History Repeating

‘Read what you like into the failure of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 30 years ago this month, but none of its echoes bodes well for us’

Afghanistan History Russia

On 27 December 1979, two Russian doctors working at the Soviet embassy in Kabul received an urgent call to help Hafizullah Amin, the President of Afghanistan. Together with his children and several members of the Afghan Politburo, Amin had fallen unconscious after a lunch of vegetable soup, prepared by Soviet cooks. Unbeknownst to Amin, he should have been dead two weeks earlier, save for the fact that the effervescence of his Coca-Cola had neutralised the poison it contained. 

Grasping that Amin had been poisoned, the doctors managed to resuscitate him from a coma. By the evening, Amin was well enough to inch around his palace, although he soon found that the phones were dead. After gunfire erupted inside the palace, heavily-armed Soviet commandos burst in, shooting the President and killing him (and his son) with a grenade. One of the doctors was killed by what he assumed were Russians coming to help prevent a coup. In reality, 80,000 Soviet troops were spreading out of Bagram air base and pouring over the Afghan northern border. Many of them were Central Asian Muslims, a placatory gesture that underestimated the hostility between Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks. 

The invasion decision had been taken by the Soviet Politburo on 12 December. Leonid Brezhnev had been outraged when in September Amin not only ousted President Nur Mohammed Taraki, but reneged on promises to send him into exile. Taraki, whom Brezhnev had recently welcomed to Moscow, was killed in a Kabul jail, allegedly because he had tried to assassinate Amin.

The Soviets were more concerned with the wider repercussions of this internecine feuding within the Afghan Communist Party. Moscow thought that the party should broaden its support before embarking on social change. Instead, Taraki and Amin had pressed ahead with reforms, including expropriating the farms of feudal landowners, closing mosques and educating girls. This triggered a fundamentalist backlash, to which Amin had responded with abductions, torture and murder. Worse, the KGB residency reported that Amin was engaged in shadowy dealings with the US. Moscow feared that having lost the Shah of Iran, the US might be seeking compensatory influence in Afghanistan, with rippling effects in Soviet Central Asia.

Like the Americans in Vietnam, Soviet commanders thought that superior firepower would be enough to defeat the Afghan mujahideen. Instead, they discovered that the enemy fought in small units and were adept at exploiting rugged terrain. Although they themselves were laying millions of mines throughout Afghanistan, the Soviets discovered that their lightly-armoured vehicles were almost useless when they ran over mines. Like the Americans, the Soviets lashed out with indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment. As in Vietnam, prisoners were often thrown out of helicopters, rather than being carefully exploited as intelligence assets. Many Russian conscripts sought refuge in the opiates which the Afghans offered, just as drugs became rife among US troops in Vietnam two decades before. Some 14,000 Soviets were killed, along with perhaps a million Afghans.

The Carter administration welcomed the Soviet invasion as a form of payback for earlier Soviet assistance to the North Vietnamese. Along with China, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the US funnelled money to the mujahideen, eventually arming them with sophisticated, portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Western journalists of a gung-ho disposition sang the praises of bearded barbarians who tortured and decapitated Russians. The cries of “Allahu akbar” when those missiles struck their target sound more sinister, viewed from today’s perspective, than when they boosted staff morale in Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office.

Whereas Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policies were thwarted by the quagmire in Vietnam, a new Soviet leader recognised that ending the Afghan war might facilitate liberalising reform. In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev resolved gradually to withdraw his forces, while the war against the mujahideen was Afghanisised, albeit with huge Soviet aid. This enabled the successive regimes of Barbak Kamal (murdered) and Mohammed Najibullah to limp along for several years, until Najibullah was captured by the Taliban and left hanging with his penis stuffed in his mouth. Osama bin Laden hubristically claimed that “he” had defeated a superpower. 

Read what you like into this history, but none of its echoes bode well as UN-sanctioned coalition forces flounder about in Afghanistan, whose people seem congenitally incapable of assuming responsibility for themselves. Perhaps our responsibility to ourselves should be to leave them to it.