The Ordeal of Afghanistan
An overview of the history and geopolitical significance of the Soviet invasion and occupation
What game is Russia playing in Afghanistan? Certainly the Great Game, that contest for power on the borders of the Indian subcontinent which enthralled the spies and soldiers of the czars and of British royalty throughout Queen Victoria's reign and after. Its stakes were, and remain, high—in essence, the right to call the strategic tune in the great wedge of territory that stretches between the Himalayas, the Arabian-Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. But the Great Game is an old game. Is there a new game—are there perhaps several games—afoot? Is Russia so alarmed by the resurgence of Islam that it plans to crush its prophets before they can shake the grip of communism on the Soviet Moslem republics? Or is its purpose offensive rather than pre-emptive? Does it perhaps hope to further the fragmentation of Pakistan, a country already halved in population as a result of the defection of Bangladesh, and now sandwiched between unneighborly India and the predatory USSR? Or are its ambitions larger still—nothing less than the annexation of territory as far south as the shores of the Indian Ocean, and the opportunity to confront the United States Navy with the challenge of a new and critically important oceanic frontier at the point least accessible to that navy's reach? These questions all flow from the Soviet Union's decision to invade Afghanistan, which astounded the world at Christmas, 1979.
Not many Westerners, even among the well educated, can confidently plant a thumb over Afghanistan's place on the map. Even fewer can identify the languages (there are several) that the Afghans speak or the peoples (several again) that make up the population. Time was when a whole breed of empire-building Britons knew the Afghans as intimately as the horse soldiers of the U.S. Cavalry knew the Indians of the Great Plains, and on the same terms of mutual enmity and respect. The survivors are growing old today. My gardener is one, a grizzled Argyll and Sutherland Highlander whose row of decorations, brought out annually for Remembrance Sunday, begins with the Frontier Medal, won at the head of the Khyber Pass in 1934. Major-General G.J. Hamilton—the husband of M. M. Kaye, who wrote The Far Pavilions—is another. Both are rich in recollections of frontier days. The Argyll recalls, with a private soldier's perspective, weeks of marching on his chinstrap up the high, broken roads of tribal territory, sweating his khaki and waiting for the crack of long-range-rifle fire that would send the platoon diving for cover amid the boulders of the baking hillsides. The General remembers a larger excitement. For a young cavalry officer of Britain's Indian Army, life in the cantonments of the plains was an eternity of drill, polo, and boredom. News of trouble on the frontier sent a thrill through the barracks keener than the promise of furlough and the onset of cool weather combined.
There was the excitement of packing kit, drawing live ammunition, and setting off in column of route along the Grand Trunk Road, that ribbon of Indian life in all its intensity, evoked unforgettably in Kipling's Kim, which links the cities of the Ganges valley with Peshawar and the North-West Frontier. There was the pleasure of greeting friends as other regiments marched in from the branch roads to swell the columns strength: tall, turbaned Sikhs, traditional enemies of the Afghans; tiny Gurkhas, fellow hillmen to the Afghans and quite as quick up a mountain, if not such deadly shots; hefty, sunburned British infantrymen, keen to practice the professional skills they had learned since taking the king's shilling on factory streets or village greens 5,000 miles away. As the road drew onward and climbed upward, the air grew crisp and invigorating, the nights sharp, the days, though still blazingly hot, dry and brilliantly clear. And the days were filled with exertion, incident, tantalizing rumor, and the pitting of precise tactical routines against innate military cunning.
The secret of survival in mountain warfare (the secrets of success are more arcane) is to hold the high ground. The Afghan is master of the high ground, knows every draw, false crest, goat track, hidden cave, overhang, and pinnacle. Allowed to move at his own pace, he will seize each point of command the mountains offer and from it unmask an ambush that will deal death to any interloping force unwary enough to stray within rifle shot. He will march eighteen hours in twenty-four to reach some favored spot, live for a week on a lump of unleavened bread, and urinate down a straw to keep the silence of the watching night. When the enemy's guard slips, he will deal one deadly blow and then melt into the mountains from which he came. So the British learned always to deny the Afghan his chosen pace and beat him to the peak he wished to hold. It was a Gurkha specialty to creep along the ridgelines parallel with the axis of advance, forcing the Afghans away from command of the roads on the valley floor. And when the advancing column had to take a leap in the dark, the hillsides would be drenched without warning by fire from the guns of the mule batteries, Kipling's "screw guns," whose wizardry in crashing into action with one wheel on a rock face and the other on the lip of a precipice no veteran of the frontier wars—from either side—will ever forget.
Frontier wars are made to sound fun by the men who fought them, and fun they were, a contest in warrior skills between those who held warriordom highest among their values. But they were also wars with a point. They had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning was almost always an irruption by the Afghans into the villages of the plains, many of them then inhabited by Hindus whose wealth and women the Moslem mountaineers had a periodically irresistible urge to plunder. The middle took the form of a summer's fighting in tribal territory. The end came when the mountaineers conceded that the pleasures of fighting were outweighed by the persistence of the British in burning their villages and confiscating their wealth, such as it was. When that moment arrived, the tribal leaders, masters of diplomacy when it suited them, knew precisely how to extend the tentacle of negotiation that would lead to terms of peace honorable to both sides.
It is a measure of how much has changed in the theater of the Great Game that the news of the Russo-Afghan war reaching the West these days bears little or no relation to the hide-and-seek that veterans of the Raj came to know so well. "We sat on the roof of a house where the wounded stayed," writes Mike Martin, a British war correspondent,
one man with perforated eardrums and shrapnel in his legs, another with hideous burns to his face and throat. You coped with the sight of serious wounds until the victims were children and all the arguments of a just war vanished. One small boy had had his legs welded together by the heat of bombs dropped on his father's fields, so that he was left with a single misshapen stump and he dragged himself along with a crutch. Another boy, about six, had had his face burned off. His nose was gone and there was a hole in the middle of his face which gave him the appearance of a fish. It was his mouth.
Wounds like these are the product of weapons that the British did not possess but also of methods to which veterans fervently deny they would have stooped. The weapons include fragmentation and concussion bombs, pyro-technic devices, and a variety of anti-personnel mines, including the so-called toy mine, a variant on the Second World War "butterfly" mine, which may be lethally attractive to children. The wounds such weapons inflict, on fighters and civilians alike, are barbaric. But the reason that civilians suffer equally, perhaps disproportionately, with the fighters is that the Soviet army and its puppet Afghan units scatter their firepower about the countryside in a brutally arbitrary and indiscriminate way.
Or is indiscriminate the right word? "Each village in Afghanistan has been bombed at least once in the last four years," a French doctor testified last year. "I went four times. I was in Nuristan, Panjshir, Badakhshan, and Hazarajat. Everywhere that I went, in all the villages, there was the story that it had been bombed six months ago, two years ago, four years ago. …" It may be an exaggeration that each Afghan village has been bombed. Louis Dupree, the great American expert on the country, calculated in 1963 that Afghanistan contained 14,205 villages, and even the overwhelmingly powerful Soviet air force lacks the capacity to have visited all of them in the past five years. But it has certainly bombed a great many, and the truth seems to be that it has done so deliberately.
The Soviet Union, like any advanced power bogged down in the guerilla war it cannot bring to decision, has fastened on the conclusion that the intransigence of the people is what stands between it and pacification. It has therefore—like Spain, Britain, Germany, France, Portugal, and the United States in their time—decided to carry the war to the civilian population. The results are the horrors to which Western journalists, doctors, and aid workers unanimously testify.
How did the Soviet Army embroil itself in this war, so frustrating in its character and so humiliating to the international reputation of the Soviet state? First and foremost because of geography. Afghanistan borders the Soviet Union—as well as Iran, Pakistan, and a fragment of China—and it is a fact of life that wars occur more frequently between neighbors than between distant states. The nature of Afghan geography further helps to explain the character of the war the Soviet Union is obliged to wage. Afghanistan is a big country, roughly 700 miles from east to west and 350 from north to south, with a land area of about 250,000 square miles. It is therefore equivalent to Texas in size, and also in population, which is estimated at between 10 and 15 million. But its topography resembles that of almost no other place on earth—except, perhaps, Ethiopia, another country in which the Soviet Union and its surrogates have had less than total success in bringing a dissident population to order. Essentially it consists of an enormous mountain massif, the Hindu Kush, surrounded by plains to the north, west, and southwest. The northern plains are an inhospitable plateau inhabited by peoples akin to those dwelling just over the Soviet border; the western and southwestern plains are desert. The central massif is also inhospitable; the westernmost extension of the Himalaya chain, its peaks rise at points to 17,000 feet and its winters are ferociously cold. But between the fingers of the ranges that spread into the plains and penetrate neighboring Pakistan lie fertile valley lands that support the agriculture by which most Afghans live. These valleys are often places of great beauty, green places in a land of rock and scree, filled by the vineyards and orchards with which the farmers surround their villages. The valleys are almost always self-contained economic units, since they connect with each other at best by high and difficult passes and frequently not at all. Afghanistan is a land almost without roads. A single paved highway encircles the central massif, connecting the major towns Kabul, Qandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif, from which spurs lead respectively to Peshawar and Quetta, both in Pakistan; Mashhad, in Iran; and Dushanbe, in the Soviet Union. The Russians have done much to improve and extend the network, but geography imposes strict limits on what they can achieve. The result is that economically and socially Afghanistan best resembles an enormous honeycomb whose cellular units are fated to remain structurally separate from one another.
This structural fragmentation ensures that "traditional Soviet methods of control don't work," as the Washington strategic analysts James Curren and Philip Karber have perceptively expressed it. "Infiltration of existing institutions, collectivization of agriculture, restriction of movement, and centralization of everything else can be imposed on a highly interdependent society with a minimum of force." But Afghan society is the opposite of interdependent, and the Afghans have one of the highest tolerances to the use of force of any people on earth. They are not one people but many, and these peoples have an age-old tradition of warring against one another as well as against their common neighbors in the fat lands beyond Afghanistan's borders. The most important of these peoples, the Pathans, cleave to a social canon that can pit tribe against tribe, village against village, neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother.
Afghan Realities, one of the grubby, misspelled, and badly typed mujahideen bulletins that circulate in Peshawar, reports in its April 16, 1985, issue that "the brother of Commander Ahmad Khan Mangal, of the National Islamic Front, who had some time back surrendered to the communist forces and then returned back to the Mujahideen, was executed on April 2, by Commander Ahmad Khan Mangal, his brother." The snippet, sandwiched between accounts of an attack on a government post at Narai and of a Soviet counterattack at Koh-e-Safi, reads for a Westerner like an episode from an Asian Godfather II. Among Pathans it would scarcely merit comment. Pakhtunwali, the Code of the Pathans, deems death the proper punishment for almost all crimes against honor. Honor is most easily offended where the reputation of women is involved, and Pathan women traditionally marry their cousins; fratricide is an inevitable consequence. The killing of cousin by cousin, uncle by nephew, brother by brother, is made all the more common by the injunction that the worst transgressions against honor must be extirpated by the nearest blood relative. Ahmad Khan Mangal was, therefore, doing no more than the good name of his family demanded in putting the turncoat to death. His behavior is thus made wholly understandable; by extension, so too is the reputation for ferocity that the Pathans have borne throughout their history.
The Russians are but the most recent of many invaders to have locked horns with the Pathans, who, strictly speaking, are the easterners among Afghanistan's largest ethnic group—Pashto- or Persian-speaking, and Mediterranean in descent and appearance. Alexander the Great came this way, and Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and, in their time, the British. But the Afghan heartland was rarely touched by any of them, and never for long. On the contrary, in recent centuries it is the Afghans who have carried the banner of conquest, planting it as far east as Delhi in 1757, when Ahmad Shah Durrani cowed the mighty Mogul emperor and won from him control of Kashmir, Sind, and the Punjab—the granary of northern India. Ahmad, the founder of what historians call the Durrani Empire, also greatly extended the rule of his Persian- and Pashto-speaking followers over their tribal neighbors, and neither he nor his successors were choosy about the allies they took in the process. It was their apparent willingness to make common cause with the Russians, pushing south into Central Asia in the early nineteenth century, that prompted the British to intervene in Afghan affairs, and so to undergo the greatest single disaster they suffered in the building of their Indian empire.
Determined to impose their own ruler on the Afghans—in an eerie anticipation of the decision taken by the Soviets in 1979—the British marched into the country, along the Quetta-Qandahar route, in 1839. After hard fighting the army reached Kabul and installed their candidate on the throne. An uneasy peace ensued while the British occupied the major towns and bribed the tribal chiefs into acquiescence. But chiefs and tribes alike bitterly resented the British presence, and in November of 1841 a general uprising broke out. The British decided that the country could not be held by military force and began a wholesale withdrawal in January of 1842. The army, including many families and camp followers, numbered 16,500. Five days after leaving Kabul most of the men in the column were dead—killed in battle, murdered on surrender, or dispatched by the cold. A military surgeon, particularly well mounted, was the only European to finish the march.
In 1878 the British found themselves marching into Afghanistan again, this time to make the Kabul government accept a permanent British representative in the capital. News that the Afghans had accepted a Russian mission had provoked the intervention; the purpose, as before, was to limit Afghanistan's freedom to make its own foreign policy and to include the country within the British sphere of influence. In the short term this Second Afghan War, as the British call it, achieved its aim. But in the long term the Afghans continued to go their own way. In 1919 they actually attacked British India, at a moment of acute nationalist disturbance in the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province, and the brashness of this Third Afghan War, doomed to military failure as it was, so impressed the British that they at last conceded recognition of Afghanistan's freedom in both internal and external affairs.
The Afghanistan of 1919 was not, however, the tempestuous Durrani Empire of the eighteenth century. The country had acquired fixed borders, an established system of government, and a settled population pattern. The inhabitants, almost without exception Moslem and the majority belonging to the Sunni branch of that religion, fell, and fall, into five main groups. North of the Hindu Kush live two Turkic peoples—the Aimaq and the Uzbek—and the Persian-speaking Tajik, all of whom have kin in the Soviet Central Asian republics to their north. In the mountainous center live the Hazara, Mongoloid by descent but speaking a Persian dialect. South and east of the Hindu Kush live the Pashto-speakers, loosely known as Pathans, who have supplied the country with its royal rulers and brought its other peoples under their sway. Making up about half the population, they also have a major kin group outside the national boundaries, the Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.
The presence of the Pathans in British India was a main source of the fighting endemic to frontier life before 1947. For, by an unusual arrangement with the Afghan government, which the Pakistanis later adopted and maintain to this day, the British did not administer their territory all the way to the border, which was fixed in 1893 and is known as the Durand Line. Consequently, many Pathans are free to live by the code of Pakhtunwali in what is called tribal territory, lying beyond the writ of the police, law courts, and, today, the Pakistani army. Inasmuch as the Afghan government has never aspired to regulate its own populations closely, the effect has been to straddle the international frontier with a belt of tribal territory containing perhaps 10 million people, where life is lived by the laws of the Koran, by honor, and by the gun.
For all that it was the North-West Frontier where trouble constantly rumbled during the final years of British rule in India, it was across Afghanistan's border with Russia that the only real threats of intervention menaced after the settlement of the Third Afghan War. The Soviet Union was too weakened by internal strife to resume the czarist Great Game in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. But during the twenties it energetically prosecuted a war in central Asia against people called basmachi ("bandits"), who were in fact Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen kinsmen of the northern Afghans, unwilling to accept the Sovietization of their homelands. Internal upheaval in Afghanistan in 1929 actually allowed the Soviets to launch a puppet force into the country, and though it met no welcome, they continued to look for means to extend their influence south of the border.
It is an irony that the entry the Soviets eventually found into Afghan affairs, and have since so cruelly exploited, was unwittingly given them by the Afghans themselves. As backward and inward-looking as Afghanistan was, it proved not immune to the urge to development in the years after the Second World War, when modernization was the word on every Third World ruler's tongue. As early as 1946 the royal Afghan government announced that it wanted to invest its accumulated war earnings in roads and irrigation schemes, and it naturally looked to the United States for expert assistance. "America's attitude is our salvation," the prime minister said. "For the first time in our history we are free of the threat of great powers' using our mountain passes as pathways to empire. Now we can concentrate our talents and resources on bettering the living conditions of our people." His appeal to American generosity was not in vain. Though aid was slow to come at first, the total sum transmitted by 1979, when it was understandably terminated, amounted to over half a billion dollars.
Successive Afghan governments might have benefited even more amply had they not consistently espoused frontier policies that Washington judged hostile to the best interests of Pakistan, its chosen protégé in southern Asia. Afghanistan lent its weight to a campaign, mounted by Pathans domiciled inside Pakistan, for the creation of a unitary "Pushtunistan," comprehending the tribal lands of all Pashto-speakers. Pakistan naturally saw this move as a device to rob it of much of the North-West Frontier Province and to add the detached territory to Afghanistan. Its suspicions were strengthened by Afghanistan's voting against Pakistan's entry to the United Nations in 1947, Afghanistan's repudiation of the basis of the Durand agreements in 1949, and an official Afghan definition of the national territory of Pushtunistan as including much of western Pakistan and the Pakistani Baluchistan province as far south as the shore of the Indian Ocean.
The United States was naturally concerned during the 1950s to sustain good relations with Pakistan, whose western and eastern "wings" (the latter today independent as Bangladesh) gave it membership in both the Baghdad Pact and the South East Asia Treaty organization and so provided a bridge between them vital to American strategy. The United States therefore took little account of Afghan resentments, even when the Soviet Union embarked on a deliberate policy of exploiting those resentments for its own ends. By 1955 Russia had set the Great Game in swing again. The Afghans, who cannot have been unaware of what their great neighbor was up to, shut their eyes to the implications; the Americans remained all but oblivious.
Indeed, the United States took the view that Afghanistan offered a strategic threat to Pakistan, and that such a threat was more harmful to American interests than any Soviet extension of influence over the Kabul government, since Pakistan was its firm ally in the region while India—Pakistan's enemy—was not. The State Department therefore decided that Soviet influence was best countered by increasing American military aid to Pakistan, rather than by seeking to outbid the Soviets in the offer of favors. Consequently, it refused to supply arms or advisers to the Afghan armed forces, small, ill equipped, and backward though they were. The Soviets were swift to respond to the need themselves, particularly by bringing Afghan officers to the Soviet Union for advanced training; by 1978 some 3,700 had received instruction, and many of them had returned home converted to the view that Afghanistan's future lay with its neighbor to the north rather than with the West.
Russia's path to dominance in Afghan affairs was greatly smoothed by the attitude of the man who became prime minister in 1953, Mohammed Daoud Khan. A first cousin of King Zahir Shah, Daoud was both committed to the Pushtunistan idea and impatient with the slow progress of modernization. In the ten years of his premiership his country's economic dependence on the Soviet Union deepened and relations with the United States deteriorated—to such a low point that in 1963 he was removed from power by his cousin the King, who valued the friendship of the United States. The King tried to correct the imbalance in his country's international alignment by fostering a constitutional style of government and interesting the United States in supplying the additional aid that would have underpinned it. But the country lacked the skills and political habits that make constitutionality work, and a succession of bad harvests in the early 1970s eroded popular support for the experiment. By 1973 the royal government was so thoroughly undermined that Daoud easily mounted a successful coup against it and returned to power as the head of a republican regime.
At a level of subversion even lower than that at which Daoud had operated, however, darker forces were at work. It is a measure of Afghanistan's underdevelopment that nothing like any of the Communist parties that the Soviet Union had implanted in other Asian countries as early as the 1920s had taken root. Some Afghans had nevertheless been influenced by Marxist ideas, usually acquired while they were working or training abroad. The most important of them were the writer Nur Mohammed Taraki, the lawyer Babrak Karmal, and Hafizullah Amin, an academic educated at Columbia University. In 1965 Taraki founded a Marxist party, the people's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), with Karmal as his deputy; Amin joined it soon afterward. It was his party that committed the country to the Soviet cause and, through its internal splits and quarrels, eventually provoked the Soviet invasion. Its remnants continue to provide the Kabul government with its leadership.
Taraki was an undoubted idealist, a dreamer whose visions of an emancipated Afghanistan overflowed all intervening difficulties. Amin, who quickly replaced Karmal as his deputy and became the leader of the party's Khalq ("Masses") faction, named after its newspaper, was a selfish opportunist. He successfully isolated Karmal, at that point the leader of the Parcham ("Flag") faction, and when a military coup overthrew Daoud, in April of 1978, he found his way rapidly to power. The circumstances of the 1978 coup remain obscure. A realization that Daoud was at last attempting to reverse his years of pro-Soviet policy and mend fences with the United States seems to have motivated his opponents. Whoever was behind the coup (it was staged by the Afghan army, which by then had been heavily penetrated by leftish of several complexions), Amin was the man to profit by it. One of his first steps was to secure the banishment of Karmal, who went as ambassador to Prague. He then instituted a repression of all opponents, while trying to foist the resentments it caused onto Taraki. Resentments were many and varied.
"The new regime," as Raymond Garthoff puts it in his Detente and Confrontation, "literally waved a red flag at the people when it changed the national standard from Islamic green, black and red to one very similar to those of the Central Asian republics of the USSR." The simple country people resented interference with their religious and tribal customs—notably Amin's effort to promote education for girls, even co-education, with the girls to be exposed without their veils, as well as his impetuous attempt to reduce the price of dowries so as to improve the condition of women. Property owners were outraged by expropriation. The families of those Amin murdered or imprisoned hated him for his brutality—at one point it was estimated that from two to four percent of the residents of Kabul were in his jails. Coupled with this widespread repression, Amin's program of forced modernization "violated practically every Afghan cultural norm and strayed far beyond the allowable bounds of deviance in the social, economic, and political institutions," one scholar writes. "It almost appears that the new leaders systematically planned to alienate every segment of the Afghan people." Already in the winter of 1978 resistance groups were using Pakistan as a base from which to mount raids across the border. Meanwhile, within Afghanistan resentments swelled to such an intensity that in March of 1979 the city of Herat was seized by opponents of the regime, their ranks swollen by the portentous defection of the Afghan army division that was stationed there. The rebels held the town for three days before being overwhelmed by a military counterattack. During their brief occupation they hunted down the several dozen Russian military advisers and their families who were stationed in the town, slaughtered them in hideous ways, and then stuck their severed heads on pikes and paraded them through the streets. This massacre by formerly loyal troops may have put the idea of direct military intervention in the Russians' minds, for, ironically, among those whom Amin most offended were the Russians.
As Henry Bradsher, an American journalist who has followed events in Afghanistan closely, has succinctly expressed it,
Amin was, from the Soviet standpoint, a failure. So long as he remained in charge in Kabul there was no hope of consolidating the grip that Communism had gained … with the April 1978 coup. There was, instead, the danger of losing it, of having the country fall into a chaotic anti-Communist condition. Worse, it would be anti-Communism with strong Islamic overtones in a country bordering disaffected, colonially held and traditionally Islamic peoples of the Soviet Union.
Amin had already had Taraki killed—suffocated with a pillow in an episode straight out of Shakespearean melodrama. On December 28, 1979, the Russians killed Amin. A Soviet special-forces group found and attacked him in the fortified refuge outside Kabul to which he had retreated; apparently, he was shot dead in the fighting that ensued. The Soviet putsch had been prepared with cunning and care. Reportedly, Afghan officers in Kabul were invited to a reception by their Soviet counterparts the night of the invasion and then locked up in the room. Earlier, in Garthoff's words, "Some Afghan units were instructed to turn in live ammunition for blanks for training; batteries were removed from some tanks for 'winterizing,' while other tanks were sent to depots supposedly for the correction of a 'defect.'" Thus little resistance met the main Soviet forces. Three Soviet airborne divisions began landing at Kabul airport on the evening of the 24th. On the 28th, four motor rifle divisions crossed the Amu Darya (Oxus River), which forms the Afghan-Russian border, and began racing south, along the roads built with twenty-five years' worth of Soviet aid, to seize strategic points within the country. So carefully had the invasion been planned that Soviet forces were said to have suffered more casualties from road accidents than from combat.
A vanguard of Soviet troops had arrived in the country earlier, one battalion as early as July. Also, a large delegation of senior Soviet officers had made a tour of inspection in April. It was led by General Yepishev, the officer in charge of ideology, morale, and discipline in the Soviet army, whose visit to Czechoslovakia during the "Prague spring" of 1968 was apparently decisive in persuading the Politburo to intervene on that occasion. On this visit, in Bradsher's account, he found "the Afghan armed forces weakened by defections, divided by Khalq-Parcham infighting, damaged by the purging of non-Communist officers, and therefore in need of greater Soviet involvement." His report may have been the trigger that sent the invasion on its way.
Close on the heels of the Soviet main body came Karmal, whom the Soviets had been supporting in exile after Amin had dismissed him as ambassador to Prague. Broadcasts attempted to represent this arrival as the cause rather than a consequence of the invasion. His government transmitted an invitation to the Soviet army to intervene, some time after its leading elements had arrived and were, indeed, in downtown Kabul, fighting units of the Afghan army still loyal to Amin. The deception was wholly unsuccessful. The Soviets appear to have hoped that the world might accept Karmal's reappearance as a natural event in a country where two presidents had been murdered in the previous twenty months. But the Afghans' age-old resistance to foreign intervention gave that version the lie. Karmal's regime was therefore perceived to lack legitimacy from the outset, and his installation as president aroused denunciations from almost every quarter of the non-Communist world.
Moreover, it did nothing to diminish popular resistance to government by the PDPA, whose crumbling grasp and prestige the Soviet invasion had been meant to restore. On the contrary, resistance, which had begun before the invasion, immediately hardened and spread. It was soon to affect every one of the country's twenty-six provinces. The number of those voting with their feet increased also. From the time of Taraki's ascendance to December of 1979 about 400,000 Afghans had left their homes and become refugees outside the country, largely in Pakistan. In the next year the number of refugees began to rise sharply, as families fled the increasingly dangerous countryside to take refuge either in the towns or across the borders.
The invasion also strengthened the resolve and sharpened the image of the groups that had raised the standard of revolt against Amin and the Khalq. Since Karmal was a Parcham leader, both factions were now anathema to those who opposed the Soviets, and that at least provided a basis for cooperation in the growing fight against the Russians. But the resisters—henceforth to call themselves and be known as mujahideen, or "those who fight the holy war" (jihad)—would not have been Afghans had they not found more to differ than agree over. Familiar tribal rivalries, often complicated by personal loyalties and antipathies, divided them. So, too, did religion and traditional political alignment. In all, some forty resistance groups have been identified. The most important, however, number six, equally divided between Islamic fundamentalism and Afghan traditionalism.
One of the largest is Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (the Afghanistan Islamic Party), which was founded in Kabul in 1968 to oppose the modernization of the constitutional period. It has ties with the Moslem Brotherhood and also with Ayatollah Khomeini, receives generous financial support from Iran, and would establish an orthodox Islamic government. Its membership is largely Pathan. A breakaway faction, also known as the Hezb, has the same aims, is smaller but militarily very effective, and is divided from the larger group on the issue of personality. Its leader is Younis Khalis; the larger Hezb-i-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The third fundamentalist group is Jamiate-Islami Afghanistan (the Afghanistan Islamic Society), whose membership is largely Uzbek and Tajik rather than Pathan. It is perhaps the best known in the West, because to its belongs the redoubtable Tajik "commander" (the ubiquitous term for majuhideen officers) Massoud Ahmadshah, the Lion of the Panjshir Valley.
The three most important traditionalist groups are Jabha-ye-Azadire Afghan (the Afghan National Liberation Front), whose leader enjoys the support of conservative Arab states; Harakat-e-Ingilab-e-Islami (the Revolutionary Islamic Movement), the party of the religious leaders in the countryside, which is, like Jamiat, largely non-Pathan in membership; and Payman-e-Ettehad-e Islam (the National Islamic Front), the group whose membership is most Westernized, calling for the establishment of a secular democracy in a free Afghanistan.
The size and strength of these groups proves chronically difficult to estimate. It is commonly said that there are between 90,000 and 120,000 mujahideen of all parties in the field and that the number can rise to a quarter of a million during the height of the annual campaigning season. Such figures certainly square with the manpower known to be available. Nearly four million Afghans have now gone into exile—a million to Iran, the rest to Pakistan, where they live in 300 camps in the North-West Frontier Province. These camps are also base areas for the mujahideen, from which the fighters regularly pass through Pakistani tribal territory and then onward across the frontier by any of the 200 passes that lead through the mountains. But not even the Pakistani government seems able to count heads, while the group leaders remain too divided to pool information about how many followers each has. Attempts to impose unity, sponsored particularly by fellow Moslems in the Middle East, have failed to secure peace even among the groups' headquarters in Peshawar, while from inside Afghanistan itself come regular reports of the mujahideen fighting each other, sometimes at the expense of waging the war against the Russians. Hezb and Jamiat, for example, have certainly fought bitterly, even though both are Islamic fundamentalist in creed; their antipathy is largely ethnic. In central Afghanistan, where the Hazara form the only sizable Shi'ite group in the resistance, the fighting that has taken place has been along traditionalist-fundamentalist lines. Such fighting is the despair of foreign supporters of the mujahideen, who periodically cut off aid and bang heads in an effort to make the mujahideen sink their differences.
The very fractiousness of the Afghans both drives them to fight the Russians and frustrates the Russian effort to overcome them. The Russians' war effort has taken the form of trying one method after another, looking for a new one as the old failed. Four approaches seem to have been tried. In the first, somewhat reminiscent of the initial American response to the imminent collapse of the South Vietnamese army in 1965, the arriving Soviet divisions fought set-piece battles, intended to break the mujahideen wherever they would stand and fight. This phase came to an end partly because the Central Asian troops that the Russians had mobilized in the nearby military districts to flesh out the invasion proved reluctant to fight their ethnic and religious kin and, more important, because the mujahideen learned not to play the Russians' game. Afghans have no tradition of waging conventional war and no shame about preferring irregular tactics, of which they are masters. They therefore rapidly abandoned stand-up for hit-and-run methods, which rendered irrelevant much of the doctrine and most of the heavy equipment with which the soviet divisions were encumbered. The Soviet leadership had hoped that the stiffening provided by its army's presence would motivate the Afghan army to bear the brunt of the fighting. But Afghan officers remained bitterly divided between the Kahlq and Parcham factions, while conscripts took every opportunity to desert, often directly to the mujahideen. The army's strength quickly dropped from more than 100,000 to 30,000 or fewer.
By the beginning of 1981, therefore, the soviets had turned to new techniques. They replaced the Soviet Central Asians with conscripts and reservists brought from other part of the soviet Union, and indoctrinated the newcomers in the importance of getting off the roads when ambushed and seeking the enemy on the high ground. These were lessons, of course, that the British knew of old and that would have seemed entirely sensible to soldiers from the mountainous regions of the Soviet Union. Most of those soldiers, however, belonged to ethnic groups that Moscow could not for political reasons risk exposing to Afghan dissidence. So while the conventional Soviet units struggled to practice frontier warfare, the high command came increasingly to rely on special forces and airmobile groups in search-and-destroy operations. Students of Vietnam may detect in this a resemblance to the second stage of American operations in that country. At the outset it had a similar temporary success. The rural mujahideen found air attack frightening and difficult to counter; they had no ground-to-air weapons with which to fight the heavily armed and armed Mi-24 Hind helicopters. But while the Soviets made a good deal of progress in the countryside with advanced technology, a sort of low-level Tet offensive was gathering force in the towns. Tet had been aimed at temporarily wresting control of the hundred largest Vietnamese towns from the South Vietnamese and American forces. In Afghanistan neither Karmal nor his Soviet backers had ever succeeded in establishing full control over the towns, where supporters of the regime were frequently and most bloodily murdered, Soviet and government installations bombarded, and public-utility service interrupted.
So in 1982 the Soviets initiated yet a third phase of the war, at which point their methods began to diverge from those employed by the United States Army in Vietnam. The phase might nevertheless have been predicted, for by this time the Russians had come to a crossroads that confronts any conventional army waging a war against an intransigent population with geography on its side. Unable to find and fix the fighters on their own ground, or to deter noncombatants from supplying those fighters with food and shelter, a counterinsurgency force must abandon the countryside to the enemy (and much of the countryside was tacitly so abandoned) or open negotiations or carry the war against the civilian population. The British, brought to this pass in their war against the Boers, in South Africa in 1900, decided to separate the farmer-fighters from their women and children by confining the latter in camps. It was unfortunate that the term they used to identify these places was "concentration camps," a phrase borrowed from the Spanish, who had employed the same method in Cuba in the 1890s. It was even more unfortunate that a large number of the Boer noncombatants died from disease caused by poor hygiene. The French in Algeria during the 1950s were able to exclude a large number of the guerrillas from the war zone by building a 300-mile-long electrified fence, an expedient possible only because so much of the Algerian terrain was level desert. The Americans in Vietnam, resigned to the fact that certain areas of Vietnam were irreclaimably under the control of the Viet Cong, called on the population to leave them and warned that those who stayed would be living henceforth in a free-fire zone. Effectively, what the Russians did from 1982 onward was deem the whole of rural Afghanistan a free-fire zone, with the aim of driving the country people either into the cities (a million have been displaced in that direction) or out of the country altogether. But not even the cities were safe. One third of Qandahar was destroyed by artillery bombardment as early as June of 1981, and Qandahar was attacked again in 1982. So was Herat, a focus of resistance to the PDPA.
In addition, over the past two years the Soviets have instituted a severe form of economic warfare against the resistance which some observers think poses the gravest threat to its ability to continue the war. According to Alex Alexiev, a Rand Corporation scholar, the Soviets have tried to curtail food production in areas known to be centers of guerrilla activity. Their devilishly ingenious tactics have included destroying crops outright by napalming the farmers' fields and sowing anti-personnel mines to discourage the farmers from reclaiming them, smashing the primitive but vital irrigation systems, buying up surplus food from peasants at prices higher than those prevailing at the market, and lavishing upon peasants in government-controlled areas an abundance of fertilizers and seeds and farm implements designed to win their allegiance and lure others down from the hills to join them. This war against the land has cut agricultural production to 20 to 25 percent of its pre-invasion levels and has loosed the shadow of famine across large parts of the country. Economic warfare and famine, Alexiev points out in a grisly footnote to his study, are venerable Soviet techniques for crushing national resistance movements. The opposition to collectivization in the Ukraine in the 1930s was finally snuffed out by inducing a famine that claimed some six million lives. Trouble in the Baltic states after the Second World War was suppressed by the destruction of the freedom fighters' economic base and by the deportation of more than half a million Balts to Siberia. With the Balts the Soviets had to assume the cost of transportation and at least some of the costs of resettlement; with the Afghans no such costs are involved. The maintenance of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan is paid for by the United States, the United Nations, and Pakistan; and owing to the relentless Soviet economic warfare, their numbers are growing. One fourth of the pre-invasion population of Afghanistan is in exile. It is as if 60 million Americans were now huddled in camps across the Mexican border.
The fourth and latest phase of Soviet methods, beginning last year, was an increasing unconcern about who noted what Soviet troops did and where. In the early stages of the war, when Moscow was propagating its line that Karmal had invited the Soviet army to help him restore order in the country, the Russians were reluctant to be observed at work. Western journalists succeeded in filming mujahideen in action, but they often had to walk for two or three weeks in order to do so, penetrating deep beyond the border zones, across one high mountain pass after another, to find the scenes they wanted. It was as if the Russians, remembering the U.S. Army's exposure to the media in Vietnam, had decided to give the West's television screens as little material as possible with which to affront the viewer. Last year, and continuing into this year, military necessity seems to have driven the Russians to scatter discretion to the winds and bring the war down to—sometimes across—the frontier with Pakistan. "The U.S. State Department," James Curren and Philip Karber report,
estimates that more than 50 air and 20 ground incursions into Pakistan took place in the last four months of 1984, more than in all previous years combined. The refugee camps have sustained casualties estimated as high as 1,000 killed in 1984. The increased frequency of these attacks seems to underline the Soviet frustration in dealing with the mujahideen.
It also, as the two analysts go on to argue, demonstrates the Soviets' frustration at their inability to interrupt the flow of arms to the resistance (though in recent months they have been fighting major battles near the Pakistan border to break the arms routes leading to the Afghan hinterland). Whence these arms come is one of the most intriguing yet obscure aspects of the war. The mujahideen claim that the majority of their weapons are captured from the enemy. But many are supplied by foreign sympathizers (China and the United States among them) and a good quantity are bought on the international arms market with money supplied by Middle Eastern states. And so the fourth stage of the war continues. Estimates of the number of Afghan dead range from the merely appalling (250,000) to the inconceivably horrific (750,000).
Thus far the Soviets have suffered something on the order of 30,000 men killed in a war that, clearly, they are neither winning nor losing. Will they continue to bleed themselves and the dwindling Afghan nation, or is there a combination of risks and incentives that could induce them to quit the country?
Beyond the lives taken, the prestige lost, the treasure consumed, the Soviets have already paid a stiff price for their invasion and for an occupation that will soon enter its sixth year. The vehemence of the initial American response to the invasion caught the Soviets by surprise. In April of 1978 a Communist regime was installed in Kabul; in December of 1979 it was replaced by another Communist regime. Why was the West in such high dudgeon? After all, from the standpoint of geopolitics, in Raymond Garhoff's words, "continued communist rule in Afghanistan would but represent consolidation of the … status quo." In short, the invasion "was intended to preserve, not upset, an existing geopolitical balance," as the Soviets saw it. The United States had accepted the 1978 coup; after a protest for the record it would accept the 1979 invasion, which was necessary to secure the fruits of the coup.
If this was the drift of Soviet thinking, it was one of the major misperceptions in the whole forty years of superpower relations. Characterizing the invasion as "the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War," President Jimmy Carter recalled the U.S. ambassador to Moscow (a step the United States had not taken even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, in 1956), announced a list of sanctions against the USSR that ranged from a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to a grain embargo, instituted draft registration for eighteen-year-olds, called for a substantial increase in the U.S. defense budget, and dispatched the secretary of defense to China for discussions of a possible U.S.-China defense agreement. Finally, in January of 1980 the United States began providing covert military aid to the Afghan resistance fighters based in Pakistan. These and other U.S. moves brought the era of detente to an abrupt end and signaled the start of a new militance in U.S. foreign policy.
Debate continues over the utility of the long list of U.S. sanctions. And of the damage the Soviets suffered in international opinion, they may well ask, "How many divisions does international opinion have?" But detente had brought the Soviets valuable trade and greater international legitimacy. And the ever-increasing covert aid has hurt—has cost the Soviets lives and will claim more if the thought of hanging belatedly concentrates the minds of the fractious guerrilla leaders and they agree to end the corruption that has dogged the arms-supply effort and to sink their petty differences in the common cause of regaining their country. For their part, the Pakistanis, who reportedly have been skimming arms and other aid off the top of the total sent to the guerrillas, may for self-interested reasons decide to let more aid get through. They may take that step in reaction to the Soviets' heating up of the war along the border. Already the United States has sent an emergency shipment of hand-held Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Pakistan to help deter future Soviet bombing raids on the camps along the border. Should any of these weapons fall into the guerrillas' hands—accidents happen; shipments have been known to go awry—the Soviets would face a formidable foil to the airmobile warfare they have been conducting in Afghanistan.
The Soviets face a stark strategic problem in trying to bring the war to a successful issue. They can't win so long as the camps in Pakistan provide safe haven to their enemies. And any assault on the camps would bring them into direct conflict with Pakistan's 450,000-man army and, since the United States is bound by presidential agreement to come to the defense of Pakistan, with some level of U.S. force as well. Here we conjure with a crisis that would indeed represent "the greatest threat to world peace since the Second World War."
The Soviets can, with their economic warfare, denude Afghanistan of its people, but they can't stop most of the able-bodied male refugees from returning as mujahideen for a time and making the occupation a misery with more and more foreign-supplied weapons. Nor can they expect the Afghan fighters to abandon the war as a lost cause—not with their history of ferocious resistance to invaders and not when recovery of their country has become their whole raison d'etre. In order to end this limited war the Soviets must widen it—but to widen it would be to heap folly upon recklessness. So the best the Soviets can hope to achieve is a bloody stalemate.
That almost certain prospect offers them the best incentive to withdraw. But there are others. As Zalmay Khalilzad, a professor of political science at Columbia University, put it in an interview, "It is not yet Gorbachev's war." It is the war of his predecessors. But increasingly, after the Party congress to be held in Moscow next February—by which time Gorbachev will have put his people in place—it will be his war. Before his prestige is committed to a failed policy, he has a brief season of flexibility. Will he take advantage of it? The United States has offered to make the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan as easy as possible. If fear of Western subversion really did prompt the Soviet invasion, as the Soviets claim in their propaganda, very well, the United States, along with Pakistan and possibly China, would be willing to guarantee the neutrality of Afghanistan. Thus Gorbachev could plausibly say to his Party, "The imperialists have met our terms, the war has been won. They have even agreed to recognize a legitimate Soviet security interest in Afghanistan' (that is code for 'Let Afghanistan be Finland'). We are in a difficult arms negotiation, comrades. Suppose we seize this chance to write off a bad debt? Perhaps we could get a concession from the Americans on Star Wars or our long-range missiles. Linkage is a fact of life in diplomacy; a deal from one category of thing to another is always possible. Let's declare victory, comrades, and march the boys home for May Day! There's only one sticking point, easily met: the West insists that we march them home first. Then the aid to the guerrillas will cease. Then we will get our guarantee of neutrality from the imperialists."
U.S. willingness to ease the Soviets out of their Vietnam may seem the most implausible element in this scenario. In fact, the United States does want the Soviets out—not because of solicitude for the Afghans but out of fear of the geopolitical danger the Soviets' being there represents. Perched safely in the Hindu Kush, high above Pakistan, the Russian bear would be in a grand position to play the Great Game with a vengeance should Pakistan's always volatile polity disintegrate under the press of ethnic or fundamentalist discontent. In short, President Zia, or one of his successors, could go the way of the Shah. In the ensuing chaos, all treaties null and void, the Soviets could steal a march through always restive Baluchistan and attain their venerable ambition of a warmwater port—one astride the Western oil lanes on the Persian Gulf. To prevent this happening would be worth something to the West.
Will Gorbachev seize his chance? History knows some precedent for new leaders' quitting wasting wars. Mendes-France pulled France out of Indochina after Dien Bien Phu. De Gaulle, eight years later, pulled it out of Algeria. Conversely, Richard Nixon, elected in 1968 on a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War, kept the United States in combat for five more years. Clearly, even when leaders or parties change, it is not easy for great powers to step out of the corners into which they have backed themselves. Events can have an inertia all their own. And right now events in Afghanistan are tending toward more war.
Mujahideen, when asked how long they can carry on the fight, are given to affirming that it will last twenty or thirty or forty years, if need be. Alas for their bold and brave words, the Russians may be of a mind with them: reportedly, they have sent as many as 40,000 children and youths to the USSR for, as the London Observer puts it, "integration into 'the Soviet way of life.'" They, too, seem prepared to carry on their side of the fight until they have driven out of the country all Afghans who resist, or broken the hearts of those who remain. A long war, a relentless war, a pitiless war, waged by an enemy who cares nothing for courage or the code of the warrior, is the one military experience through which the Afghans have never been put. It may prove to be the means that finally breaks their proud, free, and reckless spirit.