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A tale of two tragedies

September 26, 2012

“A RAPID slide into chaos awaits Afghanistan and its neighbours if Nato pulls out, pretending to have achieved its goals. A pullout would give a tremendous boost to Islamic militants, destabilise the Central Asian republics, and set off flows of refugees…”

These are not the words of an obdurate neoconservative ideologue in Washington. They come from an opinion column contributed a couple of years ago to The New York Times, co-written by Boris Gromov. At the time he was the governor of the Moscow region, but a little more than two decades earlier he had been the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan, in his capacity as commander of the 40th army.

The quote comes from A Long Goodbye, a fascinating account by Artemy Kalinovsky of the compulsions that led to, and the circumstances that attended, the Soviet Union’s pullout from Afghanistan in 1989 after a disastrous military intervention that lasted nearly a decade.

“We are ready,” the op-ed continues, “to help Nato implement its UN Security Council mandate in Afghanistan. We are utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at Nato headquarters, be it under the cover of ‘humanistic pacifism’ or pragmatism.”

Surely, one is inclined to think, Gromov ought to have known better. After all, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan qualifies as a case study in how not to go about tackling an insurgency — a cautionary tale that the United States in its post-Sept 11 zeal could not be bothered to heed as it blundered into the Taliban-ruled state in October 2001.

Kalinovsky’s book is particularly interesting to read in the light of the impending Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed two years hence. The author quotes Eduard Shevardnadze, the then foreign minister of the USSR, as acknowledging on the eve of the Soviet pullout in 1989: “We are leaving the country in a pitiable state. The cities and villages are ravaged. The economy is paralysed. Hundreds of thousands of people have died.”

Whether there will be a comparable acknowledgment in 2014 remains to be seen. There are obvious parallels, though, in the fact that there were elements of idealism behind both interventions, with the common aim of modernising what was seen as a backward state. And if the US and Nato stick to their schedule, they are unlikely to have a much clearer idea of what lies ahead, at the point of departure, than Moscow did 23 years ago.

Najibullah survived for about three years after his allies deserted him. Hamid Karzai might not last that long — even if the Americans choose, unlike the Soviets, to leave some troops behind. Reports suggest the latter scenario isn’t altogether repugnant to so-called moderate elements among the Taliban, who are apparently inclined to strike some sort of a deal.

Negotiations with insurgents were also a feature of the Soviet occupation, particularly towards the end. Kalinovsky cites the case of a foreign ministry official who was nicknamed Mujahid by his colleagues “because he spent so much time negotiating with rebel commanders”.

So were mass desertions among the official Afghan forces, as well as betrayals. Nato forces this month suspended joint operations with their local colleagues after the toll since January of Nato soldiers killed by men in Afghan military or police uniform crossed the 50 mark. Although it was signposted as a temporary measure, many Western commentators saw it as a serious setback.

Kalinovsky notes that “many of the [local] officers were loyal to one or another of the Mujahideen commanders and would warn them of planned offensives. One such officer was the head of Afghan military intelligence, who passed valuable information on planned operations to Ahmed Shah Massoud”.

This week’s report, meanwhile, that two US staff sergeants are to be court-martialled for urinating on Taliban corpses and “posing for unofficial photographs with human casualties” invites recollection of the fact, cited by Rodric Braithwaite in Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, that “at one time the notorious prison in Pul-i-Charkhi outside Kabul held 200 Russian soldiers accused of a variety of offences against the Afghan population, including murder”.

Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, also writes of an instance when a commercial Russian helicopter, hired by Nato, was shot down in 2008 and “the Russian ambassador in Kabul contacted the Taliban for the return of the bodies. ‘You mean they were Russians?’ said the Taliban. ‘We thought they were Americans. Of course you can have them.’”

Even more intriguingly, he recalls a visit to Afghanistan in September 2008: “I was told by almost every Afghan I met,” he writes, “that things were better under the Russians. The Russians were not so standoffish as the Americans, who had no interest in Afghanistan itself, and who looked like Martians with their elaborate equipment, their menacing body armour, and their impenetrable Ray-Bans when they briefly emerged from the high walls behind which they barricaded themselves.”

Braithwaite notes that Sher Ahmed Madani, “a Mujahideen commander in Herat who fought the communists and the Russians for a decade and the Taliban after them”, also preferred his previous adversaries. “The Russians were strong and brave, he said. They fought man to man on the ground, and they used their weapons only when their enemy was armed. They never killed women and children. But the Americans were afraid to fight on the ground and their bombing was indiscriminate.”

Much of this is nonsense, as Braithwaite recognises. One is compelled to wonder, however, about the kind of conditions that have prompted rosy-hued visions of a previous nightmare. It is unlikely, but not altogether inconceivable, that conditions a further decade or two down the line will induce similar nostalgia about the present depredations under Nato occupation.

It isn’t easy to fathom, though, why the Soviet experience was so meticulously overlooked by those effectively seeking to emulate it. This is not a case of tragedy revisited as farce: it is, rather, a tale of two tragedies, both substantially avoidable. What still seems to hold true, though, is the aphorism about those who neglect history being compelled to repeat it.