A Cold War tragedy in Afghanistan that the world forgot


IN THE middle of April the world commemorated, or more likely forgot, the sorry anniversary of the fall of the communist regime in Kabul in April 1992.

The story of modern Afghanistan must rank as one of the great tragedies of the Cold War together with Vietnam and Korea, Angola and Mozambique, it is a country where a combination of internal conflict and external intervention led to terrible war.

Over a million people, 10 per cent of the population, died. Up to a third were displaced as refugees. Most of the educated elite fled.

When the communist regime in Kabul fell, three years after the Soviet withdrawal of forces in 1989, a new round of fighting began between rival Islamic and ethnic factions.

The capital, Kabul, hitherto protected by Soviet and Afghan communist forces, became the site of house to house fighting and repeated rounds of shelling and bombing of civilians. Elsewhere in the country, former guerrillas and remnants of the communist army and administration have formed rival coalitions.

As US interest has waned, other powers - Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a newly independent Uzbekistan - have intervened to back their rivals.

In the summer of 1994 a new aspirant to power, the taliban or religious students" movement made a bid for power, on a programme of order and rather bigoted adherence to Islamic law, including the banning of women from education and the "execution" of television sets: the old myth of the TV as sundug-Isheitan, "Satan's Box", has returned.

Sceptics point out that the taliban have hundreds of tanks, over two dozen jets, and plentiful arms supplies. Despite denials these could only come from one place, Pakistan.

The problem is not only that this appears to be another bid by Islamabad to annex Afghanistan, an important subtext of the whole Afghan war, but the taliban also rely on the Pushtun ethnic group, just under half of the population, whose very advance has alarmed the other ethnic groups, notably Persian speaking Tajiks and Uzbeks.

But there is another dimension to the taliban, one less noticed by the outside world. For all its programme of strict religious fundamentalism, the core of the taliban fighting force comes not from graduates in the Koran, but from former students of Stalin and Lenin, from the reconstituted remnants of the most hardline faction of the old communist regime, the Khalqi armoured and air force units.

Since their failed coup against the Kabul regime in March 1990, they have been co operating with their fellow Ghilzai Pushtuns under the patronage of the Pakistani intelligence services. Another round of violence seems in store, as Afghanistan's internal divisions continue to fuel external involvement.

Afghanistan is often, in a facile way, cited as an example of one of the UN's successes in the post Cold War period, along with Namibia, El Salvador, Kuwait and, for a time at least, Cambodia.

It isn't: rather it is a case of a potentially positive negotiation being sabotaged by factions on both sides, and of a subsequent collusion by the UN in the violation of an international agreement by the US and its allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, while the western world may, with some tranquillity, have abandoned interest, others less distant will find it hard to do so. The political and economic stability of the five newly independent states of Central Asia is mortgaged to peace in Afghanistan.

The violence that is consuming the cities of Pakistan is in part stoked by flames from across the frontier. Iran's growing alliance with Russia, a commitment that makes military and economic sense for both parties, is strengthened by the common interests they have had in Afghanistan since the Soviet forces left in early 1989.

In the 1980s the west, especially the US, armed and funded the Afghan guerrillas as a means of weakening the USSR. Even after the signing of the 1988 Geneva Accords and the Soviet withdrawal, Washington, in brazen violation of the agreement, continued to arm the opposition.

There has been much speculation about the role of Afghanistan in bringing down the Soviet system itself. The human (15,000 killed) and financial costs ($5 billion per year) of the war were large but certainly not the main cause of the Soviet collapse.

Its less tangible, political and moral, effects may have been more significant. They certainly played a role in eroding the ideological self confidence of the regime and in stimulating popular opposition, able, for the first time since 1917, to express itself freely in the press and in letters to the leadership. The comparison made by some Russians with the 1905 defeat by Japan may be most apposite.

One thing Afghanistan did not achieve was something regarded by many in the CIA and elsewhere as a primary goal of western aid to use the pressure of Afghanistan to weaken the Soviet position in Central Asia. The collapse of the communist system in Moscow came as a result of events in a very different arena, namely eastern Europe.

The communist elites of Central Asia, far from falling, reacted to the dangerous spread of democratisation in Moscow by declaring independence in the last days of 1991, the better to stay in power.

Here, of course, lies the ultimate irony of the western policy on Afghanistan. Today the western world is happy to do business with, and indulge politically, the governments of the newly independent republics of Central Asia.

They are in all but name continuations of the old Brezhnevite nomenklaturas, replete with grand palaces, presidential votes of 99 per cent, refurbished, "nationalised" KGBs and dutifully pliant and flattering mass media.

This is precisely the kind of regime which the war in Afghanistan was fought to remove. Yet for all its repressive and wasteful characteristics it is, on many criteria, preferable to the reign of Islamist terror envisaged by the mujahedeen and all too familiar from Iran.

Meanwhile, militants in the Islamic world, gloating over the collapse of communism, argue that it is now prepared to face a new confrontation with the ever-inimical west.

But as I always tell my Islamist friends when they complain about western hostility, the largest covert operation in the CIA's history was conducted in support of a fundamentalist coalition in Afghanistan. For that they at least should be grateful.