Do I get you right that you believe the situation does resemble somehow the situation with the Soviet pullout?
I think that the United States and their allies in Afghanistan, step by step they follow the pattern of the Soviet stay in Afghanistan in the 80’es.
Yes. There was the initial success and sort of euphoria after that success because it’s not the Afghans way to fight an open battle in the beginning. So, obviously Americans, just like the Soviets, were all euphoric when their forces entered Kabul in a few days after the beginning of the invasion. But then problems started to appear when they tried to move into the regions and the same thing happened to the Soviet Army.
And basically the amount of time was roughly the same - with the Soviet Union it was exactly ten years, with the United States it was a little more – eleven years for the moment and maybe a couple of years before the final pullout. But basically when there were problems in the province, in the initial two or three years, there was an attempt both by the Soviet Union and later by the United States to strangle their resistance by a massive barrage of artillery, by massive bombardments of the villages and by increasing the number of troops in the area. So, usually, you know, this effort, I would call it an effort, it culminated on the fourth or fifth year of the troops stay in Afghanistan. And then, on the sixth or seventh year it becomes clear that total victory is just not achievable.
And again it was the same with the Soviet Union and with the United States. Again the local Government, loyal to the external power, it starts to be encouraged to start some kind of negotiation with the rebels. Then sometimes the foreign troops themselves and their diplomats start to negotiate with the rebels, they look for contacts, they go to Pakistan which is usually, you know, the base of the resistance. And finally there is a decision to pull the troops out. And immediately after there are problems of two kinds – first the loyal Government is not too enthusiastic about being left one-on-ones with the rebels; second – very often this loyal Government is absolutely careless about its own long term prospects.
So, I remember the former Soviet ambassador in Afghanistan in 1988 Yuli Vorontsov, he told me that when he negotiated the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan initially Najibullah – the Soviet equivalent of Karzai at that time – he did not believe that the Soviet troops would leave. He said that – you had invested too much here. And the same we initially heard from Karzai. And in the end Vorontsov was literally forced, he had to make Najibullah agree to start making food stocks in Kabul because if they didn’t make food stocks, then it would be enough for the rebels to cut the road leading to the Soviet Union and then Kabul would fall just because they would not have enough food.
In the same way the United States now has to take into account every detail trying to make forces of Karzai combat ready, trying to supply them with all kinds of ammunition and weapons. But again all this is very shaky because, you know, Najibullah’s Army was also a very well equipped and he held out for three years after the Soviet pullout, but in the end he was destroyed by the internal treason. The troops of the official Afghan Army, actually some of its commanders, they defected to the rebels and the battle was lost not because there was not enough arms or not enough men to fight, just because there was a treason inside the Army.
A very common development in the oriental countries.
Absolutely. And the Americans, I’m sure, are also worry of a similar development of a similar situation in Karzai’s Army. So, I mean initially the Americans did not want to learn anything form the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, they thought they were so much better that they would not need it, they didn’t listen to Russians when we actually suggested advising Americans and suggested cooperating with them in Afghanistan. And I think they paid a very high price for that because neither the English nor, God forbid, Poles or the Balts could advise them on how to deal with Afghanistan.
But I’m afraid that the highest price is really paid by the country itself.
Well, I think that basically Afghanistan paid a huge price for its own independence.
From the very beginning. It was never a British colony, it was never a Soviet colony, it was somewhere in between and it’s very hard for us to understand them because they are indeed an independent country and they were an independent country, and they enjoy it. To us it looks like middle ages, we are sure that we can make them happier. And actually I’m not sure because this is the way they live and obviously if we want them to live better, it cannot come from the outside, we cannot force them to live in a different way. We can suggest them, we can prod them to adopt certain foreign practices but they have to make the decision themselves.
And I think any sort of occupation is counterproductive. What we can require from Afghanistan is that they keep their territory clean of terrorists, that they guarantee security to their neighbours that there would not be raids or invasions from the Afghan territory - this we can require from them. And I don’t think it makes sense to occupy this country.
Dima, but don’t you think that perhaps this requirement could have been hardly realistic provided we take into account the nature of the borderline between Afghanistan and Pakistan for instance? It is a mountainous region and obviously the border is absolutely transparent.
For decades and even for centuries Afghanistan was safe for its neighbours.
Yes, it was.
And even in the 90’es when Afghanistan was left to its own devices by both the Soviet Union and the United States, if it hadn’t been for foreign mujahideen who were actually brought there and paid for by Americans initially, if it hadn’t been for them Afghanistan was not really an aggressor. The Taliban was strong in Afghanistan but I don’t think they wanted to occupy Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. I don’t think that they wanted to force Tajiks or Uzbeks to follow the afghan way. Yes, they fought with their local Tajiks and Uzbeks but it was in the framework of one country and even if there were fights on the former Soviet border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan – there was never any loud aggression from the side of the Afghans. My feeling is that the Afghans do not want to invade other countries, they want to live their own life in their country.
I suppose there is a certain detail we are omitting in our discussion, I mean the drugs – their drug producing industry. From what I’ve been hearing when I was talking with international experts on the issue, they were telling me that it is the only industry that is booming in Afghanistan right now. It’s a truly global cooperation with very intricate and very well developed infrastructure and extremely high profits. And as we all know any cooperation would strive to gain better access to different markets, both markets which are closer to it and distant markets.
Well, think I would remind you that it’s a fairly recent development.
Oh yes, absolutely!
Afghanistan had not been a major source of drugs before the Soviets came in in 1979, most of the drugs came from the other areas of the world. So, to a certain extent we might view it as a sort of response of Afghans to what they view as interference into their own lifestyle.
A major injustice.
A major injustice. And I don’t want to justify it, obviously there is a need to combat drug production in Afghanistan. I’m not sure the liberal solution such as – let the farmers grow something else – would work here. This is something that we should require from Afghanistan, we should not require just security but also we should require less drug production. But otherwise to force Afghans to adopt parliamentary democracy and to force them to follow foreign practices – Russian foreign practices or American foreign practices – is counterproductive. That was being done for a long time with absolutely no result.
So, talking about the Russian pullout, what were the main challenges then?
The main challenge was that the Russians were retreating north which means they went through the mountains. So, when the troops were actually moving out, it was very easy to attack them because they would not be covered any more by rear guards. So, the main challenge was not with the Soviet Commander of that time - Boris Gromov, the main challenge was with Yuli Vorontsov – the Soviet Ambassador to Afghanistan who had to negotiate with all seven major rebel groups that there would not be any attacks as the Soviet troops were pulling out.
And there was an agreement reached in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia played a very negative role during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan but it certainly played a positive role in negotiating the Soviet pullout. I’m not sure that the United States which has a very good relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that 15 out of 19 terrorists who made the 9\11 terrorist act were the Saudis, I’m not sure the United States understands the policy of its so called ally in Afghanistan.
You think so?
Yes, because Saudi Arabia has its own game and for the Sunni fundamentalists both Americans and Russians are parts of the same decadent civilization. We may see Americans and us as, you know, great adversaries and we may see all the differences. The Muslim fundamentalists do not see these differences. We can say whatever we want about each other, we can think whatever we want but all the attempts to play the Muslim fundamentalists against, for the United States against Russia, for Russia against the United States – all these attempts ended very badly for the Christian side I would say of the question because the Muslim fundamentalists always used this contradiction, always converted them into their own profits, they always managed to use it to their own advantage.
What would you indicate as the major challenge for the United States in its attempt to pullout?
Well, I think that the difference is that technically I think it’s not such a huge problem for the United States to leave as it was for the Soviet Union because there is a huge loyalist Afghan Army and they obviously have more helicopters and the American Army is more able to maneuver than the Soviet Army. But you know, there is the same danger – Karzai’s Government does not control the whole country just like Najibullah’s Government did not control the whole country. And there is always a possibility of treason inside the loyalist Army.
How the United States can track it and how can they prevent it from happening – I’m not sure. What I know is that the most terrible thing you can do is just to leave Afghanistan again to its own devices and to dump your allies as the post-Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev did with Najibullah – he just left him to his own devices. And that was a terrible tragedy not only for Najibullah who was ultimately executed by the Taliban in 1994, I think it was a tragedy for the whole world as we know because Taliban did not attack other countries but they became a base for international terrorists and that was a huge, huge problem for the whole of humanity.