The United States is talking to the Taliban. Russia is, too. Thirty years after the Soviet withdrawal, Moscow’s involvement in Afghanistan is a reminder of the current conflict’s deep roots.
“The Soviets achieved the effect of a nuclear strike without actually having to deliver one,” an Atlantic correspondent wrote in 1989 about the Afghan conflict. Today, The Masthead revisits that piece with Amie Ferris-Rotman of The Washington Post.
Listen to our conversation about Afghanistan, Russian history, and its implications for the current peace talks on the podcast feed for members. The audio is available on SoundCloud, or you can get it directly in your podcast player.
By Matt Peterson
America’s intervention in Afghanistan is one phase in what many Afghans call their “40-year war.” That historical arc began when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. One million Afghan civilians died before the Soviets pulled out a decade later. Now, as the United States has begun direct peace talks with the Taliban, Moscow is back with its own parallel peace process. Russia’s efforts are a not-so-subtle attempt to undermine the United States, but they’re also revealing. The Russians know their history in Afghanistan—and they know America’s.
Here’s where the peace process stands: Moscow’s talks aren’t likely to bring peace—more on that later—but Washington’s might. The U.S. under Donald Trump’s administration has been talking directly to the Taliban. The latest round wrapped up in Doha, Qatar, last week, and talks will resume soon. The lead American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that there was a draft agreement on the withdrawal of American troops, but that other issues remain unresolved. (The U.S. and its allies have some 17,000 troops in the country.) The Taliban doesn’t recognize the Afghan government, and representatives of President Ashraf Ghani are not participating in the current round of negotiations.
To gain perspective on the negotiations, we’re revisiting The Atlantic’s coverage of the Soviet exit with the help of the journalist Amie Ferris-Rotman. She’s been watching the war’s course, both from Afghanistan earlier in her career, and now as a correspondent for The Washington Post in Moscow. In 1989, The Atlantic published Robert D. Kaplan’s reflection, “Afghanistan Post Mortem.” Kaplan didn’t know it at the time, but the Soviet withdrawal would be followed by an Afghan civil war in the 1990s, which created a power vacuum that the Taliban ultimately filled. “I think the United States is copying a lot of the mistakes the Soviets made,” Ferris-Rotman told me.
Listen to the full interview on our members-only podcast feed to hear Ferris-Rotman’s analysis of Kaplan’s story. Here, I’ll distill key insights.
Russia’s unofficial talks provide an alternative map of power in Afghanistan. Talks in Moscow earlier this year also excluded the Afghan government—in a deliberate jab at the U.S. and its allies—but brought together a remarkable range of Afghan political and military heavyweights, Ferris-Rotman said. “I don’t think this is achieved by luck or simply by inviting them. This is serious Russian strategizing,” she said. The Taliban attended, as did Hamid Karzai, the influential former Afghan president. Russia has been courting him since he started to sour on the U.S. several years ago. “I would say that the Russians have a better grasp of what’s going on” in the country, said Ferris-Rotman. By talking to all sides, the Russians can help secure their influence over whatever comes next.
Excluding important Afghan voices risks a repeat of the post-Soviet chaos. U.S. policy is to make a deal with the Taliban first, and then involve Kabul. The Afghan government is furious about this plan, a point its national security adviser made in Washington on Thursday. But it is not the only excluded group. “I think women’s voices are being completely ignored from the peace process,” Ferris-Rotman said. The Taliban has said that it’s changed its ways since the era when it banned girls from school. “But I am yet to meet an Afghan woman, either in government or as an activist or as a feminist or just as a simple student, who says, ‘Yes, I trust them. Let them come,’” Ferris-Rotman said.
Make no mistake, the Taliban are coming back. “I think the government knows that’s going to happen, expects that’s going to happen. I think Afghans know that’s going to happen,” Ferris-Rotman said. The question is whether anyone has learned from the history that led the Taliban to power in the first place. The government in Kabul didn’t collapse right away when the Soviets withdrew, because aid continued. The country’s self-immolation in civil war began in earnest only after both the Americans and the Soviets completely cut off all support for their various Afghan allies. It’s certainly ironic for the Russians to pose as peace brokers now, given the blood on their hands. But their involvement in negotiations suggests they understand that any real power in Afghanistan, whether official or wielded by warlords and militants, relies on outside support.
- Moscow’s political project is also an effort to control its past. Russia killed at least a million Afghan civilians, then withdrew. “History offers few examples of comparable nationwide slaughter,” Kaplan wrote in 1989. “Yet not only did the Afghans not surrender; they refused to compromise or negotiate.” But that kind of past failure doesn’t square well with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new vision of Russian greatness. “What we’re seeing is a rewriting of the history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan,” Ferris-Rotman said. That’s tricky, because many Russian veterans of the war are still living. Some support the effort to reclaim their war, she said, but it’s not universal. “Some of them feel that they’re being betrayed a second time.” If America’s talks don’t produce an enduring peace, Afghans might come to feel the same way about the U.S.
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