SIX YEARS AFTER invading Afghanistan, Soviet troops are further from victory than they were on the first day of the invasion. The experience of the 20th century testifies that a partisan movement like the mujaheddine, with able leadership, support from the population, and sustained assistance from outside, will be practically impossible to defeat. And the less hopeful the prospects for a military solution, the more necessary a political settlement.
For six years now the war in Afghanistan has aggravated the crisis of detente, complicated relations between the U.S.S.R. and China, provoked hostility toward the Soviet Union in Muslim countries, and created enormous difficulties for Soviet policy toward the Third World. The war is a heavy burden for the economy and leads to a growing number of human casualties and to the rise of a spontaneous movement of protest in the lower strata of Soviet society and to differences in its top ranks.
A real solution of the Afghan problem is now possible only if the Soviet Union recognizes at least the erroneousness, if not the criminality, of the adventurism of this war and if negotiations begin among all the parties that have been drawn into the conflict.
Moscow is being compelled to take a seat at the negotiating table not only by defeats on the field of battle but also by the burden of the war on the Soviet economy. The war is diverting enormous resources at the very moment when the U.S.S.R. has run into a deep structural crisis of its economic development, when Gorbachev, realizing how disastrous is the developing economic situation, has proclaimed a broad-scale program to accelerate the tempo of growth of the economy on the basis of scientific-technological progress. It goes without saying that it is quite complicated to combine waging a war with the technological re-equipment of the economy.
What is more, as the number of manpower losses of the Soviet forces rises (according to the most conservative estimates, for the six years they amount to 10,000 killed and 25,000 wounded), dissatisfaction with the Afghan war increases in those strata of the population of the U.S.S.R. from which the soldiers are recruited. It is noteworthy that, among the peoples inhabiting the border areas of the country, this dissatisfaction more and more frequently takes the form of open opposition.
Such acts of protest are speedily and pitilessly suppressed. Consequently, information about them rarely reaches public opinion. Nevertheless, the protest demonstration that took place in the spring of 1985 in Yerevan became widely known. In June, in Astrakhan, there was a clash between draftees who had come to the city from the Northern Caucasus, most of them Chechens, and the military command, which had told them they would be trained for assignment to Afghanistan. The young Chechens categorically refused to go there, saying they had no desire to kill fellow-Muslims. During the bitter clash, the outcome of which was settled by troops, there were dead and wounded on both sides -- of course, not at all in equal proportions. This was perhaps the first instance of antiwar protest in the U.S.S.R. that was put down by force of arms.
A detailed knowledge of these and many other analogous events does not permit one to hope for the creation in the near or distant future of a powerful antiwar movement, comparable to that which shook the United States at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. The Afghan war is an important, but not a central, point of Soviet political life. Moreover, the strength of the repressive apparatus in the U.S.S.R. is many times greater than in the U.S.A., and the political activity of the masses many times lower. Nonetheless, the Soviet leadership cannot fail to take into account acts of mass antiwar dissatisfaction in the country.
The principal reason for the military failures of the Soviet invasion army lies not in the quality of the weapons, not in organizational or leadership difficulties, but in psychology. The political instructors explained the introduction of Soviet troops into Afghanistan by the need to meet an invasion of Chinese and American mercenaries, but nearly all the Central Asian reservists, and particularly the Tajiks, understand the language of many of the Afghan tribes and, having arrived in Afghanistan, easily became convinced that no Chinese or Americans had been there or were there now. When the Central Asians were replaced by Slavs, other problems developed.
Soviet soldiers, who had been told that they were to give "fraternal international help" to the Afghan people, in fact met with universal hatred and national resistance instead of with masses grateful to them. This evoked demoralization of the occupation troops. Among those doing their service, drug-addiction -- an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Soviet army -- began to spread. For the sake of obtaining drugs, some soldiers and officers entered into "commercial relations" with the enemy, selling him weapons, ammunition, uniforms, and provisions.
The demoralization of the soldiers and officers was accompanied by increasing brutality towards the peaceful residents. In February, 1985, a special commission of the U.N. on human rights accused the Soviet "limited contingent" of "almost completely ignoring the Geneva conventions on treatment of peaceful residents and prisoners-of-war." In the words of the U.N. expert, Soviet troops were guilty of "bombing villages, murdering peaceful residents, and massive torture of captured partisans." The stories of soldiers who have returned from the war about reprisals against unarmed people are still more horrible. Troops that act in such a fashion cannot be disciplined and selfless on the field of battle. The participation of soldiers in punitive actions broke their fighting spirit.
The period of the war beginning in 1985 is characterized by the Soviet forces losing the strategic initiative. The increase in the number of the partisans' antiaircraft and antitank weapons has reached such a level that it has made offensive operations by the Soviet forces extremely risky and frequently simply senseless. Battles for strategically important strong points begin to drag on for many months and are accompanied by the movement of significant forces and large losses on both sides.
As we know, the theory of contemporary partisan (peasant) war, worked out by Mao Tse-tung and other radical military theoreticians of the Third World, postulates that the movement should go through three stages: the creation of the base in the village, the surrounding and isolation of the cities, and the storming of the cities. To all appearances, in Afghanistan we are seeing the transition from the second stage to the third. Now this is no longer a peasant war so far as the partisans are concerned, or if it is one, then it is the third stage -- the storming of the cities (for example, the battle for the city of Khowst in Paktia province).
The military failures in Afghanistan should inevitably strengthen the positions of the realistic politicians in the Soviet leadership. The new Kremlin leadership headed by M. Gorbachev could easily consider itself blameless in the Afghan crisis and that would create favorable conditions for the beginning of peace talks with the Afghans.
Soberminded Kremlin politicans have not yet spoken out unequivocally. It is true that on the day this article was being written, Dec. 21, 1985, Pravda carried unprecedented material: an article without a signature (which emphasizes its official character). It begins with the phrase: "Start a broad dialogue." Then follow admissions surprising for the Soviet press: "Far from everyone in Afghanistan, even among the workers, has accepted the April revolution, the policy of the people's power . . . . One must create an atmosphere of positive dialogue between the social and political forces, including with those who have so far, in the name of the national rebirth of Afghanistan, maintained positions inimical to the revolution".
This article is perhaps the first serious indication of a movement in the ruling circles of the U.S.S.R. away from a military approach to the solution of the Afghan problem towards a political one.
Simultaneously, the reactionary, openly chauvinistic wing of the Soviet leadership, connected with the former leaders of the country and influential military men, is displaying significant activity. One of its spokesmen, the writer A. Prokhanov, in an article published in Literaturnaya Gazeta (August 28, 1985), laid out the views of this wing very clearly. War is better than peace. During the comfortable times of peace, we degenerated. The army grew rusty in the barracks and lost its aptitude for the true struggle. War refreshes us, tightens up discipline in the army, rejuvenates the nation. Not a word from Prokhanov about socialism, internationalism, or social progress. He mentioned the revolution once, in connection with . . . its exotic Afghan character. We are defending in Afghanistan our "raison d'etat," he declared, and are fighting for "a balance of global territory," for "territorial balance," i.e., in other words, for that famous Lebensraum.
But no matter how the Soviet chauvinists and hegemonists may rave, the political settlement of the Afghan crisis is a factor called forth by strictly objective, unchanging circumstances. Sooner or later (better, of course, that it should be as soon as possible), Moscow should realize the necessity of dialogue between equals as the only means for its activity in Afghanistan. Starting with that, let us see what kind of political solution there might be to the problem.
It is clear that the unilateral withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan would not lead to an end to the bloodletting, to an end to the civil war. Consequently, if the U.S.S.R. is trying to end the war and simultaneously get a stable, friendly state on its southern frontier, it is necessary to begin direct talks with the mujaheddine. It goes without saying that it is essential first of all to recognize them as combtants and to renounce attempts to depict the partisans as bandits ("dushmans") and counterrevolutionaries ("basmaches").
Direct talks should be conducted with the political leadership of the Afghan resistance. The sooner a process of political settlement is begun, the smaller will be the influence of third parties (the West, Iran, or Pakistan) on the future government of the republic. The withdrawal of forces should be a gradual one. A certain number of soldiers from the Soviet occupation army could remain in the country for a transitional period.
At the talks, it would be necessary to obtain guarantees for the Soviet boundaries and the inviolability of the persons who had worked for the Soviet and Karmal administrations, but who are not guilty of crimes of any sort. The withdrawal of the Soviet forces should be accompanied by the holding of free elections.Rhodesia might serve as a model for the settlement in Afghanistan. There, the forces of the combatants were finally integrated into a single army. Naturally, in any case, Afghanistan will be in great need of Soviet economic assistance and specialist and this will give the U.S.S.R. certain trumps at the negotiations and will permit hope for an honorable peace. A condition of such a success, however, is a simultaneous and radical change of policy and a readiness of the U.S.S.R. to compromise.
The antiwar movement in the present situation can play not a decisive, but an important, role, facilitating the isolation of the "Prokhanovites" in society and strengthening the position of the realists among the ruling pinnacle. On the other hand, the antiwar demonstrations which took place in 1985 are an important political factor. They testify to movements in the attitudes of the masses -- at least in the border regions. Instead of the apathy and apoliticism of the Brezhnev years, a new poltiical activism is coming.
The Afghan war could give the left wing of Soviet reformism an important moral stimulus. Although its role is not so large as the role of the Vietnam war in the American society of the '60s, one cannot fail to draw certain parallels. And, in the cae at hand, the history of the opposition of the youth and of the new leftist in the U.S.A. is of undoubted interest. The antiwar sentiments of Soviet young people have already become a serious problem for the leadership of the armed forces. If these sentiments acquired a more definite political coloration, this could have serious consequences for the entire society.