Afghan Ghosts: American Myths

“Explosion? What explosion?” Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mohammed Dost, inquired with an elegant raising of his eyebrows when I interrupted our interview to ask about the sudden noise I had just heard.

“Ah yes, the dynamiting,” Dost said with relief as another boom sounded in the distance and he realized what had misled me. “They do it almost every day, sometimes twice a day, for producing stones for construction, you know.” A tall, slim man with a neatly clipped moustache, Dost, who had started his diplomatic career under King Mohammad Zahir Shah and was now the most prominent face of Afghanistan’s Moscow-installed regime, wanted me to understand that the war was virtually over: “We’ve destroyed the main hideouts of the bandits and mercenaries. Now they can’t act in a group form. It’s only a few individuals who indulge in terrorist activities and sabotage, which is common all over the world. We hope to eliminate that also.”

It was November 1981, almost two years since Soviet troops had invaded, and the official line from Moscow, as well as its allies in Kabul, was that everything was under control. In the first weeks after the December 1979 invasion, Soviet officials had been so confident of quick victory that they gave Western reporters astonishing access, even allowing them to ride on tanks or drive rented cars and taxis alongside Soviet convoys. By the spring of 1980, the mood had changed, as the Kremlin saw it was in for a long war of attrition. There were no U.S.-style embeds, even for trusted Soviet journalists. The war became a taboo in the Soviet media, while Western reporters who asked for visas for Afghanistan were routinely refused.

The only way to cover the conflict was to endure days and nights of walking along precarious mountain paths with guerrilla fighters from mujahedin safe havens in Pakistan. A few stories that appeared in Western papers via this route were careful and low-key, but most were romantic, self-promoting accounts of heroic exploits, often written by untrained freelancers who saw a chance to make a name for themselves by donning a shalwar kameez and witnessing, or claiming to have witnessed, the latest Soviet atrocity.

By 1981, the Soviets were realizing their no-visa policy was counterproductive. A handful of Western journalists were let in, one by one, and only for short periods. In my case, the concession was granted thanks to my previous experience of covering the Soviet Union. That first trip to Afghanistan was followed by others in 1986 and 1988, culminating, if that is the right word, with my arrival there on a flight from Moscow on February 15, 1989, the day the last Soviet soldier was crossing the River Oxus out of Afghanistan on the great retreat home.

W hen I look back now at the reports and analyses I wrote at the time, it’s impossible not to be struck by the similarity of Soviet policy to what the Bush and Obama administrations have been trying to achieve with their more recent interventions.

The struggle in Afghanistan was then, and still is, a civil war. In the 1980s, its backdrop was the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. In 2010, the backdrop is the “war on terror” and the hunt for al-Qaeda. But the essence is still a battle among Afghans—between forces of modernization and those of tradition or, as the Soviets put it, of counterrevolution. Then, as now, foreigners tried to prop up a government in Kabul that faced the uphill task of creating a state that could command loyalty, exert control over its territory, collect taxes, and bring development to some of the world’s poorest and most conservative people.

When the Soviets launched their invasion, some Western observers saw it in strategic terms, as a Kremlin push for warm-water ports, the first step on a road through Pakistan to the sea. In fact, the campaign’s primary aim was defensive, an effort to salvage a revolution that was floundering because of its own excesses.

The Moscow-aligned People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had come to power in April 1978 in a military coup. But the PDPA contained two different wings. The hard-line faction, which was initially dominant, tried to enforce radical changes on a feudal Islamic country. These included land reforms and adult literacy campaigns in which women were made to sit alongside men. Some of the fundamentalist leaders who opposed these changes had gone into exile and taken up arms even before April 1978, unhappy with the modernizing tendencies of the government that preceded the PDPA. Others left after the PDPA coup. So the notion that the Soviet invasion sparked a civil war is wrong. A civil war was already underway. So too was Western intervention. Zbigniew Brzezinski had persuaded Jimmy Carter to authorize the first CIA support for the anti-PDPA mujahedin in the summer of 1979, several months before Soviet tanks rolled in.

The Kabul regime appealed thirteen times for Soviet military support, even as Soviet diplomats (as we now know from Soviet archives and memoirs of former Soviet officials) sent the Kremlin frequent reports on the developing crisis. But it was not until December 12 that the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and a small group within the Politburo authorized regime change in Kabul. Soviet troops would enter the country and topple the hard-line PDPA leader, Hafizullah Amin, replacing him with a team that was intended to soften the revolution in order to save it.

At the time of my first visit, in November 1981, that policy had enjoyed some success, although not as much as the Soviets originally hoped. They controlled Kabul and the key cities of Jalalabad, which is close to Pakistan, and Mazar-i-Sharif and Balkh in the north, as well as the roads between them. Herat in the west and Kandahar, the de facto capital of the Pashtun south, were less secure, subject to sporadic mujahedin raids. But the Afghan capital was safe. From the window of my room in a small, family-owned hotel opposite the main Soviet military hospital, I could see ambulances delivering wounded men to a row of tents on the grounds that had been added to relieve pressure on the overflowing wards. The soldiers had sustained their injuries in ambushes on the supply routes to Kabul or in failed, tank-led assaults on mujahedin-held villages. The Afghan capital was almost untouched by the war and Soviet troops were hardly ever seen on its streets.

They occasionally came into the city center in small groups to buy souvenirs shortly before their tours of duty ended. “All they want is one sheepskin jacket,” a carpet merchant muttered to me after a young Soviet sergeant, with an arm band that identified him as a patrol leader, burst hurriedly into the shop, looked around, and disappeared next door.

Like the Obama administration, with its plan to build up the Afghan army, the Soviets tried to leave as many military duties as possible to Afghans. In Kabul and the main cities, the effort was successful. Security was in Afghan army and police hands. The Afghan army was largely made up of conscripts and there were no reliable figures on its size. The desertion rate was high. In a document published in 1981, the U.S. State Department claimed the army shrank from one hundred thousand in 1979 to twenty-five thousand by the end of 1980.

Whatever the truth, the Soviets were able to depend on Afghans for urban law and order, if not for combat. Car bombs and suicide attacks, which have become a permanent threat in today’s Kabul, were unknown during the Soviet period, and Afghans went about their daily business without fear of sudden mass slaughter. At the city’s two university campuses, most young women were unveiled, as were many of the female staff in banks, stores, and government offices. Others wore a loose head scarf over their hair. Only in the bazaar where poorer people shopped was the all-embracing burqa common, usually blue, pink, or a light shade of brown.

The reformist wing of the PDPA that was put into power by the Soviet invasion saw the burqa as a product of tradition rather than Islamic fundamentalism. They did not condemn it or invest the issue of women’s dress with the politically charged—almost totemic—significance it acquired when the Taliban took power in 1996 and enforced the burqa on every woman. The same political charge ran in the other direction when the Bush administration toppled the Taliban and hailed the lifting of the obligatory burqa rule as the complete emancipation of Afghan women. In today’s Kabul, a higher proportion of women wear the burqa than during the Soviet period. On trips to Kabul today, many Western journalists, diplomats, and NATO troops are amazed to see Afghan women still wearing burqas. If the Taliban have gone, they wonder, why haven’t burqas gone too?

I never discovered the cause of those explosions I heard during my interview with Foreign Minister Dost, but his point that Kabul was unaffected by the destruction of war was valid. Western diplomats would make regular weekend trips to Karga Lake, about eight miles from Kabul’s city center. Below the dam wall there was a primitive golf course; from the top you could sometimes see Soviet tanks at the far end of the lake or Soviet war planes making low bombing runs.

In those early years of the occupation, Soviet officials were still hoping they could win the war of attrition. They felt that, as they represented the forces of modernity, time was on their side. “You can’t expect quick results in a country which is still in many ways in the fifteenth or sixteenth century,” Vasily Sovronchuk, the top Soviet adviser in Afghanistan, told me. He compared the situation to the Bolsheviks’ victory in Russia’s civil war. “Here in embryo is the history of our own revolution. It took us at least five years to consolidate our power and win through in Russia, and ten years in Central Asia,” he said.

In the company of other Europeans, Russian diplomats and journalists in Kabul complained about the natives like any European expatriates in any developing country. They were unreliable, unpunctual, inefficient, and unnecessarily suspicious of foreigners. “The first two words we learn here,” one Russian diplomat said, “are tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. The third word is parvenez, which means ‘It doesn’t matter.’ You know, you get a new suit made, and when you collect it, you notice a button is missing. You complain to the tailor and what does he answer? ‘Parvenez.’ Some of us call this place Parvenezistan.” A quarter of a century later, his comments find their echo in the sneers, complaints, and accusations of ingratitude that waft through the dining rooms and bars of every guesthouse for foreign contractors and development consultants in Kabul today.

One afternoon I sat with Yuri Volkov in the garden of his news agency’s villa. A seasoned journalist, Volkov had been in Afghanistan on and off since his first trip in 1958. Winter had not yet set in and as long as the sun was up the air of the high plateau where Kabul sits was crisp and warm. “There’s a bandit over that wall right now,” Volkov announced as he handed me a glass of tea. Startled, I sat upright. “You won’t recognize him,” Volkov went on. “Who knows who is a bandit here? He may be carrying a machine gun under his robes. Sometimes they even veil themselves to look like women.”

Only that morning, one of his staff had told him she had received a nighttime message warning her not to carry on working for Russians. This was constantly happening to people on the Soviet staff, he confided. One of the woman’s friends had recently been murdered with her sister for being “collaborators.” His views were borne out by Afghan officials. The head of the PDPA branch at Kabul University told me five of his colleagues had been assassinated in the last two years. Mullahs who worked with the government under its new policy of financing the building of dozens of new mosques, in a bid to show the revolution was not against Islam, were prime targets.

On my next visit to the city, in February 1986, the mujahedin were now able to cause more fear in Kabul thanks to the long-range 122 mm rockets that they lobbed into the capital on an almost daily basis. But the weapons were untargeted, and produced minimal damage and few casualties. (Rockets landed at least three times in the U.S. embassy compound.) Meanwhile, Soviet forces were doing marginally better than in the first two years of the war. They had managed to push their security perimeter farther out around the key cities. Whereas in 1981 I had not been allowed out of the city centers, now, with a minder but no military escort, I was taken to villages a dozen miles out of Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kabul. The aim was to show me the value and effectiveness of transferring some of the security burden to the Afghan “people’s militias,” which Moscow was arming and paying—a tactic that the Bush and Obama administrations would later copy.

These successes were being bought at a price. Although the front lines fluctuated, the war was essentially a stalemate. In the Kremlin, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was beginning to feel the cost in Soviet soldiers’ lives, as well as in Soviet resources. At the end of February 1986, he gave his first public hint of dissatisfaction, using a major speech to call the war “a bleeding wound.” (We know from the memoirs of Anatoly Chernyayev, a close aide, that Gorbachev had told the Politburo some months earlier that the USSR must prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, unilaterally if necessary.)

It is easy to forget that in the 1970s and 1980s “force protection” (i.e., keeping your own troop casualties low) was not the priority it later became. In nine years in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union lost around 13,500 troops out of an occupying army of roughly 118,000, a casualty rate that was broadly comparable to the U.S. loss of 58,000 from an army averaging around 400,000 over eight years in Vietnam. If soldiers’ lives were cheap, even less thought was given to saving civilians. Indeed, they were often targeted deliberately. The Soviet strategy of sending helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers on punitive raids against villages in Afghanistan’s border regions was intended to drive civilians out and create a depopulated cordon sanitaire that would deny support to the mujahedin when they walked in from Pakistan. By contrast, in the current war the U.S. military claims to take great care to spare Afghan civilians. The targeting of its high-tech weaponry may be impressively accurate but the intelligence that informs it is frequently faulty. The high toll of civilian deaths caused by missiles fired from Predator drones makes Afghans suspicious, and those old enough to remember the Soviet occupation sometimes say they see little difference.

Although high Soviet troop casualties could be tolerated politically in a society where statistics were not published and opposition was banned, Gorbachev had the sense to see the war was unsustainable. Hence his other policy shift—pressuring the Afghan party leader Babrak Karmal to make overtures to the mujahedin through a policy of “national reconciliation.” Summoned to Moscow in November 1985, Karmal was told to broaden his regime’s base and “give up all ideas of socialism.”

When I saw Karmal in February 1986, in what turned out to be his last interview as PDPA leader, he was in a boastful mood. He invited me to come back in a year’s time and travel all over Afghanistan “on horseback” to see how the government controlled security everywhere. Leaks in Washington had just revealed that Ronald Reagan had persuaded Congress to approve $300 million in covert military aid to the mujahedin over the next two years, more than ten times what was going to the Contras in Nicaragua. But Karmal said he would not ask for more Soviet troops to deal with the increased threat. Afghans could handle things on their own, he claimed. Within weeks he would be summoned to Moscow again, this time to be told he would be replaced as party leader.

Bombastic though Karmal was, his point that CIA-supplied arms and aid to the mujahedin would not bring victory turned out to be correct. One of the many myths of the Afghan war (given new life by the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks as the congressman from Texas), is that the supply of shoulder-fired Stinger missiles defeated the Soviets. But the missiles did not enter Afghanistan in significant quantities until the autumn of 1986, more than a year after Gorbachev decided to withdraw.

The Stingers forced Soviet helicopters and ground attack planes to bomb from higher altitudes with less accuracy, but the hit ratio of U.S.-supplied missiles was questionable. According to one U.S. government estimate (quoted by the veteran Washington-based analyst Selig Harrison in Out of Afghanistan, coauthored with Diego Cordovez), roughly one thousand Soviet and Afghan aircraft were destroyed by the end of 1986, mainly by Chinese heavy machine guns and other less sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry, whereas during 1987, when Stingers were widely used, Soviet and Afghan aircraft losses did not exceed two hundred.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan was also affected by propaganda and media manipulation. Key sources were the U.S. and British embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad. I ran into this offensive in stark terms on that February 1986 visit to Afghanistan when Western diplomats told me the Soviets could not operate in Paghman, the royal family’s former summer resort outside Kabul. I challenged Brigadier General Abdullah Haq Ulomi, the head of the PDPA central committee’s department of justice and defense, to let me see if the diplomats were right. Three days later, officials took me to the town in an ordinary, unarmored car. Villas on the upper slopes showed signs of massive damage, and telegraph and power lines were down along the main road. But armed Afghan police and troops stood guard at posts in the town and on nearby hilltops. There were no Soviet troops in sight. Party officials said mujahedin operated from the mountains above the town and occasionally entered at night in small groups but had not mounted a major assault for almost a year. So I was astonished when, only eight days later, I heard a U.S. embassy official in Islamabad assert that Paghman “appears to remain firmly in the hands of the resistance despite repeated regime and Soviet efforts to assert military control.”

When the last Russians left Afghanistan in February 1989, I was Moscow bureau chief for the Guardian. I felt confident that talk among ordinary Russians, as well as Western governments, of an imminent bloodbath was overstated. Under their nine-month withdrawal plan, the Russians had already left Kabul and the areas between the capital and the Pakistani border, in the autumn of 1988. The mujahedin had failed to capture any city abandoned by the Russians. They were chaotically disunited and commanders from rival factions sometimes fought each other.

The Afghan army was holding up, and the thousands of bureaucrats in government offices in Kabul, as well as most of the rest of Kabul’s largely secular middle class, were terrified of what a mujahedin victory would bring. The idea of a pro-mujahedin uprising in the city seemed fanciful. So, as the Ariana Afghan Airlines plane I took from Moscow made its daunting corkscrew descent to Kabul airport, scattering metal flak and flares to divert any missiles that might be fired from below, I was more concerned about the landing than about what I would find on the ground.

Taking no chances, Mohammad Najibullah, the PDPA leader installed by Moscow in 1986, imposed a state of emergency and sacked the non-party prime minister he had appointed a year earlier, in an ineffectual effort to broaden the regime’s base. I watched a huge military parade rumble through the city center in a demonstration designed to show the Afghan army’s strength.

It had taken two and half years for Gorbachev to move from his first hint of withdrawal to actual implementation. Like Obama, he initially tried a surge, accepting the advice of his military commanders that one last push could break the mujahedin. It was no more successful than earlier pushes, and in early 1988 his exit strategy went into high gear, helped by the fact that U.N.-led talks with the United States and Pakistan provided the opportunity for a dignified agreement. Under its terms, U.S. and Pakistani aid to the mujahedin would cease in return for the Soviet pullout.

To Gorbachev’s irritation, the Reagan administration switched tack on the eve of the agreement’s signature, pledging to go on arming the mujahedin if the Soviets armed the Afghan government after the withdrawal. By then Gorbachev was too deeply committed to reverse his plans—much to Najibullah’s anger. When I interviewed Najibullah a few days after the Russians left, he was highly critical of his former allies, even implying that he had worked hard to get rid of them. I asked him about a suggestion from Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, that he resign so as to make it easier to form a coalition government. He replied, “We’ve released ourselves with so much difficulty from one diktat, and now you’re trying to impose another on us,” and went on to say he wanted to turn Afghanistan into a neutral country and hold elections in which all parties could take part.

One of the many myths about Afghanistan is that the West “walked away” after the Russians left. We are told the West will not repeat that mistake today. In fact, the West did not walk away in 1989. Not only did it go on sending arms to the mujahedin, with Pakistani help, in the hope of toppling Najibullah by force, but it also urged the mujahedin to reject every overture Najibullah made toward talks, including an offer to bring back the country’s exiled king.

But the most impregnable of these myths is that the mujahedin defeated the Soviets. It is constantly trumpeted by every former mujahedin leader, from Osama bin Laden and Taliban commanders to the warlords in the current Afghan government, and unthinkingly accepted as part of the Western narrative of the war. The Kremlin certainly suffered a huge political defeat in that Moscow’s original aim of using the invasion and occupation to establish a secure and lasting foundation for a modernizing, anti-fundamentalist, and pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan eventually foundered. But it took three years after the Soviet pullout for the regime to fall, and when it did collapse, in April 1992, it was not as a result of defeat on the battlefield.

In fact, U.N. negotiators persuaded Najibullah to go into exile so as to enhance the chances of a PDPA coalition with other Afghans, including the mujahedin (his departure was thwarted at the airport and he was forced to seek asylum in a U.N. compound in Kabul). General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a key PDPA ally and leader of the Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan (and still a powerful figure today), defected and joined forces with the mujahedin after Najibullah appointed a Pashtun as governor of a key northern province. Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet government in Moscow cut oil supplies to the Afghan army, making it less able to function. Faced with these blows, the PDPA regime imploded, and the mujahedin walked into Kabul unopposed.

A couple of weeks before flying to Kabul to cover the Soviet withdrawal, I tracked down a group of veterans in a gloomy Moscow housing estate and listened to their complaints. They were conscripts, unlike U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan today, so perhaps they had a heightened sense of anger. “You remember that mother who lost her son,” said Igor (they gave me no last names). He went on:

She kept repeating, “He fulfilled his duty. He fulfilled his duty to the end.” That’s the most tragic thing. What duty? I suppose that’s what saves her, her notion of duty. She hasn’t yet realized it was all a ridiculous mistake. I’m putting it mildly. If she opened her eyes to our whole Afghan thing, she’d probably find it hard to hold out.

Yuri told me his first glimmerings of the war’s futility came when he realized how little contact he and his comrades had with Afghans, the people they were supposed to be helping. “Mainly our contact was with kids in the villages we went through. They were always running some kind of little business. Swapping stuff, selling stuff. Sometimes drugs. It was very cheap. You felt the aim was to get us hooked. There was not much contact with Afghan adults except the Sarandoy, the police,” he said.

Listening to NATO officials explain their soldiers’ “cultural awareness” training in Afghanistan today, I have a strong sense of déjà vu. “They gave us a small piece of paper telling us what not to do and a little dictionary,” Igor explained. “That was it. ‘Don’t fraternize. Don’t look at women. Don’t go into cemeteries. Don’t go into mosques.’” He was contemptuous of the Afghan army compared to the “ghosts,” the standard Soviet term for the invisible mujahedin enemy who launched ambushes and nighttime attacks. “Many are cowards. If the ghosts shoot, the army runs away.” Igor recalled asking one Afghan soldier what he would do when his conscript service ended. “He said he’d join the ghosts. They pay better.”

Shortly before the Russians completed their pullout, I wrote in the Guardian:

The Soviet invasion was an outrage which the majority of the world’s nations rightly condemned. But the manner of their departure has been nothing but honorable. What led to the U-turn was a combination of factors: the political mistakes of their Afghan allies, awareness that the entry of Soviet troops had turned a civil war into a holy crusade [jihad], and recognition that the mujahedin could not be defeated. It required a new leadership in Moscow to accept what Russians had privately known for months.

Yuri put it bluntly: “If we had sent in more men, it would have been outright occupation or genocide. We thought it was better to leave.”

Jonathan Steele, an international affairs columnist, has been Moscow bureau chief and chief foreign correspondent for the Guardian. The British Press Awards named him international reporter of the year in 1981 for his coverage of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

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