February 20, 2009

Afghanistan: A Second Chance?

[This was written as a radio commentary, and appeared on Vermont Public Radio February 20, 2009.]

Thirty years ago, in 1979, the Persian Gulf was a tinderbox.

On January 16, following months of uprisings, the Shah of Iran was overthrown.

One month later, it looked like Afghanistan’s turn. The Soviet-backed thugs running the country had imposed radical social reforms, sparking a civil war and threatening pro-Soviet rule. On February 14, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs was kidnapped by terrorists and killed in a hasty rescue attempt by Afghan police, with Soviet military advisers looking on. The US demanded an apology. It never came.

In the months that followed, the CIA began covertly supplying arms to mujahideen “freedom fighters,” in order. Then National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has admitted that this was designed to “draw the Soviets into the Afghan trap… to give the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.”

Meanwhile, the embattled Afghan regime repeatedly requested Soviet military assistance. Little came. Then, in September, the Soviets, perhaps hoping to quell rising popular unrest, urged one of their moderate puppets to stage a coup against their radical puppet, Hafizullah Amin. But Amin got wind of the coup and eliminated his rival in a presidential palace shootout. The civil war worsened. Within a few weeks, the Soviet leadership had decided in favor of massive military intervention, which began on Christmas Eve, 1979.

In the ten years that followed, 15 million Afghans were swept up by war. Five million refugees fled the country and two million were displaced. An estimated one million Afghans were killed, and four million more were maimed or wounded. The Soviets themselves lost 14,000 soldiers. When the Soviets pulled out in February 1989, unfortunately, so did the US. And anarchy ensued. Within a few years, the CIA-armed “freedom fighters” had morphed into the retrograde Taliban regime, which led to terrorist training camps and, eventually, 9/11.

Today, fixing Afghanistan is reputedly the Obama administration’s number one foreign policy priority. Yet we must recognize that the U.S. can no more remake Afghanistan into a European-style democracy than the Soviets could turn it into a socialist vassal state. Afghanistan is a rural nation, tribal and fiercely independent. The rural population may never identify with or have primary loyalty to a national government in Kabul. Afghans are primarily devoted to family, tribe and, especially, religion – Islam. Afghanistan has been a Muslim country for 1000 years. We can’t succeed by confronting these traditional loyalties, only by affirming and strengthening them.

Most importantly, as Americans, we must recognize that, for 30 years, our country’s foreign policy has contributed to Afghanistan’s wholesale destruction, and done little to help it build a more secure future. Twenty years ago this month, the U.S. made the mistake of walking away from Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled. Hopefully this time, with an eye to history, we can get it right.

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