In 2011 Assad gave an interview to a Western journalist in which he made the following statement:
Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?
Since then there has been a growing narrative which not only blames the West for the instability that we see in Afghanistan today, but which equates Western support for Syrian rebels, especially the Free Syrian Army under General Salim Idriss, as akin to the support given to the Afghan mujahideen during the eighties.
This is wrong. Those who draw comparisons between Afghanistan and Syria in order to discourage foreign intervention in the latter are either ignorant or conveniently ignore a very important fact – it was the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 which caused the disintegration of the Afghan state today, and it is the Russian (along with Iranian) support of Assad today that is leading to the disintegration of Syria.
Lessons from History
Most people today look at Afghanistan as some formless mess. Somehow the arming of the mujahideen during the eighties led to the formation of al Qaeda and then we had 9/11 and after that the world went crazy. There is nothing factually wrong with that narrative, and states, like people, do make mistakes, however, it is conveniently missing one crucial element – what were the Soviets doing in Afghanistan in the first place?
In 1979 the Soviets overthrew the then ruler of Afghanistan, Hafizullah Amin, for fears that he might have been moving the country away from the Soviet orbit. Amin had previously deposed his opponent, Nur Mohammad Taraki, who had been staunchly pro-Soviet but whose policies were causing widespread unrest and rebellion in the country. Though they were both members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the country’s main Marxist opposition before the toppling of Muhammad Daoud Khan’s government in 1978, the Soviets did not think Amin was reliable enough. On October 31st 1979 the Soviet Union launched a series of coordinated attacks, landing their troops in Kabul, to ouster and eventually kill Amin.
A government under a former Afghan diplomat to Czechoslovakia, Babrak Karmal, was formed, but he could not control the country and came to rely on the Soviet troop presence almost entirely owing to the desertion of large parts of the Afghan army. Although the mutinying Afghan military units were quickly crushed owing to Soviet airpower and ground troops, resistance continued in the country against this occupation. By the start of the eighties the Soviet Union was controlling the urban parts of Afghanistan but could not control the countryside.
In order to subdue the population, a deliberate Soviet strategy was pursued to utterly decimate villages and rural areas that were outside their control. Afghans that did not flee were killed by Soviet aerial attacks, ground assaults, and bombardments of these civilian areas. In total it is estimated that about 1.5 million Afghans died during this conflict.
When the West, as well as China and Muslim countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, provided support to the loosely organized mujahideen, it was in reaction to this ongoing national trauma that the Afghans were enduring.
Anybody who reads about the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and its aftermath will quickly note parallels with Russia’s involvement in Syria today. There are even stark similarities to the way Assad’s army is dealing with the Syrian revolution. This is hardly surprising owing to the fact that Syria’s army, like that of most Middle Eastern potentates, relies heavily on Soviet and Russian military tactics and training, as well as weapons.In Syria today large swathes of the country that are outside the regime’s control are rendered uninhabitable and indiscriminate attacks on civilian centres have resulted not only in massive casualties but an enormous refugee problem.
Continued Russian assistance and diplomatic cover for Assad’s brutalization of the Syrian people, and with the direct support of Iran and the Shiite militia Hezbullah, parallels with the Soviet Union’s meddling in Afghan affairs over three decades ago.
Granted, the instability in Afghanistan resulted in the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the West created these monsters to defeat Communism and then forgot about them. Arguably, the real mistake of the West in Afghanistan was not that stinger missiles were given to the Afghan mujahideen, but that the mujahideen were left alone to pick up the pieces of the Soviet invasion of their country. They were abandoned, and when the ferocious Taliban arose to take over the country in 1992 they strung up the country’s president, Muhammad Najibullah, from a lamp post. Ironically Najibullah had himself been a member of the PDPA and would later become the head of the Afghan equivalent of the secret police. His death marked the final nail in the coffin for the Soviet Union’s adventure in Afghanistan, but the final dismemberment of the Afghan mujahideen that had fought the Soviet Union’s occupation happened on the eve of 9/11, when the Taliban assassinated the charismatic Ahmed Shah Masoud.
Shah Masoud was an engineering graduate from Kabul university who rose to prominence fighting against the Soviet Union and who rejected the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam. People today ignorantly equate the mujahideen who fought the Soviets with the Taliban, ignoring the fact that the remnants of the mujahideen were themselves targeted by the Taliban and eventually destroyed. If anything, we can see in Masoud’s death a severance with an Afghanistan that was a normal country, and its final descent into the madness we now see it in.
Rather than helping the mujahideen that had fought the Soviet Union to a standstill to consolidate and help in maintaining the cohesion of the country, the West left them to their own devices. The abandonment of Afghanistan by the West following the Soviet withdrawal also created the vacuum that allowed the “Afghan Arabs” to coagulate into al Qaeda, and from here the rest of the story is known.
The death of Ahmed Shah Masoud is highly symbolic because it marked the severance of Afghanistan from its “normal” past, a time when the country had functioning universities and government structures. We have not reached that point yet in Syria, but if Assad is allowed to continue his scorched earth policy, a policy inspired directly by the Soviet treatment of Afghanistan, then that link will be broken. Eventually Syria will run out of university graduates and defected professional soldiers willing to lead its rebellion, and we will reach a stage where we have angry religious men who cannot read continuing to fight for reasons they can no longer remember.
It was the Soviet Union which bore the ultimate responsibility for meddling in Afghan affairs, and for creating the conditions that allowed the Taliban to rise to power. Today Russia is doing the exact same thing when it meddles with Syria by aiding its dictator in crushing a popular rebellion and brutalizing the Syrian people.
Assad is responsible for the worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War and he cannot be allowed to continue destroying the country with Russian and Iranian assistance. It is inconceivable that a regime like his be allowed to continue ruling the country for fear of an “Afghan alternative” when the reality is that aiding the Free Syrian Army will actually lead to the exact opposite. If we are going to make comparisons with Afghanistan, then we should at least do so for the right reasons, and with a clear understanding of history. To do otherwise will condemn us to repeat it.