By Tarik Cyril Amar, a historian at Koç University in Istanbul working on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, the history of World War II, the cultural Cold War, and the politics of memory. He tweets under @tarikcyrilamar.“Never.” Or “ni-kog-da” in Russian. That’s the stark verdict of a Soviet intelligence officer, trying to explain the record of foreigners conquering the shifting sands of Afghanistan. In history, they have never really succeeded.
The scene comes from the 2005 film, ‘The Ninth Company’, possibly the most popular film about the bloody and ill-fated Soviet war against the Mujahideen in the Central Asian nation. And yet, it’s a lesson that officials in the US Pentagon seem to have missed.
Perhaps “never” is an exaggeration: Alexander the Great’s ghost, for instance, might disagree. Although, back then then, it wasn’t really Afghanistan yet, and conquest also meant something very different.
The facts remain that, in recent history, great powers, with staggering resources and supreme self-confidence – from the British Empire to the Soviet Union and now the US – have failed to subdue one of the poorest countries on earth, with a smaller population than California.
In ‘The Ninth Company’, the intelligence officer, played as a brilliant study in repressed rage and stoicism by Aleksei Serebryakov of ‘Leviathan’ fame, turns out to be a perfect Cassandra, blessed with foresight but cursed by being ignored. At the unhappy end, all his listeners are dead, killed in an absurdly unnecessary battle. All except one single survivor, as happened to the British in 1842, who joins the Soviet retreat in 1989 to tell a tale he himself cannot understand.
And now it is 2021. A mere third of a century – well within the lifespan of a human being – after the Soviet fiasco, we are witnessing the US limping away in defeat as well.
It is a defeat when the invading power, this time the Americans, leaves the battlefield, while the enemy, now the Taliban, surge, clearly poised to finish off the client government if they so wish, with or without a “decent interval.”
The only powers they might possibly consider when planning their advance are – oh, irony! – Russia and China.
A bloody history
If Europe’s infamous 30 Years’ War seems long, for Afghans, wars and civil wars have now continued, with only minor and fragile pauses, for almost half a century.
By 2017, 70% of them were born during this over-forty-year-war-already-and-counting period. Thanks to the common efforts of warring insiders and outsiders, the majority of Afghans have no personal memory of sustained, reliable peace. Instead, war is the default. Let that sink in.
Those are the lucky ones. The others are dead. How many Afghans have died during this time? We don’t know precisely. For the Soviet war, almost every estimate exceeds 1 million, with some historians saying far more. Of these dead, the vast majority were civilians.
For the American war, the figure of 100,000 recently quoted in a lazily fact-checked BBC article by William Dalrymple is certainly a misleading – and telling – under-estimate.
Instead, according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University, the total of casualties in Afghanistan during this period exceeds 170,000.
Moreover, to be realistic, you have to add the dead from Pakistan as well, which results in a total of close to a quarter-million. These figures include “only” several thousand Americans and other outside forces. They also include large shares of civilians, 71,000 Afghans and Pakistanis.
Of course, many of these victims were killed not by the Western invaders but by local factions and fighters. That is no reason for complacency: first, because the West bears special responsibility for the general escalation, and second, because its troops – and those of its client government – have also killed civilians, including deliberately and in ways that qualify as war crimes. Even if they go unprosecuted.
As Human Rights Watch has recently found, “the primary and defining characteristic of the armed conflict in Afghanistan over the last two decades has been harm to civilians caused by massive human rights abuses and war crimes by all sides.”
It is especially important to be clear about these civilian victims because reckless interventionism, most recently by the West, has been accompanied by systematic “re-legitimation of war” propaganda. This means sanitizing violence by downplaying the scale of civilian suffering.
Adding up casualty figures shows a difference in orders of magnitude this time around. Clearly, the numbers are not the same in Afghanistan’s Soviet action and in America’s wars. Equally clearly, this can be no reason for Western complacency either: 71,000 dead civilians remains 71,000 too many. It would be morally perverse to think this latest incursion was more acceptable than previous ones because nominally fewer people in the shattered nation died needlessly.
Moreover, the dead of Afghanistan and Pakistan are, of course, only a part (and not the largest) of all the casualties of what some researchers call the “Post-9/11 Wars” – a string of disastrous Western interventions in the Middle East.
Finally, keep in mind that those killed directly are just a small part of those traumatized and deprived by war. These include the hurt and maimed – in body, mind, and soul, millions of displaced and refugees, those deprived of food, infrastructure and simply a little normality, and – with warfare on this scale and duration – those not born as well.
What war leaves behind
The vocal opposition of international institutions seems to make no difference to the prospect of war. The Soviets waged their Afghan invasion essentially as international outcasts. The US, however, managed to cajole and entice support from NATO and the UN. And yet, the result is the same.
The Soviets started their full invasion at the end of 1979 and left not quite 10 years later in early 1989. The US (with allies, international and local, who had little influence regarding key decisions) arrived in the fall of 2001 and took 20 years to leave. Both initially planned to exit much more quickly.
Putting aside the ideological rhetoric, neither the Soviets nor the Americans reached their real, essentially identical, war aims. These were effectively stabilizing a friendly, if very difficult, client regime for reasons of homeland security, geopolitics and, especially once you’re in too deep, prestige.
Both indulged in the common hubris of believing that another country’s internal conflict could be controlled and settled by outsiders. Maybe such things can happen in some places in the world. That it cannot work in Afghanistan is a proven fact.
Likewise, the Soviets and the Americans left, or are leaving, behind a situation that is worse than when they arrived.
Domestically, in the Soviet case, Afghanistan was already in a post-revolutionary civil war before the Soviet invasion and had more civil war after it, with more and better arms and much additional radicalization.
At the time of the American invasion, Afghanistan was in a state between comparatively low-level civil war and de facto peace, if under an atrocious Taliban regime. Now the successors to that regime are poised to either fully take over again or, at least, play a decisive role. Civil war is, long or short, of course, always an option on the horizon.
Internationally, the Soviet invasion made worse what Afghanistan has been cursed with: its location at the crossroads of great powers, on a volatile geopolitical fault line, continually attracting the interests and fears of other, stronger countries, near and far.
The same, again, is true for the American intervention. We can already see concentric circles of outside interests and fears spreading again, from Tajikistan to Russia, China and beyond. Nothing is settled, many are alarmed, some sense opportunities.
The Soviet attack – in part possibly triggered, against initial Kremlin reluctance, by fears that Afghanistan might switch sides to the US – intensified or provoked Pakistani, American, British, Saudi, Chinese and Iranian meddling. This meddling, lest we forget, included supporting foreign volunteers entering the fray against the Soviets, some of whom went on to attack the US, abroad and at home, leading to its own invasion in 2001.
Lessons to learn?
In the Soviet case, the defeat in Afghanistan has sometimes been seen as contributing to the collapse of the USSR – in an ultimate tale of backlash. This is probably an exaggeration, and there are no signs that the US, resolutely insulated against ever really reckoning with its own errors, is about to fall apart.
And yet, it would be fair to ask whether that American ability to take bloody fiascos on the chin and move on to another part of the world, instead of learning from them, is really a sign of strength.
Credit: RT News