Afghan Crucible. The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan

Leake, Elisabeth
Anzahl Seiten
343 S.
€ 28,54
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Stefan Schütte, Geographische Wissenschaften, Freie Universität Berlin

Afghanistan has always played an important role in geopolitical affairs and as the target of external intervention. This was true during the extended periods of British and Russian colonialism and their rivalry during what has been termed the “Great Game“, whose outcome ultimately created the borders of present-day Afghanistan. This was also true during the cold war and the fight for global supremacy between the USA and the USSR, and after 2001 when the US-led intervention sought to bring neoliberal rule to the country in a quest to fight Islamic terrorism. While all these interventions were clouded by colonial tropes about Afghan tribalism and backwardness and all ended in utter failure, the Soviet intervention between 1979 and 1989 initiated a new phase in world politics, marked the beginning of more than 40 years of warfare in the country and changed Afghan society forever. As many observers have noted, the US-funding of the Afghan resistance and the cold war view that Islam serves as a perfect antidote to communism also gave rise to the predominance of Islamic fundamentalism in the country – a fact that was by no means preordained but clearly determines the image of Afghanistan today.

These issues and many more are addressed in much detail in the new book by Elisabeth Leake. It is a timely contribution, as the events that took place in Afghanistan not only defined the last decade of the cold war but had repercussions that are felt to this day. In fact, having discussed in much detail and reconstructed the processes that led to the Soviet military intervention and its wide-ranging effects that decisively altered the course of Afghan modernity, Leake’s intricate account makes even more obvious how Western military and political involvement after 2001 was driven by historical amnesia when repeating the misunderstandings and reproducing the colonial tropes representing Afghan people that already characterized British and Soviet approaches to Afghanistan. However, this is not an argument attempted to make in the book, and the account provided by Leakel goes much deeper and is well grounded in archival research carried out in various places to reconstruct not only the repercussions of the intervention for Afghanistan that turned the country one of the major killing fields of the cold war, but also to underline its truly international character. In fact, one will be hard-pressed to find a more succinct reconstruction of the ways of thinking and decision-making processes of all the major parties involved in the Soviet-Afghan war. These chiefly included a fragmented Afghan society involved in a struggle of very different ideas for the future of a modern Afghan nation, and the Soviets who somewhat reluctantly intervened in an attempt to bolster a communist government led by the Peoples’ Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) that rose to power in a bloody coup in April 1979, locally referred to as the Saur Revolution. However, while there exist already a number of important books on these issues, Elisabeth Leake’s account really stands out by extending the analysis to the international embeddedness of the conflict and the deliberations of other involved actors that changed the course of events when confronted with the fact of the Soviet intervention, notably the US, Pakistan, and the UN, but to a good extent also those of Iran, India and China.

The story of the book is thus much more than a mere reconstruction of what happened, but a highly successful attempt to weave together the multiple interconnections prevalent in cold war international relations, the effects of regional tensions especially between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the efforts of the UN to negotiate the terms and conditions of a Soviet withdrawal, while at the same time putting Afghan society and its competing visions for the future of the Afghan nation at the centre of the argument. In choosing this new and original angle on historical developments and with reference to many archival resources and local Afghan publications, Leake sets out to provide an engaging and highly readable narrative that is structured around those places where the major decisions in the Soviet-Afghan war have been made.

In an introductory chapter titled “Afghanistan’s Many Pasts“, the author provides some broad background on the changing political situations in Afghanistan from its independence in 1919 until the Saur revolution in 1979. This timeline is important in many respects, as it shows how developments in the country have always been influenced by global narratives of modernisation, regional tensions with Pakistan, and competing ideas for the future. Many important actors that decisively changed future developments are already introduced here, and it is important to understand that the struggle between communists and Islamic resistance that defined the period of the 1980s seemed a farfetched possibility during the 1960s, when most of the important figures in the Afghan war were students at Kabul University engaged in political and religious discussions about how Afghan society might look like in the future. Both factions were rather peripheral at the time, which changed only after another coup in 1973 overthrew the Afghan Monarchy and established a republic that invited first real opposition by both Afghan communists and Islamists. These developments are reconstructed and put in historical order, but most importantly the chapter sheds light on internal discussions in Afghanistan in the context of global and regional affairs, the emergence of new postcolonial states and Afghanistan’s place in the world, and the differing viewpoints and internal schisms that were prevalent and decisive also inside the Afghan communist and Islamic movements. These internal divisions, the process of the ultimate takeover of the Government by Afghanistan’s communist party in 1978, and its ideas at societal reform that were vigorously opposed by a majority of the Afghan populace and resulted in first resistance movements are further elaborated upon in a chapter titled “Kabul“. This followed by a chapter named “Moscow“ that narrates the Soviet decision-making processes when faced with a divided PDPA that seemed ill-prepared to govern a country characterized by internal strife.

Two further chapters (“Islamabad“ and “Peshawar-Panjshir”) look at the special role for Pakistan that under its military government established itself as an American ally in these times and which had its own consideration as to how a future Afghanistan might look like, as well as the formation and activities of the seven Afghan resistance parties with their headquarters in Peshawar, many of whom were lavishly funded by American money and weapons channelled through the Pakistani intelligence service. The two most successful of these were the Islamist parties Hizb-e Islami and Jam'iyyat-e Islami with their powerful and charismatic leaders Hekmatyar and Massoud, and the account of their competing visions and strategic military and political ideas form a highly engaging read that clearly shows how Political Islam as a form of political organization gained traction during the 1980s and established itself as the only viable alternative to a communist government. The chapter “Washington” looks at the strategies of the US and its funding of the Afghan resistance, a process through which Islam became reified as being “natural” to Afghan culture. The chapter “Nasir Bhag” stands exemplary for the dramatic refugee crisis that unfolded in the wake of conflict, and it shows the differing ways the refugee question has been dealt with by all involved conflict parties. For the communist government claiming to speak for the Afghan people, the reality of the refugee crisis was a big embarrassment, and for the resistance working in refugee camps it presented a big opportunity to gather a new following. The chapter titled “Geneva” narrates in some detail the stretched and tedious negotiations about a Soviet withdrawal and gives many intricate insights into the machineries of international governance, before in a final chapter in a return to Kabul after the Soviets had left, the internal conflicts in the Afghan resistance again become central when leading to a disastrous civil war and the unparalleled success of the Taliban movement.

In essence, the historical account provided by Elisabeth Leake tells an important and comprehensive story of competing political ideas and their violent enactment backed by the cold war superpowers, and their immersion in a complicated regional setting where Afghanistan’s neighbours all showed conflicting political agendas when dealing with the Afghan war. The book also is a story of missed trajectories, as the evidence is clear that care for the future of the Afghan people and the form of the Afghan nation after the Soviet retreat were not the most important considerations of the intervening parties. While it is perhaps futile to ask “what would have happened, if...”, one cannot stop to think about the way the Afghan people had to suffer decade after decade because of failed interventions that tried to impose foreign ideologies on the country, the violent strife between different resistance parties that were increasingly carried out along ethnic lines, or the lack of international engagement once short term political and military goals had been achieved.

The book thus provides a significant piece of global history, whose importance also for determining the shape of the world today can hardly be overestimated. We must thank Elisabeth Leake for her vivid account, and the manifold insights she provides should indeed be known much more widely as is currently the case.

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