[Column written by Murray Rothbard for the New Libertarian 4, no. 7 (April-June 1980): 13–15.]
The Iran/Afghanistan crises have been a god-send to Jimmy Carter. From being lowest in the polls of any President in American history, Carter has vaulted to a probably shoo-in for reelection. Iran helped; but it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that really did it. For Iran is a complex situation, and the American masses don’t like complexity. For all that we can say about the evil Ayatollah (and he sure looks evil, doesn’t he, which of course helps), he is certainly no Commie, and Americans are confused about getting set to nuke people who are not Commies. Beset and befuddled about Iran, President Carter leaped to his feet on Afghanistan. He could now return to the good old Red-baiting pieties of the Cold War: the evil Russians—now there’s something that Americans have been trained to understand! And it worked like magic, the media were easily sucked in, and even our West European allies. Even the UN became an American fief once more, the Muslim countries joining in condemnation of the Russkies. Once again, the American people rallied around the siren call of nation-State patriotism and the Russian “threat,” and rallied behind Jimmy Carter for the glorious cause of “national honor,” global crusading, the “free” world, and a second Carter term.
Pressured by the Pentagon, the war hawk wing of the Rockefeller-Trilateralists headed by Dr. Zibigniew (“Strangelove”) Brzezinski, and the Jackson-Moynihan Social Democrat wing of his party, Carter had already gone a long way to rupture detente with the Soviets: increasing military spending, foot-dragging on SALT II [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks], and especially, placing nuclear weapons in Western Europe. But now the blame for the break could all be placed on the Russians. And the Russian intervention could then be used as a marvelous alibi for scuttling SALT altogether, building a rapid deployment force for a quick strike anywhere, and vast increases in military.
Not only that: the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan enabled Carter to find a beautiful solution to the basic, long-run Iranian problem. That long-run problem has nothing to do with the hostages. It is: now that our client and ally, the dictator, mass-torturer, and close friend of the Rockefeller world interests, the Shah of Iran, is gone, how can the U.S. move in? The CIA, which Carter and the Congress will now be happy to “unleash” again, with troublesome problems of civil liberties now forgotten, will of course try a replay of their 1953 coup, which put the Shah back in after a rebellion had kicked him out. But this ploy may not work a second time, now that everyone is alert to this option. How can the U.S. move in against the opposition of all Iran? Russia has given us the opportunity. Howling about how Afghanistan now poses a threat of Russian invasion of Iran (a howl based on no evidence whatever), Carter moved in to proclaim his extraordinarily dangerous Carter Doctrine of drawing a line around the Persian Gulf, any invasion of which would being U.S. military action, even unto nuclear weapons. And since it is absurd to think that non-nuclear U.S. military forces could lick Soviet troops near their territory, nuclear bombs are our only really weapon.
And here we see one of the key reasons that the United States, not the Soviet Union, is the main menace to the peace of the world and indeed to the very existence of the human race. Because, if the U.S. wishes to push its weight around across the globe, especially in land areas near Russia, nuclear bombs and missiles are our only weapon. Hence, it is the imperial U.S. that is continually brandishing the nuclear threat. It is no accident that Russia has consistently urged a no-first-use of nuclear weapons and the U.S has consistently refused.
No matter, furthermore, that nearly every country of the Persian Gulf, including of course Iran, has angrily rejected the U.S.’s transparent offer of American “protection” from “outside forces.” Even the foreign minister of conservative Kuwait declared that the country could defend itself very well without such “protection.” And Tass, the Soviet news agency, deftly noted that the only “outside force” in the Persian Gulf is the U.S. Navy!
And so, to an American frustrated by the Ayatollah, Carter could summon up intervention against Russia and, miraculously enough, in Iran itself, this time under the guise of defending the latter’s “freedom” against Russia. In that way, the “fanatical extremist” Muslims of Iran and Afghanistan could suddenly be transformed into “heroic freedom fighters” for Islam against godless Communism. And, above all, Jimmy Carter was able to use the incident to get away with a strong pledge for all-out—even unto nuclear—war, in defense of Rockefeller’s oil interests in the Persian Gulf. Are we all, once again, to kill and die, this time in a nuclear holocaust, on behalf of Standard Oil? Ever since Carter’s accession to the Presidency, his close ties with David Rockefeller and the Trilateral Commission have become well-known. Equally well-known is the Rockefeller-Kissinger role in pressuring Carter to admit the supposedly “dying” Shah (who still seems pretty perky) into the U.S. Yet where is the perception of the greatest Rockefeller coup of them all: the all-out pledge of unlimited war to defend their oil in the Persian Gulf?
And what of the Soviets, who must be bemused and befuddled by now, they whose intervention into Afghanistan triggered all this? Was the invasion of Afghanistan, as the U.S. has depicted, and arrogant preparation to a Soviet march into Iran, or even world conquest? Was it, as the U.S. Establishment claims, a new and frightening aspect of Soviet foreign policy?
The answer is No. First, and most trivially, the Soviet Union already borders on Iran, and a march from Afghanistan would have to be based from a country which has very poor transport facilities. Second, there is no indication whatever that Russia is interested in marching into Iran, and thereby inflaming the Iranian nation. Third, Soviet foreign policy, since the days of Lenin, has had one guiding star: protecting its borders by dominating the nations on its periphery. And this “domination” is largely concerned with seeing to it that no anti-Soviet nations are contiguous to Russia. Thus, while imperialist and deplorable, Soviet foreign policy is basically cautious and defensive; Russia has been invaded three times from Eastern Europe in this century, and therefore its concern with avoiding anti-Soviet governments there is understandable. In fact, Soviet foreign policy is squarely in the tradition of Czarist policy before it, except that the Soviets are considerably less imperialist, since the Czars would push out on their borders until meeting resistance. The Soviets are concerned merely with keeping the domination they have.
What, then, of Afghanistan? Afghanistan has, for centuries, been the pawn and warring ground of rival imperialisms. Before the eighteenth century, the Afghans were a number of tribes dominated by Iran and by India. In the mid-eighteenth century, the tribes were shakily united into a kingdom. In the early nineteenth century, Napoleon and the British both fished among the Afghans; Napoleon tried to launch an attack on British India, and the British countered by urging Iran to carve a chunk out of Afghanistan. But, in the meanwhile, Czarist Russia was moving southward, and, by 1828, was dominating the government in Iran. When Iran, on Russia’s prompting, attacked Afghanistan, the British, now fearing Russian designs on India, moved in to bolster the Afghans and forced the Persians to withdraw.
From then on, British imperialism tried to dominate Afghanistan. In 1838, the British sent an Anglo-Indian army of 30,000 to invade Afghanistan. The invasion united the Afghans against the hated British, and in November 1841, the oppressed Afghans rose up in Kabul, assassinated the British puppet Shah Shoja, and massacred every Englishman they could find. The following year, the British were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Russian army, moving southward in Asia, was defeated by the Khanate of Khiva. These simultaneous defeats of the two major imperialisms in the area postponed an Anglo-Russian confrontation in southeast Asia for decades, with the theater of war being shifted to the Ottoman Empire and the Crimea.
By the late 1860s and early 1870s, the Russians, the Crimean War ended, were ready to resume their advance against the various independent Muslim states in southwest Asia. The Russians conquered the Kokand, Khiva, and the Turkomans. Finally, in 1877, the Russians signed a treated with Shir Ali, the ruler of Afghanistan: Russia would supply the Afghans with technical assistance and military instructors, indeed with an army of 30,000 men. The British, enraged, and determined to exclude Russian influence from Afghanistan, invaded that country in 1878, in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. This time, the British triumphed, Shir Ali was deposed, and his successors agreed, in return for full domestic control, to British domination of Afghanistan’s foreign relations.
The Russians, in response, moved southward, mopped up the Turkomans, and attacked the Penjdeh oasis in 1885, a disputed border zone with the Afghans. Liberal British Prime Minister Gladstone was in the process of shifting away from his old non-interventionist foreign policy, and his government succumbed to war hysteria. Apparently, the Carter case is not the first time that a Western government has been moved to fulminations over Afghanistan. Peace, however, was preserved, and the British and Russians signed a protocol in September, defining the northern Afghan border, and leaving Afghanistan under British domination. A few years later, the British drew the existing frontier between Afghanistan and India—a frontier which plagues the region to this day. For the line was drawn so far westward as to include a large number of Afghans (Pushtus) in what is now Pakistan.
The new Amir (King) of Afghanistan, Habibullah, who had come to the throne in 1901, grew restive, and refused the annual British subsidy. He also proposed to construct a railway which prompted the British, in 1905, to forbid any such railway which would, they warned, be considered an “act of aggression” against India.
In 1907, as part of a general agreement between the two giants over their conflicts in Central Asia, Russia and England agreed that Russia would recognize Afghanistan to be under British domination; the British, for their part, agreed not to occupy the country unless the Amir failed to fulfill his treaty commitments, that is: accept British pay, and take orders from Britain in foreign affairs. (There would, in that case, of course be no point for Britain to bother with outright occupation.) Part of those orders were to refrain from building any railroads, which the British would construe as a per se threat to their previous imperial jewel, India.
The British idyll was disturbed, as was so much of the British Empire, by World War I. Habibullah began to slip away from British control. Turkey, kingpin of the Muslim world, was at war against Britain, and Habibullah flirted with the Turkish-German side. He kept the country neutral, however. In 1919, after the assassination of Habibullah, the new Amir Amanullah declared his country’s independence from British imperialism, and, inspired by the Russian Bolshevik outcry against Western imperialism, Ammanullah rashly called for a holy war against the British. Attaching India, he was quickly defeated, but the British, no longer possessed of their old flair, made peace with Amanullah. The British removed their subsidy and their domination, and, at the Treaty of Mussourie in 1922, formally confirmed the independence of Afghanistan in both domestic and foreign affairs.
From the early 1920s on, the Amirs of Afghanistan pursued a foreign policy of neutrality and close collaboration with the Soviet Union. Assured of the friendly neutrality of this country on its border, the Soviets had no desire to press further.
To sum up the story thus far: Afghanistan, long a battleground for rival imperialisms from Britain and Russia (and partially from Iran), fell under the domination of Britain by the end of the nineteenth century. After World War I, however, the king of Afghanistan voluntarily took the country into the Soviet orbit. The Soviets, pursuing a policy of trying to gain and preserve friendly border states, did no more; there was no attempt to Communize the country or to invade it.
After World War II, Afghanistan grew worried about the increasing arms aid the U.S. was giving its ancient enemy Pakistan, especially since Pakistan was using these weapons to attack Afghanistan in their border conflict and to fasten its domination over the Pushtu tribesmen in the northwest. In 1956, Afghanistan requested military aid from the U.S. to balance our aid to Pakistan. The U.S. told Afghanistan it would only give aid if Afghanistan joined the U.S.-dominated Baghdad Pact, and even then it refused to guarantee Afghanistan against any Soviet attack. Rebuffed, Afghanistan, in the same year, cemented a formal military and economic alliance with the Soviet Union, obtaining large-scale aid and support.
So: since 1919, Afghanistan has been friendly to the Soviet Union. And since 1956, it has had close military and economic ties; in effect, it has been a client kingdom of Soviet Russia. All this was done to the tune of no hysterical outcries from the United States or from the global anti-Communist crowd.
While Afghanistan was a client state in military and foreign affairs, the Soviet, happy with a friendly state on their borders, showed no interest in helping Afghan Communists or in bringing Marxism to that country. Peace reigned until the fateful 1973, when the Amir was overthrown in a coup by Prince Daud, who substituted a republic for the old monarchy. (The old King still resides in sunny exile in an Italian resort.) Daud continued the Amir’s policy until 1977, when he was bought out by the Shah of Iran, pursuing his policy of being America’s satrap and surrogate imperialist in southwest Asia. Pursuant to coming under the Shah’s payroll, Daud gave in to the Shah’s pressure on border and trade issues, and permitted the infamous SAVAK, the Shah’s secret policy, to operate within his country.
The Soviets were understandably distraught; not only had the border country of Afghanistan been under their wing since 1919, but the Soviets had poured the huge sum of $1.3 billion of aid into Afghanistan from 1954 to 1976. And now the country was slipping into a pro-West, pro-Shah foreign policy. In April 1978, under the friendly stimulus of the Soviets, Daud was overthrown, and a Marxist regime, headed by President Mohammed Nur Taraki was installed.
So—if Afghanistan had pro-Soviet kings from 1919 to the late 1970s, since April 1978 it has had a Communist-dominated regime to boot. Still, no howls of frenzy from the United States. The Communists proceeded to do what Communists are supposed to do: namely, nationalize the peasantry, who constitute the overwhelming majority (about 78%) of the Afghan population; conjoined to that was a partial crackdown on the Islamic religion. The Afghans, as we all know by now, are devout Muslims, and, as peasants, they hate and detest land nationalization. Hence, they began to take to the hills to wage guerrilla war against the Marxist regime. Very soon, the guerrillas seized control of the entire countryside, indeed of the entire country except the capital, Kabul, and four other urban cities.
Now, as everyone should know by now, a Commie is not always a Commie; that is, not all Communists are the same. There are different and warring groups of Afghan Communists, and the Taraki regime was a coalition among them. It soon became clear to both Taraki and the Russians that their main problem was Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin, head of another group of Communists. Hafizullah Amin was in a profound sense, too Commie for the Russians. His insistence on rapid nationalization, his brutal oppression and mass torture of the peasantry, had been the main factor in galvanizing the guerrillas and leading to guerrilla conquests. Amin, they decided, had to go.
In September, 1979, Taraki had his confrontation with Amin; the plan was for Taraki to shoot and kill Amin. But instead, oops, the opposite happened, and the hated Amin was now in total control. He cracked down even more brutally on the peasantry, and it soon looked as if the guerrillas would conquer the entire country. The Communist Afghan army had had it.
What do do? The Russians were in despair. Once again, their Afghan ally was slipping down the tubes to become an anti-Soviet regime made up of Muslim guerrillas. And so, in early December, Russia sent to Kabul one of its top police officials: Lieutenant General Viktor S. Paputin, First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs. Paputin’s mission: to get rid of the Amin problem, either by persuading him to resign, or at the least to invite Russian troops to enter in force—far beyond the 5,000 Soviet advisers then assisting the Afghan army—to save the regime from the guerrillas. No one knows precisely what happened to General Paputin. We do know that he failed dismally, and that he died shortly thereafter. Either Amin killed the General, or else he returned to Russia and committed suicide in disgrace; at any rate, the Paputin card was finished, and the Russians arrived at what they considered their final recourse: a military invasion of Afghanistan, and the swift liquidation of the troublesome Amin. Babrak Karmal, leader of the most pro-Soviet group of Afghan Communists, was trotted out from Russia to become puppet head of Afghanistan.
It should be clear, from this lengthy account, that the Soviet military invasion was in no sense an arrogant drive for the conquest of all of southwest Asia. It was an act, not of strength, but of profound weakness. It was an admission that Russia could no longer control Afghanistan indirectly through native Communists: that it could only be done by a massive Soviet occupation army.
Since then, things have gone from bad to worse for the Soviets. First, the U.S. was able to mobilize a hypocritical world outburst of righteousness and to fulminate against the very kind of interference in a bordering country that the United States itself had committed in Korea and Vietnam half the globe away. But not only that: the occupation has gone very badly, as the Russians themselves should have learned from guerrilla theory. Kabral has not been able to govern at all; and the guerrillas are still dominant, fomenting general strikes in Kabul itself, despite the presence of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers. It is no wonder that the Russians are looking for some face-saving device to permit them to get the blazes out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan presents us with no new Russian “threat;” the threat to peace comes, as it has so often, from the United States.