The jacket of Fred Halliday’s book shows a photograph of a characteristic group of Islamic Afghan rebels, sub-machine guns and rifles in hand, standing atop a captured Soviet armoured vehicle, east of Kabul. It is probably the most potent image of that country – one that has been effectively propagandized in the West ever since that ‘small far away country of which we know little’ was thrust into our headlines by the Soviet invasion of the country in Christmas 1979. We all like to be on the side of the goodies even if they are quite as obscurantist and impossible as the Afghan rebels, and the Soviet ‘Vietnam’ has provided a field day for creative journalism of the most remarkable kind.
Among western foreign journalists it symbolises virility to sneak into Afghanistan from the rebel side and photograph the guerilla war, and for a few months after the Russian intervention New Delhi’s Palam airport was a second home for some of the leading Fleet Street experts on South Asia. Rather charmingly they were reported to be always predicting the next Russian moves on the basis of ‘travellers’’ tales from Kabul, which subsequent events invariably proved to be the fanciful hopes of American agents. One prominent Fleet Street journalist made much of a bus ride he supposedly took through beleaguered Afghanistan, at a time when any non-Russian foreigner would have been immediately suspect.
Wars, of course, create their own logic. But the media image of Afghanistan since December 1979 has told us more about the Western planners and strategists than what is happening in that country.
In that sense the Afghan crisis came at just the right time. For by December 1979 the United States policymakers were floundering in their own theories. Early in 1979 the Shah of Iran had left the country – ostensibly temporarily – in order to let in Ayatollah Khomeini. It meant the end of the ally who was the lynch-pin of the American policy in the Persian Gulf for over a decade, and was almost as great a defeat as the retreat from Indo-China. In November the Ayatollah’s men seized the US Embassy and triggered the hostage crisis; a few weeks later Islamic rebels seized the Holy Mosque in Mecca and once again raised doubts about the Saudi régime – another American bulwark. Then 27 December 1979 came the arrival of 40,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan to protect a Marxist régime that was facing collapse.
For President Carter, beleaguered at home and facing a fierce contest for election re-nomination in his own Democratic party from Edward Kennedy, it provided just the stimulus, or more likely, the excuse to enunciate what became known as the Carter doctrine, a sort of Persian Gulf version of the Monroe doctrine often used by the United States to justify its activities in South America. This saw the Soviet Union as the chief cause of all the problems that had beset the Americans: as meddling in Iran to create instability, thrusting into Afghanistan as part of its expansionist design in the region. They sought to explain this expansion policy in terms of nineteenth-century Tzarist drives to reach the warm water ports of the Gulf – and one that had made Afghanistan the centre of ‘Great Game’ between the then Russian and British empires. In 1979 American foreign policy experts had other views as well: that a thrust to the Gulf was necessary because of Soviet need for oil (the CIA said the Russians were running out); that the whole thing was part of the Soviet’s destabilisation process – what Zbigniew Brzezinski had defined as the ‘Arc of Crisis’, running approximately from Afghanistan through Iran and the Arab Middle East to the Horn of Africa.
As a new gloss on the old story of the big bad Russian wolf it has proved marvellously effective, but as Halliday demonstrates in his excellent little study – by far the best recent one I have read – it is shot through with holes of the most amazing type. Halliday shows that just as there are limitations to US power, so there are constraints on Soviet power – and the picture of a monolith pushing communism through tanks and puppets is dangerously misleading.
In Afghanistan, for instance, long before the world had heard of Babrak Karmal, the current President (Hafizullah Amin – the man the Soviet tanks displaced) had been virtually ceded as part of the Russian sphere of influence. For twenty years before 1979 the Afghan Army had been equipped and trained by the Soviet Union – and this while Afghanistan was being governed by a near absolute monarch. For various reasons, the Americans had provided little aid to pre-1978 non-communist Afghan governments, one of them being that such aid as it did provide always antagonised the United States’ principal ally in the region: Pakistan. Nor did the Soviet Union play an active part in prompting the Marxist coup of April 1978; which resulted in the death of President Mohammed Daud and the installation of Mohammad Taraki as President.
In fact Selig Harrison, a US specialist in South Asia – and a former correspondent in India – who visited Kabul in 1977 was alarmed by the role that the Shah was playing in Afghanistan. With the help of the notorious Iranian secret service SAVAK he instigated the coup. The Shah then played the role he loved best: of the great Persian monarch. He encouraged Daud to break with the communists – Daud had aligned with them in order to help get rid of the last Afghan King – and roll back Soviet influence.
The coup was a defensive reaction of the Afghan communists and spelled disaster both for Daud and the Americans. The coup, however, went wrong and the Russian intervention of 1979 was to right it, in particular to remove Amin who by then had become the most hated figure in the country. However the Russians, hamstrung by their own ideological predilections, chose to present a version which is just as ‘creative’ as some of the Western journalistic reporting on Afghanistan. In this version Amin became a CIA agent – as almost any anti-Soviet person does in their view – and the intervention was necessary because of the external threat.
But as Halliday perceptively points out, ‘The fact that much of what Western sources have said about Afghanistan is untrue should not obscure the fact that the Russians have larded their tenuous case with lies of their own.’ It is difficult to argue with his conclusion that the Russians may not have wanted to depose Amin – and kill him – but found events on the ground hard to control.
This should demonstrate how awkward it is, even for the Russians, to control their clients, as indeed their experience in Egypt, Syria and Ethiopia have shown.
What is missing in all this are the views of the countries actually involved: Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. This is provided in Sengupta’s book, which apart from being a very complete summary of the crisis since the Russian invasion also highlights the contrasting views of India and Pakistan. It is particularly useful on the Indian perspective, more so as the dominant regional power in that part of the world, Mrs Gandhi’s government refused to accept the simplistic American version, nor quite supported the Soviet line.
Stanley Wolpert, a professor of history at the University of Los Angeles, seeks to trace the roots of the conflict but does no more than scratch the surface. It would just about be a useful read for an undergraduate who had never known the region, but even he or she might find some of the stuff tendentious, and the conclusions’ quite remarkable. For Wolpert, like a host of Americans, believes that the carrot of American economic aid can work miracles, and if only India would give away Kashmir to Pakistan there would be amity between the two neighbours; ideas that the Americans have peddled for years, and ones that reveal a sad misunderstanding of the geo-political realities.
And he does not once face the question: OK, the Russians leave, and Afghanistan falls into the hands of the motley Islamics who are fighting them. Would the West be any better off? The example of Iran does not suggest that this is likely. There are some things worse than Russian communism.