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.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Bilingual series of short, lesser known, but highly significant works that show the traditional view of Dostoyevsky as a dour, intense, philosophical writer to be unnecessarily one-sided. 
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
At the Circus (bilingual)

At the Circus (bilingual)

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955