Page 1 of 2 THE ROVING EYE
Backstage at the theater of 'terror'
By Pepe Escobar
Afghanistan is not only the graveyard of empires; it's a graveyard of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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