Many myths dispelled

By Zubeida Mustafa

OUT OF AFGHANISTAN: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal by Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison. Published by Oxford University, New York.450 pp. $35/-.

In December 1979 the Soviet army entered Afghanistan and installed a pro-Soviet government in Kabul. This was no ordinary event. The USSR was at that time a superpower locked in a cold war with the United States. Its entryinto Afghanistan introduced a grim dimension to the power struggle between Moscow and Washington. In fact this event will go down in history as a  4 .turning point in the international politics of the twentieth century.The series of developments that followed transformed the pattern of the global political, economic and security system.

As is normal practice when such momentous events occur, there comes a spate of writings to report, analyse and interpret the happenings. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan produced a similar impact on the wielders ofthe pen. But there was a difference. Given the deep polarization between the two sides which naturally influenced the thinking of writers and scholars as well, the literature on Afghanistan has tended to proceed from fixed andpre-detennined premises.

For instance it has always been believed that the Soviet Union “invaded” Afghanistan as a part of its expansionist policy designed to extend its controlBy Zubeida Mustafa over Asia. The Saur revolution of 1978 was seen as having been the result of Moscow’s machinations.

Similarly, another myth is that all the sides involved in the Afghancrisis acted as monolithic powers which took decisions with unanimityin their ranks. The battle lines were perceived as being 0sharply drawn — the Soviets and their protege in Kabul were being challenged by the mujahideen and their supporters in Islamabad. And now comes Out ofAfghanistan to dispel many of these myths. Written by Diego Cordovez, the UN representative who was the driving force behind the proximity talks onAfghanistan, and Selig Harrison, a researcher who has worked onthis region, the book tells the inside story that has never beentold before.

In a nutshell what emerges clearly is that Moscow was not the only power to be blamed for the protracted Afghan crisis which defied all attempts at  resolution for nearly a decade. Others also contributed to the mess. The Soviet Union was not a monolithic  power where the decision to invade Afghanistan was taken without much dissension. If the pro-interventionists succeeded in prevailing over those who hesitated it was because the fear wasreal in Moscow that the Americans would use Afghanistan to neutralise Soviet power. Haf izullah Amin’s ambivalence promoted the suspicion thathe was angling for American support. Small wonder, the Russians first ensured the elimination of Amin before installing their man (Babrak Karmal) in Kabul.

It is clear that the Americanstried to exploit the Soviet dilemma in Afghanistan to their own advantage. The Reagan Administration was divided between the bleeders and the dealers. The first were the hardlinerswho did not want to end the war since their strategy wasto drain the Soviets through a protracted war. The dealers werethe moderates who wanted to negotiate. The first school provedto be more influential and they hampered the peace process atevery stage. Even indirectly, their impact was an adverse onefor they gave encouragement to the hardliners in Moscow andweakened the hands of those advocating a Soviet withdrawalfrom Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s role emerges in a sorry light. General Ziaul Haq’spolicies helped prolong the Soviet occupation since that suitedhis regime. Pakistan could obtain massive military aid as thefront-line also assumed uhe key position of the power brokeramong the various mujahideen factions. But regrettably Islamabad did not use this position for the cause of peace. At time it actually promoted discord among the guerillas and prevented them from uniting on a common platform. It also persistently changed its stance in the negotiations and thus blocked progress.

Initially, Islamabad demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops while refusing to consider the issue of who should rule in Kabul When the Soviet Union indicated its willingness to pull out its forces, General Zia developedcold feet since he had convinced himself that the Russians would never leave Afghanistan.

Therefore, the issue of the composition of the government inKabul came up and became the focus of controversy. It has yet tobe resolved. The in-fighting in Washington, Moscow, Islamabad and Kabulmade a settlement in Afghanistan more difficult. In Pakistan’s casethe divisiveness was so great that the ISI could chalk out its own’Afghan policy which was at loggerheads with the government’s.As a result peace became difficult to enforce — and.still is —since a number of forces were working at cross-purposes andthere was no responsible authority which could prevail over them.Out of Afghanistan is an excellent book. Written in a lucid stylemarked with clarity, it makes interesting reading.Although thecentrepiece of the book is Afghanistan, it gives a masterlyinsight into the Soviet system on the eve of the collapse ofCommunism, establishing the Kennan thesis that it was notAmerican military power and strategic policy that broughtabout the disintegration of the USSR but the political, economicand social changes that took place in the country as a result ofurbanistaion and industrialisation. This is a book which isstrongly recommended as compulsory reading for every scholarand general reader interested in South and Central Asia.