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Lessons from a lost war

Twenty-five years ago, the last of the Soviet troops left Afghanistan. Now, as another superpower’s soldiers prepare to return home from the war-torn country, there are important lessons for India to learn

Twenty-five years ago last month, Marshal Boris Vsevolodovich Gromov walked the last few metres over the bridge from Afghanistan to the Soviet Union, at the very tail of the army he had commanded. Mr. Gromov’s son, Maksim, had stood watching as the great convoy of tanks and armoured personnel carriers thundered by, waiting for his father with a fistful of carnations. The Marshal’s own father had died in 1943, when he was just a few months old, battling Nazi troops on the Dneiper river. The story of this soldier and son had a happier ending.

Fourteen thousand, four hundred and fifty-three other Soviet soldiers, though, came home in black, zinc coffins. Perhaps 7,000 were maimed. No one knows how many Afghans died in the war for sure; estimates run up to 1.2 million.

Now, as another great army prepares to retreat from Afghanistan, the lessons of that last conflict are worth remembering. Hundreds of thousands more have died in the wars that followed the war Mr. Gromov commanded. The end of this war, too, is unlikely to herald the coming of peace.

Great power competition is toxic

From the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first lesson is this: geostrategic competition had toxic impacts. Long before Soviet troops landed at Kabul’s airport on Christmas eve in 1979, Moscow and Washington had all competed for influence in the country. The Soviet Union sought political stability in its immediate neighbour, and feared the prospect that it could be used as a base for western short-range missiles or air assets. The United States, in turn, worried that Afghanistan could become a launch pad for Soviet expansion towards the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

The regional powers leveraged the anxieties of the superpowers to pursue their own interests — certain that their clients would protect them from the consequences of adventurism.

In July 1973, the regime of Muhammad Daud Khan laid claim to ethnic-Pashtun enclaves in north-western Pakistan. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto responded by backing the Islamists who would become prominent in the course of the anti-Soviet jihad, notably Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masud. In the summer of 1975, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) funded and armed an abortive Islamist coup against Daud’s government.

Daud responded to these pressures by seeking a rapprochement with Pakistan — in turn precipitating what led to the 1978 communist coup that claimed his life. Islamists responded by escalating their war against the new government in Kabul, with Pakistani backing.

Kabul’s efforts to bring about land reform, ensure that girls received an education, grant women the right to marry by choice, and proscribe the payment of dowries incensed the clerics and tribal leaderships which held power in rural Afghanistan.

In March 1979, a massive revolt erupted in the town of Herat, led by junior officers of the Afghan Army’s 17th Division, including Ismail Khan, Alauddin Khan and Abdul Ahad. More than a dozen Soviet advisers posted in Herat and members of their families were hacked to death. Afghan forces responded with massive force, using their Soviet-provided aircraft to bomb Herat. Ismail Khan’s counter-revolution spread to Jalalabad and its surrounding countryside.

From declassified material, it is now known the U.S. began funding these Islamist insurgents fighting the new communist government in July 1979 — months before the Soviet intervention. Zbigniew Brzeziñski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, told the French newspaper, Le Nouvel Observateur in January 1998 “that we didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

“We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War,” Mr. Brzeziñski wrote to Mr. Carter as the Soviet 40th Army finally rolled across the Amu Darya river. He was right — but as 9/11 demonstrated, the policy wasn’t cost-free.

Withdrawal does not end wars

The second lesson from the Soviet war is this: superpower withdrawal from a war doesn’t end the carnage. In a March 15, 1985 meeting with the Afghan President, Babrak Karmal, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that “Soviet troops cannot stay in Afghanistan forever.” General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military ruler, was given the same message. Later that year, a massive surge of troops followed, but failed to end the fighting. In November 1986, the first seven Soviet formations — perhaps 7,000 troops — pulled out of Afghanistan. In February 1988, Mr. Gorbachev announced his intention to end Soviet military involvement.

Like many do now, all parties believed the troop withdrawal would make a negotiated peace deal between the parties possible. In April 1988, the United Nations brokered the Geneva Accords, which should have provided a road map for peace.

It didn’t. The ISI pushed its Islamist clients to take advantage of the Soviet withdrawal by staging an offensive towards Jalalabad, in the hope of seizing territory and founding a parallel government. President Muhammad Najibullah, aided by Soviet military advisers and aid, held off better than expected. The mujahideen rejected offers for a broad-based client — and Najibullah’s own position hardened, especially after a March 1990 coup attempt by his defence minister, Shahnawaz Tanai.

Late in 1991, though, a collapsing Soviet Union cut off aid to Najibullah’s government — crippling his air force, cutting off fuel supplies to the military, making payments to troops impossible.

The only states which stood by him were the former Soviet republics in Central Asia that had no desire to see the rise of an Islamist state on their borders. They provided Najibullah with six million barrels of oil, and some 5,00,000 tons of wheat — but this was too little.

Faced with recognition of the Islamists by Moscow, Najibullah’s aides deserted him. He spent his last four years in a United Nations compound, before finally being publicly tortured and executed by the Taliban.

In 1988, there was no agreed mechanism in place to share power — nor a coercive apparatus to bring all parties to the table, and keep them there. There still isn’t.

War destabilises the region

For India, there is a third, particularly important lesson: distant as the crisis in Afghanistan might seem, it has the proven potential to destabilise the region. In late November 1979, the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan was at an all-time low. A radical Islamist group from Iran occupied the Kaaba, the heart of the city of Mecca. For reasons which are still not clear, General Zia-ul-Haq informed the assembled crowd that the United States had engineered the occupation. Furious mobs torched the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

He leveraged the situation to win strategic leverage — against India. The scholar Hassan Abbas has observed, “he was quite clear that he too was opting to be a tool of the United States.” He dismissed successive offers of military and civilian aid, amounting first to U.S. $150 million and then U.S. $400 million — eventually getting $3.2 billion, and a generous component of F-16 combat jets, from President Ronald Reagan

The U.S. also agreed that all military assistance to the Afghan jihadists would be routed through Pakistan’s ISI. In practice, this meant that while the U.S. would pay for the Islamist kite flying in Afghanistan, Pakistan would hold the string.

“It is no exaggeration to say,” Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, General Malik’s subordinate in charge of Afghan operations has written, “that by the time I left the ISI in 1987, at least 80,000 Mujaheddin had received training in Pakistan over a four-year period, and many thousands more had done so in Afghanistan.”

Patronage from the U.S. helped Pakistan launch a covert war against India in Punjab — something certain to have invited Indian military retaliation otherwise — and led on to its backing of jihadists in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s key role in shaping Afghan events gave it the confidence it could secure similar outcomes in Kashmir, as well as a covert war apparatus to underpin its plans.

“The water in Afghanistan,” General Zia-ul-Haq had told his spymaster in December 1979, “must boil at the right temperature.” India still has time to learn from the lessons of the war that was lost 25 years ago, and work to make sure the pot doesn’t boil over. It needs to ensure there is a multilateral international mechanism in place to negotiate Afghanistan’s political future, and funding to ensure a viable national state with a functional military. It must, most importantly, consider what to do in the worst-case scenario.


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