Afghanistan: the Russian Withdrawal

Nine bloody years after their intervention in Afghanistan, the Russian army is finally pulling out. The government of Nahmud Berri is to be left to fend for itself against the Mujahadeen guerrilla alliance, which successfully tied down 155,000 troops for almost a decade. How are we to explain this abandonment of a “communist” ally to such an uncertain fate, given the scale of Moscow’s past support for the Afghan regime? The answer can be found in the operation of economic pressures on Russian decision makers.

In 1978, the government of Muhammed Daoud was overthrown in a coup led by the “Communist” Party of Afghanistan, the PDPA. The party was split into two antagonistic factions, and alarm bells started ringing in Moscow when the more radical wing, the “Kalq”, gained the upper hand and began pushing though far-reaching reforms. They aimed to transform Afghan society into a modern Russian-style state by expropriating the large landlords and attacking feudal social structures. These measures provoked bitter resistance, and within months the country was embroiled in an increasingly savage civil war.

At this point the Russian ruling class became seriously alarmed and tried, without success, to make the President, Hafizulla Amin, soften his position. The Ayatollah Khomeini had just been swept to power in neighbouring Iran, and the Russians were fearful that a similar regime of religious zealots might come to power. At best they would be anti-Russian, and at worst they could ally with Washington. US bases might even follow.

When it became clear that Amin would not be diverted, the Russians sent in their troops, stormed the presidential palace and executed him. In his place they installed Babrak Karmal of the moderate “parcham” faction of the PDPA, and set about trying to win the war. Thus the intervention was about putting a stop to the revolutionary process before it threatened the strategic interests of the Russian Empire.

So why, nine years later and with the war still not won, has the Russian leadership decided on a withdrawal? The dominant factor was the sheer cost of the occupation, not only in maintaining a huge garrison through a war which was unwinable but also in the unseen burdens it was placing on the Russian state.

The process of “Perestroika” is not merely a passing fad of the western media, but involves the very survival of the Russian ruling class. To allow their crumbling economy to stagger on in its present form is to invite relative and eventually absolute decline, which would marginalise the country in the world economy and could prejudice the political and even the territorial integrity of the state. Russian industry simply must become competitive in the world market, and to this end will require vast amounts of capital and new technology, expanding markets and cheap sources of energy and raw materials.

This is the context in which the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan must be seen. As we saw in the case of changing attitudes towards the Korean Peninsula, the primary goal of Russian foreign policy is now regional stability and the reduction of tension. Such a climate is crucial if trade and foreign investment are to be successfully encouraged.

The Afghan war has long been a major source of tension with China, the “third world” and the West. The Chinese government has consistently maintained that the occupation of Afghanistan was one of three obstacles to the normalisation of relations with the Russians {the other two being border disputes and the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea). The Afghan withdrawal will significantly speed up the recent rapprochement between the two states, and this will produce immense benefits for the Russian ruling class. Not only will it allow them to make further reductions in their half million strong forces guarding the Chinese border, but it will also help force the pace of growing trading links.

As far as the “third world’. is concerned, recently released Kremlin documents show that some officials appreciated at the time of the invasion the disastrous effects it would have on Russia’s position in the region, particularly with the Islamic nations, whose friendship was necessary for the economy and overall security. These fears proved well founded, particularly in the case of Pakistan and the Arab world.

Finally, the occupation of Afghanistan was one of the factors {along with the imposition of martial law in Poland) which provided the pretext for the United States to launch the “second cold war” of the early 1980s. Most distressing of all to the Russians was the curtailing of trade credits and the tougher restrictions placed on the export of “sensitive” technologies to the Eastern bloc. The recent summit in Moscow demonstrated the value the Russians now place on restoring conditions in which these restrictions can be removed.

It would, however, be wrong to suppose that the Russians are completely abandoning their interests in Afghanistan. They have a large economic stake in the northern oil and gas fields around Jauzan, and army leaders have made a series of agreements with local tribal chiefs {the same “forces of reaction” against whom they are supposedly waging a life or death struggle) to safeguard their interests. Moreover, recent reports suggest that they have pushed the Afghan government into creating what amounts to a buffer state in the north, under the guise of an “administrative reorganisation ” , which would serve to protect their real strategic and economic stake in the country should the central government collapse (Guardian, 23 April).

Withdrawal from Afghanistan does not herald a new, more “peaceful” era in international affairs. The foreign policy of the Russian ruling class, like their Western counterparts, cannot afford to renounce war as an instrument for securing their interests. Indeed, they have already warned Pakistan and the United States that the withdrawal will be halted unless they stop supplying arms to the guerrillas. However, economic pressures have proved stronger than the strategic worries which were behind the original invasion and which remain unresolved. This makes the further use of force unlikely, not because Gorbachev is any more pacifically inclined than previous leaders, but because the weakness of the economy leaves him with little real choice.

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