Lessons from the Afghan imbroglio, 21 years after Russia’s invasion

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Shawwal 06, 1421 2001-01-01


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 29, No. 21, Shawwal, 1421)

Muslims throughout the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr on December 27, coinciding with a less pleasant event that has been virtually forgotten by most of us by now. On this date in 1979, tens of thousands of Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, setting off alarm bells in world capitals, not least Washington, then a leading champion of the ‘cold war’ mentality. Twenty-one years later, the Russians have fled back to their frozen homeland, the Soviet Union is no more, but the Afghans are still fighting and dying, many from the millions of landmines left behind by the Russian army.

The Americans, who supported the Afghans throughout their bloody conflict with Russia, have now teamed up with Moscow to punish the people of Afghanistan. From cold war adversaries in the seventies and eighties, Moscow and Washington have become close allies in their attempts to reconquer Afghanistan. While Russia’s antipathy towards Afghanistan is understandable — after all, its superpower status was shattered in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan — American attitude shifts are less easy to understand and need closer scrutiny.

The US and Russia are pushing at the United Nations security council for stronger sanctions: an arms-embargo against the ruling Taliban, but not the opposition Northern Alliance of Ahmed Shah Massoud, and a travel ban on senior Taliban officials. Their offices abroad would also be closed. The Taliban-led government has been suffering from UN-imposed aviation and financial sanctions since last year. Aware that additional sanctions would cause further hardship to an already impoverished country which has suffered a two-year drought as well, the Taliban have sought China’s help to frustrate US-led moves at the UN. Afghan foreign minister Abdul-Wakil Mutawakkil has also appealed to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) for assistance. On December 12, Lu Shulin, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, flew to Qandahar to meet Mulla Omar, the Afghan head of state, and discuss what Beijing would get in return for vetoing the security council resolution.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thanks largely to the sacrifices of 1.5 million Afghans, and the displacement of millions of others from their homes, the Americans have turned their backs on them. If that was all they did, it would perhaps be understandable: after all, American policy is not predicated on sentiment; only Muslims fall for such nonsense. But in a streak of viciousness only the Americans are capable of, they have become the Taliban’s staunch enemies. True, the Taliban are not the kind of company one would like for dinner, but their alleged misdeeds do not match their record. These are more the compulsions of the cold war mentality of a self-declared superpower in search of enemies to satisfy its appetite for foreign adventures, as well as to feed a steady diet of jingoism to its ill-informed populace at home, than anything to do with reality.

The people of Afghanistan, however, like those of Iraq and Iran, must pay the price for this. America’s number one obsession vis-a-vis Afghanistan is Osama bin Laden. He has been blown out of all proportion and accused of every misdeed in the world. Many Muslims probably wish that he really had such powers to put the great satan to fright, but he clearly does not. As in its attack on Khartoum (Sudan) on August 20, 1998, destroying a pharmaceutical factory without evidence to back its allegations, Washington expects the world not to question its purity of intentions. The Taliban clearly do not accept such behaviour, although they are having to shoulder the consequences.

Beyond America’s crude tactics lies a more crucial question that Muslims must address: how did they end up with such a mess in Afghanistan after a glorious victory over the Red Army? This has much to do with Pakistan’s tactics at the behest of the US. The US was afraid to lose control of the various groups fighting Soviet forces, so the Afghans were kept in check by regulating the level of their supplies at crucial times during their struggle. While this ensured control of the groups, it also resulted in no single person or group emerging in a opposition of leadership. This proved disastrous once the Russians had been driven out. The various factions began to fight among themselves, leading to the present situation. The US, of course, did not want a clear winner either; it wanted the Soviets defeated and Afghanistan in turmoil, lest its revolutionary zeal “infect” others.

There are similar dangers in Kashmir, where the mujahideen are resisting the Hindu occupation army. The divergent outlooks in the All-Parties Hurriyet Conference will clash with eachother if India’s troops pull out of Kashmir. The Chechens, who are having to fight the Russians all over again, have fallen victim to the same tendencies. Muslims, it seems, are good at winning wars, but bad at managing the peace. The only exception appears to be Lebanon where the Hizbullah have shown remarkable aptitude for gathering support and preventing their achievements from being undermined by others. Unified leadership and focus have clearly served them well.

For Muslims the lessons are clear: outside help, especially from America, does not come without strings. Anyone who harbours illusions on this score must think again. There is the ever-present danger that even victory will turn into defeat if there is too much reliance on American ‘aid’. It ought to be avoided at all costs. True, it will prolong the struggle of Muslims battling against heavy odds, but the long-term consequences of American involvement are disastrous. Again, the Hizbullah example stands out clearly: they achieved their victory in spite of America, not because of it.

Muslims also need to put their house in order in other ways. Too often, individuals suffer from illusions of grandeur, harbouring ambitions bordering on meglomania. These are further inflated by their not-so-sincere friends, who pump them up and present them as larger-than-life figures. The problem with Ahmed Shah Masoud is precisely this: he was called the “Lion of Panjsher” and told that he had defeated the Russian army singlehandedly. Now he finds it impossible to accept the leadership of anyone else. He is also being used by Russia, America and the dictators of Central Asia, who have suddenly discovered a lack of “democracy” and “freedom for women” under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is painful to see that, 11 years after they drove the last Russian soldier back over the Amu Darya, the Afghans are still fighting and killing each other. They should be going after the Russians and demanding reparations for the massive damage inflicted on their country and the killing of 1.5 million people. Nothing of the sort has happened; instead, the Afghans have merely acted to reduce their already dilapidated country to rubble. Sometimes we Muslims are our own worst enemies.

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