Who is the Enemy? Part I

Twenty years ago this week the Soviet Union began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, eight and a half years after it was invited by the desperate People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had degenerated into intra-party squabbling and was beset by Islamic rebels massively financed by the United States. The straw that broke the Soviets’ back was when the US began providing Stinger missiles to Osama bin Laden and his friends.

Now, after eight years of US/NATO occupation, the parallels — and differences — between the two occupation are many and stark, as confirmed by the current Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov.

“There is no mistake made by the Soviet Union that was not repeated by the international community here in Afghanistan ,” Kabulov said. “Underestimation of the Afghan nation, the belief that we have superiority over Afghans, that they are inferior and cannot be trusted to run affairs in this country. A lack of knowledge of the social and ethnic structure of this country; a lack of sufficient understanding of traditions and religion.”

Not only that, but the country’s new patrons are making lots of new mistakes as well. “NATO soldiers and officers alienate themselves from Afghans — they are not in touch in an everyday manner. They communicate with them from the barrels of guns in their bullet-proof Humvees.” As a career diplomat who was posted to Afghanistan in 1977, he sees some divine justice in the US’s current predicament. “But I am even more satisfied by not having Russian soldiers among ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] because I don’t want them to suffer the same results.”

Kabulov explains that things are even harder now than they were in the 1980s. “The structures of government then were very much there and our task was very much to support and to win loyalty — if you will, hearts and minds — but we had a working administration.” These are long gone, though, ironically, in Helmand province and elsewhere, NATO forces are fighting from military posts originally built by the Soviets.

At least the Soviets were invited in, if only by one faction — Parcham, by far the most benign one — of the ruling PDPA. The US merely issued an ultimatum to the ruling Taliban to hand over their own erstwhile ally, Osama bin Laden, knowing full well no devout Muslim would turn a guest over to the enemy. The offer of the Taliban to send him to a neutral third country until proof of his masterminding of 9/11 was made was dismissed out of hand, and US and eventually NATO forces proceeded to illegally invade and depose the legitimate government, launching a merciless air attack, using depleted uranium “bunker busting” bombs, that makes the horrors of Vietnam and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan pale in comparison.

Another difference is that the US managed to con the world into supporting its invasion, while when the Soviet troops arrived in 1979, the US was already arming Islamic rebels with the most advanced military hardware, as Under-Secretary of Defense Slocumbe said at the time, “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.” President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski made a point of maintaining the flow of arms, even after Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear the troops would be withdrawn, intending to use this golden opportunity to stick the knife as deep as possible into the now unraveling Soviet Union . On this basis alone, the current invasion should be miles ahead of where the Soviets were after eight years. But no.

Yet another contrast is that while the Soviets were providing massive aid, effectively dragging Afghanistan into the 20th century with universal education, equal rights for women, safe drinking water — the standard communist fare — the US/NATO strategy has been mostly to fight the remnants of the Taliban, with aid well down the list. As for the quality of the aid, while Soviet teachers and engineers earned not much more than locals, and were generally selected for their idealism, Western-backed aid is channeled almost exclusively through foreign NGOs, with Western professionals earning the bulk of the money and living in conditions that locals can only dream of, causing well-earned resentment.

It should be noted that from the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 till the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan was mostly forgotten, with no Western program of reconstruction. Russia, of course, had been bankrupt by then and there was nothing to be expected from it either. Ahmed Shah Ahmadzai, a mujahideen leader and prime minister in exile during the 1990s, admits the mujahideen failed in the years following the Soviet withdrawal. He is now an opponent of the government who stood against President Hamid Karzai in the last election. “To my opinion the ground situation is no different because the Soviets were imposing their Communist regime on us. The present forces — they are imposing their so-called democracy on us. They were wrong then and the present NATO forces are doing wrong now by killing innocent people — men, women and children.”

Given the huge advantages over the Soviet experience, and given the possibility to learn from Soviet mistakes, there really is no excuse for the current tragedy unfolding with no end in sight. But then, in carrying out their invasion of Iraq, the Americans apparently learned nothing from the British invasion of the 1920s, repeating to the letter all the horrors the Brits inflicted on the Iraqis.

Is it possible the chaos and murder is intentional? While the Taliban were no sweethearts, they did completely disarm the nation and wipe out the production of opium. Similarly, while Saddam Hussein would hardly be one’s favorite uncle, he presided over a stable welfare state where its many ethnic groups were at least not blowing each other up. In contrast, the US has destroyed the state structures in both countries, and made both into arms dumps. It has managed to turn the peoples of both countries against each other, with the likely prospect of civil war and disintegration into various malleable statelets.

All in keeping with Israeli plans first published in 1982 as “A Strategy for Israel”, a plan to ensure its “security” (read: expansion) with the Middle East a patchwork of small ethnically-based states which it could keep in order.

One brilliant innovation by the US, with Israel ’s Haganah and Irgun as possible inspirations, is the use of private mercenaries to carry out murder and espionage that the NATO troops can’t do because of their “concern” for international law. This policy is already well known to Iraqis in the guise of Blackwater. Special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council Philip Alston referred to three such recent raids in south and east Afghanistan during a visit last week, clearly alluding to US intelligence agencies, though he didn’t dare state this publicly. Alston said the raids were part of a wider problem of unlawful killings of civilians and lack of accountability in Afghanistan . In one incident, two brothers were killed by troops operating out of an American Special Forces base in Kandahar. Another group, known as Shaheen, operates out of Nangahar, in eastern Afghanistan , where US forces are in charge. “Essentially, they are companies of Afghans but with a handful, at most, of international people directing them. I’m not aware that they fall under any command.”

A Western official close to the investigation said the secret units are known as Campaign Forces, from the time when American Special Forces and CIA spies recruited Afghan troops to help overthrow the Taliban during the US-led invasion in 2001. “The brightest, smartest guys in these militias were kept on,” the official said. “They were trained and rearmed and they are still being used. The level of complacency in response to these killings is staggeringly high,” he said.

Yet another innovation — the most frightening of all — is the role of the US in allowing, perhaps even facilitating, the huge increase in opium production, which, as already mentioned, was wiped out by the Taliban, which will be discussed in Part II.

It is very hard to exaggerate the extent of the abyss that is Afghanistan under US/NATO occupation or to conceive of an honorable exit for the occupiers. Mercenaries, opium and who-knows-what, in a script written in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on May 21st, 2008 at 11:12am #

    A few small points. “Is it possible the chaos and murder is intentional?” asks Mr Walberg. No. For a conspiracy theory to be credibler, the plan mustn’t be too complicated (something always goes wrong!) and there mustn’t be too many people in on the secret (somebody always blabs!) This conspiracy theory fails on both counts. I think it’s just an almighty screw-up.

    Extradition. The position in public international law is that countries are required to extradite except in three cases: their own nationals, fiscal offences and political offences. There is no denying that the offence bin Laden was charged with was political and the Afghan government was thus perfectly within its rights in refusing to extradite him. Moreover, the US government never actually applied for extradition in proper legal form, they just ordered the Afghan government to hand him over. Finally, no rule of public international law permits a country which has been refused extradition, even wrongfully, to invade the refusing country.

    Lastly, even if it suits the Israelis to have their neighbours fighting among themselves, they can do nothing without American money and the US economy is collapsing. Thus, what Israel (or, indeed, the US) would like hardly matters.

  2. hp said on May 21st, 2008 at 3:46pm #

    Looming over everything are those poppies.
    The Taliban, serious as a heart attack about reducing the opium/heroin, did so dramatically.
    Three years after NATO entered, bumper crops again. Record crops. Ninety percent (90%) of the world’s heroin.
    Worth more than G.E., G.M., Ford, Chrysler, Nabisco, Exxon and Mobile combined.
    Estimated at 500 BILLION dollars.
    That’s half a trillion, last time i checked.

  3. evie said on May 21st, 2008 at 5:41pm #

    “Yet another innovation — the most frightening of all — is the role of the US in allowing, perhaps even facilitating, the huge increase in opium production…”

    “perhaps even facilitating” ? Hahahaha, such a sense of humor. Two words – Poppy Bush.

    BTW do you use the nom de plume “Simon Jones”? Is it true you had a PR job with Uzbekistan President Karimov, who reportedly boiled his opponents in oil?

  4. researcher said on May 22nd, 2008 at 1:23am #

    united states has a war on drugs and help a country grow massive amounts of drugs.

    the real reality. create a war and make big profits from that war.

    americans are too dumb to notice. keep right on shopping till they drop.

    americans know how to shop give them that.

    what a horrible sad country i live in. we had such potential after the world war and greed took over.

    the decline is on and what do americans do whine.

    they voted for these war mongers then whine. go figure.

  5. D.R. Munro said on May 22nd, 2008 at 4:38am #

    Potential after the world war? Romanticizing the past a bit, researcher?

    Hey, at least all of the heroin addicts of the world are happy.

  6. heike said on May 22nd, 2008 at 7:44am #


    Like Bruce Wayne and Batman

    Yes, the Soviets were invited into Afghanistan (where their paratroopers promptly killed the inconvenient ruler) like they were invited into Czechoslovakia.

  7. heike said on May 23rd, 2008 at 11:46am #

    Another point testifying to the “quality” of this article: the author alleges that Zbig Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser “made a point of maintaining the flow of arms” even after Gorbachev announced his intention to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Only one small problem: ZB was National Security Adviser from 1977-81 and Gorbachev made his announcement in early 1988, when Ronald Reagan was president and Colin Powell was elevated to the NSC top spot. Both Powell and Reagan, not to mention ZB himself, would have been quite surprised if Brzezinski had any position in the Reagan administration.

    For those interested in the most complete information on the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, please see the following academic work, based on the Mitrokhin Archive:


  8. Eric Walberg said on May 24th, 2008 at 6:12am #

    > I think it’s just an almighty screw-up.

    Perhaps there are some regrets that quite so many Western troops have died, but there were definitely plans to invade Afghanistan long before 2001. Screw-up, yes. But conspiracy? Yes.

    >Thus, what Israel (or, indeed, the US) would like hardly matters.

    ? Au contraire.

    >Looming over everything are those poppies.
    >the real reality. create a war and make big profits from that war.

    Nicely put. Worth reminding people of every day to counter all the UN-type hype about fighting a war against drugs.

    >the Soviets were invited into Afghanistan (where their paratroopers promptly killed the inconvenient ruler) like they were invited into Czechoslovakia.

    Good parallel. Not a pretty picture, I grant you. The inconvenient ruler, Amin, was very likely CIA. He murdered the romantic poet president Taraki and was imprisoning religious leaders, intentionally or otherwise inciting civil war.

    re “Zbig Brzezinski”, yes, a slip there. Thank you Mr Gatekeeper.
    In my defence, dear “Zbig” was no doubt advising everyone in sight throughout the 1980s, 1990s, yes 2001 and on as well. My revised version reads “The US made a point of maintaining the flow of arms, even after Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear the troops would be withdrawn, intending to use this golden opportunity to stick the knife as deep as possible into the now unraveling Soviet Union.”
    My point is all too valid, unfortunately, and like the readers’ comments about “the poppies” and “create a war and make big profits” should be repeated every day.

  9. heike said on May 24th, 2008 at 7:42am #

    What’s your source that “Amin was very likely CIA”?

    From Raymond Garthoff: “Detente and Confrontation” (footnote 137)
    “Thr Karmal government in 1980 loudly accused Amin of having been a CIA agent and referred to documentary proof that was never produced. The Soviet media picked up and reported these “official” Afghan statements of Amin’s alleged CIA ties but soon dropped the accusation. A Soviet official with known KGB intelligence affiliation told me in 1980 that, while Amin may not have been a CIA “agent” he had CIA “connections.” High level CIA officials stated privately to congressional inquirers that Amin had never been a “CIA agent;” information from a Senator who made that inquiry.”

    Your account is incomplete as it fails to take account of the extensive aid Iran gave to Afghan insurgents under Ayatollah Khomeini, not to mention from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Also, it was people around “the poet” Taraki who tried to assassinate Amin September 14, 1979, prompting Amin to demand the right to take a bodyguard with him in a meeting with Taraki; the fear proved prophetic.

    You seem to be fixated about Brzezinski. After 1981 he was only one of many foreign policy commentators but he wasn’t a policymaker. You can’t show a single smoking gun to back up your ludicrous “Zbig was advising everyone in sight.”

    As to U.S. arms, read the statement published in the Department of State Bulletin 88,2135: 55 (June 1988): “Should the Soviet Union exercise restraint in providing military assistance to parties in Afghanistan, the United States will exercise similar restraint.” The obligation was clearly a reciprocal one. Gen. Gromov, in his May 14 1988 press conference, stated that $1 billion worth of Soviet military equipment would be left behind for the Najibullah regime. That, according to scholars who are a thousand times better informed than you are, was the issue that led to a continuation of arms aid.

    I noticed you refrained from answering Evie’s questions and wonder what you are hiding.

  10. John Wilkinson said on May 25th, 2008 at 11:24am #

    “Given the huge advantages over the Soviet experience, and given the possibility to learn from Soviet mistakes, there really is no excuse for the current tragedy unfolding with no end in sight.”

    it doesn’t matter how many lessons you learn or how many mistakes you do or don’t repeat. you don’t occupy another country (unless they first started a world war, like germany). if you do, for a significant length of time, you will invariably alienate the population and run afoul of your luck.