Jonathan Steele – Ghosts of Afghanistan – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is another in my series of posts on author talks that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Jonathan Steele has reported on Afghanistan since the Cold War. His book addresses what he considers to be 13 myths about Afghanistan:

  1. The Taliban has little popular support.
  2. The Soviet invasion was an unprovoked attempt to capture new territory.
  3. It led to a civil war.
  4. The resistance benefitted from Western support.
  5. The USSR suffered a massive military defeat.
  6. The Afghans have always beaten foreign invaders.
  7. The Stinger surface to air missiles supplied by the CIA to the resistance were decisive.
  8. The West walked away after the USSR left.
  9. The Mujaheddin overthrew the Kabul regime and won the civil war in 1992.
  10. The Soviets destroyed Kabul by artillery fire.
  11. The Taliban are the harshest rulers that Afghanistan has had.
  12. The Taliban invited Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan.
  13. The Taliban are uniquely harsh on women.

He did not have time to discuss all of these in a one hour talk, but made the following comments:

The word Ghosts in the title has a double meaning. It refers to the dead, but was also a Soviet nickname for their opponents, because of their skill at concealment. NATO troops may never knowingly see an insurgent during a six month tour of Afghanistan.

There are many similarities between the Soviet and NATO invasions. The USSR was supremely confident early one and initially gave great access to the Western media, but this was soon restricted. The current media coverage is too loyal. It is impossible to go unless you are embedded with NATO forces, and you will not be embedded again if you are too critical.

In the 1980s Kabul was quiet. Soviet officials had their families with them and local young women went about unveiled. The countryside was different; UN personnel could not leave the capital to supervise their projects. It is possible to control Afghan cities, even the communications between them, but the villages are much harder to control.

Before the Soviet invasion the Afghan government had been criticised by conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists, who disliked its reforms, especially of women’s rights. In March 1979 Soviet Prime Minister Alexey Kosygin told the Afghans that Soviet intervention would make things worse.

However, in December 1979 Hafizullah Amin became president of Afghanistan after a palace coup. He was Western educated and the Soviets feared that he would adopt pro-Western policies, with Afghanistan perhaps replacing Iran as a US ally in the Middle East. The USSR therefore invaded and assassinated and replaced Amin.

The USSR expected a quick regime change after its invasion, as did the USA after 9/11. General Tommy Franks, who commanded the 2002 invasion, did not want to repeat the USSR’s mistakes, so relied upon air power, special forces and the Northern Alliance. Both invasions led to lengthy wars, but there are some differences between Soviet attempts to end the conflict and the current situation.

In 1985 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev realised that the war was a stalemate. His generals told him that they could win only if the border with Pakistan was closed, which would require 250,000 men. He was unwilling to do so.

President Barack Obama also inherited the war, but was willing to send more troops, tripling the number of US soldiers in Afghanistan. He described Iraq as a war of choice and Afghanistan as a war of necessity.

Another difference is that the Pentagon is trying to delay the NATO withdrawal, whilst the Soviet military supported withdrawal.

A third difference is that the USSR looked for a political solution, whilst NATO is planning to replace its troops with Afghan ones. Steele believes that this will not work because of the ethnic composition of the Afghan Army. Pashtuns make up only 4% of it, but comprise 42% of the population.

The Afghan government has always struggled to control its provinces, but there is no demand by Afghan Uzbeks or Tajiks to break away.

Steele pointed out that the three Anglo-Afghan wars were different from the current conflict, or the Soviet invasion. The British went in, lost some battles, won others, changed the regime and left without attempting to occupy the country in the long-term.

In conclusion Steele believes the war to have been a mistake and to be unwinnable.

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