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Taliban for Dummies: Learning from American & Soviet mistakes in Afghanistan

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Message Jane Stillwater
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To see two amazing photos showing the difference between a Kabul main street in 1975 and a Kabul main street in 1996, click here (and scroll down a half-page). 


Back in 2003, I checked out my name on Google for the first time -- just to see what, if anything, would come up. Tentatively I typed in "Jane Stillwater" and OMG! There I was! And to my even further surprise I had actually been cited on! Me? And not only that, but the Freepers were quoting a letter that I had written to the editors of Time magazine. AND the reason that the Freepers were quoting it was because apparently a copy of my letter had somehow shown up in Lee Boyd Malvo's jail cell! How Twilight Zone is that?

Here's the quote: "Is it possible that Iraq will be to America what Afghanistan was to the U.S.S.R.? The similarities are chilling."

Recently I've been thinking a lot about Afghanistan -- but who hasn't? -- and it suddenly occurred to me that there might be other cautionary tales that we could learn from the USSR's experiences there -- perhaps some small hints, bits or pieces that might keep the U.S. from making the same mistakes in Afghanistan that the Soviets had made back in the day when they were in the same position that we are in now. Specifically, I would like to know if there is something that we could learn from studying what happened in Afghanistan when the USSR was forced by economic pressures at home to pull out their troops and leave a highly volatile power vacuum behind them. Were there any mistakes made by the Soviets at that point that we could possibly study, learn from and avoid making ourselves when we too are forced to pull out?

 "What mistakes were those, Jane?" you might ask. The mistakes that led up to the take-over of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

How good is your knowledge of the history and politics of Afghanistan? Mine sucks eggs -- and I've actually even been there. But, as Dan Rather says, "The more time you spend in Afghanistan, the more you realize how little you actually know about the place." So I decided to farm this question out to someone who knew more on the subject than I did. Dan Rather wasn't available -- and neither was Hamid Karzai, Charlie Wilson or Osama bin Ladin -- so I e-mailed my friend Pietro Calogero. He knows a lot about Afghanistan and so I asked him.

"Jane, here's some background on what happened in Afghanistan after the USSR left. I hope it will help. After the Soviets initially invaded Afghanistan, they installed Babrak Karmal. He was one of the Afghan Communist leaders who had been sidelined after his group had overthrown a military dictator (Daoud) in 1978. The Afghan Communists -- acting apparently without Soviet approval -- then managed to botch a top-down revolution so badly that the Soviets came in at the end of 1979 to clean up the mess and prevent a total disaster."

1979. The Soviets arrive in Kabul to save Karmal's ar*e. Got it.

"Karmal turned out to be an ineffective leader, so they replaced him with Dr. Najib in 1986. Dr. Najib had been head of the Afghan secret services (KhAD) and was greatly feared; but he turned out to be an effective leader and bargainer as well. So when the Soviets pulled out in 1989, contrary to Western expectations, Najib's regime turned out to be very resilient. The Mujahideen were badly beaten in an offensive at Jalalabad that year."

So. Najib was a bad guy who turned out to be a good guy. Then the Soviets left. Got that.

"Then Najib began striking deals with various factions, which was part of the reason why there were multiple betrayals and side-switchings by Afghan commanders at this time -- plus multiple betrayals and side-switching due to pressures from the US. When I was in Kabul last year, I interviewed a physics professor who had been the Minister of Higher Education under Najib, and he told me how the US really disliked Najib because he remained so consistently critical of American policies in Afghanistan."

Got it. Everything was under control under Dr. Najib, even if he was still tap-dancing like crazy in order to stay on top.

"State housing construction continued under Najib until the USSR collapsed and all foreign aid from them was cut off. Meanwhile the US broke its word to Gorbachev and continued our aid to the mujahideen, so eventually Najib had to surrender to them, but he did so peacefully. But within a month of taking power, the mujahideen started fighting for power with each other."

 So. The US interfered yet again and yet again screwed up all hopes of stability in Afghanistan. Check.

"America's favorite -- Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- started shelling positions held by Ahmad Shah Massoud within Kabul. If you want to know more about the US relationship with Hekmatyar, read 'Charlie Wilson's War'. Hekmatyar was ostensibly the Prime Minister in the same government where Massoud was Minister of Defense -- and yet they started using artillery against each other within the city."

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Stillwater is a freelance writer who hates injustice and corruption in any form but especially injustice and corruption paid for by American taxpayers. She has recently published a book entitled, "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips For Touring (more...)
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