Jun 12, 2011

LRB · Tariq Ali · Andropov was right



Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador to Moscow between 1988 and 1992, was in Russia when Soviet troops crossed the Oxus into Afghanistan in 1979. His fascinating account of the Soviet intervention is based almost entirely on Russian sources: interviews with participants, information from veterans' websites and from archives, although those of the GRU and the KGB remain mostly sealed. Each page reads like a warning to Afghanistan's current occupiers. Braithwaite wrote two devastating articles in the Financial Times opposing the Iraq War and the atmosphere of fear created by New Labour propaganda but Afgantsy is written in a very different register. The Soviet intervention is seen as a tragedy for both the Russians and the Afghans.

The principal aim of Soviet foreign policy in the region had always been to preserve Afghanistan as a neutral state. Lenin was too orthodox a Marxist to believe that tribesmen and shepherds could make the leap forward to socialism: 'Herdsmen can't be transformed into a proletarian mass.' His successors were not at all pleased when, in 1973, Muhammad Daud toppled his cousin King Zahir Shah in a palace coup and proclaimed a republic. Moscow had enjoyed warm relations with the king, a genial old buffer who presided over the tribal confederation that constituted the Afghan state. The Soviet leaders were even less pleased when in April 1978 a group of communist army officers staged a coup and called it a revolution. A few months earlier, two rival communist factions, Parcham (Flag) and Khalq (People), whose members were mostly university graduates and urban intellectuals, along with a few dozen officers and their clansmen in the armed services, had with great reluctance reunited as the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Parcham followed an orthodox pro-Soviet line; Khalq was more independent of the Soviet Union and less in thrall to classic Marxist notions about the prerequisites for a transition to communism. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Khalqi, was appointed general secretary, with Babrak Karmal of Parcham as his deputy. Hafizullah Amin, another leading Khalqi, was elected to the Politburo, but only after a struggle. Parcham claimed he was a CIA agent, recruited during his time as a student at Columbia.


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