The Role of Afghanistan in the fall of the USSR

It may seem a bit far-reaching that a country like Afghanistan had any bearing on the fall of the Soviet Union. Anthony Arnold, however, compares Soviet Union with a sick old man and Afghanistan as the pebble which this exhausted sick man stumbled on and fell. One could easily dismiss Arnold's argument if he had been the only expert, or at least among the few writers who had articulated this point. But surprisingly, there are quiet a number of authors who suggest Afghanistan as one of the considerable factors in the demise of the USSR. Thus, in this paper I will put forward a number of factors which dealt fatal blows to the invincibility of the Soviet Union.

I would especially like to focus on the effects of the Afghan War in the Soviet Union's domestic dynamics and relate public opinion/opposition to the war, during and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. But first, I would like to place Russia and Afghanistan in historical perspective. "Of all the burdens Russia has had to bear, the heaviest and most relentless of all has been the weight of her past" Tibor Szamuely, the Russian Tradition" (Arnold 17). Although one may not fully grasp this statement due to one's limited knowledge of Russian history, never the less, one can appreciate the implication in the context of the chapter (2) presented by Arnold on Russian history: Under the heel of the Golden Horde [a division of the Mongols which headed northward in the late 13th century and conquered lands from Central Asia up to Moscow] Russia missed out on the nation building era of Europe. Entering late in the European process (sixteenth century) Russian received the finished product and thus had to deconstruct the progress while playing catch-up. The defeat of Peter the Great in 1700 by the Swedish King, Charles XII, focused Peter's mind on domestic shortcomings. The Petrine reforms that followed covered about all aspects of Russian life. Peter's forceful, ruthless, and willful attitudes dragged the country toward progress. In 1712 Peter decisively defeated Charles; and by the end of his reign, some argue, that Russia won the fear, if not respect, of Europe- especially militarily.

Catherine the Great (1762-96) brought Russia closer to the European frame of mind. Under Alexander I (1801-25) Russia's skillful army defeated Napoleon in 1814. And its here when a group of officers known as Decemberists staged an unsuccessful coup against the state government. The Third Department [a direct ancestor of the KGB] of Nicholas I (1825-55) was established to stamp out nonconformity in Russia. Moreover, this reactionary regime rested in Slavophilism philosophy, which basically inherited the ideology that Russia had no need to borrow from the West in order to make herself known to the world - as had argued the Decemberists. Thus, the Tsar preached that Russia was uniquely capable of an orderly, benevolent despotism rooted in the Orthodox church. This ideology, however, was bypassed by Alexander II (1855-81) after the death of Nicholas I, who freed the 43 million serfs. Alexander also released the surviving Decemberists and eased censorship but refused to relinquish absolute power or grant a constitution to Russia. It is under him that the prestige of Russian military superiority comes to an end in 1854, when an Anglo-French army successively defeated the Russian army. Wanting an easy and low cost victory to improve its military image, Nicholas II turned to Asia and attacked Japan in 1904. Suffering a disastrous defeat Nicholas faced waves of strikes which paralyzed the economy. As a result a consultative parliament, the Duma, was established in May 1906. The new Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, dissolved the first Duma, and enforced great reforms - but was finally killed in 1911 for being more effective then the Tsar, while disappointing the left and the right wings with his reform policies. Never the less, in October 1917, after an embarrassing defeat in World War I, the last of the Romanov dynasty, Tsar Nicholas II, was executed by the victorious Communists.

The contradiction between limited economic reform (which plagued Lenin, who reluctantly allowed a semi-Capitalism to revive the devastated economy) and continued political absolutism came to an end with the Stalin's launching of his twin drives of industrialization and collectivization, which saw the total defeat of limited economic reform. Needless to say that the World War II victory also contributed to this formula greatly; as Col. S. Kulichk in puts it "All vicarious war waged by Russia have led to a strengthening of totalitarianism in the country, and all unsuccessful ones have led to democracy... A strange interpretation of history, is it not?" (Arnold, 29).

Ironically, when the Soviet forces were compelled to withdraw from Afghanistan (April 15, 1989), the Soviet Union was beginning to undergo the initial stages of drastic reforms from above since the reign of Alexander II. At the eve of Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the rotting effects of absolute centralism and autocratic power on the national psychology [Stalinistic, old school philosophy] had resulted in corruption, non discipline, irresponsibility, and grassroots apathy, the same problems which had plagued Peter the Great's administration before the Swedish War in 1700. And much like Catherine the Great's Nakaz and the Potemkin villages, a glossy blanket of false propaganda had covered the domestic degeneration, arguably, well.

To make further parallels, as Nicholas II, who made the mistake of attacking the seemingly "weaker" opponent (Japan), Brezhnev invaded the "easy" Afghanistan, totally ignoring local history and traditional patterns. In the same light, Gorbachev, like Tsar Alexander, sought to preserve and even to increase his personal power and to maintain the organs of suppression which were so carefully nurtured by his predecessors. But his position was challenged by the old school hard lined conspirators in the 1991 failed coup, and was finally removed from power shortly after by Boris Yeltsin , a student of the new school of Russian thought.

On the other hand, Afghanistan became a unified country in 1747 under the leadership of an ethnic Pashtun leader, Ahmad Khan of the Sadozai (later named Durrani) clan of the Abdali tribe. It is under this tribe that the leadership of Afghanistan rested until the 1978 'revolution'. In the meantime, the expansion of Russia southward by early to mid nineteenth century posed a threat to the jewel of the British crown, India. The British predicted that Peter the Great's dream of expansion could endanger their possessions in India, thus adopted an anti-expansionist policy (against Russia) which made Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Tibet a fence around any further Russian expansion; and thus began "the Great Game".

In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan and occupied the capital, Kabul. In January 1842, out of 16,500 soldiers (and 12,000 dependents) only one survivor, of mixed British-Indian garrison, reaching the fort in Jalalabad, on a stumbling pony. Fearing another Russian influence, the British once again entered Afghanistan in 1878. In July 1880 the regiment was cut to ribbons, while 'Abd al-Rahman Khan became Amir of Afghanistan, but agreed to surrender Afghan foreign relations to the British. In 1919 (Third and last Anglo-Afghan War), under Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan reclaimed its foreign independence from the British, who were never to interfere directly into Afghan affairs again.

The question over the motive of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan may be raised. Different authors have put forward a long list of issues which may have enticed the Russian invasion, but they all agree that: both countries had long and close relationship with one another; and the government of Afghanistan was one of the first to recognized the Bolshevik regime. Afghanistan had the largest per capita economic aid program with the Soviet Union before the Communist coup; the Afghan military was trained in the Soviet Union, and finally because the U.S. didn't supply military equipment to the government of Afghanistan during Prime Minister (1953-63) and later President (1973-78) Mohammad Daoud's office.

The notion of self identify and nationalism which had popular appeal in the Middle East since the nineteenth century, reached Afghanistan in 1960's and created popular dynamics resulting in the evolution of the leftist and rightists parties. In 1964 a liberal constitution initiated by King Zahir, permitted multi-party elections in the Parliament and other government offices in Afghanistan. Moscow needed the service of an Afghan Communist party. Thus the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was established in January 1965 by a group of intellectuals. Meanwhile, Conservative Islamist opposition was formed during the 1960's when the Pakistani Jama'at-i Islami, headed by 'Abdul 'Ala Maududi, tried to establish a sister organization in Kabul, with the help of some theology professors (graduates of Al-Azhar University, Egypt) at the Theology Department of the University of Kabul, aiming to revive the ideals of Moslem Brethren. During the Soviet occupation and the civil war that followed these leaders emerged as the major players on the Afghan scene.

The PDPA split into Khalq [People] and Parcham [Banner] factions, but were reunited under close Soviet patronage in 1977. President Daoud tried to eliminate the PDPA in Spring 1978 by arresting its leaders. This action triggered a classic Coup de tat the next day. An armored brigade took over the presidential palace and killed everyone inside. Three days later the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was declared, and Nur Mohammad Taraki announced as the president. Although it is argued that Moscow did not directly trigger the coup, one can point out that it did nothing to prevent it either. Thus, the internal dynamics of the PDPA may have outpaced Soviet strategy. Regardless, the damage had been done.

The neighboring countries were not however greatly alarmed by the PDPAs take-over, because the regional balance of power still had not changed. Only Pakistan was worried about a stronger and tougher Kabul and thus supported the anti-government elements. The West, also, did not yet see the 1978 coup as a expansion of the Soviets toward the warm waters.

Hafizullah Amin's bodyguards assassinated President Taraki in September 1979 and he began a ruthless subjugation of the opposition which consisted of two-third of the country. Shaken by peasant revolts, urban upheavals and bloody internal feuds, the regime was on the verge of collapse when in December 27, 1979 the Soviets decided to intervene, killing Amin and replacing him with Babrak Karmal. After Karmal's failure to bring peace to the country, he was replaced by Dr. Najibullah in May 1986. He was to remain president until the Mujahidin coalition took power in 1992.

In establishing the parameters, one could not put a price on the casualties, however it is necessary to apply some numerical figures into it. In fighting the Soviets the Afghans suffered about two million dead (mostly civilian), an economic devastation, over five million displaced citizens, and such political and social disintegration that the very future survival of Afghanistan as a state is still questionable. The war, for the Soviets without much exaggeration, meant nothing less then national suicide, even if one counts Afghanistan as a catalyst for the breakup process of the Soviet Union.

Economically speaking, the cost of the war varies, according to the varying Soviet figures, but the most agreeable figure is given as $8.2 billion per year. As for casualties, it too is an arguable topic, due to the strict censorship of the Soviet Union. The official 15,000 dead is a gross underestimation. Experts agree that at least 40,000 - 50,000 Soviets lost their lives in action, besides the wounded, suicides, and murders. The ultimate political cost, however, was at least the breakup of the surface glaze which had hidden much of the internal decay for decades. This, in part, would not have been possible without the great contributions of communicational technology which became at the disposal of the populace [mostly after the Afghan War, i.e. fax machines and the free and uncensored Media (due to Glastnos)], all of which were capable of reporting the slightest news around the world and all over the USSR.

However, it is the social costs that I want to emphasize. Some of my sources have focused on different frames of social breakdown as a result of the war. I will go over all of them briefly. Corruption is on the top of every list. One example given by Arnold is that the price-tag for a medical exemption from Chernobyl nuclear cleaning, in 1987, was 500 rubles, and 1000 rubles to avoid going for military service in Afghanistan. Drugs were another problem facing the society upon the return of the Afghan veterans. Virtually all 546,200 troops who served in Afghanistan had the chance to experiment with drugs for the first time. Cheaper and easier to come by than alcohol in the Afghan bazaars, often drugs changed hand with guns and ammunition.

Yet a greater problem was the Afghan veterans, or afgantsy, who returned to a country which deemed their sacrifice a mistake. Most of these soldie rs suffered psychological problems, either by losing their minds or turning into a life of violence, including becoming involved with the local Mafia. Perhaps the sharpest criticism and opposition came from Andrei Sakharov, who on June 2, 1989, in the Congress of Deputies, shocked the nation and the deputies by calling the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan a criminal act and a war against an entire people. This is yet another example of a daring stand against the feared system; it is particularly interesting because the confrontation came from a distinguished political personality who was taking this stance.

On the civilian side, the people did not know of the 1979 invasion until three days after the invasion. And for the first year of the war the government denied any casualties in Afghanistan. In order to keep the war hidden the soldiers sent to Afghanistan were mainly chosen from the Baltic Sea area, Russia (Central Asia to a lesser extent) and were recruited from small villages. But even with assuming utmost precaution the government could not hide the invasion or its consequences.

Some sources focus on public opinion and the eventual escalation of protests during and then after the war, starting with underground papers and protest demonstrations at soldier's funerals and grave sites (which were on small scale during the war, however). Although any protest was being immediately and severely put down (for the very act of opposition against the political establishment was regarded as high treason) no force could control the popular discontent of the Soviets, thus, protests were becoming more frequent and better populated. "I believed - I really believed," said a retired Soviet schoolteacher, of her lifelong party membership, in Fall of 1990. A Russian biologist related in early 1992 that "they said we were the happiest people in the world. How were we to know differently?" (Arnold, 200). Such actions are indicative of not only the mass frustration but also of political break-down.

According to Arnold, the Soviet Empire stood on three pillars: Military, KGB, and Communist party, and argues that the Afghan War ate into these pillars thus weakening them to the point of break-down. For example, when key military and KGB commanders refused to follow Dmitris Yazov and Valdmiri Kryuchkoo's commands, in August 1991, to storm the Russian Parliament where Boris Yeltsin was holding out, it was a decisive signal that the chain of command had lost its effective control. Also noteworthy is that among the civilians who manned the barricades around the parliament building and defied the tanks, were a sizable contingent of the afgantsy.

A channel through which a number of the Soviet people expressed their anger, frustration, and discontent was the independent free press. In magazines like Ogonyok people's letters were being published and the journalists gave accounts of the war based on personal experience. Two of my source, Small Fires and The Hidden War mainly focus on such publications. To show veteran's discontent with the government, I am including part of a letter, written by an afgantsy Senior Lieutenant, to the Ogonyok magazine: ...I will send you a letter with all the details about how some there [Afghanistan] "did battle," received and then were deprived of battle decorations, falsified the lists of those who would receive decorations, redistributed equipment and personal gear, about what our superiors drank, what the higher-ups had for dinner and what the majority ate, where goods for the Afghan population disappeared to, how the officers made cripple of their soldiers and ignored murders and suicides, about the tragic events in battle that were committed with the full knowledge and under the orders of high officials, how we lived and how they, the "regimental elite," lived, about how lists of those decorated were not issued according to the rules because of the personal enmity of superiors to their subordinates, how housekeepers, bathhouse attendants, and gardeners were reward, and in general about anything and everything. (Borovik 286-7)

Economic devastation, political suppression, despotic rule, and forced virtues were Stalinistic old-school policies, which held the chains surrounding a society that no longer could be held from change. Afghanistan was a major factor in breaking the myths which had surrounded the Soviet Empire for decades. Acknowledging the speedy implementation of Prestroika and Glasnost, coupled with a breakdown of the economics and changing Soviet ideology were elements breaking apart the Soviet Union.

Rameen Moshref


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