Since time immemorial Afghanistan has been riven by tribal, ethnic and religious conflict. In its harsh geography, authority expands and contracts beneath a patina of centuries of shifting loyalties. The process of forming reliable alliances has been too subtle for foreign invaders – including Alexander the Great, the Moghuls, the British (repeatedly), and in 1979, the Russians. The USSR had promoted its own interests for years with a massive aid program, until in the 1970s Afghanistan ‘voted’ a communist government to power. Urban communism, backed only by the military, was a direct challenge to deeply entrenched Muslim culture and belief. Countryside protest became nationwide revolt, and the USSR invaded Afghanistan in defense of the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ of surrounding the mother country with kowtowing, client communist states.
On Christmas Eve in 1979 Russia flooded the country with troops, tanks, artillery and aircraft. They thought they were fighting the usual, unruly dissidents, but their enemy was Islam itself: common religious cause over-rode internecine tribal antagonism. From Russia’s point of view this redefined the mujahedeen to include every town, village or farm that sheltered them (voluntarily or not). During the next ten years Russia razed the heart and soul out of Afghanistan’s rural culture, ably assisted by the actual mujahedeen guerrillas, who gratefully accepted the CIA’s $2.1 billion investment in their resistance, and grew too excited by weaponry to care who got damaged in the cross-fire. Russia, confined to heavily fortified enclaves, hemorrhaging young lives to no conceivable benefit, threatened by its own allies with trade sanctions, and pressurized by international moral censure, gave up. Using the pretext of the botched, 1988 Geneva Accords, its armies fled with indecent haste. Afghanistan was a wasteland, robbed of its culture, its civil structures and democratic potential. And thanks to Russia, worse was yet to come.
When: December 24 1979 to February 15 1989
Death toll: Of the 620,000 Russians who served in Afghanistan, 15,000 were killed and 54,000 wounded. The country is still carpeted with land mines. Hundreds of thousands of Afghanis died, and millions fled as refugees to Pakistan. With traditional tribal structures irrevocably fractured by the war, new alliances have been forged linking the refugee communities with both Taliban fundamentalists and Afghani ‘tribal nationalists’. The USA must share the blame with the USSR for playing an almost genocidal game of one-upmanship in this period.
You should know: Zbigniew Brezhinski of the US State Department confessed years later that the US had planned to support Russia’s Afghani opponents five months before the USSR invaded: ‘On July 3 1979 President carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the Pro-Soviet regime in Kabul… The day the Soviets officially crossed the border, l wrote to President Carter: we now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War…’