When Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov was knowledgeable of the Kremlin’s determination to invade Afghanistan simply two weeks earlier than his forces have been resulting from launch the offensive, Ogarkov objected. There was no approach even a superpower might stabilise a rustic so massive with simply 85,000 troops, the chief of the Soviet normal employees insisted.
“He was flatly told he had no choice and to accept the directive,” historian Elisabeth Leake recounts in her new research of the Soviet occupation.
It is tough to learn such accounts in Leake’s exhaustive Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan and never consider the parallels with the Kremlin’s newer invasion — and ponder whether Vladimir Putin thought-about the decade-long battle that resulted in Soviet ignominy earlier than launching his personal Ukrainian misadventure.
Like Putin, Soviet chief Leonid Brezhnev consulted solely a small circle of Kremlin yes-men earlier than greenlighting the Afghan offensive; Alexei Kosygin, Brezhnev’s prime minister, who opposed the invasion, was deliberately minimize out of essential conferences in late 1979 the place plans have been agreed.
And a lot as Putin could have been lulled right into a false sense of triumphalism lately by comparatively profitable Russian interventions in Georgia, Belarus and Crimea, Leake notes that Soviet suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring, in addition to the successes of Soviet proxies in Angola and Ethiopia — to not point out US withdrawal from Vietnam — satisfied Brezhnev and his aides that they have been on a profitable streak.
“The preceding decade had given Soviet leaders a (perhaps false) sense of strength in their Third World dealings,” she writes. “Sending troops into Afghanistan in December 1979 followed the same rationale, of supporting a local vanguard party that seemed capable of leading the country’s socialist transformation.”
The most vital distinction between Kremlin decision-making circa 1979 and its newer variant is that the Russians had a pro-Soviet authorities to work with in Afghanistan, even when it had come to energy in a coup a 12 months earlier. Leake goes into exhaustive element about how ineffectual the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was in implementing its socialist agenda. But at the least Moscow had a proxy in Kabul; it has nothing of the kind in Kyiv.
Afghan Crucible was accomplished nicely earlier than the battle in Ukraine, after all, and in contrast to earlier research of the Soviet invasion — notably Steve Coll’s magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars (2004) — it focuses much less on the Kremlin’s navy failings and extra on its lack of ability to execute what overseas coverage professionals invariably label “nation-building”.
In that respect, it’s a cautionary story not just for the present occupants of the Kremlin. Gone unspoken by Leake is that one other superpower tried its personal hand at nation-building in Afghanistan way more lately, with not dissimilar outcomes.
Indeed, Leake’s account is replete with vignettes — a whole bunch of technocrats despatched to Kabul to shore up Afghan companies, the failure of the central authorities to broaden its affect past a handful of city centres, countless desertions from the Afghan armed forces — that learn like a Pentagon after-action report in 2022.
Even after spending 20 years in Afghanistan — twice so long as the Soviets — Washington failed to know the fragility of the federal government they have been propping up in Kabul till the very finish, when it collapsed virtually in a single day. At least Mohammed Najibullah, put in by Mikhail Gorbachev shortly after he took the Kremlin helm in 1985, managed to cling on to energy in Kabul for 3 years after the Soviets withdrew.
The American failure is the background music to a different groundbreaking ebook on the star-crossed trendy historical past of Afghanistan by Nelly Lahoud, a scholar of Islamism, which attracts on 96,000 information captured by US Navy Seals in May 2011 once they killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in northeastern Pakistan.
Lahoud’s tome, The Bin Laden Papers: How the Abbottabad Raid Revealed the Truth about al-Qaeda, its Leader and his Family, is an ostensibly heroic story of Americans and their work within the area. Given her reliance on a now-declassified trove captured by the US navy, it’s maybe not stunning that she opens by hailing the “courageous efforts” of American particular operations forces.
But as she items collectively a exceptional insider account of al-Qaeda’s historical past, based mostly on the writings of bin Laden and his interior circle, her overarching conclusion is one thing a lot much less flattering — that American intelligence stored getting it mistaken, regardless of its intense deal with al-Qaeda and its chief in the course of the decade between September 11 2001 and bin Laden’s demise.
Almost from the second that US forces arrived in Afghanistan, Lahoud finds, Washington overestimated al-Qaeda’s potential to reconstitute and organise new assaults on the US or allied targets. The US intelligence group, in essence, satisfied itself that it was going through an indomitable large — whereas in actuality, bin Laden and his followers spent their final decade on the run, scrambling to seek out succesful operatives after most of their veteran troopers have been picked off, one after the other, by American drones armed with Hellfire missiles.
“The American response to the 9/11 attacks was colossal, way beyond our expectations,” one bin Laden lieutenant wrote in a captured letter, translated by Lahoud. “We also did not imagine that the Taliban Emirate would collapse so rapidly. The reason of course is due to the thrust of the shock, and the ugliness of the bombing and its destruction.”
The captured paperwork additionally clarify that the varied al-Qaeda offshoots that sprung up after bin Laden’s exit from Afghanistan — notably al-Qaeda in Iraq, headed by infamous Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but additionally al-Qaeda within the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Qaeda within the Arabian Peninsula — weren’t offshoots in any respect, however somewhat Islamist freelancers who tried to bolster their very own picture by appropriating the al-Qaeda “brand”.
Al-Zarqawi at the least had the nice manners to hunt bin Laden’s approval earlier than altering the identify of his more and more highly effective terrorist group, which grew to become the preoccupation of US forces in Iraq till he was killed by an air strike in 2006.
“We don’t know if [al-Zarqawi] knew the extent to which al-Qaeda had been shattered when he sought a merger, but his enthusiasm to be part of the brand is palpable in the voice messages that reached Usama in transcribed format,” Lahoud writes.
Bin Laden quickly got here to remorse the alliance after a sequence of “indiscriminate” assaults by al-Zarqawi inside Iraq that killed fellow Muslims. Other so-called offshoots adopted the al-Qaeda moniker with out even bothering to seek the advice of the “father”, inflicting bin Laden countless complications.
“By 2009, he was beginning to experience what we might describe as Brothers-fatigue,” Lahoud writes. “Al-Qaeda had become wary of its name being associated with groups that thought they could punch above their weight.”
Lahoud notes that even after 2011, when the US intelligence group had translated and digested the paperwork captured within the bin Laden raid, Washington continued to oversell al-Qaeda’s capabilities.
In one of many ebook’s most exceptional revelations, Lahoud particulars bin Laden’s mounting anger with Tehran after discovering that a few of his closest family members, together with his son Hamza, had been held captive by the Iranian regime for six years, after fleeing westwards on the outset of the Afghan battle. And but, months after reviewing the Abbottabad paperwork, main US intelligence officers have been nonetheless telling Congress that al-Qaeda had a “marriage of convenience” with Tehran — both a whole misreading of the intelligence, Lahoud suggests, or a malicious lie.
Although neither Lahoud or Leake say it explicitly, the findings of each books make sturdy circumstances for superpower humility. Even probably the most muscular superpower, deploying extremely succesful militaries backed by the world’s main intelligence companies, has struggled to impose its will overseas. Both Washington and Moscow learnt the lesson the onerous approach in Afghanistan. Vladimir Putin seems to be studying it but once more in Ukraine.
Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan by Elisabeth Leake, Oxford University Press £25, 365 pages
The Bin Laden Papers: How the Abbottabad Raid Revealed the Truth about al-Qaeda, its Leader and his Family by Nelly Lahoud, Yale University Press £18.99, 368 pages
Peter Spiegel is the FT’s US managing editor
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