Greg Sheridan, in The Australian, 14 May 2011
CONSIDER these three passages about our aims in Afghanistan. The first is a statement of intent by an Afghan government official: “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 . . . Our very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being. . . . Our program was clear: land for the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all . . . For the first time inAfghanistan’s history, women would be given the right to education. We told them that they owned their bodies, they could marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pets.”
The second is a reflection by an intelligent, if idealistic, young journalist, sent to cover the foreign intervention. He witnesses a display of parachute jumping, by Afghan women, in the main stadium in Kabul, and writes: “There is a striking contrast which is only possible here: many of the women on the terraces conceal their faces under the chador – a primitive, medieval superstition; but parachutists are landing in the stadium and they are women too, who grew up in this country. The chador and the parachute. You don’t have to be a prophet to foretell the victory of the parachute.”
And finally, here is a newspaper report covering the welcome home for a large military unit after 10 years of involvement inAfghanistan: “An orchestra played as the nation welcomed the return of her sons. Our boys were coming home after fulfilling their international obligations.
For 10 years (our) soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over 30 hospitals and a similar number of nursery schools, some 400 blocks of flats and 35 mosques. They sank dozens of wells and dug nearly 150km of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also in charge of guarding military and civilian institutions in trouble.”
There you have three central elements of the US-led coalition strategy inAfghanistan, of whichAustraliahas long been a part. The first element is a local, Afghan government focused on development and offering unprecedented rights and opportunities for Afghan women. The second is the gift of hi-tech modernity, in this case captured by the journalist in the image of parachutes, and the contrast with the medievalism of the chador. Who can doubt that modernity beats feudalistic obscurantism?
And finally, a proud military record of civic construction, of a military which turned its hand to development and economic improvement, in the classic manner of counter-insurgency.
You might guess by now that there’s something wrong with all three of these examples. The jarring, terrifying wrongness comes from the fact that they were all Soviet or communist reports of the efforts of the Soviet Union and its allies inAfghanistan. The first declaration comes from the Afghan communist government which preceded the Soviet invasion of 1979.
The second, the report on the parachute versus the chador, comes from the Soviet journalist and youth adviser, Vladimir Snegirev, who, shortly after his arrival inAfghanistan, witnessed the Afghan new year celebrations at the Kabul Stadium in March 1982. And the third, the proud record of civic construction, was printed in Pravda on the final withdrawal by the Soviets in 1989.
All these passages come from the most sobering and depressing book I have read onAfghanistan. It is Afgantsy, by Rodric Braithwaite. It is the story of the Russian military involvement inAfghanistanfrom 1979 to 1989. It is a beautiful, sad, meditative book of almost infinite melancholy. Braithwaite is a former British ambassador toMoscow, who has written two previous books onRussiaand also served as John Major’s foreign policy adviser.
He has interviewed many of the key players in the Soviet venture, but also many of the foot soldiers and civilian advisers and administrators. It is only one perspective onAfghanistan, the aspect of the Soviet experience there. But its lessons are telling and dreadful.
There is no moral equivalence between the soldiers of the Soviet Union and the soldiers of theUSor Australian armies.
Moral equivalence was one of the most fatuous and disgusting of all the nostrums of the ideological Left during the Cold War. Nor is there a professional equivalence between Soviet and US or Australian soldiers.
There is no doubt theUSand Australian soldiers are vastly more professional, disciplined, ethical, better led and better equipped than their Soviet equivalents were.
Nonetheless, Afgantsy is the essential book for understanding why the coalition mission inAfghanistanis almost certainly doomed to long-term failure.
Braithwaite is no apologist for the Soviet Union and he gives reasonable consideration to the geo-strategic ambitions and disregard for national self-determination, or democracy, which the Soviet leadership displayed when they decided to invadeAfghanistan.
But Braithwaite also attempts to understand what the Soviets were actually thinking when they undertook this monstrous folly.
More important, he has a deep knowledge and a wide sympathy for Russian culture, and particularly for the efforts and travails of the ordinary Russians who undertook these tasks. This is not a book from the Afghan point of view, but from the Soviet viewpoint. Braithwaite has no axe to grind.
What emerges is not how good or bad the Soviets were, but how much what they were doing resembled what we are trying to do. The truth is, as Braithwaite argues, the Soviets did try to conduct a counter-insurgency strategy, focused on civilian development, partnering their troops with Afghan government troops, building hospitals, schools, farms and flats. With the Cold War long over, we can see that while the Soviet state was oppressive and lacking legitimacy at its heart, nonetheless, countless Soviet citizens worked in good faith and with decency and humanity to do their best to make the system work at home and abroad.
Many of the things the Soviets thought would make them popular inAfghanistanmade them hated, such as offering school education to girls. Braithwaite recounts numerous incidents of Afghan villagers, or mujaheddin warriors, burning schools and killing the children who went there into the bargain, or breaking the arms and legs of children who went to school. The hostility to girls receiving an education was visceral.
And when the Soviets came to religion, they were involved in a dialogue of the deaf, just as Western policymakers and commentators mostly are in relation toAfghanistan, and in relation to global Islamism, today. Most Western commentators cannot really believe that religion in the 21st century motivates people to terrible violence and life-long warfare, to terrorism and insurgency. Our conventional wisdom is really the same as that of the Soviets – surely it’s development that counts, not religion. Bring development and religious moderation will follow, except that inAfghanistanthat doesn’t work.
Braithwaite sketches the golden period of Afghan national life from the 1930s to the 1970s, when the country figured on the Western hippy trail and official tourist guides talked of “girls in mini-skirts” in Kabul. In fact this was always an illusion. The small Westernised middle-class ofKabulwas infinitely removed from rural Afghan life, which was characterised by extreme religious observance, family and tribal feuds, and a code of hospitality, martial valour and violence, and blood feuds.
The Soviets started out in Afghanistan determined to be there briefly, initially to remove an extreme local communist leader, to restore order and to hand over to a local government. Instead, they were there 10 years. Their army won every battle and they totally lost the country. The main insurgency they faced was from the Pashtun south, and supported out ofPakistan. Sound familiar? The country, they found, was exceptionally well suited to passive resistance. No national conception ofAfghanistanhad ever superseded tribal and clan loyalties.
So many of the Soviet moves, and statements, are so similar to the very things we say today.
Braithwaite records the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, as early as 1980, promising the French that inAfghanistanhe would find a political solution and he would reduce the military footprint of the Soviet presence in preparation for withdrawal. But the Soviets couldn’t withdraw until 1989 because they knew that once they withdrew their local allies would be overwhelmed in time and their enemies triumphant.Moscowworried about the damage such developments would do to its credibility and prestige, and many individual Russians conscientiously worried about the fate that would befall the many Afghans who worked with them.
Apart from the economic dimension of development and classical counter-insurgency, the Soviets emphasised the training of Afghan forces and put their own soldiers in large numbers into Afghan army units to advise and mentor them. But ultimately, when things went wrong, many of the Afghan units simply switched allegiances. The Soviets had, at first blush, a much better chance of making theirAfghanistanwork than we have of making ourAfghanistanwork.
They had set up, admittedly after brutal histories, fully functioning and stable central Asian republics within theSoviet Union. They had very deep familiarity withAfghanistan, with which they shared a border and with which they had been intimately involved for many decades.
There were plenty of Soviet experts onAfghanistan, plenty of Russians with a genuine interest in its culture and history.
Braithwaite makes a claim which I cannot credit. He suggests that, despite all the death and misery, the average Soviet soldiers got on better with the Afghans than the average NATO soldier does. I believe Braithwaite is wrong. But his basis for it is interesting. Most of the Soviet soldiers who served inAfghanistancame from poor, rural backgrounds and could relate instinctively to the poor, rural lifestyle of the Afghans. The Soviets even had hundreds of their own central Asian soldiers, from their own central Asian republics, working both as translators and as line soldiers.
None of it did any good. The Soviets and their Afghan allies constantly tried “national reconciliation”, much as the Americans do today. That didn’t work either.
Braithwaite identifies the traditional four main tasks of Afghan rulers: preserving a semblance of national unity, preserving national independence against powerful neighbours, modernising the country, and staying alive. Very few ofAfghanistan’s rulers have been able to get any of the four tasks right for long.
Braithwaite does not excuse or minimise Soviet crimes inAfghanistan. But the unimaginable savagery of the mujaheddin fighters is also shocking to read, even after all these years of war. One episode involves a Russian prisoner castrated, a ring put through his nose, and then paraded naked around villages for a month before his death.
This elegantly written but terrible book is not for the faint-hearted. Neither isAfghanistan.