Afghanistan 30 years after the Soviet invasion

I spent Christmas of 1979 with friends of mine in Czechoslovakia, then behind the “iron curtain”. It was there that I heard about a massive Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that started on Christmas eve, 24 December 1979. It was the beginning of a war that cost 15,000 Russian lives and countless Afghan ones, driving millions abroad as refugees.

When my friends heard the official report on Czech TV news, that the USSR had been asked for “brotherly assistance” by the Afghan government under a Peace and Friendship Treaty between Afghanistan and Russia, they immediately felt reminded of a similar announcement during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The fact that Afghan president Hafizullah Amin was killed three days later did not exactly help to make it look like the Soviet army did come with an invitation.

The invasion was a watershed event for the Soviet Union, which it demoralized and effectively bankrupted. It has often been called “Russia’s Vietnam” and there were indeed many similarities. Each war was costly to the respective superpower which lost out against insurgents supported by the opposing superpower. Like the US client regime in South Vietnam that survived for another two years after the withdrawal of US troops following the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul under Najibullah managed to hang on to power for another three years, until post-Soviet Russia dropped support for it. Civilian casualties in both wars were huge and vastly outnumbered military casualties by the superpower. About 3,500,000 North and South Vietnamese (about two thirds of them civilians) and between 700,000 and 2,000,000 Afghan civilians were killed.

The pro-Soviet government in Kabul that was overthrown by US-sponsored mujahideen did have a poor human rights record, but at least, unlike the later Taliban regime, it worked to support the rights of women, who could go to work and weren’t forced to go veiled then. Under the Taliban girls could not go to school nor could women see a doctor.

While in 1979 the Soviet invasion was portrayed as an unprovoked aggressive move, as the first invasion outside the direct Soviet sphere of influence since 1945, the picture that has since emerged looks quite different. In an interview with “Le Nouvel Observateur” (Paris), 15-21 January 1998, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski revealed that Carter authorized support for Afghan insurgents almost six months before the Soviet invasion, which came as a response to the US-sponsored insurgency:

According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

In an Interview with Mother Jones (23 July 2009), US journalists Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald explain that stepped up US aid to militant Islamic insurgents had the opposite effect of the declared intention: Instead of driving out the Russians from Afghanistan, it kept them trapped there:

Gould: [Texas congressman] Charlie Wilson came online around 1984 with the idea that the Soviets were never going to leave Afghanistan, so Congress had to increase the supply of arms to insurgents to drive them out. In 1983, a little more than two years after the Soviets had invaded, we took Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project to Afghanistan for Nightline to assess the possibility of negotiating the Soviets out of the country. We came back with the story that the Soviets were actually desperate to get out and really wanted to save face, effectively.

MJ: Why was that?

Gould: The big issue really was the insurgency. The Soviets were in Afghanistan primarily because of the insurgency that was flowing from Pakistan and was basically burning schools and burning down power lines and disrupting the ability of the Afghan government to function. When Charlie Wilson actually did in fact get his budget going, and increase the insurgency, it actually held the Soviets there as opposed to driving them out. Charlie Wilson kept the Soviets in Afghanistan for another six years. He didn’t drive them out.

MJ: So if the U.S. hadn’t funneled arms to the insurgency, the Marxist government that was in power in Afghanistan would continue and at that point the Soviets wouldn’t need to be there?

Fitzgerald: The Soviets even prior to their invasion had been trying to convince the Marxists that they should step down from running the country. They told them point blank, you are not capable, you are not diverse enough, your party isn’t broad enough to run the country. And they were letting the United States know. In the summer of 1979, through their emissaries, the Soviet Union let the US know that they wanted the Marxist government of Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki, to step down. According to the declassified cables the U.S was fully aware of the Soviet’s desire for a political solution. The Soviets expected that they would get cooperation from the United States in setting up a coalition government.

It becomes clear then that liberating Afghanistan was not the primary objective, but hurting the Soviet Union. Zbigniew Brzezinski appeared to have no regrets about having lured the Soviets into the conflict, which not only wrecked the Soviet empire but also left Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban:

What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Now the US is sending tens of thousands of its sons and daughters, with billions of dollars for funding this war, to counter some of these “stirred-up Moslems” mentioned by Brzezinski.

The Frankenstein’s monster created by the US to bring down the Soviet Union is now going after its own creator, except of course that the men and women dispatched to fight and die in Afghanistan today are not the same individuals who conspired to launch this never ending war some 30 years ago.

Wars are rarely ever by necessity, despite what politicians may say at the time and what may first seem like an effective solution to a political problem often comes back to haunt those who chose the path of violence even though there were better alternatives.

The most robust router I ever used – WHR-HP-G54 (DD-WRT)

It’s been 15 months since I set up a Buffalo WHR-HP-G54 with open source Linux-based DD-WRT firmware as my main broadband router (see “DD-WRT on Buffalo WHR-HP-G54”, 2008-09-06). I’m happy to report that this US$70 router it is the most robust router I have ever used. Its performance has been solid as a rock.

I’ve owned other routers that would occasionally need resetting because of connection problems, or that would spontaneously reboot themselves, but not the WHR-HP-G54. It never misses a beat.

Currently, its uptime count is at 157 days, that is since a family member accidentally pulled its power cord out of the wall socket five months ago. This box will stay up and running forever, no matter how hard you push it. It works better than any other router I’ve owned at any price.

In five months my router has handled a total of 1080 GB (1.08 TB) of data that either came from or went out to the cable modem, or over 6 GB per day (I process a lot of spam data and have 4 hard disks of 1 TB or larger).

On top of all the regular functions of a home / small office router it handles IPv6 tunneling over IPv4 and offers many features. The user interface is straightforward, yet very powerful.

A friend of mine who used to have chronic problems with two different routers, which he uses with about 10 different computers in his home, on my recommendation bought the same model several months ago. He thanked me again today because he hasn’t had any problems since 🙂

Afghanistan — a missed chance for Obama

President Barack Obama will over time come to regret his decision to send another 30,000 men and women into war in Afghanistan, announced in a speech at West Point on 1 December 2009. More non-Afghan boots on the ground in Afghanistan will do nothing to make Americans more secure. To the contrary, the escalation will only help the Taliban recruit more men. And the more Western troops are stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Islamic-majority countries, the easier it will be for Al Qaeda to portray the US and its allies as “crusaders” coming to invade.

As Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer reasoned in an article on the Afghan presidential election in early November, the blatantly rigged election that secured Afghan president Hamid Karzai another term in office could well have provided the political cover to abandon the doomed Afghan intervention: “…now is his best-ever chance to pull out, because the political train-wreck in Kabul gives him an ideal opportunity to renege on his foolish promises to pursue the war in Afghanistan until victory.” Obama did not use this chance to cut his losses.

What kind of “victory” is Obama hoping for by staying? The signs are not encouraging. For years, President Karzai’s power has barely extended beyond the capital, which is why he’s often nicknamed the “mayor of Kabul”. The provinces are ruled by powerful warlords, whose abuses of power and lawlessness back in the 1990s paved the way to power for the Taliban. Karzai’s administration and police force are one of the most corrupt in the world — the country was ranked 179 out of 180 countries evaluated by Transparency International in 2009 (only Somalia is worse). Hamid Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who lives in the Southern city of Kandahar, is reputed to be a major player in the opium trade as well as being on the CIA payroll, writes the New York Times. US troops are propping up an unpopular, corrupt regime, just as they did in South Vietnam in the 1960s. Even Afghans who side with the government know that sooner or later the US will withdraw its troops, while the enemies of the present government will still be there and they will have to live with them somehow.

In deciding to stay the course and trying a “surge” (just like his predecessor in office), Obama will have pleased some generals and the political establishment in Washington, D.C., but failed his test as a new kind of politician. To his credit, Obama took his time to carefully consider his options and listen to advice from different sides. He was very deliberate about it. Somehow I can’t quite image John McCain taking this much time to come to a conclusion, had he won the election a year ago… Yet, the outcome was still a bad choice and the reasons given for it are utterly unconvincing to me and many others.

In his speech Obama kept lumping together the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Pakistan, knowing like his predecessor that the memory of 9/11 is still powerful and that some political mileage can be gained from it. The problem with that line of argument though is that Al Qaeda did not really need any bases in Afghanistan to stage that attack on the US: 9/11 appears to have been planned mostly in Hamburg/Germany and in Florida.

Occupying the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan will be costly in blood and treasure, but looked at it rationally, it will do almost nothing to prevent future terrorist attacks in the US or Europe. If anything, it will help recruit for future attacks, just as the US military presence on bases inside Saudi Arabia after the 1990-1991 Gulf War became the main recruiting tool for 9/11 (which is one reason why 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis).

Gwynne Dyer in his article “Last Exit from Afghanistan”:

It was always nonsense: terrorists don’t need “bases” to plan their attacks. Regular armies need bases, but all terrorists need is a couple of safe houses somewhere. Controlling Afghanistan is almost entirely irrelevant to Western security, and that reality is also beginning to seep out into the public discussion in the United States.

Al Qaeda does not depend on Afghanistan. Most experts assume both Osama Bin Ladin and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban to be living in relative safety in next-door Pakistan, perhaps protected by the ISI, the powerful secret service of Pakistan that was allied to the Taliban when they first came to power in the 1990s. Remember that Pakistan was one of only three countries worldwide that diplomatically recognized the Taliban regime (the other two were fellow US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE).

Even if the Pakistani government and its organs were to fully cooperate with the US, the tribal regions along the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan have always only nominally been under control of the central government. This goes all the way back to the days of the British Empire in India, when the British could only pacify these regions by paying them not to attack.

Middle East expert Fawaz A. Gerges estimates in a CNN opinion piece (“Afghanistan is mission impossible”, 2 December 2009) that there are three times more Al Qaeda operatives in US-allied Pakistan than inside Afghanistan.

It was foolish for President George W. Bush to invade Iraq after 9/11 when the Al Qaeda camps were based elsewhere. It is foolish of Obama too to send more troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan, a graveyard of foreign invaders (from Alexander the Great and the Mongols to the Soviet Army). Yet it wouldn’t make any more sense to try to send those troops to Pakistan, the real hornet’s nest, whose large population would be deeply hostile to any such adventure.

The problem is not really that the US keeps sending troops to the wrong country, or maybe sending too few troops to get the job done, it is that military invasions are not the right tool for this job: You can not defeat Al Qaeda with conventional armies any more than you can do surgery with a hammer. Al Qaeda is not fighting a conventional war and it can not be defeated with conventional military means.

There are political reasons for terrorism. As long as the US remains allied with corrupt, unpopular regimes across the Middle East and Central/South Asia, domestic hostility against these regimes will always spill over into Anti-Americanism and the local presence of US troops will fan the Anti-Americanism. Defeating terrorism will have to start with better governments in countries that currently act as a breeding ground for terrorism and insurgency, with weeding out corruption, injustice and lack of development.

Isn’t it ironic that, compared to its image in other countries in the region, America as a country is surprisingly popular amongst ordinary people in Iran, maybe because for the last 30 years they have lived under a government that is not allied with and not bribed by the US, unlike say Egypt, Jordan or Pakistan, where corrupt and incompetent elites are seen as in the pocket of Washington.

Instead of primarily seeking military cooperation from political elites in client countries through funding and military pressure, the US would be better off nurturing projects to build civil society and to encourage those governments to invest in education, health care and a working judiciary. Based on the experience of the last eight years, Karzai is the wrong man to deliver such goods to his fellow citizens in Afghanistan.

When Obama will finally start to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan maybe 18 months from now or later, the US will have squandered hundreds of billions of dollars while hundreds and thousands will have got killed, without having fixed any of the problems that plague the country today.

At that point, the Afghan people will still have to solve their problems amongst themselves.