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    South Asia
     Feb 27, 2009
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Backstage at the theater of 'terror'
By Pepe Escobar

Afghanistan is not only the graveyard of empires; it's a graveyard of misconceptions.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden believed that the mujahideen single-handedly defeated the Soviet empire; so a more compact mujahid band, al-Qaeda, would be the vanguard in defeating the American empire. It was never that simple.

In the United States, the myth rules that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) delivered the Soviets "their Vietnam"; thus this was


basically a US victory, with the "freedom fighters" (copyright president Ronald Reagan) as supporting actors. It was never that simple.

The Pakistani military-intelligence establishment believes since the late 1970s, that a puppet Afghanistan was essential for its "strategic depth". It was never that simple.

It's also useful to remember today that little has changed regarding the Afghan tragedy in these past three decades. And that makes the upcoming US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) surge in Afghanistan a certified road to ruin.

Behind the red curtain
It's easy to forget in the US that Soviet intelligence in late 1979 was more than aware of an imminent anti-Soviet pact between China and the US - crystallizing what the USSR feared the most: to be encircled by enemy powers.

There were, of course, Afghan political elements that forced the Soviet hand. Moscow was keen to support a communist government in Kabul, and was very wary of the Islamic revolution being exported from Iran to western Afghanistan.

But there was also the fact that around 100 top Soviet officials - including three KGB colonels - had been assassinated by tribal fundamentalists in plain sight of then-resident Hafizullah Amin's government. (After the Soviet invasion Amin was dispatched to the Lubyanka, the KGB's headquarters in Moscow, and tortured: he had made such a mess in Kabul that he was believed to be a CIA agent. Amin was finally executed by "administrative process" - a shot in the back of the neck.)

Former US president Jimmy Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski - today a President Barack Obama foreign policy shadow eminence - of course instrumentalized the mujahideen. After all, what Zbig really wanted - and got - was "to induce a Soviet military intervention".

But when Carter got his invasion, he interpreted it as the USSR really wanting to invade the Persian Gulf and cut off the oil supply of "our" Western world. Few sane voices in the US remarked that if the USSR ever attempted such a move that would mean a nuclear war with the US.

Historian, diplomat, strategist and US foreign policy establishment icon George Kennan - the author of the "containment" of communism strategy - was one of these voices; he dismissed Carter as "immature".

Kennan also made two points that remain extremely valid today; that if the Persian Gulf was so "vital" for the US, that was because of US oil greed; and that instability in the Middle East was not due to USSR moves but to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the US blindly backing one side.

When in doubt, pre-empt
Most of all, from the Soviet point of view, the invasion of Afghanistan was classic pre-emptive action - a sort of replay of the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, Fidel Castro informed Moscow that the US was preparing the invasion of Cuba. The Soviet high command then came up with a pre-emptive action - deploying the missiles with the understanding that they would be sent back home if president John F Kennedy protested, thus winning Cuba's inviolability in the process.

In the invasion of Afghanistan, which had had pro-communist or pro-Soviet governments for the past few years - although its support by Moscow was no exactly enthusiastic - the Soviets were pre-empting the possibility that via a pact with the US, China would enter Afghanistan on the trail of its ally, ultra-conservative Pakistan, and probably using American money.

Thus the Soviet action was justified in terms of its survival strategy. Pakistan at the time was already involved in an operation - alongside China and the US - against political and social sectors in Afghanistan. With the invasion of Afghanistan and Indira Gandhi's electoral victory in India, the USSR created a pawn.

What nobody could imagine in 1979 was that the mighty Red Army would be, if not defeated, at least paralyzed by a bunch of mountain warriors with rifles. As for Pakistan, its master plan was always to control Afghanistan, even indirectly, in the name of its "strategic depth" theory (and that has not changed to this day).

The influence of leftist movements in Afghanistan could be seen already in a more-or-less free election in 1954, when the left elected 50 congressmen out of a total of 120. A good deal of these leftists were nationalists and radical Islamists. The USSR had been helping Afghanistan ever since the October 1917 revolution. As much as Moscow, Mohammed Daoud - who dethroned his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973 - wanted to modernize Afghanistan by force. The precedent was not very encouraging, namely the failure of King Amanullah in 1919, also supported by the Russians.

Even if Washington under Obama would be interested today (and it's not), modernization of Afghanistan by force also would not work. What would be really needed is hardcore nation-building - lots of investment in education and infrastructure that would generate real employment opportunities, while making sure the money does not disappear in the Kabul bureaucracy's ministerial black hole.

To promote socialism, progress or simply democracy in Afghanistan just by distributing aid - without fundamentally changing a centuries-old social structure - is impossible. This was - and will continue to be - the key to the Afghan riddle, and the main reason why the Obama/Pentagon/NATO surge, full or half-full, will fail.

Losing a 'revolutionary civil war'
As for the end of the Soviet invasion/occupation a little over 20 years ago, the dynamic had changed compared to the late 1970s. There was a detente in place with both the US and China. A US myth rules that the Soviets abandoned Afghanistan because the US (and Pakistan, plus Saudi Arabian money) manipulated the largest guerrilla war of the 20th century, whose coup de grace were those precious Stinger missiles the CIA finally shipped to the mujahideen.

That was only one among a myriad of reasons, all related to a compounded Soviet financial disaster: the fall in oil and gas prices; the fallout from Chernobyl; a horrible earthquake in Armenia; a very bad performance in agriculture; and the perestroika paralysis.

By early 1989, a majority of Russians considered the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 as a major mistake. Plus they had to count their dead. In the first wave the dead were Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and Kyrgyz. Then they were Belorussians, Ukrainians, Estonians and, yes, Russians.

Since the peace of Brest Litovsk in 1918, the Soviets had never suffered a politico-military defeat. For the official ideologues close to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, this was a not a war of conquest, but a revolutionary civil war with the "internationalist" help of the USSR.

But this "revolutionary civil war" was ultimately won by a bunch of Muslim tribals - Rabbani, Khalis, Abdul Haq, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Shah Masoud, Ishmail Khan - and their commanders. (It's interesting to remember that Abdul Haq was later killed by the Taliban, Masoud was killed by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11, Ishmail Khan still rules in western Afghanistan and Hekmatyar is still a Washington bete noire on the loose.)

From the point of view of Moscow, at least the USSR's southern frontier was pacified. The special units of General Boris Gromov left behind millions of landmines. But most of all the USSR - and the US - left behind a festering, multi-level guerrilla army divided between seven Sunni parties, based in Pakistan, and eight Shi'ite parties, supported by Iran. The outlook for Kabul was a Saigon scenario or a Beirut scenario. In the end, "Beirut" won: out of this enlarged Lebanese situation emerged the Pakistan Frankenstein - the Taliban.

It's never enough to stress it: almost every Taliban is a Pashtun but not every Pashtun is a Taliban. The current US and NATO strategy of a war against Pashtun peasants is as pointless as the failed war against the Ba'athists in Iraq. (Almost all Ba'athists were Sunni Arabs, but not every Sunni Arab was a Ba'athist.)

General Gromov, the former commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan - and currently the governor of the Moscow region - did not mince his words "celebrating" the 20th anniversary of the 

Continued 1 2 

China breaks its silence on Afghanistan
(Feb 25,'09)

Obama nixed full surge in Afghanistan
(Feb 24,'09)

Obama and the counter-insurgency era (Feb 18,'09)

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