essays

Mar 1, 1980

Afghanistan: The War Threat

“The libertarian response to the growing threat of militarism must no longer be confined to single issues like the draft, or Iran, or Afghanistan.”

THOSE OF US CONCERNED with peace are now facing perhaps the most threatening and dangerous situation since World War II. We are faced with the very real possibility of a major war in the Middle East and Southwest Asia—possibly escalating into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. For all those concerned with stopping this war before it starts, now is the time to unite and to build the peace movement of the 1980s. There is no time for handwringing; there is no time for anything other than a concerted effort to reverse American policies—policies supported by every major Democratic and Republican candidate today—which, if not checked and abandoned, will very likely destroy our civilization.

We can see how real the war threat is by considering only a few of the ominous events of the few days before this issue goes to press. On Friday, January 18, Carter Administration officials leaked to the press its likely response to the explosive events in Afghanistan. We speak not of trivial matters, such as the grain embargo or the threat to withdraw from the Olympics, but of the military actions which the Carter Administration is apparently prepared to take in the area surrounding the “arc of crisis” in the Persian Gulf region. According to the Associated Press, “If the Soviet Union carries its Afghanistan military invasion into neighboring Pakistan or Iran, the United States would have little choice but to oppose it militarily, top U.S. foreign-policy advisers are reported to have said. Such a war would almost certainly become a nuclear conflict because the United States has concentrated on its nuclear capability rather than on matching the Soviets’ massive strength in conventional weaponry. That’s what White House and national security officials are saying privately…. No Carter Administration official has discussed such a possibility on the record…. But … the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the possibility of moves into bordering countries, has caused top U.S. officials to consider the ultimate unthinkable possibility: war with the Soviet Union. They are reported to believe that that’s the only way the United States can protect its vital interest in the region that supplies oil to Western Europe, Japan, and this country.”

The political and economic roots of this war threat are also clear: the Baltimore Sun reported on January 20 that 
The confrontation in Southwest Asia concerns oil most of all. Oil binds a whole series of strategic considerations. They range from the safety of American hostages in Iran to the purpose behind and the retaliation for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Security of oil supplies is the ultimate reason, though there are others, for President Carter’s already sharp and still developing reactions to events in both Iran and Afghanistan. His leadership in the dual crises may determine his own political future and will shape international politics for years….

Most analysts believe the president’s commitment to a new approach, unprecedentedly militant in his case, must endure at least through the elections in November. Anything else almost surely would doom him politically and perhaps send the wrong signals to the rest of the world.

And so, because of irrational economic policies—in the main, government control of energy which appears to increase with each passing day—we stand at the threshold of a major war.

Whether the Carter Administration’s threat of nuclear war was intended to intimidate the Russians—a dangerous and irresponsible act—or to intimidate and scare the American people into supporting stepped up defense spending and a new draft—a cruel immorality which will, once again, see American youth led into pointless slaughter—it is a dangerous gamble which must be flatly opposed.

To back up the war threat, President Carter, who is apparently prepared to out-hawk even the worst of the Presidential candidates—Reagan, Bush and Connally—announced in his State of the Union address on January 23 that he is asking Congress to authorize peace-time registration of draft-age youths, and a vastly increased U.S. military presence in the Mideast. Carter proposed a “NATO-like commitment” to the Persian Gulf region, and warned that a military invasion of the region would amount to an attack on “vital U.S. interests.” The U.S. is now seeking to establish military bases in the Mideast, and intends to commit 100,000 men, 18 ships, six fighter squadrons to the region, to protect Western access to oil.

 

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Afghani students in Tehran angrily attack the Soviet Embassy in early January to protest the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan.

We have repeatedly warned in the past that government control of energy and its interventionist foreign policy were leading us down the road to war, and devoted our special July/August 1979 issue entirely to the theme of “Energy and American Foreign Policy,” calling for laissez-faire in energy and a noninterventionist foreign policy. The events in Iran and Afghanistan make that policy even more imperative if we are to avoid war.

It is no accident that the American establishment has reacted with such perverse logic to the vile Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. For more than a year now, alarm bells have been sounding: an attempt to bring back the draft, which initially failed, but now stands more than a chance of succeeding, the hostile reception to SALT II, demands for increases in our defense spending, and more. Powerful forces in this country seem determined to plunge us back into a new Cold War, and Afghanistan played into their hands perfectly.

This makes it all the more important that we not lose perspective—no matter how repugnant and outrageous we find the Soviet invasion. The Soviet invasion cannot by itself plunge us into war. The wrong American response could. The logic and wisdom of the noninterventionist foreign policy which we support in no way rests upon any Pollyannaish or benign view of the Soviet Union. In fact, the closer we look at what is happening in Afghanistan, the better noninterventionism looks. We must remember above all that the major wars of this century have not resulted from any conscious decision to go to war, but as the inevitable consequence of a series of mistakes, misinterpretations, and blunders.

What really is happening in Afghanistan? A thorough understanding of Russian involvement will do much to deflate Cold War rhetoric.

Because of its geographical position and its poverty, Afghanistan has always been strongly influenced, if not dominated, by its powerful neighbor to the North. The current drama, however, was set in motion in April of 1978. It was then that President Mohammed Daoud, a member of the old Afghan royal family, was overthrown and killed by the small, communist People’s Democratic Party (PDP). It is worth noting that even before the left-wing coup, Afghanistan was firmly within the “sphere of influence” of the Soviet Union. The Afghan army was equipped almost entirely by the Soviet Union, and between 1954 and 1977 the country received about $1 billion in aid from the Soviet Government. The USSR was also Afghanistan’s major trading partner.

The left-wing coup set up the PDP’s Noor Mohammed Taraki as Prime Minister, Babrak Karmal as Deputy Premier, and Hafizullah Amin as Foreign Minister. The PDP was in fact a combination of two communist parties in Afghanistan—the Khalq (Masses) Party, and the Parcham (Banner) Party. Though they had squabbled and split in the past, both factions united to overthrow Daoud in 1978. Both factions favored close ties to Moscow, but the Khalq, of which Taraki and Amin were members, was generally seen as more independent than the Parcham, of which Karmal was a member.

Moscow certainly had connections to the PDP, but it did not initiate the April coup. In fact, Western diplomats reported that the Russians were genuinely—albeit pleasantly—surprised by it. Perhaps it was because the PDP’s entire base of support at the time of the coup consisted of about 5,000 urban intellectuals in an overwhelmingly rural country of 27 million. Why did the PDP make their move with such a narrow base of support? Essentially, they were forced to by President Daoud. In the Spring of 1978, Daoud started to crack down on opposition parties. In April, a major Parcham figure was assassinated by the government, and leaders of the PDP were arrested en masse. In order to save their own necks, the communists were forced to overthrow Daoud and assume power, with little popular support. The prematurity of the PDP’s “revolution” is central to the events that followed.

As soon as they took power, the PDP moved quickly and brutally to staff the state apparatus of Afghanistan with its own cadre. Major opponents and most of the large royal family were executed, ousted officials were jailed, and the Army purged from the rank of Warrant Officer on up. Amin established a network of informers and secret police. For its part, the Soviet Union was happy to have a dependent and ideologically congenial neighbor on its border, while the Taraki regime, because of its weakness, was eager to win access to more Soviet aid and support. Soon Afghanistan and the USSR signed a 20-year Treaty of Friend-6 ship and Cooperation, which established new economic and military ties. Several thousand Soviet advisers arrived in Kabul, the capital city, shortly after.

Yet, from the very start of its premature “revolution,” the communist regime was plagued by internal factions, opposition and intrigue. After the “revolution” the country went through three purges in five months. The most serious took place in July—only three months after their rise to power—when the old struggle between the Khalq and the Parcham resurfaced. Taraki, Amin, and other Khalq leaders succeeded in elbowing Parcham members out of positions of power. Babrak Karmal, who had been the second highest figure in the regime, was demoted to Ambassador and shipped off to Czechoslovakia, where he went into exile. In the end, only three people with ties to the Parcham remained in high posts. It was not the last we would see of Karmal, however.

While the purged Parcham faction was closer to the Russians, the USSR seems to have favored the two factions reaching an agreement and working together, so as to consolidate the newly established communist regime and maintain its hold. Like the U.S. in Southeast Asia and Latin America, the Russian superpower attempted to juggle competing factions, being concerned primarily with “stability,” so that its own interests would be secure.

After purging its opponents, the Taraki regime embarked on a series of revolutionary reforms in the backward country—not all of them undesirable from a libertarian standpoint. But the reforms were always undertaken in a centralized, authoritarian manner that fueled resistance. The Taraki government initiated a land reform program giving 240,000 families full ownership rights to a piece of land. (Libertarians, of course, support land reform in feudal countries, as a natural outgrowth of our support for the acquisition of property rights through homesteading.) Yet, while turning the land over to private ownership, the government did nothing to supply seeds for the harvest, a service traditionally offered by the feudal landholders. Instead of a revolutionary reform, the land program ended up a disastrous disruption of the country’s harvest, and had to be suspended. The regime had not earned enough support to challenge the power of the landholders. The government’s attempt to improve the status of women ran into equally difficult realities. A worthy attempt to eliminate the bride price—essentially a form of chattel slavery for women—became a severe blow to the monetary income of the male-dominated Afghani tribal families. The Islamic mullahs, moreover, branded the emancipation of women a violation of Islamic principles.

Seeking to create the mass support it so desperately needed, the communist government instituted compulsory education, including adult programs, for Afghanis of both sexes. Conservative Muslims, who were highly suspicious of the regime to begin with, rejected the attempt at indoctrination. Many Islamic males revolted against the concept of educated women and mounted expeditions to take back their wives from the government schools. The government also tried to impose economic controls of various sorts on the nation, despite its long tradition of smuggling.

The typically Marxist attempt to impose a new social order from the top down also necessitated a police state, which weighed heavily on the entire country and cost the regime much support. Travel was strictly regulated, trade was subject to harsh military controls, and curfews were imposed. In the army encampments around Kabul, soldiers and government officials were slapped into jail at the merest suspicion of disloyalty to Taraki and Amin. Amin’s secret police packed the cells of the terrible Poli Sharki prison with tens of thousands of prisoners. Three thousand of them were said to have been executed since 1978.

This combination of political repression, Islamic reaction, and the widespread perception that Taraki was “selling out the country” to the Russians fueled rebellion in Afghanistan’s countryside. Afghanistan, the only country in the region that could never be subdued by British imperialism in the nineteenth century, drew upon its long tradition of resistance to foreign domination and took up arms. By August of 1979, substantial resistance had spread to 24 of Afghanistan’s 28 provinces. Taraki’s drafted army began to suffer mutinies, desertions and defections, while Taraki himself and Foreign Minister Amin saw fit to sleep in different houses in Kabul every night and ship their families to Russia. Soviet advisers, meanwhile, were often attacked and grotesquely mutilated in the countryside.

Then, on August 5, dissident elements in the army staged a full-scale mutiny in the capital city of Kabul. The mutiny was successfully put down, but the Soviet Union became concerned about its client regime, and urged Taraki and Amin to broaden their popular base. What had seemed like an easy opportunity to expand their influence over their small neighbor was turning sour, and the example of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution next door was enough to demonstrate what would happen if things were allowed to slip out of control. Rumors began to circulate that the Soviets were casting about for a successor to Taraki, one who could put the house of their troublesome new satellite in order. In September of 1979 a beleaguered Prime Minister Taraki visited the Soviet Union. It is possible that the removal of Foreign Minister Hafizullah Amin was on the agenda. Amin was commonly held to be responsible for much of the torture and repression carried out by the regime, and both Taraki and the USSR may have decided that such tactics were losing them support. Amin was also a more doctrinaire and hard-line Marxist than Taraki, willing to push ahead with his programs no matter what the consequences, despite Soviet advice to go slow and play it safer.

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Watchful, armed Soviet troops fix a flat tire on a Kabul, Afghanistan street.

When Taraki returned, Amin beat him to the punch. He sparked a bloody shoot-out between his supporters and those of Taraki in the old Presidential Palace. When the smoke cleared, sixty people were dead, and one of them was Noor Mohammed Taraki. Amin went about erasing all traces of Taraki—on billboards, monuments, newspapers. Afghanistan had gone through yet another coup.

The Soviets dutifully telegraphed a message of support to Amin, but his accession to power was clearly a setback to them. No one believed in his ability to put down the rebels—Moscow’s main priority. Immediately, Amin charted an independent course. He rejected Soviet advice to bring a negotiated end to the guerrilla war. He once refused to come to Moscow for talks. He demanded—and got—a different Soviet ambassador in Kabul.

The communist regime in Kabul was on the run. Ever since the April 1978 coup, it had been in accelerating turmoil; it had had to face the split between the Khlaq and the Parcham, plots and mutinies from the army, armed rebellion in the provinces, and finally, a bloody conflict between Taraki and Amin, the two lone survivors of the April “revolution.” The regime was definitely weakened by the newest coup. The army’s morale, already sapped by the never-ending political purges, began to deteriorate. The conscripted army suffered enough desertions and casualties to leave its troop strength at roughly half its original 100,000 men. Only Soviet arms, money and advisers kept the regime in control of the urban areas. The Russians had committed themselves to something they couldn’t get out of. As reporter Gwynne Dyer of the Chronicle Foreign Service wrote,

Afghanistan is not Egypt or Uganda. It is a country along the Soviet Union’s most sensitive border. This time the Russians cannot simply write off their gamble and leave (as they did in Egypt and Uganda), for the spectacle of Soviet power being expelled by Islamic revolt could have a terrifyingly dangerous effect on the still-devout Muslim millions on their own side of the border.

The Soviets moved to put an end to the mess. On Christmas day, they began to airlift 5,000 combat troops into Kabul. Two days later, the coup was complete: Hafizullah Amin, his brother and a nephew had been summarily executed, and Babrak Karmal, the Soviet puppet purged by Taraki in July of 1978, had taken his place. With this accomplished, Moscow began to march tens of thousands of ground troops into Afghanistan. The Soviets, with at least 50,000 troops in Afghanistan, were ready to replace the desertion-decimated Afghani army and fight the rebels themselves, if necessary.

Hawks in the U.S. have portrayed the Soviet action as an act of ironwilled efficiency, a model of resolve to be juxtaposed against the “weakness” and “wavering” of a Vietnam-weary U.S. This, as a careful look at the progression of events shows clearly, is flatly wrong. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is not an act of strength, but a costly resort of desperation and weakness. It was the shaky succession of client regimes in Kabul—not a plot to take over the oil fields—that led the Soviets down the slippery slope to full-scale war. The risks and costs of that war are very great—there is the blood shed, the money expended, the danger of sparking an Islamic reaction within their own borders, and the complete alienation of other Islamic states in the region. The USSR is not boldly calling the shots; on the contrary, events are controlling them, in the classic imperialist pattern. As a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Robert G. Neumann, said, “They literally had no choice except to take over the country or let it go. There was no middle way.”

Let the Ambassador’s statement ring in the ears of those who call for a “bolder,” more interventionist U.S. posture in the Middle East. If we intervene, we too will almost certainly be faced someday with that same terrible choice: either take over a country, or let it go. A country that plays the game of imperialist domination must be willing and able to assassinate foreign leaders, pump in billions in aid to prop up client regimes, and ultimately, to send in troops and commit mass murder to impose its will. There is no middle way.

Have we forgotten, so soon, how much blood and oppression both sides of the interventionist dilemma actually entail? We tried to “take over” Vietnam—do we need to be reminded of the results? And we were forced to “let go” of Iran—after years of meddling intervention. Shouldn’t these examples be enough to dissuade us from shoring up U.S. intervention capabilities in the Middle East? Or do we need to view the bodies of mutilated Soviet advisers and smell the napalmed Afghan rebel encampments to be convinced?

Ominously, a survey of the U.S. government’s moves in response to the Soviet intervention makes it appear as if we are preparing for our own version of Afghanistan. The U.S. is cultivating client regimes in Turkey, Oman, Somalia, and Egypt in search of military bases. It is shipping millions of dollars worth of arms to Pakistan, and arms sales to Communist China are, one official said, “only a matter of time.” The U.S. defense budget is being increased every year by 5 percent plus inflation. More and more politicians are becoming impatient with the recently enacted curbs on the CIA: in his State of the Union address, President Carter told Congress that “we need to remove unwarranted restraints on our ability to collect intelligence.” The draft has raised its ugly head once again, and a special “quick strike force” for unilateral intervention is in preparation. Apparently, despite its expressions of shock and outrage over Afghanistan, the American government is so impressed with the operation that it wants to imitate it.

Of course, long after the flag-waving and chest-beating is over, the pitfalls that snared the Russians in Afghanistan—and the U.S. in Iran—will still be there. Oman, where we may soon establish a base, is a feudal monarchy that could soon be overthrown; will the U.S., like the Russians, get caught there in a long procession of client regimes with no popular support? Somalia is in the middle of a border war against neighboring Ethiopia—which is backed by Moscow. Pakistan is a repressive dictatorship, and any U.S. support for it will not only prop up its strongman, but is also likely to alienate Pakistan’s ancient enemy, India. U.S. reliance on Israel as the base for military operations is certain to enrage the entire Arab/Muslim world … and so it goes.

All these elements of resurgent militarism—the draft, the strike force, budget increases—were being actively considered long before the Russians invaded Afghanistan; one is moved to suspect that the desperate Soviet intervention is being used as a pretext to bring out the militarists’ heretofore hidden agenda.

The real issue in the Middle East is clear: how will this country react to the unavoidable decline of its post-World War II military empire? Will we disengage, relinquish the use of military force, and rely instead on free trade, open borders, and neutrality? Or will we repeat the mistakes of the past and push the world into war? Whatever happens, it was naive to think, as some of us did, that a machine as vast, powerful, and entrenched as America’s military empire was going to slip away after Vietnam and Iran without a long and arduous struggle. The libertarian response to the growing threat of militarism must no longer be confined to single issues like the draft, or Iran, or Afghanistan. The times call for nothing less than the arduous construction of a new peace movement, a movement that can confront the issues of the draft, American foreign policy, skyrocketing government spending, the desperate need for a free market in energy, free trade, and arms control in an integrated, politically potent way. It is the tasks of libertarians everywhere—of the Libertarian Party and its Presidential candidate, Ed Clark, of Students for a Libertarian Society, and of everyone else—to lead this movement.