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Lessons of the Afgantsy for the Syrians

Lessons of the Afgantsy for the Syrians

Friday, 27 April, 2018 - 07:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

“With the defeat of terrorist forces, the situation in (….) is stabilized, the legitimate government is in control of the country.”

Sounds familiar? No surprise.

For, this is the mantra that Russian propagandists keep repeating with reference to Syria: Assad has won!

The above statement, however, was made in 1983 about Afghanistan three years after the Red Army had invaded to prevent the fall of the “legitimate government” dominated by local Communists.

Since, contrary to the adage, history doesn’t repeat itself one should not conclude that Syria today is what Afghanistan was decades ago.

Afghanistan is almost three times larger than Syria and much more difficult terrain for military operations. At the time of the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had the same size of population as Syria today with the difference that anti-Communist forces could draw on a vast demographic reservoir in Pashtun-majority parts of Pakistan.

Also, regardless of what Vladimir Putin may imagine, Russia isn’t the same as the USSR if only because, since the fall of the Empire, two generations of Russians have had a taste of freedom.

Taking into account those caveats, the fact remains that the Afghan experience may have something to teach Russians as Putin pursues the forlorn dream of empire in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

During the 10-year war in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union committed over 600,000 troops to the war in addition to the 55,000-man army controlled by Kabul and a further 20,000 Afghan-Uzbek mercenary militia. Anxious not to take risks with the ethnic-Russian majority, Kremlin leaders looked to other Soviet republics for manpower. “Cannon fodder” was recruited in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Officer cadres came from Ukraine and the Baltic states.

Today, Putin can depend on Bashar al-Assad’s 80,000-man army and an assortment of militias. Iran and the mercenaries it has recruited in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan account for a further 30,000 men.

However, Russia does not exercise the same level of control on its “allies” in Syria today than the Soviets did over their allies in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The Afghan war claimed the lives of almost 16,000 Soviets with a further 55,000 wounded and disabled. Over a million Soviet citizens were involved in the decade-long war, accounting for the empire’s largest number of veterans since the Second World War. In time they came to be known as “Afgantsy”, providing a reservoir of recruitment for criminal gangs, ethnic rebels and black-marketers. After the fall of the USSR, many of the “Afgantsy” re-emerged in their native lands, especially Ukraine, and the Baltic states to spearhead anti-Russian movements.

There are no official figures for the cost of the Afghan adventure. Semi-official figures range from $300 to $400 billion. Contrary to common belief the Soviet Empire did not collapse because of Afghanistan. It was, as Yevgeny Primakov once put it, the mentality that led to intervention in Afghanistan that caused the empire to collapse.

“We went to Afghanistan because we believed that classical power rules did not apply to the Soviet Union,” Primakov opined.” The Soviet Union was supposed to be a special case in history, exempt from its laws.”

Is Putin making a similar mistake?

With his Soviet-KGB mindset, some believe that he may well see things the same way Soviet leaders did in the final decades of the empire. This is why he is creating his “Syriantsy” by backing a minority-based central government against the wishes of the majority of the Syrian population. He is also making the same mistake most Soviet leaders did in Afghanistan by seeing war in purely military terms.

However, the military aspect of war, the actual fighting, accounts for a small, though obviously significant, part of any war in its bigger context.

By 1988, in military terms the Soviet Union had won in Afghanistan, the last pocket of resistance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, confined to the Panjshir Valley. Better still, Massoud had concluded a ceasefire with the Red Army. However, when we met him in his hiding place in the darkest days of the Afghan resistance, he demonstrated his genius for analysis by insisting that a war never ends by one side declaring victory but by one side admitting defeat, and that he had no intention of doing so.

Thus, Putin’s declaration of victory in Syria, echoed by Assad like a ventriloquist’s dummy, and amplified by Kremlin-orchestrated propaganda in the West, is no better than similar claims made by the Kremlin geriatrics and their stooges in Kabul in the 1980s.

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan is not the sole example of winning a war in military terms but losing it politically.

The French had a similar experience in 1962 in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam in 1974. In both cases, the loser lost because it pursued an impossible political agenda: trying to impose minority rule on an unwilling majority.

Putin’s case is more hopeless than that of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam. Economically, he is in a weaker position at a time Russia has to cope with falling energy prices and toughening sanctions. In terms of manpower, he cannot draw on the far frontiers of the empire while the ethnic Russian majority is reluctant to oblige. Militarily, Russia is over- stretched with some 100,000 troops committed to Dagestan, Chechnya, Crimea, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Moldova and Donetsk.

Moscow also maintains thousands of troops in bases in Tajikistan and Armenia to project power in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. However, in both places pro-Moscow rulers are challenged by pro-West opposition groups whose demands include the closure of Russian bases. Yerevan authorities have faced an armed revolt against attempts by pro-Moscow elements to install Serge Sarkisian, a Putin ally, as head of government.

Some cynics in Western capitals suggest that Russia should be allowed to remain stuck in Syria as long as possible so that it cannot make mischief elsewhere. Throughout the 1980s, bogged down in Afghanistan, the Soviet Empire made no new mischief anywhere in the world.

Ironically, to get out of the Syrian trap, Putin may need the help not only of the Western powers but also of the majority of Syrians. That, however, would require offering Assad’s head on a platter as the Soviets did with the hapless president, Muhammad Najiballah, in Kabul.

Asked about Najballah in 1989, Alexander Yavkovlev, the ideologue of the Politburo in Moscow, quipped: “Najib who? Ah, that one!”

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