By Scott Taylor
March 12, 2008
One of the most ironic twists to the ongoing mission in Afghanistan emerged from the NATO meetings held in Brussels last week. With member countries either reluctant or unable to add military resources, NATO is now seeking assistance from Russia, its erstwhile Cold War enemy and one-time "evil occupier" of Afghanistan. In fact, the irony is so thick that we should first roll back decades' worth of propaganda and start at the very beginning.
NATO was formed in 1949 as a collective self-defence alliance to prevent any encroachment of the Soviet Union into Western Europe. The Soviets responded to this by creating their own defensive coalition of Communist countries (the Warsaw Pact) to protect them from any eastward expansion of NATO's influence. The nuclear arms race was at its zenith and even Europeans, still recovering from the massive destruction and carnage of the Second World War, understood the importance of maintaining large conventional armies. Troops and tanks were regarded as a preferable deterrent to an apocalyptic mushroom cloud.
The impasse that resulted in Europe did not prevent the U.S. and Soviets from waging war by proxy in non-aligned Third World countries around the world. Afghanistan, in fact, became a key battleground for the CIA and the KGB. Since it bordered the Soviet Union's central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the U.S. knew that Moscow could not afford to ignore events in impoverished and underdeveloped Afghanistan.
Throughout the '50s and '60s, Soviet engineers undertook several major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, including the construction of the Salang tunnel through the Hindu Kush Mountains, which provided the first viable access between the country's northern and southern provinces. A full-scale program was introduced to train Afghan army officers and a large number of economic aid packages were extended to Kabul's Communist government.
The Americans decided things were going a little too smoothly for the Kremlin, so they decided to stir things up a little. By arming and funding Afghan Muslim extremists who were already resisting the social changes, the Americans sought to draw the Soviets into a full-scale military intervention.
By 1979 events had escalated to the point where the instability, lawlessness and flourishing drug trade along their shared border could no longer be ignored by the Kremlin. Following a coup staged by the KGB in Kabul, the newly appointed Afghan Communist president invited Soviet troops to deploy a security assistance force to help him stabilize Afghanistan.
It would have been high-fives all around for the CIA planners watching the Soviet tank columns rolling south through the Salang tunnel. The Russian bear had taken the bait and put his paw squarely on the American trap.
On the surface, the U.S. vehemently denounced the invasion of Afghanistan and in protest they pulled their athletes out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Behind the scenes, the U.S. ramped up military aid to the Afghan guerrillas and assisted in bringing in foreign mujahedeen fighters - such as a young Saudi Arabian zealot named Osama bin Laden - to bleed the Soviets white.
The stated objectives of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were to provide a secure environment, equality for women, a centralized education and medical system, and the training of a self-sufficient Afghan army. While this may sound eerily similar to the current wish list for the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, a friend of mine at the American embassy was quick to point out one fundamental difference: "The (Soviets) were Communists," he emphatically stated, as if that in itself made any further explanation unnecessary.
The U.S. plan worked like a charm and by the time the last of the Russian troops retreated out of Afghanistan in 1989, they had left behind 50,000 dead comrades, the Moscow treasury was bankrupt and the Soviet Union was in a state of dissolution. The U.S.-equipped Afghan warlords finally triumphed over the Communist regime in Kabul and then turned on each other in an orgy of destruction and bloodletting. Whatever Soviet-built infrastructure was still intact in Kabul in 1996 was destroyed when the Taliban movement forced the mujahedeen warlords north of the Hindu Kush.
In the wake of 9-11, the planners in the White House must have suffered from short-term memory loss as they rushed to throw their troops into the very same trap they had built to destroy the Soviets. After using military force to topple the Taliban, the Americans appointed Hamid Karzai as president. His first act as leader was to invite the U.S.-led coalition to deploy a security assistance force to prop up his regime. Unlike the Soviets, the Americans didn't need to deploy in support of this request - they were already on the ground.
Now into the seventh year of their occupation and with the American economy on the point of collapse, NATO is looking to Russia for help in transporting troops and equipment into Afghanistan. With the skyrocketing oil prices boosting the Russian ruble to dizzy new heights and no one asking for their troops to fight and die in Afghanistan, it would seem that the wheel of fate has turned a full circle.
If you want to drive this point home, go out and rent an old copy of Rambo III. That's the sequel wherein Sylvester Stallone fights alongside the guerrillas, and the final credits dedicate the movie to "the brave mujahedeen in Afghanistan."
I kid you not.
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