February 14 marks the 24th anniversary of the end of the almost 10-year-long Soviet military presence in Afghanistan (1979-89).
The war claimed the lives of about 1.5 million Afghans (almost a tenth of the country’s population at the time) and, according to official Soviet sources, 15,000 Soviet army and security forces servicemen.
Among them are several thousand Ukrainians. What did they die for? Like a host of others, they died for the interests of an alien empire which said sometimes, when it was too blood-thirsty, that it was ours. This has occurred more than once in our history.
But this must in no way erase our country’s courageous sons from our memory.
In the mid-1980s, mothers were afraid that their children might be sent to serve in Afghanistan. The blow that the Afghan war dealt to the USSR was more psychological than physical, but it was still powerful. It is at that time that Soviet ideology was developing a crack – an ideology that glorified all kinds of anticolonial movements but was still unable to give an unequivocal answer to the question: “What are we doing there?” I can remember my schoolmate confessing under the influence of ‘cognitive dissonance:’ “But for our soldiers, I would have sided with the Mujahideen.”
There once was a sad joke: the barber asks the officer who has just come back from Afghanistan about the situation in that country. The officer keeps repeating “The situation normalizes” and then asks: “Why are you asking?” The barber answers: “It is then easier to cut your hair because it stands on end.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in fact triggered the war that is still going on.
US President Barack Obama has just announced that a half of the American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of this year. It is difficult to say whether the Americans have really achieved what they wanted – to eliminate threats from the territory of Afghanistan. But the US intervention in 2001 in response to attacks on the Twin Towers in New York did not change much in Afghanistan except perhaps for the type of fortifications.
So let us recall how all this began.
In December 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, staged a coup d’etat, and killed President Hafizullah Amin and all those who were in his palace, including the president’s underage children. The palace massacre was preceded with an attempt to poison Amin at a banquet the day before by the KGB secret agents who worked as the president’s cooks. This fate befell the person whom the newspaper Pravda had proclaimed “a true friend of the USSR” and who had received, three weeks before being killed, a message of welcome from the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Interestingly, Amin himself used to say that he was “more Soviet than Soviet people” and allowed himself, a Muslim, to drink alcohol twice a year only – on Victory Day (May 9) and the October Revolution anniversary (November 7).
But storming Amin’s palace was just the apogee of the changes the Soviet Union had prepared well in advance. All began with infiltrating agents of influence and spreading propaganda, in which communists have always been the past masters, especially it comes to an ignorant and uneducated population.
In 1973 a military putsch staged by a group of left-wing officers, some of which had been trained in the USSR, brought down the monarchy. King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was on a visit to Italy, chose not to come back home and fight to regain power. This saved the life of many of his compatriots – both the followers and the opponents. The old system was really imperfect – and can a system be perfect in an extremely poverty-stricken country? Under an archaic-style monarchy, there also occurred palace coups and bloody internecine fighting in the top echelons of power from time to time, but Marxism put them on a wide scale. Everything is learned in comparison. After toppling the Taliban, the current Afghan government restituted the royal palace to its owner and granted the former king the title of “father of the nation.” History has made a circle, having massacred millions of human beings.
As a result of the Soviet aggression and the ensuing war, Afghanistan’s extremely thin cultural top, which had been painfully making its way in an agrarian country and was in fact the prime mover of its modernization, was eliminated physically – either killed or ousted into emigration. The mujahedin or the drug dealer (often the same thing) became the face of the country.
At the time, the Westernized and liberalized monarchy of an Asian nation gave in to the new “elites” – the brazen left-wingers. On the one hand, it was quite easy to overthrow the king in the conditions of social ill-being, the abject poverty and wretchedness of the vast majority of the population. Moreover, the crisis was provoked by such natural factors as two-year-long crop failures and wholesale deaths of cattle due to the drought and unprecedented snowy winters.
On the other hand, the monarchy had quite peacefully existed for decades, and it was not so simple to radically change the state of affairs and a gradual approach was necessary. The king was succeeded by his cousin Mohamed Daoud. He launched “radical reforms” aimed at secularization, socialism, and a higher role of the state in the economy and public life. In 1975 Daoud suppressed an Islamist rebellion – it was much easier to do so at the time, without foreign assistance to boot. But Daoud was also toppled in April 1978 by still more leftist groupings that were closely linked with the Soviet Union. Afghanistan switched overnight from Daoud’s socialism to the communism of the Marxist-style People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. When Daoud was to be executed, the plotters hesitated whether or not to do this. Then violence swept over like an avalanche.
The coup brought Nur Muhammad Taraki to power. He “dispossessed” not only big land owners but also, like in his adorable USSR, peasants of average means, seizing land or part of it from a total 272,000 households (when the country’s population was 14 million). He canceled peasants’ debts, which encouraged the masses to stage coups rather than work. The then chief of the USSR KGB First Main Department reminisced that Taraki had promised: “What the Soviet Union has done in the 60 years of Soviet power Afghanistan will do in five years’ time.” Asked about Islam, he cried out: “Come to us a year later and you will see our mosques empty!”
The “revolutionary” abolition of bride price, which a bridegroom or his family paid for the bride to her parents or relatives, was in the interests of men who, accordingly, were willing to make this kind of simple decisions. But bride price is a traditional agreed-upon amount of money which was given at the wedding as the bride’s account. This money remains under the husband’s control unless he divorces his wife. But if the couple divorces, this money is handed over to the wife. It is in fact “alimony” of sorts. In reality, the abolition of bride price put women in a far more vulnerable economic and social situation in comparison with men.
Thousands of left-wing volunteers demanded by way of calls and threats, as well as by using soldiers and policemen, that families send their women to educational courses. It is no wonder that many Afghanis, who cherished centuries-old patriarchal traditions, took up arms in response. There were revolts galore. Under the influence of mullahs and landowners, rural residents began to put up organized and religious-colored resistance.
So it is not only the external factor that caused Afghanistan’s woes. Instead of using its own brains, a very narrow top stratum of the population preferred to borrow wisdom from abroad, including Moscow.
Blinded by the Soviet ideology, the far left government continued to send more troops even to the areas populated with free Pashto tribes, where the army had never been seen before. Some declassified information says that Taraki received Soviet approval to assassinate his colleague Hafizullah Amin, but the latter turned out to be craftier, and the USSR had finally to storm his palace.
This means that the Soviet-Afghan Treaty on Neutrality and Mutual Non-Aggression, signed in 1931 and renewed every 10 years, was violated by the Soviet Union in 1979. Neutrality and non-alignment did not help Afghanistan for some reason. It occurred to the USSR’s senile leadership in 1979 that the revolutionary leaders of Afghanistan might tilt to the US. It is difficult to say what effect the change of attitude of a weak leadership in an extremely weak and war-torn country could have on the USSR. In the 1960s, a paranoid US government also got into a similar fix in Vietnam, when it seemed to them that a Soviet-style collective farm on the Mekong bank could seriously damage the interests of a world superpower. Maybe, some Soviet Politburo members really believed that the US would set up military bases in Afghanistan, a country that had fought Britain a hundred years before. Or, maybe, some of the senile USSR leaders just wanted to flex muscles and get another medal hung on their chest.
Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud reminisced that he had begun the war with one 19th-century English rifle which he had to share with several fighters. Then the mujahedin received aid from the US and other Western states. But the Soviet military machine got stuck in the mountains first of all because it was opposed mostly by the proletarians whom the USSR was ostensibly defending.
It was normal for the USSR to commit aggression in spite of all the existing agreements. Particularly, in compliance with the Soviet-Nazi pact, the USSR attacked Poland on September 17, 1939. The official Soviet letter to the Polish ambassador motivated the invasion by the fact that “the Polish-German war has revealed inner incapacity of the Polish state. In the ten days of military operations, Poland has lost all its industrial regions and cultural centers. Warsaw no longer exists as capital of Poland.”
The USSR described the war against Finland, also in compliance with the Soviet-Nazi pact, as a response to “aggression” on the part of Finland. On November 26, 1939, the Soviet command faked an attack on a Soviet border guard post (Mainila incident).
In an official note to the Finnish government, the Soviet side claimed that the shelling from the territory of Finland resulted, according to contradictory reports, in the death of four and injury of nine Soviet border guards.
Moscowdid not specify why a tine Finland needed to attack the USSR. The government of Finland stated that, according to its information, Soviet positions were shelled from the Soviet territory and proposed forming an intergovernmental commission to inquire into the incident.
The Soviet side refused, and, soon after, on November 30, 1939, Soviet troops attacked Finland without declaring war. Nikita Khrushchev once quoted Stalin as saying: “Let’s begin today… All we have to do is to raise our voice, and the Finns will only have to obey. Should they resist, we will fire just one shot and the Finns will immediately raise their hands and surrender.” A puppet government was then formed out of Finnish communists and marginal alcoholics, but it failed to function owing to the Finns’ patriotic actions.
In June 1940, in accordance with a Soviet-Nazi agreement again, the USSR issued an ultimatum to the governments of Baltic countries and invaded Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Soviet occupation authorities organized the elections that resulted in the formation of puppet governments which announced the “accession” of these states to the USSR.
In November 1956, the USSR interfered, without any formal reason, into the internal affairs of Hungary – Soviet troops toppled that county’s government and replaced it with a puppet body.
In August 1968, in contravention of the Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty, USSR troops invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the “Prague Spring” and the liberalization of the regime…
Thus the Soviet aggression turned a relatively peaceful country, a center of carpet-making and yak safaris, into what Afghanistan is now. Instead of a country, in whose stylish, by Asian standards, capital women used to wear European clothes and uncovered hair in the 1960s-1970s and whose elite almost unanimously emulated European standards, Afghanistan is now a land with a huge garbage dump the size of the populated part of the country and a sweeping drug addiction. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime recently published a report that says: “No other country has produced narcotics on such a deadly scale since China in the 19th century.” Indeed, if you sow badly, you will not reap better. It seems sometimes that the country only consists today of bearded men with submachine-guns and female creatures in burkas.
Meanwhile, social relations, lavishly poured with blood for more than three decades, have been archaized to the ultimate limit.