Just before noon on Feb. 16, 25 years ago, Lieut. Gen. Boris Gromov, top Soviet commander in Afghanistan, solemnly walked across the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River into Uzbekistan. He uttered the words: "Our 9-year stay ends with this."
The USSR was officially out of Afghanistan. It was a unilateral withdrawal -- even as Daddy Bush, then US President, wanted to keep weaponizing those Afghan "freedom fighters" (copyright Ronald Reagan).
Rewind to the Soviet invasion, in December 1979. Few will remember how then US President Jimmy Carter -- a hick Hamlet -- almost burst into tears because the USSR had invaded that "profoundly religious" country.
Well, a few months earlier, the US ambassador in Afghanistan had been assassinated by those "profoundly religious" characters. And guess who tried to save him? The KGB. Dr. Zbig Brzezinski himself -- the man who years later we would learn "invented" the USSR's Vietnam, six months before the Soviet invasion -- gleefully told the story to White House correspondents.
By the way, this all happened before the fall of the Shah of Iran, which sparked in the mind of Hamlet Carter the demented idea that the USSR was about to invade Iran and take over "our" Persian Gulf oil. The extremely cautious Soviet leadership would never even contemplate that notion.
It was the USSR, for instance, that had prevented the US from using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. And it was the USSR that prevented the US from intervening in Iran to save the Shah. The leadership in Moscow was very much aware that were the USSR to "invade" Iran to take over all that oil and gas, the US would launch no less than a nuclear war.
But to brandish the threat of a nuclear war after the Soviets entered Afghanistan was exactly what Carter did -- something that frightened even the US establishment, as in George Kennan, the author of the "containment of communism" strategy. Wily Dr. Zbig, though, knew better; unlike pumpkin Carter, he wanted nothing else than the USSR to meet its Vietnam.Let me hammer you towards progress
The USSR was helping Afghanistan since the aftermath of the October Revolution. The left had been very strong in the country since the 1950s. Then, in 1973, Mohammed Daoud led a coup against his cousin, King Zahir Shah. After the coup, communists and their allies kept playing an important role -- even as they routinely cut each other's throats.
In the middle of one of these very murky scraps the USSR decides to step in, privileging its favorite faction (led by Babrak Karmal) and, at least in theory, advancing the cause of socialism. Big mistake, with dizzyingly complex consequences -- from the rise of jihadism to the fall of the Soviet Union itself, and up to Russian historians to evaluate.
The key problem was that both Daoud and Moscow tried to implement progress in Afghanistan with a hammer -- with no effect. King Amanullah had tried as early as 1919, also supported by the Russians. It's impossible to impose a progressive form of government onto peasants and warriors without changing a feudal structure perpetuated through millennia. Still after the Soviet exit, and now the tentative American exit, the problem remains.
We all know what happened after the Soviet withdrawal. The Afghan government remained in place as long as there was Soviet support. But then the USSR dissolved itself in December 1991. And collapse was followed by chaos, from 1992 to 1996. Every mujahid made a play for Kabul -- from the "Lion of the Panjshir" Ahmad Shah Masoud to former Saudi favorite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and former American favorite Abdul Haq.
Masoud is dead, killed by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11. Haq is dead, killed by the Taliban in November 2001 as the Americans were grooming him for a bright political future. Hekmatyar remains one of America's top public enemies, but no more than a side player.
What finally emerged in 1996, when they captured Kabul, was the Taliban -- a Pakistani invention. Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the ultra-fundamentalist general who ruled everything from 1977 to 1988, had "Islamicized" Pakistani society and especially the military-intelligence complex to a point of no return.
Then, during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad, Pakistan controlled virtually every single mujahid via the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. Those most lavishly weaponized were (what else?) hardcore Islamists; the CIA, partners in crime, were easily fooled. But Brzezinski, among others, knew what that would imply. He was fully aware of the American tradition of supporting every nasty bunch of medieval religious fanatics against nationalist and/or progressive movements in the then called Third World -- and the myriad chances of blowback.
As Pakistan goes, for decades we have had an ISI continuum; support to the hardcore mujahideen in the 1980s; the Taliban in the 1990s; and since 9/11, more discreetly, the Afghan Taliban but not the Pakistani Taliban.
Today we also know that the US bombing and mini-invasion of late 2001, followed by NATO's long occupation, was in fact devised even before 9/11, as the first Dubya administration got fed up with discussing Pipelineistan and Osama bin Laden with the Taliban and wanted to impose its own rules. 9/11 was the perfect pretext.
I vividly remember that even before Tora Bora, in late November 2001, Afghans of all stripes were convinced King Zahir Shah would return to the throne. Instead, they were presented with American puppet Hamid Karzai. Over the years, the American-led occupation fed on the rationale of "fighting al-Qaeda," when in fact the whole operation turned into a white man's war against Pashtuns, the overwhelming majority of them Taliban.The ghost of Saigon 1975
Now the puppet has grown a set of balls; he won't sign a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) with the Americans. Washington's quite predictable furious reaction is to finally ignore him and pray to clinch a deal with his successor.