Ghosts of Afghanistan

Thirty years ago, before there were cell and satellite phones, way before WiFi and drones, news about seemingly obscure wars like Afghanistan came from the plucky reporters who trekked into the heart of conflict to interview rebel fighters in their lair. British-educated Edward Girardet was looking for his "own Spanish Civil War or Vietnam to ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Thirty years ago, before there were cell and satellite phones, way before WiFi and drones, news about seemingly obscure wars like Afghanistan came from the plucky reporters who trekked into the heart of conflict to interview rebel fighters in their lair. British-educated Edward Girardet was looking for his "own Spanish Civil War or Vietnam to cover" when he graduated from college, and his reporting from Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor during the period of the Soviet occupation from 1979-1989 was a stellar example of the unilateral genre.

He would disappear from view for weeks on end, hike through contested zones with Russian troops very close by en route to the Panjshir valley, where he would interview "the Lion" — guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. To return to his home base in Peshawar he’d search for a Pakistani border post and turn himself in for illegally crossing the border. After tea and a friendly chat with the post commander, he’d be sent off on safe transportation. Girardet’s Killing the Cranes makes gripping reading.

Jonathan Steele of London’s Guardian also traveled to Afghanistan during the nine plus years of conflict, but he arrived by plane from Moscow, visa in hand, and covered the other side, reporting from the perspective of the Soviet-installed Afghan government and the Russian officials sent to prop it up.

The past is prologue in land-locked Afghanistan as anywhere else, and the challenge for both journalists in writing memoirs of the 1980s is to make the jihad of that era and the power they were fighting relevant to the very different contest now under way.  This isn’t an easy task, for the arduous trek through the Hindu Kush will provide the brave, lone reporter at best a slice of events at a certain moment, but it may not have any inherent message for readers 30 years later. It is still tougher for someone who covered the war only from the Russian side, which would seem like a classic case of looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Full disclosure: I’ve known both authors for decades.

On the surface, there are more than a few similarities between the two periods: a superpower with enormous resources and advanced technology is bogged down in an asymmetrical war with indigenous Islamist insurgents, who survive in large part thanks to backing from neighboring Pakistan, which has an agenda of its own.  The differences also jump out: Pakistan, nuclear-armed, is now working both sides of the street — facilitating the U.S. warfighting, while backing the Taliban insurgents killing U.S. troops. The added twist is that those insurgents in the past five years have spawned a Pakistani Taliban that seeks the overthrow of the Pakistani state.

Girardet’s main contention is that by funneling weapons through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which heavily favored the ruthless commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the CIA set the stage for the struggle now under way. "Simply put, it was the U.S. backing of the Islamic extremists in the 1980s that helped produced the current military quagmire in Afghanistan."  Fair enough. But then he takes it several steps further. "The Hyena," as he calls Gulbuddin, never won a battle except against his Mujahidin rivals, and also "may have had dealings with the KGB," which "built him up" through its propaganda. His source for the latter claim is a 1990 research report by a House Republican committee on terrorism, co-chaired by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the champion of the Mujahidin cause. Girardet says the United States provided Hekmatyar at least half a billion dollars in military and financial support. While many of Girardet’s claims are factually sound, what’s missing is original research, so a reader can judge whether Rohrabacher’s claim is true, partly true or a canard.        

The final quarter of the book is a once-over lightly account of the past 20 years, relying heavily on sourcing from non-governmental organizations. Girardet himself long ago started up his own NGO to encourage media coverage of conflicts. But the same initiative which led to a series of excellent guides for reporters covering Afghanistan also advocated involving "credible media, like the BBC and VOA more directly as a means of promoting mediation among the belligerents. This could be through practical information outreach aimed at making fighters and local populations more aware of on-the-ground humanitarian needs," he writes, thereby blurring the line between media and aid organization.

"As with so many foreigners passionately involved with Afghanistan, it has been hard to see what has become of this extraordinary country and its people since war first erupted in 1978," he writes, noting that "many of us have romanticized Afghanistan because of its harsh beauty and poetic embrace."

In December, 2001, the German government asked Girardet to take part in the Bonn conference setting up a transitional government in Afghanistan. He was in a group examining constitutional and legal aspects, a crossing of lines which no staff journalist could do. Girardet then switched hats in his book, criticizing his own work: "Much of what finally emerged from the Bonn accords was a recipe for disaster…equally farcical is the legal system that eventually emerged," thereby denouncing what seems to be his own handiwork.  It would have been valuable to know just how that salami was made.

This is not an analytical book; it lacks source notes; and the case for his conclusion on the last page — "All I see is a replay of history" — is thin. For example, he compares Operation Moshtarak, the high profile U.S.-led operation in 2010 to remove the Taliban and the drug trade from a key part of Helmand province, with the Red Army offensive against Massoud in Panjshir.  "Operation Moshtarak had clear parallels with the Red Army-Afghan offensive I witnessed twenty-seven years earlier in the spring of 1982 against the Panjshir.  The push, which involved some twelve thousand Soviet-Afghan troops, was roughly the same size as Marjah’s," he says. In 1982, he recalls, reporters were with the guerrillas, slept in the villages, drank tea with the locals. Girardet notes with surprise that the "dispatches from the British and American military fronts of today often seem to be from a different war, with assessments that have little to do with Afghanistan." 

But he should know that the Taliban are not Massoud’s Panjshiris; their commanders will kidnap a journalist trying to embed with them, sell him or her to other commanders or hold them for ransom for a year or more. The aim of Moshtarak was to set up civilian control and leave, a far cry from the Red Army offensive.

Girardet also acknowledges that enterprising Afghans are now starting up businesses, cross-border trade is vibrant, newfound wealth has enabled local people to send their children to schools, and education is one of the country’s "most dramatic success stories."

Steele’s "Ghosts" is a packhorse of a different color, recounting his trips into Kabul in 1981, 1986, 1988 and 1989, but without any reflection or second thoughts.  His sources are largely from the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), with no voice from the guerrilla side except for the much despised Hekmatyar, with whom he had some fascinating exchanges. Even though Steele has returned to the country several times since 9/11, he apparently did not use the opportunity to flesh out his facts.

This is an unabashedly revisionist history of Afghanistan in the modern era.

Steele says a lot of Afghans still admire Najibullah, the Soviet-backed leader who served as president from 1986 to 1992 after heading the KHAD secret police at a time it reputedly arrested, tortured and killed large numbers of Afghans.

"In today’s Afghanistan, many Afghans in their late thirties or older look back on the Najibullah period with nostalgia, and his picture is occasionally seen on windshields or bumper-stickers in Kabul.  People remember it as a time of genuine national sovereignty in which a secular and apparently uncorrupt regime was in charge." 

"Some older Afghans even hark back favorably to the Soviet period, when millions of rubles of aid flowed into the country and did not disappear into ministers’ or other corrupt pockets in the way it has done more recently under the US occupation." No source given, so just take it on faith.

Ghosts is built around a device that will madden any serious student of Afghanistan: a set of myths supposedly held by the western media and governments.

"One reason why the United States has repeated so many Soviet mistakes is that much of the West’s conventional wisdom on Afghanistan rests on myths," Steele writes. "Policymakers and the media peddle an inaccurate view of Afghanistan’s history. In this book, I hope to set the record straight."

Chief among these "inaccuracies" is that the defeat the Soviet Union suffered in Afghanistan was a military defeat during nine plus years of guerrilla war. According to Steele it stemmed directly from the failure of the Soviet project to modernize the country.  The defeat "was political, not military," he writes. "Moscow’s attempt to safeguard the PDPA program of radical reform in one of the world’s poorest and most conservative countries had run into the sand." But this was a historic defeat for the Red Army too, for the collapse of political support for its venture in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet dominance in Communist East Europe.

Steele makes no secret that he opposed the U.S. intervention after 9/11, putting him in a minority at the left-of-center Guardian. He recounts the debate: "The war’s opponents (myself included) argued that attacking Afghanistan would provoke anger in many parts of the Muslim world and increase the terrorist risk.  The ‘war’ against terrorism was not a job for troops or missiles. It should not really be a war at all. Dealing with terrorists had to be a combination of politics and police."

He says he also argued to his colleagues that Osama bin Laden, unlike Japan during World War II, was not interested in territory, for "his was a war of ideas."

A revisionist perspective sometimes leads to fresh insights and a valuable critique.  But in this case, no example jumps out that is worth citing. What does jump out is that the author, in failing to shoot down the very myths he posits, gives currency to the Soviet myths used to justify the invasion.

Take "myth" number three: "The Soviet invasion led to a civil war and Western aid for the Afghan resistance. " To counter this, he quotes a Russian diplomat "who preferred not to be named" 30 years later after the event. "Soviet officials…believed that holding Kabul, the other main cities and the roads connecting them was enough to keep the Mujahedin at bay and prevent Afghanistan from going over to the Western side."

Another variant is "myth" two: "The Soviet invasion was an unprovoked attack, designed to capture new territory." In actual fact, Steele reports, "the invasion’s primary aim was to protect the Soviet Union’s southern border and save a revolutionary government that was meeting armed resistance."

The inconsistencies largely discredit the thesis. Was it the threat of Afghanistan going "Western" that led to the invasion, armed resistance against a friendly government, or a Soviet desire to "modernize" Afghanistan?

His debunking is sometimes simplistic. Take the "myth" that the CIA’s supply of Stinger missiles forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan. That, according to Steele, is "a right-wing propaganda attempt to manipulate history." 

In the more recent era, his "myths" defy the facts. He calls it a "myth" that the Taliban "are uniquely harsh oppressors of women," and then there is myth 13: "Banning girls from school is a Taliban trademark." He even calls it a "myth" that the West abandoned Afghanistan after the Red Army departed.

The lack of rigorous analysis, far from undergirding, instead raises questions about his major point, which is to plead for Washington to negotiate a "power-sharing" arrangement with the Taliban, though he doesn’t define what that would be. He doesn’t help his case by saying there’s "one enormously important difference" between the record of President Obama with Soviet Party Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev, he says, seriously sought a negotiated exit while the U.S. sought to extend the civil war.

"The lesson for today is clear," Steele says. "This time there must be negotiations.  For the Obama administration to put its weight behind a serious effort to end the Afghan civil war would atone, in part, for the U.S. policy of sustaining and enlarging it in the 1990s."

If you accept Steele’s reading of history, this may well follow.  Anyone who doesn’t will have to look for a better set of arguments.

Roy Gutman is McClatchy Newspapers’ bureau chief for Turkey and the Gulf, based in Istanbul.

Roy Gutman, formerly McClatchy Middle East bureau chief, is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

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