No matter how you cut it, Britain’s 13 years of military presence in Afghanistan has been an abject failure and utterly futile in terms of its achievements. It has been an intervention characterised by incompetence, poor planning, lack of resources, and wasted lives.
The pictures carried in many of the papers today of the 453 British soldiers who lost their lives makes for harrowing reading. So many young men killed in their prime, their lives thrown away as a result of decisions made by politicians with the morals of the gutter. Many more were maimed, some permanently, and others damaged psychologically.
The families and loved ones of those young men will be feeling particularly raw today, and understandably so. Then there are the thousands of Afghans who lost their lives and who’ve also suffered. There will no trumpets or tributes paid to them.
The words of James Connolly come to mind: “Their crimes would shame all the devils in hell.”
The exit strategy for the ISAF had been getting Afghan security forces to fend for themselves, so that control of the country could be continued by proxy. This task, by all credible accounts, has not been achieved. Rather, the insider attacks have scuppered the training program, and now we are seeing the onset of the “cut and run” that politicians have talked up for so long.
Think what you will of the politics of the resistance, but even if you mischaracterise all, or even most, of the opponents of occupation as Islamist, the strategy of “insider” attacks has an undeniable Tet quality to it. It should also be noted that a resistance on any scale, let alone the scale of the insurgency in Afghanistan, needs support and sanction by the population to go anywhere.
An insurgent relies on the people for support, intelligence, shelter and political approval, even for extra firepower. Attacks on ISAF patrols in Afghanistan in the past have been supported, quite spontaneously at times, by locals coming from miles around to take pot-shots at the intruders, as was reported in David Kilcullen’s excellent book The Accidental Guerrilla.
The long game
Likewise, it’s easy to refute claims by a leading US general that a lack of fighting in Helmand – leading to the boredom of marines – constitutes a sign of progress. To make that argument you would have to ignore, firstly, the seasonal nature of fighting in Afghanistan – did anyone tell the general it is winter? Secondly, you’d have to miss the nature of the war itself; what insurgent would blunder into a province flooded with US Marines? The Afghans have played the long game. It has served them today as it has in previous occupations.
The other major factor in this is, of course, the rejection of the war at home. Though not because the public do not grasp Afghanistan’s complexities, as has been suggested in the past – rather, it’s precisely because people do understand. The occupation has become a conversational punch-bag, it seems, everywhere except Westminster; though one suspects that in some quarters it is a grim in-joke there as well. At the same time as people support servicemen on a human level and condemn their betrayal by successive governments, the war has been a waddling tragedy since 2006.
It is an insult to talk of withdrawal in terms of the cost in pounds, as some do, when the cost in mutilation and death is what cuts us the most. I do not count these deaths as lightly as the government; I have seen a number of familiar faces appear on television, accompanied by words like: “Today, another soldier…”
What is clear is that the Afghans, portrayed as feckless and needy each time the occupation needed to be re-justified, are still, as ever, capable of controlling their own territory and their own lives and driving occupiers out of both. Defeat has been a steady drip-drip for the west, but it is defeat nonetheless.
Like Iraq, Afghanistan has a reasonably pliable government for now, but arguably the greatest collection of military power in history has been ground down by ordinary people with no planes, no armour, no drones and no illusions about why Afghanistan was invaded.
Even very recently in the Kabul Bank saga, it has been clear that capital flows out of the country and I would expect that to increase in the coming months. I also expect to see prominent public figures rushing to catch up with their loot in Dubai and similar sanctuaries.
More conventional attempts at robbery are being employed at home to escape a grim fate in Afghanistan. Only this week Private Stephen Evans, 20, of theRoyal Welsh Regiment was convicted for attempting an armed robbery in order to escape of a third tour of Afghanistan. The judge took into account his“suffering post-traumatic stress disorder following his tour of Afghanistan”.
A bizarre route to take, but not totally inexplicable when you realise the average reading age of a soldier joining the infantry is ten and most other ways to get treatment or air objections are obscured or denied.
This young man may have been expressing a conscientious objection; which soldiers have a legal, contractual right to have recognised. It is a hard road, but it is better than being the last man to die for hubris.
The get-out is already being set up by the US military and its political outriders in Washington. 38-year old Staff Sergeant Robert Bates, alleged to have murdered 16 Afghan civilians – among them 9 children and 3 women – in a group of small villages in the Panjawii district of Kandahar last Sunday, is being transmogrified from mass murderer into victim in a process as cynical as it is racist in its denial of respect for the victims, their families, and their culture. Rather than acting out of the underlying racist and dehumanising attitude that is common in soldiers engaged in colonial occupations towards those being colonised, Bates was ‘traumatised’, ‘tired’, ‘had just witnessed one of his buddy’s legs being blown off the previous day’, ‘was suffering marital problems’, ‘snapped’ (no shit), ‘has an outstanding military record’, and on and on.
The excuses have flowed via the media almost as fast as the aircraft that flew him out of Afghanistan to the safety of Fort Leavenworth in Kansas via a stopover in Kuwait, where according to reports he’s being kept in solitary confinement, whatever that means. It is hard to believe that Robert Bates’ solitary confinement will be anything like solitary confinement as it is understood by Bradley Manning, a US soldier who did not murder 16 innocent civilians in their beds but whose crime in the eyes of the US military and government in revealing classified information is deemed far more grievous, given what we know of his treatment.
The speed with which Staff Sergeant Bates was spirited out of Afghanistan should of course come as no surprise. The very idea that an American soldier would be allowed to be tried by mere Afghans for slaughtering mere Afghans is laughable. After all, why else bother drafting implicitly racist military regulations as the Status of Forces Agreement if it doesn’t allow for the slaughter of women and children of an inferior race and ethnicity when one of our boys ‘snaps’ due to the pressures of spreading democracy and freedom to an ungrateful populace? Questions remain over whether or not Bates acted alone, with Afghan President Hamad Karzai making it known that he believes he did not, doing so after meeting with the villagers and family members of the victims. The circumstantial evidence supporting the accusation that it was the work of more than one soldier is pretty strong. Some of the bodies were burned to try and hide the evidence, and two of the houses involved are located a mile apart.
This is no one-off incident. It continues a pattern of crimes and atrocities that have punctuated the occupation of Afghanistan from the moment US and British troops entered the country over a decade ago. This year alone, just three months in, pictures revealing US Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghan resistance fighters in January were followed by the burning of copies of the Koran by US soldiers at Bagram airbase a month later. This latest atrocity brings the tally to three in as many months. The strong inference in light of these must be that the continuing presence in Afghanistan of 90,000 US soldiers and military personnel has gone way past the point of being sustainable, and that the moral degeneration of the troops themselves is self evident.
Colonialism and colonial military operations exist on a foundation of racism and the dehumanization of the people being colonized. If it had been an Afghan who’d slaughtered 16 US soldiers in one fell swoop, much less civilians, he would already be suffering, if not dead. There would be no comfortable pre-trial detention, no media campaign to mitigate the incident, and no army of lawyers and psychologists deployed in his defence. He’d be toast.
The troops soldiers serving in Afghanistan, US and British, are the product of the ignorance and racism imbibed not just from military indoctrination but also social conditioning when it comes to the prevailing nationalism and exceptionalism that describes Western cultural values. There can be no doubt that the strain, fear, pressure and stresses suffered by soldiers serving in places where they are not welcome and subject to the constant threat of being killed or maimed takes a massive toll. But the common thread when it comes to the atrocities that result is that the victims are only accorded a minor role in the ensuing fall out, as if their lives and deaths are of less importance than the priority of defending the reputation of the troops and military forces involved.
Thus we’ve been regaled this past week with the sight of Barack Obama and David Cameron engaged in a public effusion of mutual admiration, attending basketball games and eating hamburgers together like a couple of rich pen pals from school meeting up for the first time. “The men and women of our armed forces are doing a great job and we salute their courage” is the public message from both leaders. “We are determined to stay the course until the mission is completed. Our condolences go the families of those killed recently.” It’s the same old bullshit spoken in the same old voice of insincerity and indifference to the lives of those forced to bear the brunt of policies dreamt up and initiated in the comfort of state rooms by those cocooned from the consequences.
The history of atrocities committed in a series of colonial and imperialist wars undertaken since the end of World War II is proof of the depravity of the West in its determination to maintain its hegemonic relationship with the developing world and those cultures deemed inferior. The charge sheet is irrefutable: My Lai, Bloody Sunday, Sabra and Chatila, Haditha, Gaza, and now Panjawii in Afghanistan.
If this is Western civilization, what does barbarism look like?
What a mournful milestone we passed this week with the deaths of six British soldiers in Afghanistan, pushing the total killed in this senseless war above 400 – to 404 at the time of writing.
These young men were from Yorkshire, Cheshire and Lancashire. And young they were – the youngest was Private Christopher Kershaw, 19, from Bradford.
Huddersfield, Bradford and the Lancashire former mill towns are a universe away from the gilded Etonian millionaires who are running our country into the ground – when not taking to horse, on steeds loaned, if you will, from the Metropolitan Police at our expense.
Yet David Cameron, William Hague and the rest are determined to throw more of our young men and women into the maw of war, in Afghanistan and – so leaks from the Ministry of Defence confirm – into catastrophic conflagration in the Persian Gulf should Israel, with the US in tow, launch an attack upon Iran.
We are four years into an economic crisis more devastating than any for three generations.
We are over a decade into a cycle of war that those who govern us show no sign of halting, despite the public reaction this week to the grim news from the killing fields of Helmand.
It is redolent with the complacency and criminal neglect that blighted the 1930s.
Then, as mass unemployment soared, the political class retreated to the gentlemen’s clubs and society gatherings in the smart areas of London.
They pulled down the shutters on the distress that was engulfing the country.
They muttered instead their admiration for the business elite that profited even from the misery, turned their minds to maintaining an empire in decline and imported the methods of divide and rule from the colonies back into Britain with vicious tirades against the immigrant, the poor, the struggling mother and the disabled.
So great was the otherworldliness of polite society that when the great leader of the struggle against unemployment Wal Hannington toured the land and wrote The Problem Of The Distressed Areas, bringing to attention the scale of social devastation, it was treated as a rude shock by the editors and political class in London.
You sense a similar incomprehension when today’s campaigners against unemployment are met with bemusement by politicians and pundits merely for pointing out that there is an alternative to Tory slave labour schemes – real jobs, a decent minimum wage and investment in the things we desperately need not self-defeating cuts to the gains of 60 years of the welfare state.
One aspect of the distressed times we live in today is worse even than the 1930s – the enervation and prostration of the party of labour in the face of a rampage by the richest 1 per cent against the 99 per cent at home and abroad.
It was bad enough 80 years ago. Faced with bankers’ demands to flay the unemployed and working people, the Labour Party split – with what you might today call Blairites going the whole hog and joining with the Tories and Liberals to impose years of austerity.
But despite that historic betrayal, there were still voices in Parliament – the rump of Labour and firebrand MPs from the Independent Labour Party – who refused to join the grim and deadly orthodoxy.
It’s true that they could not muster a majority in the House of Commons and were even ridiculed as lone voices.
The corruption of our parliamentary democracy had sunk deep even then.
But they were able to speak from Westminster over the heads of the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ brigade and their collaborators who had left the ranks of real Labour.
And that voice was heard in the distressed areas – from east London to Inverclyde, Yorkshire and the Rhondda.
In turn, the cries of pain and of resistance flooded back and were channelled by figures of stature such as James Maxton and Fenner Brockway.
They lent weight to every decent cause – from the successful battle to stop the British Hitler, Mosley, through support for democracy in Spain to the heroic agitation against unemployment and the economics of war against the poor.
There are all too few such voices today. Next Wednesday, the leaders of the government and opposition in Parliament will exchange hollow condolences for the families of those whose loved ones were killed this week in Afghanistan.
But both of them are committed to yet more blood sacrifice. And for what?
The very same Taliban that phoned the BBC to claim responsibility for the deaths has now opened an office in Qatar in the Persian Gulf – not far from the home of the US Central Command headquarters from where the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were launched.
We are sending young people, often from areas of high unemployment and little hope, to kill and be killed while negotiations are taking place with the very people we were told it was impossible to have any dialogue with – hence the need for 10 years of war.
Perhaps the Tory and Labour front benches could convince themselves about the tragic necessity of the first British casualties or the first few thousand of the uncounted Afghan dead.
Perhaps. Though everything those of us who opposed the war from the beginning said then is now even more telling a decade on.
I remember when the then defence secretary John Reid told the House of Commons that the extra troops he was sending to Helmand would be back by Christmas without “firing a single shot in anger.”
I rose and responded that they would not be back that Christmas or in 10 Christmases.
How the poodles with pagers in Parliament laughed at that. That was 10 years ago.
But whatever they said or believed then – and for them the two are usually not the same thing – what can they say now?
How can they explain to those who are about to be sent to Afghanistan that they face death not for some just victory – they long since stopped talking of victory – but to save the faces of their masters who are busy negotiating over how to get out with the very people who are planting the roadside IEDs?
And how can those who brought us the mendacities about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq tell us that the same soiled fabulations should be believed this time over Iran and the threat of an even more dangerous, crazed conflict?
They cannot with any credibility do so. Hence they rely on the absence of official opposition and the subservience of a media still dominated by the phone hackers and bribers of public officials from the stable of arch tax-avoider Rupert Murdoch.
When not complicit, the response of Labour’s leadership is woeful.
Why is it left to the young unemployed to bring to heel the corporate giants who seek to profit from joblessness by using unpaid labour press-ganged by the Tories?
To pensioners to expose the blatant privatisation of our NHS more effectively than massed ranks of backsides on green benches in the Commons?
To grieving mothers to make the case for withdrawal from Afghanistan, for peace and not war?
To union leaders representing the low paid to argue for public investment not cuts coupled with handouts to private parasites?
In many British cities last summer we saw what happens when the voices of the distressed areas are not heard as they cry out against social devastation, the darkening of hopes and the daily humiliations of bigotry, racism and Tory snobbery.
One way or another, the people will be heard. It is better that that is done democratically, together, the stronger standing with the weaker, and effectively – forcing a change in priorities.
It’s as a contribution to that that I will be standing as the Respect Party candidate in the by-election at the end of this month in the Bradford West constituency.
Bradford is a city like so many others that have been taken for granted for so long. It is one of the places that Cameron and his pals cannot bear to look at, even from a distance and atop a horse provided courtesy of the London taxpayer.
It is a place, like east London, where I and my colleagues managed to spook the horses seven years ago, rich in the real labour values which in my experience so many working people continue to hold dear.
It is where in 1893 the Independent Labour Party was founded, following the victory of Keir Hardie in east London the year before.
Their argument was as clear then as it is relevant today.
The 1 per cent at the top had two parties – Tory and Liberal – to represent them. The 99 per cent had none.
Now we have those two parties in a criminal coalition and a third that is a feeble opposition, a pale reflection of the hopes of Labour a century ago.
That cannot be overturned in total overnight, of course. But it has to be challenged – and a victory against the complacent orthodoxy would send shockwaves throughout the political class, making it harder for anyone to take the working people and the soldiers’ families for granted any longer.
These voices are crying out across our country and they need to be heard – especially in the Parliament that is meant to represent us.
And that is what I intend to do throughout this campaign and beyond, alongside all those who stand for the principles that led those pioneers to take that historic step in Bradford over a century ago.
British troops have now been in Afghanistan longer than both world wars put together. The six most recent deaths brings the tally of British soldiers killed to 404, while the number of injured and maimed comes to many more times that. Afghan deaths after 11 years of war and occupation is unknown, their deaths are not counted, but is thought to be somewhere between 30-40,000, mostly civilians.
This is an unwinnable war in which the lives of Afghans and young British soldiers – the youngest of the six most recent British casualties, Private Christopher Kershaw from Bradford, was just 19 years old – are being sacrificed to prop up a corrupt western puppet Afghan government, led by Hamid Karzai.
It is clear by now that continuing with a military presence in the country until 2014 will achieve no more than what has already been achieved after 11 years. It is also clear that the focus on the part of the political establishment intent on keeping British troops in Afghanistan for another two years is saving face. In that age old British colonial tradition – India, Palestine, Iraq, etc. – defeat will be hailed as victory when the last British soldier finally departs.
Neither Britain nor the US has the resources to establish a resounding military victory against a determined opposition which enjoys the support of a large section of a population increasingly alienated by a mounting toll of civilian casualties.
The idea that the US and its allies could bomb a poor and undeveloped country into becoming a liberal democracy was absurd from the start. Afghanistan’s history is littered with failed attempts to colonise it by the Great Powers. It is now a country and society unrecognisable from the one of the 1960s and seventies, when it boasted significant progressive advances in terms of education, women’s rights, economic development, and so on. But it was then and remains now a society polarised between town and country, with little or no bridge between either.
That bridge will not be built using force or foreign military intervention. Rather than alleviate or help the Afghan people, the presence of foreign troops in the country has done the opposite. Kharzai’s government has no writ in the country beyond Kabul. The North remains the fiefdom of assorted warlords, whose brutality and corruption is a matter of record.
Meanwhile, back home, the crime is compounded by hypocrisy. Political leaders who outdo themselves in lavishing praise on the troops in truth hold both them and the low income communities they come from in scant regard.
Christopher Kershaw was just nine on 9/11. Now he’s dead. His name, along with those of the other five, will be read out at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons and swiftly forgotten. The playing fields of Eton have much to answer for.
The tragedy that is the history of Afghanistan was lost in the wake of 9/11. From that moment on in the eyes of a West baying for revenge, it was a country reduced to nothing more than a terrorist base run with the blessing of a regime that gave new meaning to the word evil.
Emanating from Pakistan, the Taliban had by 1996 prosecuted a successful campaign to oust a western backed and armed mujahedeen from Kabul, which previously had succeeded in forcing the departure of Soviet troops from the country after a brutal conflict lasting nine years, followed later by the removal of the leftist government led by Mohammad Najibullah.
The corruption, chaos and internecine warfare which soon followed the mujahedeen’s assumption of power plunged the country into an abyss despair and suffering, with warlordism and barbarism turning Afghanistan into what western bureaucrats with their talent for understatement soon described as a failed state.
Yet before 9/11 those same warlords, men whose acts of wanton violence and cruelty were worthy of the word medieval, had won the paternal affection of government apparatchiks in Washington as a band of courageous liberation fighters who’d successfully forced the Soviet Union to abandon a country it had invaded in a brutal act of aggression – at least according to Reagan and the coterie of right wing zealots who formed his administration back then.
To understand why Afghanistan was and remains so important to US strategic interests is to understand the role the country has played throughout its history in the global struggle for empire and hegemony waged by the great powers. Occupying a strategic location along the ancient silk route between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, has been the subject of fierce rivalry between global empires since the 19th century, when the then British and Russian Empires vied for control of the lucrative spoils to be found in the subcontinent of India and in Central Asia in what came to be known as the ‘Great Game.’
The British desired to control Afghanistan as a buffer against Russian influence in Persia (Iran) in order protect its own interests in India, at that time the jewel in the crown of an empire that covered a full third of the globe. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought during this period. The first saw the complete annihilation of a 16,000-strong British army in 1842, the second resulted in the withdrawal of British forces in 1880, though the British retained nominal control over Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. This control lasted through to 1919, when after a third Anglo-Afghan war the British signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi, heralding the beginning of complete Afghan independence from
In terms of economic development, Afghanistan remained untouched by the industrialisation that swept through the subcontinent as the British mercantile class set about the wholesale plunder and exploitation of India’s human and natural resources. By contrast, Afghanistan’s value to both the British and Russian Empires was solely strategic, combining with a paucity of natural resources and rough, mountainous terrain to retard the country’s economic development. A primitive agrarian economy predominated, supporting a feudal system of social relations that has continued in the countryside in one form or another to the present day, with self-styled warlords wielding power of life and death over those who live under their control.
The Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was formed in 1965 in opposition to the autocratic rule of the country’s then King Zahir Shar. They helped to overthrow the regime in 1973 in a coup led by Mohammed Daud, the king’s cousin. In the years following Daud sought to distance himself from the PDPA and from the Soviet Union, which was Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner and source of aid throughout the 1970s. In 1978, when Daud’s intention to purge the army of its communist officers and cadre became known, he himself fell victim to a coup staged by the PDPA with support from the Afghan army.
The coup enjoyed popular support in the towns and cities, evidenced in reports carried in US newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, no friend of revolutionary movements, reported at the time that “150,000 persons marched to honour the new flag and the participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic.” The Washington Post reported that “Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned.”
Upon taking power the new government introduced a programme of reforms designed to abolish feudalism in the countryside, institute freedom of religion, along with equal rights for women and minorities. Thousands of prisoners under the old regime were set free and police files burned in a gesture designed to emphasize an end to repression. In the poorest parts of Afghanistan, where life expectancy was 35 years, and where infant mortality was one in three, free medical care was provided. In addition a mass literacy campaign was undertaken, desperately needed in a society in which ninety percent of the population could neither read nor write.
The resulting rate of progress was staggering. By the late 1980s half of all university students in Afghanistan were women, and women made up 40 percent of the country’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and 30 percent of its civil servants.
However, the Afghan government’s attempt to impose its reforms on the countryside by force proved deeply unpopular and opened the door to US covert support and funding of opposition tribal groups. This covert support began under the Carter administration with an initial $500 million allocated to arm and train the insurgents in camps set up specifically for the task in Pakistan.
The PDPA with its crude application of communist nostrums in the countryside, where a conservative interpretation of Islam remained the lynchpin of a social structure that hadn’t changed in generations, had long proved a thorn in the side of the Soviet bureaucracy. The overriding priority of the Soviet Union was regional stability and to keep US influence out of Central Asia. Both of these objectives were threatened by the crude methods of its Afghan ally. The party was comprised of two wings, Parcham (banner) and Khalq (masses). Parcham drew the bulk of its members and supporters from urban intellectuals in the cities, while Khalq was popular among the Pushtun tribes in the south of the country. It was a factional split which mirrored the deep division between town and countryside, long a problem in terms of fomenting national unity in the country. Both factions sought theoretical and political influence, a struggle most starkly played out within the Afghan military, within which both had support. Regardless of factional differences, however, both wings eventually agreed to unite, doing so under pressure from the Soviets. This was concretised at a meeting in Jalalabad in 1977, where a new Central Committee was elected comprising representatives of each wing.
Contrary to claims made by western ideologues then and now, when Daud was removed and the PDPA took control of the country in 1978 it did so without the knowledge or backing of the Soviets. This is described by Rodric Braithwaite’s in his excellent Afgantsy (Profile Books, 2011), which provides a forensic account of the history of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
“The coup came like a bolt from the blue to Soviet officials in Kabul, including the KGB representative. The PDPA leaders had neither informed nor consulted them, since they believed their plans would not be approved by Moscow”.
As the Soviets feared, the PDPA in power, while enjoying popular support in the towns and cities, quickly alienated the countryside with their cack-handed attempt to implement reforms, laudable though they were. The result was the emergence of an insurgency which soon gained traction and opened the door to US influence in the region.
The Soviet leadership was dismayed at events taking place across its southern border, recognising from the outset the perils of being drawn into what had rapidly become a civil war. As Braithwaite writes:
“As for the Afghans’ demand for Soviet troops, the more the Soviet leaders thought about it, the less they liked it. No one had entirely ruled it out. But when they put the arguments to Brezhnev, he made it clear that he was opposed to intervention, remarking sourly that the Afghans expected the Soviets to fight their war for them”.
Initially, Moscow hoped that sending military specialists to help bolster the efforts of the Afghan army, along with increasing aid to the country along with other economic measures would suffice.
They were wrong. With a resumption of the factional struggle within the PDPA, leading to tit for tat assassinations and instability within the Afghan government, along with atrocities being carried out by the Afghan army in the countryside increasing support for the insurgency, Soviet military intervention was inevitable.
It began in December 1979 and ended nine years later when the last Soviet troops left the country in February 1989. It was a huge military effort, with an estimated 620,000 troops serving in Afghanistan over the course of the Soviet presence. Of those 14,453 were killed, while over 53,000 were injured, many permanently. Estimates of Afghan casualties vary between 1-2 million, with another 5-10 million leaving the country. In addition the country’s infrastructure was destroyed and its people plunged into poverty.
After the Soviets left US interest in the country ceased. Pakistan proceeded to fill the power vacuum left behind. As the major sponsor of the insurgency Pakistan went on to forge trade deals with the Afghan warlords who emerged from the ranks of the mujahedin. Later, when the warlords proved incapable of running the country, the Pakistanis backed the Taliban and forged favourable economic and political relations with them too. These relations have continued to this day, though now on a covert basis, and have been a cause of acrimony between the Pakistan government and Washington since 9/11.
Ultimately, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, despite its intent of shoring up a progressive government, proved a disaster both for Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, which never recovered economically and fell apart two years after the last of its forces departed the country in 1989.
In the epilogue to his book, Braithwaite recounts conversations he had whilst visiting the country in 2008.
“I was told by almost every Afghan I met that things were better under the Russians.
“The Russians, I was told, had built the elements of industry, whereas now the aid money simply ended up in the wrong pockets in the wrong countries. In the Russian time everyone had had work; now things were getting steadily worse. The last Communist president, Najibullah, had been one of the best of Afghanistan’s recent rulers”.
Braithwaite spoke to a former mujahedin commander in Herat named Sher Ahmad Maladani, who had fought both the Russians and the Taliban. Maladani told him that
“if Najibullah instead of Karmal had taken over in 1979, the country would not be in its present mess”.
Najibullah’s government survived another three years after the Soviets left. This was due to the continuing aid which Moscow provided to Kabul, comprising massive quantities of food, fuel, and military equipment. In 1990 the value of this aid came to $3 billion. The Afghan army and air force were entirely dependent on it and fought well while it was available, Indeed they were able to go on the offensive. But at the beginning of 1992 the new post-Soviet Russian government led by Boris Yeltsin cancelled the aid and the die was cast.
The mujahedin soon overran the country, taking Kabul in April of the same year. Najibullah sought sanctuary in the city’s UN compound. There he remained until the Taliban took power in 1996, whereupon they forced their way into the compound, removed the former president and butchered him.