arms to the insurgency, the Marxist government that was in power in Afghanistan would continue and at that point the Soviets wouldn’t need to be there?
Fitzgerald: The Soviets even prior to their invasion had been trying to convince the Marxists that they should step down from running the country. They told them point blank, you are not capable, you are not diverse enough, your party isn’t broad enough to run the country. And they were letting the United States know. In the summer of 1979, through their emissaries, the Soviet Union let the US know that they wanted the Marxist government of Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki, to step down. According to the declassified cables the U.S was fully aware of the Soviet’s desire for a political solution. The Soviets expected that they would get cooperation from the United States in setting up a coalition government.
It becomes clear then that liberating Afghanistan was not the primary objective, but hurting the Soviet Union. Zbigniew Brzezinski appeared to have no regrets about having lured the Soviets into the conflict, which not only wrecked the Soviet empire but also left Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban:
What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
Now the US is sending tens of thousands of its sons and daughters, with billions of dollars for funding this war, to counter some of these “stirred-up Moslems” mentioned by Brzezinski.
The Frankenstein’s monster created by the US to bring down the Soviet Union is now going after its own creator, except of course that the men and women dispatched to fight and die in Afghanistan today are not the same individuals who conspired to launch this never ending war some 30 years ago.
Wars are rarely ever by necessity, despite what politicians may say at the time and what may first seem like an effective solution to a political problem often comes back to haunt those who chose the path of violence even though there were better alternatives.