Afghan war: Do we share the blame?
Boston — US experts feel that encounters like this (based on information and photographs that have filtered out of Afghanistan recently) will be a common feature of the Soviet occupation if the rebels are to be brought to heel in outlying regions of the country. They stress that no one can claim to have conquered Afghanistan simply by seizing its infrastructure. But few see any prospect of military victory for the rebels. Indeed, hammered by Soviet armor and airpower, they are likely to face a struggle for their very survival.
"It's a very bleak prospect for the Afhans, particularly if they don't get any outside support," says Theodore Eliot who served as US ambassador in Kabul from 1973 to 1978. "I don't see how they can last, except for the occasional hit and run operation. But it's not a walkover for the Soviets. Nobody has ever walked over those people. They're tough, independent types."
Afghanistan has been invaded before: by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane, and in later centuries by India, Persia, and Queen Victoria's Britain. Now the Russians are engaged in subduing the high, inhospitable land and its fiercely proud people, where a boy becomes a man as soon as he can carry a gun.
Where others have conquered with the sword and spear and (in the case of the British) with firearms and artillery pieces, the Red Army under Marshal Sergei Sokolov has invaded with tanks, infantry combat vehicles, armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, and a variety of ground-attack aircraft, including MiG-21s and Su-17s, which have dropped napalm and poison gas, if rebel reports can be believed.
Noting that there are very few roads in Afghanistan, Mr. Eliot, now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, asserts that Soviet armor and infantry will have a difficult time flushing out the guerrillas. "The terrain is extremely rugged. You can really only get at them from the air," he says, stressing that the rebels urgently need anti-aircraft and anti-helicopter weaponry and particularly, surface-to-air missiles.
Ironically, one of the best man-portable surface-to-air missile systems is the Soviet SA-7 "Strela," now known by its NATO code-name "Grail." A heat-seeking missile fired from a plastic tube, it is effective against low-flying aircraft and particularly effective against helicopters -- despite the use of decoy flares and deflected exhausts.
Considerable quantities have been supplied to Egypt, and the weapon is thought to be in service in China, but whether either country would part with stocks for use by the Afghan rebels is uncertain. Quantities of the US Redeye anti-aircraft missile, a shoulder-fired weapon with an infra-red sensing device that homes on the heat of an aircraft's engines, would also greatly assist the Afghan rebels in combating Soviet airpower.
Prof. John Erickson of Edinburgh University in Scotland, one of the world's foremost experts on the Soviet armed forces, observes that the rebels also badly need an antiarmor capability. Supplying weapons to the Afghan rebels will make life "difficult" for the invaders, he says, "but it won't bring victory."
How many Soviet troops does he think the rebels are currently up against?
"The calculations I would make off the top of my head would be this: they have one airborne division which they probably flew in, three motor-rifle divisions, one armored division, and two divisions of reserves -- a total of 80, 000 men." Besides this, he estimates they have 200 helicopters -- both gunships and troop carriers -- and at least 300 tactical strike aircraft.At war strength a front line motor-rifle division numbers 13,000 men.
If the Soviet assault on Afghanistan bears any resemblance to similar acts of aggression in the 20th century, it is perhaps most reminiscent of Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. In both cases backward and poverty-stricken tribal societies were attacked by modern Western armies. Using mechanized equipment, air power and poison gas, the Italians captured Addis Ababa in 1936 -- despite condemnation by the League of Nations and the imposition of sanctions , albeit limited ones.
For Professor Erickson the most arresting feature of the invasion of Afghanistan was not any improvement in the weaponry used by the Soviets, neither "any increase in their devilry," but the high degree of planning the operation exemplified. "They have obviously developed a very effective command-and-control mechanism to move a large first-echelon strike force some distance outside the Soviet perimeter," he remarks.
The British professor and author of the seminal work "Soviet Military Power" says he was also impressed by the evident ability of the Soviet commanders and by the apparent lack of rigidity the invasion force displayed. In the form used in Afghanistan, he observes, it is a weapon that could be used just as easily in Western Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, Yugoslavia might be the next likely candidate, he believes.
But Professor Erickson seriously doubts that Soviet forces will roll on over the border into either Pakistan or Iran, claiming that it took 2 1/2 months to prepare for the assault on Afghanistan. "Political logic prevails in Moscow and not military adventurism," he insists.
Reportedly, the US intelligence community failed to detect more than 15,000 Soviet troops gathering on the Afghan border prior to the invasion. In the absence of its monitoring facilities in northern Iran, the National Security Agency, which snoops electronically on Soviet military deployments (among other things), may have been unable to detect the increased radio traffic that would have revealed the presence of a larger force. But Professor Erickson suggests that the visit to Afghanistan last August of Soviet deputy defense minister Gen. Ivan Pavlovsky to assess rebel strength was a sufficient indication that something was afoot.
Because of its topography, Afghanistan poses a considerable problem for a would-be conqueror. The greater part of the country -- almost the size of Texas -- lies at heights of between 2,000 and 10,000 feet. The all but impenetrable Hindu Kush mountain system, whose peaks reach 15,000 to 20,000 feet, dominates the northeast of the country, fanning out, under other names, to cover most of central Afghanistan. Ethnically the country consists mostly of Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Turkic groups. About 99 percent of Afghanistan's population of some 15 million are Sunni Muslims.
Afghanistan's national sport is buz kashi,m or "goat-drag," a rough-and-tumble version of polo where the "ball" is a beheaded goat or calf which riders have to drop in one of the field's two goal circles. More than anything else the game reflects the toughness and tenacity of the Afghans who rate tureh,m or bravery, above all other qualities. Brags an ancient Afghan song: "Better come home stained with blood/Than safe and sound as a coward."
But tribal rivalries bitterly divide the rebels. With a reported 70,000 men, the National Front for the Islamic Revolution is said to be the largest of more than a dozen rebel groups that include the Islamic Society, the Islamic Party, and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement. But there is some doubt whether the rebels, jealous of their tribal rights and often bent on looting, will submerge their differences to fight the Russians as a united force.
In many ways, it seems, Afghanistan was ripe for Soviet annexation. A constitutional monarchy under Muhammad Zahir Shah until 1973, when a coup by Mohammad Daoud transformed it into a republic, it had grown steadily more pro-Soviet over the years, even while clinging officially to its traditional policy of non-alignment. Its army was almost entirely equipped and trained by the Soviet Union and about one-third of its exports went north of the border.
Indeed, Moscow was one of Afhanistan's major foreign aid donors, enjoying the exclusive right to explore for oil and gas in northern regions of the country and receiving quantities of the latter commodity at below market prices.
Moreover, in 1964, the Soviet Union built a 200-mile highway from Termez on the Afghan border to Kabul, with a tunnel through the Salang Pass. The Afghans who viewed it as a likely invasion route when it was built were proved right. The Red Army hurtled down the highway when it invaded last December.
When Mohammad Daoud was toppled in 1978 by the Parcham Party under Babrak Karmal and the Khalq Party led by Hafizullah Amin and Noor Mohammed Taraki -- possibly with Moscow's connivance -- the two communist factions promptly set up a Marxist government.
But once in power the Khalq leaders began to shake off the Parchamists. In June, 1978, after a brief spell as Vice President and Deputy Prime Minister, the fiercely pro-Soviet Mr. Karmal was made ambassador to Czechoslovakia and packed off to Prague. Two months later he was stripped of the post and ordered home to face charges of plotting a coup against Taraki. He declined and remained in Czechoslovakia as a private citizen.
Angered by the installation of a Marxist regime they viewed as godless, Afghanistan's tribesmen rose in revolt in all 28 of the country's provinces, and the 100,000-man Afghan army (since dramatically depleted by desertion, rebellion and purges) lumbered into action to crush them. According to Washington's Center for Defense Information, between 100,000 to 250,000 were killed in the ensuing fighting.
Soon Noor Mohammad Taraki, with apparent Soviet encouragement, was plotting to rid himself of Hafizullah Amin. But last September a gun battle erupted between groups supporting each man in the Arg Palace, the seat of government in Kabul. Taraki, only just back from a visit to Moscow, was fatally wounded and his bodyguards slain. Altogether 60 people are reported to have been killed in the shootout. To the Kremlin's great irritation, Amin assumed the Presidency and control of the ruling People's Democratic Party -- as the Khalq and Parcham coalition had re-named itself on seizing power.
Strong-willed, independent, and repressive, Amin proceeded to alienate Moscow and Afghans alike. As prime minister he had rejected Soviet demands that he broaden the base of the government and party, and he now requested and secured a new Soviet ambassador in Kabul. Moreover, his collectivist policies angered Afghans.
But his failure to hold together his own disintegrating army and crush the burgeoning rebellion, was almost certainly his undoing. If he declined the proffered assistance of Soviet troops, as some Washington sources believe, he may simply have hastened his end.
Just prior to the invasion, Amin moved out of the Arg Palace with his elite guard, tanks, and armored carriers to Darulaman Palace, seven miles southwest of the city center. It was here that he was attacked by Soviet paratroopers during the opening phase of the invasion, captured, and shot. Following his execution (along with that of his younger brother and nephew) his successor, Babrak Karmal , who had been handpicked by the Kremlin and probably airlifted into the country on the heels of the invading troops, declared: "Today is the breaking of the machine of torture of Amin and his henchmen, wild butchers, usurpers and murderers of tens of thousands of our countrymen."
Having helped install a Marxist regime in Kabul in 1978, Moscow was not prepared to see it toppled by the rebels. So in order to invade Afghanistan and forestall such a development it invoked the "Brezhnev Doctrine."
First proclaimed after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the doctrine asserts the right of the Soviet Union and its allies to intervene with armed force in any "socialist state" when Soviet-style communist rule is threatened. The invasion followed, ostensibly at the invitation of the Afghan government.
Could the United States have spared Afghanistan civil war and invasion?
"Historically I think the West had given up Afghanistan a long time ago," says Prof. Ludwig Adamec, Director of the Near Eastern Studies Center at the University of Arizona.
He explains that US refusal to provide Kabul with arms under the Truman Doctrine, designed to contain Soviet expansion in the early '50s, compelled Afghanistan to turn to Moscow for what it needed. In his view "this was really where Afghanistan was given away."
Professor Adamec observes that as soon as Afghanistan began relying on Soviet arms supplies it had to accept Soviet military advisors and dispatch Afghan officers to the Soviet Union for training. "Many of these military people were not happy with the situation in Afghanistan.They did not belong to the ruling oligarchy, and, if not actually pro-Russian, they became Marxist or Leftist," he asserts.
Theodore Eliot agrees that the US blundered in its policy toward Afghanistan. "Mohammad Daoud asked us for military assistance. We declined for reasons which seemed very valid at the time: namely we didn't want to give the Soviets reason to intervene in Afghanistan. Secondly, of course, we were closely allied with Pakistan, and Pakistan and Afghanistan weren't getting along."
Rebuffed by the United States, Mohammad Daoud then turned to Moscow, Dean Eliot relates, "and gave the Soviets a handle on the Afghan armed forces, which was fatal both to Afghanistan and Daoud personally." The 1978 coup, he observes, was engineered by Soviet-trained officers in league with the Khalq and Parcham parties.
According to Zalmay Khalilzad, assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, Afghanistan eagerly sought to obtain the benefits of the Truman Doctrine accorded its neighbors.
"Impressed by US support of Iran and Turkey, and believing the threat of Soviet expansionism, Afghanistan sent several delegations to Washington to negotiate for American arms and a close military/political relationship," he writes in the forthcoming winter issue of "International Security" published by Harvard University's Center for Science and International Affairs.
But the US declined to grant the country a defense guarantee in the event of a Soviet invasion or a major subversion effort, he relates. "American reluctance was reportedly based on assumed limited US logistical capabilities to provide substantial help in a short time to Afghanistan; on the . . . US evaluation that Afghanistan had only minor strategic significance to US global interests; and on the fear that the Afghans might use US weapons against Pakistan in pursuit of their territorial claims."
With the possible exception of the latter consideration, he feels that US reasoning was decidedly faulty. "A critical look at relative logistic capabilities of the US compared to the Soviet Union to project power into Afghanistan at that time shows that . . . the US had a significant advantage over the Soviet capabilities to support operations into Kabul and southwest Afghanistan," he writes.
In this vein Professor Khalilzad adds that, because Afghanistan has over 800 miles of common border with Islamic areas of the Soviet Union and because it is close to the Arabian Sea, the US decision to write off the country as unimportant was a serious mistake.
He agrees with Professor Adamec and Dean Eliot that the US refusal to provide Afghanistan with weaponry while supplying it to Pakistan, its regional rival, provided the Soviets with the opportunity to gain influence in Kabul through arms sales. "In fact, Moscow had actively sought this opportunity by making arms offers even before the failure in Afghanistan-US relations," he writes.
Bulganin and Khrushchev visited Kabul in 1955 with the offer of considerable military aid, explains Professor Adamec. "But the United States refused to match or outbid the Russians," he says. As a result, ever since 1956 Afghanistan has been exclusively dependent on the Soviet Union for arms.
Professor Adamec, who has written some 10 books on Afghanistan, doubts that the country's tribesmen can hold out against the Red Army, and he takes issue with those who predict that the Soviet Union will meet its Vietnam in the rugged country.
"If we look at the analogy with Vietnam, we see several things that are different," he says. "For a start, most of Afghanistan is not covered by forests." This fact alone, he stresses, prevents concealment of men and supplies from prowling Soviet aircraft. He emphasizes, moreover, that Afghanistan shares a common border with the Soviet Union.
The University of Arizona professor maintains that if the Russians have descended on Afghanistan with a 100,000-man army, as some reports claim, "it shows that they are trying for a quick knockout," wiping out the rebels, consolidating the Karmal government, and setting up a military communications system in the country before pulling out with the bulk of their troops.
Professor Adamec sees three motives for the invasion. "I think the most important one and probably the one that dominates Soviet thinking is [the desire ] to preserve a Marxist regime and ally in power and also to restore different people to power who were ousted by Hafizullah Amin."
He also feels that if the Soviet Union had permitted "the counter-revolutionaries" to defeat their client in Afghanistan "then the Muslim or Turkic people in Soviet Central Asia might get the idea that it is possible to fight and, in fact, win against Soviet domination." Nearly one-sixth of the Soviet Union's population of 260 million is Muslim, he adds.
Although Afghanistan is 400 miles from the Arabian Sea, Professor Adamec ventures that the invasion may be a step toward "the old Czarist dream" of gaining access to warm water ports somewhere. "The Soviets do not have ready access to the Indian Ocean, and it would immensely support their power in the world if they did," he declares.
The increasingly perilous situation in Southwest Asia could well be further complicated by the Baluchi rebels, who for the past six years have fought a low-level guerrilla campaign in the mountains and deserts of western Pakistan. The Baluchistan homeland of up to 2 million overlaps parts of southeastern Iran, southern Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Professor Adamec believes the Soviets might encourage the Baluchis to sow further discord in the area and even support their demand for an independent Baluchistan.
"The Afghans and the Soviets would be able to provide them with weapons," he surmises, adding that "this no doubt would de-stabilize the situation in Pakistan and Iran."
Afghanistan is no stranger to intrigue and conquest. Czarist Russia and British India eyed each other warily over the towering Hindu Kush throughout the 19th century. "The two empires, like inebriated titans, began to shuffle toward each other, swallowing territory and subjects on the way and convinced that at some point they would have to grapple and fight for supremacy," writes Leon Poullada in "Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929."
And Arnold Fletcher observes in "Afghanistan: Highway of Conquest" that "all through the 19th century British and Russian agents skulked in the Afghan hills or roamed the border bazaars, engaging in espionage, subversion, and assassination." The British (or more accurately historian Sir John Kaye) dubbed it "The Great Game."
The First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842 was a disaster for Britain. An expeditionary force took Kandahar and Kabul, but the garrison left behind in the capital was forced to surrender. Later, retreating to India under safe conduct, it was pounced on in the Khyber Pass, and some 4,500 troops and 12,000 refugees were massacred.
The Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880 erupted after the Afghan ruler Sher Ali accepted a Russian envoy but refused to allow a British mission to enter the country. British troops drove Sher Ali out of Kabul and routed 100,000 Afghan levies at the battle of Sherpur. By the Treaty of Gandamak in May, 1879, Britain gained control of Afghanistan's foreign relations, and the country became a virtual British protectorate.
The Russians, who had seized Kokand, Bokhara, and Khiva between 1864 and 1876 in their expansion into Central Asia, invaded Afghan territory for the first time in 1885 by occupying Panjdeh, a Turkmen village some 100 miles north of Herat. The British rushed troops to Herat and mobilized two army corps in India. Prime Minister William Gladstone secured a war credit of 11 million pounds from Parliament, and for a moment it looked as though the two great powers would go to war. But the Russians backed down.
The Third Anglo-Afghan War occured in May-August 1919. Amanullah Khan proclaimed a jihadm (holy war) against Britain, and a punitive expedition marched through the Khyber Pass to do Battle with him. There was some heavy fighting and -- long before Guernica -- Kabul and Jalalabad had the uncertain distinction of being subjected to aerial bombardment. But Britain was worried by unrest in India and exhausted by World War I, and on Aug. 8, 1919, it recognized Afghan independence by the Treaty of Rawalpindi.
With no other great power in the region to challenge it, the Russian bear appears to have seized what British bayonets had always excluded it from. Possession of Afghanistan gives the Soviet Union "a superb springboard to the Indian sub-continent, Iran and the Iranian Gulf," says Harvard history professor Richard Pipes, adding that "it's the first time since the revolution of 1917 that the Russians felt bold enough to send their forces to conquer a country not in the Soviet bloc." The former head of the university's Russian Research Center feels that if the Russians are successful in seizing Afghanistan, "they will have carte blanche to do this anywhere else."
Professor Adamec doubts that the Red Army will simply rumble on into Iran or Pakistan. "The Soviets have always been very careful to have a legitimate excuse ," he says. "For example, they moved into Afhanistan on the basis of their Dec. 5, 1978, treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Taraki regime. They claim they are doing something legitimate."
Professor Adamec says he is "sure the Soviets will use everything they have in the way of weaponry to win the war." According to one US analyst, white phosphorous powder was used to burn down villages last November when Soviet and Afghan forces launched an all-out offensive against the rebels in the Paktia Valley south of Kabul. No military establishment in the world is better equipped for chemical warfare that the Red Army. It holds large stocks of hydrogen cyanide, nerve and blistering agents. These can be fired by artillery pieces but are more likely to be delivered by BM-21 rocket launchers. They can also be dropped from the air.
Judging from Rudyard Kipling's bitter poem "Ford o' Kabul River," which recounts the drowning of a number of British soldiers crossing the Kabul river at night during the Second Afghan War, Her Majesty's forces were exceedingly relieved to see the back of Afghanistan.
If the Afghans can sustain their traditional ferocity in the face of the armor and airpower that has been hurled against them, one imagines that a good many Soviet soldiers will soon be longing for home. Even if the Red Army manages to crush all Afghan resistance, it will not do so without losses. Indeed, its men may well come to echo an old Hindu plea: "O Gods, From the venom of the Cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan -- deliver us!"