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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- 'The Greatest Political Mistake

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's dispatch of Soviet troops to Afghanistan 21 years ago this week was "the greatest political mistake" whose consequences continue to plague both Afghanistan and the Soviet successor states, according to the last Soviet commander there.

Gen. Boris Gromov, who heads a Russian veterans organization, said on Wednesday that "the dispatch of Soviet troops into Afghanistan was not justified either politically or militarily." And he called on everyone involved "to concentrate efforts on overcoming that error" by helping Afghanistan, former Soviet soldiers who served there, and their families.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's decision to send troops to defend what he believed was a communist government in Afghanistan was a key act in the overreach which many analysts point to as presaging the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union itself. It helped to reenergize Western opposition to Soviet communism.

When Moscow was finally compelled to withdraw from Afghanistan eight years later, many throughout the Soviet empire became convinced that Moscow would eventually be forced to leave their lands as well, a conviction that helped to power national movements in Eastern Europe and the non-Russian Soviet republics.

But as Gromov makes clear, the 1979 invasion continues to have an impact in Afghanistan, in Russia and other post-Soviet successor states, and in defining international relationships between Moscow and the rest of the world.

The continuing consequences of the Soviet invasion are most obvious in Afghanistan itself. The actions of the Soviet troops there destroyed much of the social infrastructure of traditional Afghan society, opening the way both to vastly expanded drug production and to the rise of the Taliban movement which rejects modernity in the name of a radically traditional Islamist politics.

Drugs produced in Afghanistan continue to destabilized both Iran and the countries of Central Asia. In both places, leaders have invoked the dangers of drugs to justify their own authoritarian approaches and to win the sympathy and support of governments further away.

But even more dramatically, the Taliban movement has become the latest symbol of Islamist politics, especially because of its willingness to provide sanctuary for accused terrorist Osama bin Laden. Increasingly, this distinctively local movement has been portrayed by some as a threat to the entire world and used to justify patterns of cooperation.

In Russia itself, the consequences are perhaps less obvious but equally profound. On the one hand, and not unlike in the United States after Vietnam, most Russians concluded from the Afghan conflict that they must never fight again unless they are certain of their aims and capable of winning any conflict they enter with low casualties on their own side. Indeed, that Afghan model helps to explain Moscow's current approach in Chechnya.

And on the other hand, the bitter experience of the Afghan fighting has divided Russian society, with many now viewing that war as an exemplar of what was wrong with the old Soviet system and others drawing the opposite conclusion, deciding that the opening up of Soviet society under Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible for a defeat that Russia must at some point avenge.

Finally, the impact of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan continues to rumble through the international community. Two decades ago, Moscow's actions prompted the United States and other Western countries to change their approach to the Soviet Union, not only boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow but also adopting the harder line exemplified in U.S. President Ronald Reagan's denunciation of the USSR as "an evil empire."

Now, that invasion and the disastrous consequences it had for Afghanistan are having just the opposite effect, prompting a new kind of cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Last week, the two countries worked together in the United Nations Security Council to impose new sanctions on the Taliban to force it to hand over bin Laden and to stop supporting terrorism.

Not surprisingly, this new cooperation between Russia and the United States has outraged the Taliban. Its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said this week that "the United States and Russia want to destroy good Muslim people all over the world." And on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul Fitr, he urged the followers of Islam to "stay united against these cruel intentions."

But even the vast majority of Muslims who are appalled by the Taliban's actions are concerned about this new cooperation against an Islamic state, seeing it as an example of what Harvard University's Samuel Huntington called "the clash of civilizations" and portending more conflicts between the West and the world of Islam.

Twenty-one years ago, Brezhnev assumed that Soviet forces would soon put things right in Afghanistan. Instead, that action continues to transform the world a generation later.

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