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Analysis from Washington: A Not So Distant Mirror

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 27 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - Twenty years ago today, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a case of imperial overreach which led not only to the demise of the Soviet Union but to the continuing turmoil in and around Afghanistan itself.

On this date in 1979, Leonid Brezhnev dispatched Soviet troops into Afghanistan in the name of the doctrine which bears his name: the defense of territories on which Soviet-backed governments had proclaimed the establishment of socialism.

Over the next eight years, Soviet forces garrisoned the cities of that country but never succeeded in establishing effective control over these cities at night or over the countryside at any time -- despite using massive force and inflicting enormous casualties on the Afghan population.

Instead, after losing more than 15,000 soldiers at the hands of the Afghan resistance, the Soviet military was withdrawn by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, a decision that left both Afghan and Soviet bloc societies transformed.

Having lost most of its middle class and many of its most skilled leaders, Afghanistan reverted in many ways to its past, looking to tribal and religious leaders who were deeply suspicious not only of the Soviet forces they had defeated but of the West which had supported them.

Out of that cauldron has emerged the Taliban, a movement of xenophobic radicals whose Islamist vocabulary has led many to view them as part of a broader Islamic resurgence but whose medieval approach offended even those whom others classed as Islamic fundamentalists.

But the impact of the Soviet invasion of and, even more, withdrawal from Afghanistan was far greater on the Soviet bloc. For the first time since the Russian revolution, Moscow had failed to defeat an enemy on an allied territory.

On the one hand, this very public retreat caused many of those who were then under Moscow's domination to begin to imagine that Soviet power might not be eternal and that they could seriously hope to win their independence.

And on the other, this retreat undermined the loyalty of many Russians to the Soviet system because it suggested to them that Soviet leaders might choose to fight the wrong wars or to lose those conflicts they had become embroiled with.

Those Russians who concluded that the Soviet system would almost inevitably choose to fight the wrong wars gradually filled the ranks of the Russian democratic movement which contributed so much to the demise of the USSR.

Those Russians who concluded that Moscow would not win the wars it did get involved with and thus undermine what was for them the foundation of Soviet power also became anti-Soviet but in the name of a broader and more traditional Russian nationalism.

Together, these three forces -- the Afghan Taliban, Russian democracy, and Russian nationalism -- have helped to define the course of development across Eurasia and hence across the world for most of the last two decades.

But today, the Soviet invasion of and retreat from Afghanistan serve another function and have become a not so distant mirror reflecting Moscow's ongoing military operations in Chechnya.

The similarities between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Chechnya are striking. Just like 20 years ago, Moscow has dispatched overwhelming military force against a population that is overwhelmingly opposed to Russian domination.

Just like 20 years ago, Moscow is capable of controlling particular sites but not winning either the acquiescence of support of the local population.

And just like 20 years ago, the Russian forces are destroying the most modern elements of a Muslim society and thus opening the way to more radical ones.

But if the similarities are obvious, so too are the differences. Unlike 20 years ago, the international community overwhelmingly accepts Russian claims of a right to rule over the Chechens and their territory. In the case of Afghanistan, the West backed the resistance in a variety of ways.

Unlike 20 years ago, the Chechens are far fewer in number and have few supporters beyond their borders. And also unlike 20 years ago, the Russian people overwhelmingly support what their government is doing; indeed, many favor an even more Draconian approach.

Because of these differences, most people in both Russia and the West assume that Moscow will achieve its goals in Chechnya, albeit via the most brutal means and at the cost of its relations with the West, at least for the short term.

But because of these similarities, ever more people -- particularly on this anniversary -- are beginning to recognize that the outcome of Russia's invasion of Chechnya could be very different than most now expect.

Should that prove to be the case, it would almost certainly entail even more fateful consequences for Chechnya, the current Russian regime and Russia itself than did Moscow's failed involvement in Afghanistan two decades ago.
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