1980s >> 1980 >> no-906-february-1980

Russia’s Afghan Hound

In the high days of flower power, Afghanistan lay at the end of the hippie trail and Kabul was reputed to be a fabulous city where a peace-lover could live, as free as a bird, on little more than cannabis. It might have been, like Neville Chamberlain’s Czechoslovakia, a far off country of which we know very little—except to the few million Sid James fans who faithfully went to see Carry On Up The Khyber. The Russian invasion—swift, brutal, remorseless—was a blast of harsh reality to blow away the fables.

It is difficult to understand how even the hippies came to think of Afghanistan as a lotus-land. In fact it is one of the world’s greatest inhospitables, with a climate which swings from one extreme to the other. The North endures long, harsh winters of impassable snows while in the south the summer temperature can reach 120°F. There are swarming flies and dust storms which are whipped up by fiery winds. The nights are intolerable as the rocks give off the heat they have absorbed during the day. Nor is it a peaceful land, being populated by tribesmen and brigands who are habitual, ruthless fighters. And as a final endearing touch, these same athletic warriors suffer from chronic bowel disorders, said to be caused by their injudiciously heavy intake of fruit.

A Cruel People

So the Russians have not gone there, with their tanks and artillery, for the good of their health. The invasion is the latest episode in a long saga of conflict and bloodshed which has been Afghanistan’s history since the emergence of capitalism and its international rivalries.

Afghanistanfirst became an independent country in 1747. A century later as British capitalism, an established power in that part of the world, met the resistance of Imperial Russia, the geographical position of Afghanistan ensured its role as a buffer. The two opponents became absorbed in what was euphemised as the Great Game—the diplomatic deceits, the espionage, the threats—in which Afghanistan was the unwilling playing area. Between 1838 and 1919 Britain fought three wars there, the effect of which was to set up a succession of rulers whose power rested upon British bayonets. Those wars were notable for the pitiless atrocities committed by both sides; in 1842 the British garrison in Kabul was forced to abandon the city and of 4,000 men there only one survived. “There is no doubt that we are a very cruel people”, commented Winston Churchill in 1897, after watching British soldiers shooting prisoners and razing villages along the frontier.

Britain’s withdrawal from India in 1947 marked an historic decline of its power and influence in the area and in the 1950s its place in the Great Game was taken over by America. By that time Afghanistan had become more than a buffer state; its strategic importance was complicated by the development of the oil fields of Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The American Cold War strategy of containing Russian ambitions erected a delicate framework of tenuously related states, in which Afghanistan was doomed to play a vital part.

Bloody Coups

Until the early 1970s, Afghanistan existed in a condition of uneasy division, north and south, between Russia and the USA. In the north the Russians built roads, drove the Salang Tunnel beneath the mountains of the Hindu Kush and flooded the country with “advisers”. In the south the Americans poured in massive amounts of aid, building airfields ominously capable of handling the largest military aircraft. Whatever stability this balance imposed upon the country was first threatened in 1973 when Zahir Shah was overthrown in a coup led by the “Red Prince” Daoud who was himself replaced—and, almost as a matter course, killed—in another coup in April 1978 when Mohammed Taraki, the first outright Russian puppet, took power.

The actual organiser of this last coup was Taraki’s deputy, Hafizullah Amin. The reforms which the Taraki government attempted to impose provoked a rebellion among the landowners and tribesmen and an uneasy Moscow advised the elimination of Amin, whose support for Taraki was not wholehearted. In the event, last September, it was Taraki who was killed, in a gun battle after which Amin took over. Now Amin has himself been ousted and—some reports say after a “trial”—put to death along with many relations and associates. The new puppet, propped up by the Russian tanks and guns, is Babrak Karmal who will presumably last just as long as he pleases his masters in Moscow. Amin fell because he failed to put down the rebels; the Russians moved in to take over the job, which many observers are saying will be as tough, as enduring and as costly as the American attempts to beat the Vietcong.

Bloodshed and Hypocrisy

Through all of this has run an unbroken streak of bloodshed. Since April 1978, for example, many people—running into tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands—have been murdered by whichever government has been in power. The insurgent tribesmen have preyed mercilessly on the Russian “advisers”, nearly a thousand of whom have been shot, publicly tortured to death or flayed alive during the past year. One retaliatory act to Amin’s brutalities was the beheading of 35 Russians and the parading of their heads. And behind all this has loomed the vaster, perhaps the ultimate, violence of capitalism’s dominant nuclear powers, competing for control over this barren but vital corner of the world.

The Russian attack—their first direct operation of this kind outside of Eastern Europe—was in many ways similar to their move against the Dubcek government in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Then, too, there was a dissident movement offering a threat to the Russian grip upon the country. There was political unrest in nearby Poland, as there is now in places like Iran, where the Islamic religion is a cover for a rising political force. The Russian tanks went to Prague, as they have gone to Kabul, first to depose the figurehead to the unrest, then to crush the insurgents, then to set up a government on which Moscow can depend. In classical Communist Party vocabulary, this is an example of capitalist imperialism; but of course the Russian press describes it as a necessary move against a counter revolution.

This was typical of the nauseous hypocrisy, from all sides, which greeted the invasion. Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was able to forget Vietnam and Cambodia—not to mention American capitalism’s numerous other outrages—and protest about ” … an independent Moslem country on which the Soviet Union is trying to impose its will by force”. The murder of Amin came only a few days after Pravda had approvingly reported his account of his happy relations with the Kremlin. And of course, whenever it has suited its case, Russia has readily denounced other capitalist states for “interfering in the internal affairs” of smaller nations. Then there is one final, illuminative irony—that a country which claims to have thrown off, in a socialist revolution, the cynicism of Tsarist imperialism, should itself so ruthlessly continue that self same imperialism.

Capitalist Interests

In this war, as in those which have happened before, it is ordinary workers and peasants who will be suffering and dying. Under the delusion that some interests of theirs are involved they will willingly take arms, they will kill and be killed and they will wreak upon each other the most frightful atrocities. When it is all over and the dead have been counted no worker will have gained anything from it; the victors will be one group or other of the capitalists whose interests are at stake in the struggle.

While the immediate reasons for the conflict in Afghanistan are complex, even obscure, the basic explanation is simple and apparent. It is the same reason as applied to the two world wars, to Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia . . . Capitalism is a society divided into a mass of rivalries—companies, states, power-blocs. It is a society which has to be competitive, which cannot work cooperatively. The conflicting interests which are at work over Afghanistan are massive and to protect them each participating power has an elaborate machinery of diplomatic intrigue and as destructive a military force as it can support. The great powers of capitalism, who need to involve themselves in almost every dispute wherever it happens, now have the capacity to wipe each other out. Capitalism has created a dangerous world.

The invasion of Afghanistan will not improve that world; it will not make human beings better fed, more secure. At most it will draw fresh battle lines to mark the wars yet to come. In the course of capitalism’s conflicts Afghanistan has suffered over centuries and there is no reason to believe that its future will be any more peaceful.

So we have been here before and we will be here again. It may happen next in a different country with another set of statesmen to peddle their lies; or new political analysts to pronounce their instant solutions. And there will be other workers to die and to suffer, in spite of the mouldering graves of those before them which testify to the futility of it all.

Ivan

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