The Afghans

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The analogy between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the undeclared American war in Vietnam was impossible to ignore by the mid 1980s. Fighting against a hostile cold war ideology, the Soviets found themselves resented by their allies no less than their friends, and defending a rotting regime that had almost no internal support. Karmal dared not send his troops outside urban fortresses, which meant that the countryside was under the effective control of disparate Islamic resistance groups funded by the West and other foreign sources. Squabbles between these groups, which would throw Afghanistan into permanent chaos after the Soviet withdrawal, did not impede their ability to fight the Soviet army.

Planners of the initial stages of the campaign had sent soldiers from Turkic-speaker peoples with Islamic traditions, such as Uzbeks, Tadziks and Turkmen, but they were dismayed to find them refusing to fire on their brethren. Soon Slavic troops with little sympathy for the Afghans were sent, who were more willing to prosecute the brutal campaign, but were alienated from the local population. The situation grew intolerable when the Soviet army took over rural pacification program originally intended Afghan troops. Soviet soldiers were being asked to die for people who clearly did not want them, and the bloody fighting left them shattered on their return home.

In an era of open press debate, the Afghan War was one of the first targets of journalists. Superb reporting from the front brought the horrors of the campaign to Soviet readers, and TV soon presented them with unforgettable images. At the onset of the war, the only vocal dissent had come from dissidents, who were isolated from society and easily contained by the KGB (link). Later dissent spread to many sectors of society, including the mothers of soldiers and the veterans themselves, who were traditionally the most loyal of Soviet citizens. No regime claiming to be patriotic could ignore these people or their needs. As the “Afghans” (the Afghan veterans) became a cohesive social group, the lessons of the war became undeniable, and the question of whether Soviet troops should participate became pressing. By 1989 the Soviet leadership had negotiated a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and had now to cope with the domestic effects of the war.

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