Afghanistan: The Soviet Quagmire

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Afghanistan: The Soviet Quagmire

October 25, 1979 32 min read Download Report
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

(Archived document, may contain errors)

101 October 25, 1979 AFGHANISTAN: THE SOVIET QUAGMIRE INTRODUCTION Afghanistan has been convulsed for more than a year by a brutal civil war of steadily escalating scope and intensity which shows no si- of abatinu. The sro-Soviet Taraki r ecrime that seized power through a C&P dletk in April 1978 has-been shaken to the core by a spontaneous popular backlash against its social reforms and the callous manner in which these reforms were forced upon an unwilling.population groups with divergen t political, religious, tribal and nationalist goals has gained widespread support in outlying rural areas and has profited heavily from the xenophobia of Afghan tribesmen who strongly resent the pervasive influence of omnipresent Soviet advisers. In spite of extensive Soviet military aid, the Afghan regime has thus far proven to be incapable of containing, let along decisively defeating, the rebel insurgency A broad spectrum of opposition Due at least in part to this failure, President Nur Mohammad Taraki was recently ousted and apparently killed by his prime minister, Hafizollah Amin. Although Amin is known to be a staunch pro-Soviet hardliner, it is uncertain at this point how the change in leadership will affect the course of the Afghan conflict.

The pur pose of this paper is to outline the prevailing currents in the Afghan whirlpool since the 1973 coup, analyze the nature of the insurgency, evaluate its regional geopolitical implications and assess the Soviet Union's role, interests and options in the ar ea.

THE DAOUD REGIME On April 27, 1978, a bloody coup d'etat staged by a pro- Scviet faction of the Afghan armed forces brought to power a leftist coalition called the People's Democratic,Party.(PDP) led 2 by Nur Mohammad Taraki. By all accounts the coup w as a hastily improvised affair precipitated by President Mohammad Daoud's crackdown against communists both inside and outside the govern ment. .while the PDP undoubtedly had been laying the groundwork for a future coup, President Daoud's pre-emptive purg e forced its hand and resulted in a premature seizure of power which left the PDP unprepared to administer the country once it established itself in Kabul. As a result, by the time that party cadres filtered out into rural areas to assert control of the co u ntryside they met stiff resistance from mullahs (clergy) apprehensive about the new regime's lack of commitment to Islam, landowners hostile to its land reform program and restive tribesmen tradi tionally intolerant of centralized power in Kabul. When the Taraki regime resorted to military coercion in an effort to intimidate its opponents it provoked determined and widespread armed resistance which has eroded its power, drained its resources and increased its dependence upon the Soviet Union.

Although the coup has been labelled the Saur (April) revolu tion by the PDP regime, it was accomplished by a small conspira torial group bereft of meaningful popular supp0r.t. Its target the Daoud regime, was autocratic, inefficient and corrupt but still maintained th e grudging acceptance, if not the wholehearted support of the Afghan people. Daoud himself had come to power via a 1973 coup against his brother-in-law King Zahir. Although he.had entered into an alliance with Afghan leftists to oust the king, Daoud gradua lly loosened his ties to the left and by 1977 he had gone so far as to require all political parties to .disband their independent.organizations. and merge into his new National Revolutionary Party.

The drift to the right was particularly evident in Afghan i stan's foreign policy. When Daoud came to power in 1973 relations with Pakistan and Iran steadily deteriorated due to his renewal of Afghanistan's on again-off again mpport for Pushtun and BaluchF separatists in Pakistan. However, beginning in 1974 Iran made a concerted effort to entice the Afghans into a western oriented Tehran-centered regional economic and security sphere embracing the Indian subconthent and Persian Gulf states. By virtue of a ten-year $2 billion aid agreement signed in 1974 Tehran wa s committed to replace Moscow as Kabul's largest source of economic aid.. The Irmians also made plans to link Afghanistan to Iran's Persian Gulf ports with a network of railroads and highways which would reduce Kabul's dependence on Soviet trade and transp o rt outlets while expanding Iranian economic leverage over the Daoud regime The Shah made it clear that continued Iranian economic assistance was contingent-upon the terpination of Afghan support for separatist groups in Pakistan's Baluch and Pushtun triba l areas as well as a crackdom against Afghanistan's two pro-scviet communist parties the Khalq (Masses) Party and its offshoot the Parcham (Banner) Party, a group which had been one of President Daoud's aliies in the early days of his regime.

By March 1978 Daoud, prodded by th-e Shah, had concluded a peace agreement with Pakistan and pledged to expel Baluchi and Pushtun guerrilla groups which were using Afghan territory. In return, Pakistan agreed to train Afghan army officers, a function which had previou s ly been performed primarily by the Soviet Union. In early April President Daoud travelled to Saudi Arabia and Egypt (the latter also offered to train Afghan army officers to complete a series of tours o the nonaligned world which had previously taken him t o Yugoslavia and India. The Shah was scheduled to visit Kabul in June and the Afghan president was known to be. preparing for a -White House meeting with President Carter in September 'in which he was expected to ask for an enhanced U.S. aid package. Shor tly before the coup, Daoud launched a diplomatic initiative, undoubtedly with strong Iranian' and Saudi backing, to block Cuba's assumption of leadership of the nonaligned movement scheduled to occur in September 19

79. Clearly Daoud was laying the groundw ork for better relations with moderate nonaligned nations and the West, a prospect which the Soviets must have found unpalatable given the fact that they had already showered over $1 billion in aid on Afghanistan since 1954 and were still providing Kabul w ith $200 million a year THE SOVIET ROLE IN TEE COUP President Daoud's decision to dissolve has alliance with the Parchaxdtes, his growing coolness toward Moscow and his accelerat ing drift into Tehran's orbit triggered a significant change in Soviet polic y . In March 1976 the Soviets launched a campaign to merge the Parcham and Khalq factions of the communist movement in order to strengthen the Afghan left against Tehran-inspired machinations at the hands of Daoud. The Kremlin apparently offered to ordain N ur Mohammad Taraki as leader of a unified party if he would reach a reconciliation with the Parcham faction which had splintered away from fis Khalq party in 19

68. The Khalq, which was the larger, more dynamic, and more radical of the two, drew its streng th from rural areas, especially among the Pushtuns, while the more pro-Soviet Parcham drew most of its support from university students and the Tajik tribes in northeast Afghanistan. When their mion was consumated in May 1977 Taraki emerged as the top lea d er of the new People's Democratic Party and Babrak Karmal, the head of the Parcham, became his second in command While the Soviets played a major role in re-unifying the fragmented communist movement in Afghanistan, no concrete evidence of direct Soviet i n volvement in the April 1978 coup has yet been uncovered. However, given the extent of the Soviet military and intelligence presence in Kabul, not to mention the historically close working. relztionship between Moscow and the Afghan communist movement, it i s inconceivable that the Kremlin was unaware of the schemes of its Afghan clier?ts, ar,d highly impr3l;able that it did not furnish material, political and/or moral support. A particu larly suspicious piece of circumstantial evidence was the "unusual ly e f fective precision bombing.of key targets during the critical .I 4 moments of the fighting" which strongly suggested the participa tion of Soviet pilots ly halted and decisively reversed the development of an Afghan foreign policy increasingly independent o f the Soviet Union In any event, the Saur revolution abrupt AFGHANISTAN'S STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE Although Afghanistan is a remote, obscure country which ranks among the poorest nations in the world, its strategic location endows its with a high degree of ge opolitical importance.

Afghanistan has long been a major crossroads of Asia astride major north-south and east-west land routes; its control of the Khyber and Bola passes has historically made it the gateway which links Russia with the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East w i th the prient tion, this landlocked nation has repeatedly become the focus of conflict between rival empires, a tendency which has earned its the sobriquet of the ttcockpit of Asia.It Afghanistan has performed the function in central Asia which Korea and L aos-Cambodia have performed in East and Southeast Asia: a regional flashpoint of colliding Great Power interests. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Afghanistan's very survival as an independent state was I linked to its role as a buffer state between C z arist Russia in central Asia and Great Britain in India. As a buffer state which was itself a manifestation of the general equilibrium of regional power, it has served as a barometer of the balance of power in the central Asian area. For this reason, more than a few observers I were disturbed when it became a Soviet satellite in 1978 its southern neighbors, as evidenced by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Protocol to the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, which asserted that Soviet territorial aspirations lay in the direction of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. In recent years, the Kremlin's incentives for expanding its influence to the south have been significantly enhacced by the growing importance of Middle Eastern, especially Persian Gulf, oil in the Western economic sys t em. Seen from the vantage point of the Persian Gulf, the single most important energy-surplus region in the world, the April 1978 pro-Soviet Afghan coup constitutes one part of a giant pincer mcvenent designed to encircle Gulf oil reserves. The Kremlin al r eady has established a military presence in Ethiopia and South Yemen: now that the Iranians are no longer willing or able to underwrite Oman's security, Sultan Qabus faces the grcwing danger that the Dhofar insurgency will flare up once more, this time wi t h greater material support from the Sovietst stalking horse on the Arabian Peninsula South Yemen Because of its pivotal geostrategic posi 3 The Soviet Union has exhibited a long-standing interest in 1. Selig Harrison The Shah, not the Kremlin, touched off the Afghan Coup Washington Post, May 13, 1979, p. C5. 5 At the other end of the pincer the emergence of a pro-Soviet Afghanistan extends Soviet influence to within 350 miles of the Arabian Sea, blocked only by a disputed territory=-Baluchistan which itsel f faces the potential threat of a separatist insurgency.

Afghan air bases are located less than an hour away by jet from the vital sea lines of communication SLOCs) which function as the I'oil lifeline of the industrial West. Using these bases Soviet aircr aft could reach the chokepoint at the Straits of Hormuz and remain on-station there for at least 30 minutes.

Clearly Soviet access to Afghan airbases significantly upgrades the Kremlin's ability to block, or even sever, the petroleum jugular vein of the W est. i SECURITY THREATS TO IRAN AND PAKISTAN In addition to providing a platform from which Soviet air power could be brought to bear on the crucial Persian Gulf SLOCs a pro-Soviet Afghanistan provides an excellent fulcrum which amplifies Russian diplomat ic leverage over both Iran and Pakistan.

Both states have had troubles in the past with ethnic separatist movements and are likely to run into more such problems in the future. Kabul would be in an excellent position to incite and support such movements gi ven its close proximity to strongholds of,ethnic separatism along the peripheries of both states and the presence within Afghanistan of Pushtun and Baluchi tribesmen who remain in close contact with their kin across the permeable often unguarded, border.

Afghanistan. has historically-based claims on most of Paki stan's Northwest Frontier Province derived from the controversial British imposition of the 1893 Durand Line which established the frontier between British In&a and Afghanistan. The Afghans consid er the present boundary to be an anachronistic vestige of British colonialism and since 1947 they have sporadically revived demands that Pushtuns within Pakistan be allowed to exercise self-determination and become part of a "Greater Pushtunistan."

While i t is unclear whether Kabul would allow its own Pushtuns to become part of such an entity, the Pushtunistan issue has been an effective device that simultaneously weakens Pakistan and streng ens the Afghan governmentls popularity among the Pushtun tribes w hich comprise almost half of the population of Afghanistan.

Kabul has also supported an independent Baluchistan in order to obtain access to the sea. Afghan trade is currently dependent on the Soviet overland transportation network since access to the Paki stani port of Karachi has frequently been constrained by tensions with Islamabad. However, support for an independent Baluchistan has been muted at least In part because the potential domestic benefits of stimulating internal cohesiveness via a 2. Strateg i c Mid-East and Africa, September 12, 1979, p. 6. 6 popular foreign policy vis-a-vis Baluchistan are not as great as those inherent in a strong pro-Pushtun policy, given the smaller number of Baluchis living-in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Saur Revolutio n has visibly strengthened the ranks of militant Baluchi nationalists, who are building a skeleton guerrilla organization confident that the PDP regime will eventually come 'to support a full scale insurgency onse it has consolidated its internal power bas e within Afghanistan In addition, there have been uncon finned reports that the. Soviets have begn shipping arms to Iranian Baluchis through Afghan intermediaries.

If an'independent Baluchistan should ever be carved out of Iran and Pakistan, it would almos t certainly be dependent upon Soviet support to withstand hostile pressure from Tehran and Islamabad, even if it did not need Soviet support to be established in the first place In return for their services the Russians could hope to gain the use of the e x cellent port facilities at Gwadar, a quid pro quo which would partially fulfill their long standing quest for warmwater ports. Moreover, Baluchistan's 750 miles of Arabian Sea coast would also offer the Russians a superb springboard for interdicting the v ulnerable Persian Gulf SLOCs and mounting subversive or proxy operations against pro-western states along the rim of the gulf.

The precarious domestic political position of the PDP regime has thus far precluded the Afghans from actively promoting in an ove rt fashion the territorial dismemberment of Pakistan. However the potential threat of Soviet-encouraged, Afghan-supported insurgencies would be boosted significantly. In spite of its own domestic pre-occupations, Kabul has already found 'time to forge lin k s with leftist groups in both Pakistan and Iran. Two Soviet supervised training camps providing marxist indoctrination and guerrilla training to Pakistan and Iranian radicals have been established ig Mazar-i-Sharif,'close to the border with the Soviet Uni o n. Many Afghans were arrested within Iran in several of the anti-Shah demonstrations of 1978, circumstantial evidence which has been interpreted by at least one expert to suggest the in the effort to oust the Shah. In January 1979 almost 200 armed men wer e caught crossing the border into Iran from Afghani stan, according to Shahpour7Bakhtiar, che deposed prime minister of the Shah's last cabinet. The recent history of Afghan meddl ing in Iranian affairs, the large number of Afghan expatriates I should the P DP regime consolidate its control over Afghanistan I involvement of the KG8-controllgd Afghan secret service (Estekbarat 3. Selig Harrison, "Nightmare in Baluchistan," Foreign Policy, Fall 1978, p 4. Strategic Middle Easte-rn Affairs, Novemjer 8, 1978, p. 1 5. Robert Moss lo is meddling in Iran New Republic, December 2, 1978 6. Robert Moss The Campaign to Destablize Irsn," Conflict Studies, No 148 101, November 1978, p. 4 7. Hannah Negaran The Afghan Coup," Orbis Spring 1979, p. 105 I 7 I already living in Iran (500,000) and the historically close working relationship which has existed between Afghanistan's Khalq Party and the pro-Soviet Iranian Tudeh Party, have caused more than a few observers to fear that the Afghans may well become Soviet.surrogates in t he increasingly likely event that Iran is plunged into a civil war. If the PDP regime can establi unshakeable .control over Afghanistan, the Afghans may be destine to become, on a much reduced scale, the "Cubans of Asia sh id In any event, even if the PDP never establishes complete control over its own country the potential threat of Afghan support for ethnic insurgents and pro-Soviet leftists in Iran and Pakistan has made both countries vulnerable to Soviet pressures and sensitive to Soviet cajoling. Acco r ding to Soviet ideology changes in the Itcorrelation of forces" precipitate political changes and opportunities. The Afghan coup and Tranian revolution have definitely altered the Itcorrelation of forcesit in the region and it is only a matter of time bef o re Moscow exploits these pivotal events to the utmost. As the shadow of Soviet power lengthens over the Indian subcontinent and Persian Gulf without any concrete U.S. response, individual states will become increas ingly tempted to reach their own accommo d ations with Moscow. In this connection, it is particularly significant to note the transfer last winter of Pakistants most able diplomat from Washington to Moscow, and the disintegration last spring of the symbolic, albeit defunct, CENT0 alliance A sense o f declining American willingness to react to far flung.Soviet gambits and proxy operations (as evidenced by the events in Angola and the Horn of Africa), combined with America's demonstrated ability to turn its back on regional allies for a wide variety o f reasons (as evidenced by the arms embargo against Pakistan in 1965, the arms embargo against Turkey in.l976,.the not so benign neglect of the Kurds in 1975 and the fall of the Shah in 1979) and the widespread perception of burgeoning Soviet influence in strategically located states of Ethiopia, South Yemen and Afghanistan have undermined the ItNorthern Tier."

Having witnessed the dissolution of the protective barrier to the north and having become increasingly exposed to Soviet proxy pressures on the peri phery of the Arabian peninsula, the elites of the pro-western Persian Gulf states may re-orient their foreign policies (and even more ominously, their energy policies) in order to ensure internal security, unless the United States manifests a strong and i r onclad commitment to protect them from Soviet political, subversive, proxy and military pressures THE TARAKI REGIME When Nur Mohammad Taraki's Khalq Party seized power in,April 1978 it numbered no more than 5,000 members in an estimated population of i5 m i llion. Not only did the regime rest on an extremely narrcw power base, but its cadres (termed Khalqis) were drawn from a thin stratuin of urban intellectuals teachers.and 8 advanced-level students who had little in common with the rural Moslem tribesmen w h o-make up the bulk of the population series of purges against the Parcham faction, nationalists in the armed forces, security forces, the intelligentsia and the civil services narrowed the regime's base of support even further and drained it of the traine d manpower needed to administer the country. Vacant government positions were filled by party loyalists and Soviet citizens, mostly Tajiks who spoke a Persian dialect most Afghans can understand In addition to importing Soviet manpower Taraki imported Sovi e t ideological doctrine, although he was careful to camouflage it with semantic figleaves in order to avoid needlessly antagoniz ing the entrenched power of the Moslem clergy. Unfortunately for Taraki, the doctrinaire Khalqis who arrogantly strode into the countryside were rigidly imposing a Soviet model for development which had not been designed to accommodate the sociopolitical realities of Afghanistan's tribal, semi-feudal, strongly religious 17th century atmosphere. The Khalqis tried to do too much too fast. Because they had little sensitivity to the traditional values prevalent in rural areas they misjudged the depth and resilience of Islamic roots among the rural population A hi^ insensitivity, in combination with the purging of virtually all competen t Afghan technocrats from the government severely crippled the- Taraki regime's reforms and hindered the cultivation of rural political allies among the peasantry which otherwise might have been expected to support the regime in order to preserve newly-acq u ired benefits. The centerpiece of the regime's modernization campaign was the ill-fated land reform program under which the government expropriated 3 million acres of land and tried to redistribute it among 285,000 families in the first year. Due to wides p read confusion concerning the legitimacy and permanence of the land redistribution scheme, much of the land went uncultivated. Some peasants refused to accept land because under Islamic law a recipient is required to provide compensation for land received ; others accepted small plots only to find that they could not afford to buy seed or fertilizer due to an anti-usury campaign which outlawed the traditional credit facilities which large landowners had previously extended to smaller farmers to finance thei r planting expenses. As a result e Afghans, who had been self-sufficient in grain in 1973, are facing a projected deficit of 500,000 tons of wheat this year, a large proportion of which is expected to be imported from the Soviet Union In order to overcone p opular resistance to its draconian social engineering projects the Taraki regime increasingly resor ted to Stalinist methods of repression, reportedly due to the influence of the number-two man, Hafizollah Amin. Since April 1978 at least three thousand po l itical prisoners have been executed the prison population is estimated to have grown as high as 70,000 (often including the wives ana children of political prisoners) and an estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in 9 the fighting.8 The regime's coe r cive apparatus seems to have paid special attention to educated elites, military officers teachers, civil servants and businessmen. Amnesty International has charged the Taraki regime with using torture and mass execu tions on a large-scale basis The leve l of executions here makes what is happening in Iran look like child's play bother with show trials so its hard to keep score.It According to one foreign observer The problem here is that they don't THE ISLAMIC BACKLASH Afghan mullahs, many of whom owned l a nd, were antagonized not only by the the breakup of their estates, but by the establish ment of a new legal system administered by the civil governhent rather than the Islamic clergy. Their righteous indignation was further amplified by the growing Soviet presence in Afghanistan.

Successive waves of religious exiles had fled Soviet Central Asia years before with dire reports of the Soviet campaign to enervate and constrain the strength of the Islamic religion; the Islamic establishment was therefore prepar ed for the worst. The arrest of scores of mullahs for political activity and the pointed removal of the color green (which symbolized Islam from the new Afghan flag gave credence to concerns that Afghanistan would suffer a similar fate.

It soon beczme app arent that the Taraki regime, while paying lip service to Islam, was bent on breaking the back of Islamic clergy by purging its ranks of "false moslems mentors) declared a jihad (holy war) against the Kafir (infidel conveniently defined to be any mullah o p posed to government 8 policies. In retaliation, the mullahs and peers (spiritual 1 regime in Kabul Islamic resistance in Afghanistan has been strengthened by the txiumphant resurgence of Islamic influence in Iran. The Ayatollah Khomeini has bitterly denou n ced Kabul for the anti Islamic tone of its policies and has repeatedly called upon the Afghan armed forces, poiice and civil service to turn against the Itcorrupt atheists" who have attempted to subvert Afghanistan's traditional culture. Ironically, LIe f u ndamentalist Islamic backlash which threatens the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan is similar to the movement which drove the Shah out of Iran. In both cases the regime in power was perceived by rebels as being an agent of the corruption of the national c ulture by imported alien influences. In Iran these influences were western capitalism and permissiveness, while in Afghanistan it was atheistic Marxism.

In both cases the fundamentalist Islamic movement becvne a potent political force because its appeal tr anscended ethnic tribal and class lines. In Afghanista, where Moslem tribesmen had virtually 8. MacNeil/Lehrer Report, August 14, 1979 9. Tyler Marshall, "Marxist Afghan Regime in Trouble Los .hgeles Times Jue 25, 1979, p. 11. 10 In Afghanistan, where mor e -than 90 percent of the population TEE PROGRESS OF THE WAR It is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the war in Afghanistan because the government has severely constrained press coverage of the struggle and the insurgents assert inconsistent wildly ex a ggerated and often contradictory claims from their distant political headquarters in Pakistan. Apparently, armed resistance first arose in the spring of 1978 among zealous recently converted Moslem tribesmen in Nuristan in the northeast and spontaneously s pread to twenty-four of Afghanistan's twenty eight provinces. Opposition did not become pronounced until the fall of 1978, when the government began to lose control of the countryside to fierce guerrillas organized alor,g tribal lines who set ambushes and cut country roads at will.

The guerrillas, armed primarily with ancient bolt-action capies of Royal Enfield rifles made by village gunsmiths, have periodically laid siege to government-controlled urban centers forcing the Kabul regime to mount costly relief operations which further dispersed government strength. The regime, for its part launched a scorched earth policy in rebel strongholds along the Pakistani border, bombing villages and burning crops in an effort to intimidate villagers and force the rebels to spend their scarce re s ources on food and shelter. It is believed that over 170,000 Pushtuns have fled across the border into Pakistan, where they have established support bases and a makeshift political coalition to provide some semblance of direction and unity to the diverse o pposition groups which wage separate and uncoordinated campaigns against the Taraki-Amin regime I I I I 11 While the government currently controls all the major urban centers, it is believed to be in full control of only one-quarter of the country and les s than half of'the population. The insur gents have briefly captured some outlying towns but they have not been able to permanently seize, hold and administer any large towns or sizable areas of territory. Although the insurgents exercise undisputed contro l over much of the countryside at night, during the day they are vulnerable to attack from the rapidly growing Afghan air force, which is reported to have resorted to napalm bombing for punitive as well as military purposes The 80,000 man Afghan Army is st r etched so thin in defense of scattered cities that the regime relies upon a special mobile strike force that must be transported to threatened areas in Soviet-supplied helicopters reportedly piloted by Soviet officers Worn down by a savage brushfire war a g ainst an elusive enemy which takes refuge in some of the most rugged terrain on earth the army has suffered approximately 10,000 casualties in the last year. The heavy rate of attrition, repeated purges of the officer corps and the frustrations of a protr a cted anti-guerrilla campaign have seriously undermined the morale of the Afghan armed forces and resulted in a high rate of desertion, with entire units occasionally killing their officers and defecting en masse tionate numbers from ethnic minorities such as the Hazaras Uzbeks and Turkomans, minority groups which also happen to be in the forefront of the revolt. Most solders are devout Moslems from villages and tribal areas with no real commitment to the regime and are reluctant to shoot other Moslems, esp e cially members of their own tribal groups. While the pay of officers and NCOs was doubled in August to improve their morale, the 1ower.ranks are still paid 61.20 per month, ind are known to be disgruntled by the widespread presence of Soviet officers (oft en dressed in Afghan uniforms) who occasionally step out of their strictly advisory roles to issue commands in. units as small as companies.

Bloody mutinies in Herat in March, Jalabad in April, and Kabul in August have thrown into question the long-term re liability and staying power of the Afghan army. Although Soviet-supplied airpower has thus far given it the capability to decisively neutralize and defeat any rebel offensive, it is clear that the army will be incapale of defeating the insurgency in the f u ture wi+Aout a significant escalation of the Soviet presence and a massive infusion of Soviet military technology The Afghan army is composed of conscripts taken in dispropor THE SOVIET CONNECTION When Nur Mohammad Taraki came to power in April 1978 the S o viets had approximately 1200 advisors in Afghanistan. By August i979 their prssence had grown to at least 4,500 advisors,l0 1500 of whom were military advisors assigned to the Afghan army 10 Amy PClutiny in Afghanistan Presents Soviet with' Dilemma," Wash i ngton Post,'August 7, 1979, p. A 13. 12 While the magnitude of the Soviet presence does not yet match Russo-Cuban commitments to Ethiopia or Angola, it should be noted that Afghanistan is a much smaller country and it is unlikely that the buildup has in f a ct ended In addition to providing advisory support to the Afghan armed forces, and training 200 Afghan army officers each year the Kremlin has undertaken a massive buildup of Kabul's military hardware In recent months the flow of materiel has become so gr e at that 400 Soviet personnel are reported to have taken complete control of Bargam Airport, 40 miles from Kabul, the primary destination for the seemingly endless procession of giant Antonov transport planes laden with Soviet weapons earmarked for Afghani stan.

The pace of the Soviet supply effort visibly quickened after the April 1979 visit of a high-level military mission led by the chief political commissar of the Soviet armed forces, General Aleksei Yepishev, who not-so-coincidentally was a key figure in the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In the immediate aftermath of Yepishev's visit, Moscow dispatched MiG 16 and MiG 21 fighters, SU 20 bombers, over one hundred T 62 tanks, trucks artillery Mi-8 troop transport helicopters and the Russians new e st helicopter gunship, the rocket-armed Mi-24 NATO "off name IHIND'I) which had never before been used in combat. In early September the Soviets sent another high-level military mission to Kabul to assess the military situation, this time led by a command e r of ground forces. While there has been speculation that this action may foreshadow increased Soviet military aid and/or involvement in the future, at this time is is premature to make such a judgment, especially in view of the recent ouster of Taraki gr adually evolving from one of supplying arms, training and technical/organizational expertise to a more direct involvement in the day-to-day operational guidance of indigenous forces.

Afghan officers are now reported to clear their commands through Soviet a avisors, Soviet officers have apparently taken command roles in the field and Soviet pilots are believed to be flying combat sorties against rebel stongholds afg ferrying Afghan troops via helicopter to the battlefield. According to U.S government estimat es, the Ruf3ians have lost at least 80 men in the war as of mid-September.

Soviet combat traops, refugees in Pakistan claim that a commando It is clear, however, that the Soviet military role has been While there is no hard evidence of direct involvement b y 11. Jonathan Randal, "Afghanistan: MOSCOW'S Vietnam?" Washington Post, May 12. Stuart Auerback Afghan President Quits as Moslem Rebellion Grows I 10, 1979, p. A

43. I 13 force has been flown in froT4the Soviet Union for surprise attacks and then quickly withdrzwn.

Soviet military buildup along the border which prompted Washington to warn the Soviets publicly against direct internention. In September the coup against the Taraki government triggered an alert among Soviet paratroop units stationed near the border.

These indications of increased Soviet willingness to flex its military muscles underline the .future possiblity of direct mili tary involvement In March 1979 there was a limited THE INSURGENTS' ZACK OF OUTSIDE SUPPORT In constrast to the immense quantities of military hardware bestowed upon Kabul, the rebels have thus far been able to attract little more than a trickle of external aid. Although Moscow and Kabul have accused Iran, Pakistan, the People's Republic of China, the United States and eve n Egypt of supporting the insur gency, there currently is no hard evidence that significant amounts of aid are being extended by any external power. Those that profess to see a close parallel between Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and U.S. involvement i n Vietnam would do well to remember that the North Vietnamese were able to withstand U.S military pressures for as long as they did because they were deluged with military aid from both Moscow and Peking.

Afghan rebels enjoy no such luxury.

Soviet regime, and by extension the Soviets, on their own, bereft of significant external support. Moreover, they are fighting only a few miles from the Soviet border disassociated itself from the rebellion and the rebels maintain that Pakistan provides nothing but ten ts and food for refugees.

However, the Pakistanis have been known to be less than zealous in prohibiting military training in guerrilla camps. Moreover Islamabad has turned a blind eye to rebel arms smugglers along the ill-defined border, claiming Lhat it is incapable of halting the arms traffic there due to the rugged nature of the terrain.

Iran, pre-occupied with its own internal problems, has apparently provided little but moral support to the insurgents. Recently there have been rumors that Arab oil pr oducing states have played a limited financial role in backing the rebels (Riyadh is suppos- ably channeling its funds through the Moslem Brotherhood) but such rumors have not been substantiated to date The They are fighting the pro Their closest potentia l benefactor, Pakistan, has officially The Soviets have claimed that Peking has utilized a recently built highway across Pakistan's Karakoram mountains which links Xinjiang in China with Hunza in Pakistan to transport arms munitions and subversive literatu r e to rebels in eastern Afghani- stan. Peking denies thesa charges and western intelligence 14. Charles Bartlett The Invasion of Afghanistan Washington Star, August 8, 1979, p. A15. 14 agencies have not publicly confirmed either position. Given the intemel y anti-communist disposition of the rebel groups and the fact that a major Islamic movement Hezb-I-Islami has announced that it would never accept Chinese aid, if offered it is unlike ly that Peking'has been or will become a major source of aid to Afghan r ebels.

Not only is the United State not sending aid to the rebels but in spite of congressional pressures it is currently providing a limited amount of economic development assistance to the Kabul regime, assistance that was Itin the pipeline when Presiden t Carter cut off aid to Afghanistan in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Dubs last February. The Carter Administration!s most forceful move regarding the Afghan situation up to this point has been the refusal to name a successor to Ambassador Dubs, har d ly a sanction which will make any difference to Kabul or impress nervous allies in the region. Washington's unwillingness and/or inability to respond in concrete terms to Soviet gains in Afghani stan has undermined the confidence of American allies in the usefulness-and perhaps even the relevance-of close relations with the United States SOVIET STAKE IN AFGHANISTAN Moscow has brushed up against an Afghan tarbaby and now finds itself. entangled in the internal politics of one of the most ungovernable countr i es on earth. It is confronted by a dilemma of empire. If it escalates its military involvement it runs the risk of being bogged down in a protracted guerrilla war which will cost it dearly in terms of men, material, diplomatic capital, world opinion, and r elations with Islamic states through out the world, as well as the United States. But if it cuts its losses and seeks a political solution it runs the risk of under mining the credibility of its commitments elsewhere and acknowledg ing the incompatibility of Marxism and Islam.

Afghanistan is both a stepping stone for Soviet strategic penetration of the Northern Tier and a stepping stone for Islamic religious penetration of Soviet Central Asia. The Soviets desire a pro-Soviet Afghanistan in order to gain leverage over Iran and P a kistan; they desire a non-Isiamic Afghanistan in order to halt the Islamic revival at the Hindu Kush and insulate their growing Moslem population from dangerously explosive politico-religious doctrines. Moscow can not countenance an Islamic victory in Afg h anistan because it would reinforce the lessons of Iran in the eyes of Soviet Moslem subjects and hasten the creation of a belt of Islanic states around Lbe southern periphery of the Soviet Union which could hope to deter Soviet interference In their inter n al affairs by threatening to retaliate by fomenting reli gious turmoil in the Central Asian republics which have similar ethnic compositions. While the magnitude of the "green menancell has not yet been made manifest and will certainly be severely circums c ribed, if not circumvented, by the omnipresent Soviet 15 internal security forces, the Kremlin cannot afford to underesti mate the strength of the Islamic threat The Soviets also have an interest in preserving the credibil ity of their commitments to clie n t regimes, especially those in eastern Europe.. In December 1978, the Afghans signed a 20 year treaty of friendship, good neighborliness and cooperation which was remarkably similar to those signed by some East European nations in the 1940s. If Moscow sho u ld abandon its Afghan clients in the face of Islamic religious opposition, it runs the risk of encouraging East. European opposition movements who might wishfully conclude that the Soviets would back down in a similar fashion if confronted with religious/ n ationalist uprisings in Eastern Europe particularly in Poland While Pope John Paul I1 is by no means a Polish Khomeini and the Catholic Church is by no means compar able to the fundamentalist Islamic faith, the Pope may inadver tently unleash a pent-up an t i-Soviet backlash in attempting to pry concessions out of East European regimes If the Soviets permit Kabul to fall into the hands of religious/nationalist forces they would be setting a dangerous precedent for eastern Europe The Kremlin therefore does no t wish to be perceived to be letting down an ally particularly one on its own doorstep.

Soviet officials in Kabul have told foreign diplomats that This is a socialist revolution which is our duty to defend."

Premier Brezhnev further underlined the Soviet commitment-in a conversation with the former Indian Prime Minister Moraji Desai by putting himseiQ on record as saying "We shall not leave our friend in need MOSCOW'S readiness to go to great lengths to prbserve their Afghan clients Such expressions of So viet commitment signal SOVIET OPTIONS Although the Kremlin has strong reasons for propping up the precarious Khalq regime in Kabul, it has equally strong reasons for avoiding direct military involvement in Afghanistan.

Soviet military intervention in Afgha nistan would be a far cry from the 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia. The Afghans are a fierce, proud people whose warrior tradition enabled them to twice defeat the British in the nineteenth century intertention might. lean to an open-ended commitment o f militam resources which would draw down Soviet strength on the western front and/or the Chinese border the last vestigial claim chat the Khalq regime would have on A Soviet A Sovietoinvasion would remove 15 16 A Leftist Afghanistan Worries the West," Wa l l Street Journal, January 16, i979, p 22. David K. Willis, "Afghanistan: Time Bomb Ticks for Soviets," Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 1979, p. 11 16 nationalist sentiments and poison Russian relations with the states of the Indian subcontinent and Ar ab world. It would further unravel the already weakened fabric of detente with the United States and would hand the Chinese an excellent opportunity to improve their position on the subcontinent at Soviet expense.

Given the many disadvantages of a military solution to their Afghan problem, the Soviets might be tempted to try instead a political solution. In spite of their growing commitment to the Khalq regime they have carefully avoided closing off their politi cal options been kept in cold storage in Eas t ern Europe and constitutes one string to the Soviet bow. The Soviets have also been rumored to have made contact with the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, now in exile in Rome. In early August, Dr. Nur Ahmad Etemadi, the King's ex-prime minister, was app a rently taken out of prison in Kabul for talks with Soviet representatives. All of these actions areaentirely consistent with the efforts of Vasily Safronchuk, a top Soviet political troubleshooter, who has reportedly been urging the Taraki regime to broad e n its political base and slow down the pace of modernization since his arrival in April. Still another hint of a Soviet political offensive was a significant change in August of the political formula by which Moscow ritual ly expressed its endorsement of t he ruling regime. Soviet support of the Taraki government suddenly was f+tered to become support of the "Afghan revolution and people. If Such symbolic semantic changes have often presaged changes in key personnel in the past and there is no reason to dou b t that the Soviets fully intended to force its Afghan clients to broaden their base of support The Parcham faction purged in September 1978 has However, the ill-conceived shootout at the presidential palace on September 14 which resulted in the apparent d e ath of Taraki and the triumph of Amin was probably not the change that the Kremlin had in mind. While the events ieading up to the shootout are still unclear; L'lere is a general consensus among foreign observers that the Russians themselves were taken by surprise, as evidenced by +&e grocps OF Soviet advisors and their dependents who were casually strolling aro-ud Kabul when gunfire rang out in the palace. Moreover, Brezhnev welcomed Taraki to Moscow the week before the coup with a public bearhug, an impr ob able occurrence (even by Soviet standards) if Brezhnev had been plotting his overthrow.

There has been speculation that Amin learned of a Soviet backed attempt to oust him from the ruling regime and pre-emptive- ly struck out at Taraki to present the Soviets with a fait accompli.

Amin's takeover leaves the Soviets in a precarious position.

Since he has eliminated all logical successors and has placed his own handpicked men in key positions in the army and internal security forcas e Soviets have little choice but to support him 17. Strategic Mid-East and Africa, September 12, 1979, p. 6. 17 It would appear that he has not only out-maneuvered Taraki but possibly the Russians as well.

Soviet court and it will be interesting to see how they respond.

The ball now appears to be in the CONCLUSION Afghanistan is a remote Texas-sized country which is perhaps the most difficult nation in the world to govern, given the complex mosaic of staunchly independent ethnic groups which inhabit its isolated valleys.

When the urban-based pro-Soviet Khalq Party led by Nur Mohammad Taraki came to power via coup in April 1978, it attempted to accomplish too nuch too fast and thereby precipitated a fundamentalist Islamic backlash in rural areas which spontaneously spread to e ngulf the entire country.

The Taraki regime undermined its own narrow base of power through intermittent purges to such an extent that it was forced to depend on imported Soviet advisors to administer the country, a dependence which only served to exacerba te the virulent xenophobia of Moslem tribesmen.

Afghanistan is important to Moscow for regional as well as global geopolitical and geostrategic reasons. graphical location has made it the I'cockpit of Asiatt and led it to become a barometer of the balance of power in the central Asian area a significant penetration of the increasingly vulnerable Northern Tier group of countries which had previously shielded the vital Persian Gulf region from direct Soviet pressures. Because Afghan istan is a potential sta g ing area for subversive and. separatist activities in Pakistan and Iran, a pro-Soviet Afghanistan enhances Soviet diplomatic leverage over both states and increases the risks that one 'or both will be dismembered in the future, possibly paving the way for the establishment of an independent Baluchistan.

Such a state would almost automatically be pro-Soviet, since it w ould require support against Iran and Pakistan; in return for their support the Soviets could hope to establish a naval base uncomfortably close to the crucial Persian Gulf oil arteries upon which the industrialized West will be dependent for &e foreseeab l e future. Already, Soviet aircraft based in Afghanistan are little more than an hour's flying time from the strategic chokepoint at the Strait of Homuz It pivotal geo The growing Soviet presence in Afghanistan constitutes Afghanistan is both a stepping st o ne for Soviet penetration of the Northern Tier and a stepping stone for Islamic religious aenetration of Soviet Central Asia. The Kremlin desires a pro Soviet Afghanistan for offensive purposes but needs a non-Islamic buffer for defensive pu-rposes. A fun d amentalist Islamic victory in Afghanistan, coming on the heels of of similar victory in Iran, would expose MOSCOW'S Moslem regions to the potentially corrosive effects of the "green menace The Soviets also have a vested interest in preserving the credibil i ty of their commit ments to client regimes, especially those in eastern Europe which 18 long ago signed treaties remarkably similar to the 1978 treaty of Ilfrieridship, good neighborliness and cooperation1' signed with Kabul. If the Soviets permit Kabul t o fall into the hands of religious/nationalist forces they would be setting a dangerous precedent for Warsaw.

Although the Soviet Union has strong reasons for propping up the precarious.Khalq regime in Kabul it has equally strong-reasons for avoiding direc t military involvement might lead to an open-ended commitment of military resources which would draw down Soviet strength on the western front and/or the Chinese border An invasion would strain relations with the states of the Indian subcontinent and the A rab world, further unravel the already tattered fabric of detente with the United States and hand the Chinese and excellent opportunity to improve their position in South Asia at Soviet expense Soviet intervention For these reasons, the Kremlin has studio u sly avoided closing off its option of negotiating a political solution. By enticing moderate political figures into participating in a broadened popular front type of regime the Russians could hope to take some of the steam out of the rebellion and exploi t the disunity of the rebel camp. Such a coalition strategy might enable them to salvage a non-Islamic, if not a pro-Soviet Afghanistan from the carnage of the Afghan civil war without making a major commitment of military forces. Moreover, such a tactical retreat could always be reversed at a later date if it became expedient to do so However, if the Soviets were in fact considering a political solution to their Afghan problems, the September 14 coup, which replaced President Taraki with his ruthless prime minister Hafizollah Amin, undoubtedly disrupted their plans. Amin is an ardent hardline communist who is known to be the most unpopular figure in the country because of his close identification with the Khalq regime's constant purges, political repression .and scorched earth policy. At present, it is unclear how Amin's coup will affect MOSCOW'S relztions with Kabul or its support of the Khalq regime's war against the insurgents. In any event, the chronic turbulence in the Afghan political scene makes it mo r e than likely that Amin will be (according to an old Afghan folk expression) Barre Duroz Shah -IiKing for-two days Amin falls prey to the same fate that befell his predecessors it If and when can be expegtea that Moscow will have other candidates for. pow er waiting in the wings James Phillips Congressional Fellow


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation