The ghost of Afghanistan looms over Ukraine

In a land bordering Eurasia, a pivotal region that can guarantee stability or create serious instability, the spectre of its transfer to a hostile orbit, close to the West, has prompted the Kremlin to intervene militarily to restore the status quo. It is not a war or an invasion, because the Moscow’s leadership calls it an “operation”.

Penetrate to the capital, take control of geostrategic areas and critical infrastructure, then bring pressure to bear on the incumbent government and topple it. The idea is to conduct an incisive but timely operation, which will not weigh on an already troubled state budget and remind the American-led First World that Moscow is willing to defend  its local sphere of interest militarily.

But what the Kremlin ignores, or perhaps knows but underestimates, is that a deadly snare has been prepared in that theatre of war. An international brigade was ready in the wings waiting for the misstep to rush to the place. The Western arms industry was waiting for the invasion to supply the resistance with military supplies. And a gruelling proxy war was about to begin. A description of Ukraine 2022. A description of Afghanistan 1979-1989.

The whole world in Kabul

The differences between the wars in Ukraine and Afghanistan are manifold, starting from the casus belli and their lawfulness: an aggression in the first case, an intervention requested by the country’s government that degenerated into war in the second. But it is important to focus on the similarities. Because the White House, in both cases, took advantage of the Kremlin’s misstep to start to a proxy war of attrition as a preliminary to bringing about or at least facilitating regime change.

The anti-Soviet international set up by the United States as part of the most expensive covert operation in its history, codenamed Cyclone, played a principal part in the catalysis of the economic and practical collapse of the Soviet Union. For nine years, from 1979 to 1989, the Kremlin found itself fighting in an inaccessible, largely unknown territory against a well-trained enemy, supplied with advanced weaponry, supported by intelligence and able overnight to make up for the losses suffered.

Operation Cyclone, “the greatest legacy to any Third World insurrection,” turned Afghanistan into the “Vietnam of the Soviets.” A war lost from the start for the Kremlin. Some 20,000 foreign fighters (mujahideen) attracted annually by the echo of the Jihad coming from the Hindu Kush and relaunched by mosques throughout the Middle East. More than 10 billion dollars were invested in the Afghan theatre by the United States and its associates. The arsenal made available to insurgency is unquantified and unquantifiable.

A proxy war and a laboratory

The United States saw the Politburo’s miscalculation as a historic and unrepeatable opportunity to turn Afghanistan into a Soviet Vietnam. A tremendous but fair revenge for the ignominious defeat suffered in Southeast Asia a few years earlier. And they mustered an unlikely coalition of the willing united by a common denominator: hatred of the Soviet Union.

The Reagan presidency persuaded many nations to join in the proxy war, some by providing weapons, some by supplying intelligence and some by fighting. The most important members, however, were undoubtedly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, West Germany, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China. The Soviets, by contrast, could only count on the (limited) support of Cuba and East Germany.

This all-against-one was aggravated by the way of fighting, the armaments and the organisational structure of the two sides. The Red Army was numerically hegemonic, accustomed to massive bombardments and had a predilection for open and regular clashes, but possessed a poor knowledge of the territory and suffered from problems in terms of communication between departments and intelligence retrieval. The mujahideen, on the other hand, could boast familiarity with the terrain, useful when conducting asymmetrical Thermopylae-style battles, liquidity without borders supplied by a series of shadowy circuits such as the Haqqani network, the contribution of intelligence 24/7 and the most technologically advanced arsenal on the planet to shatter the Red Army’s air superiority.

The red line of the Soviet Union became the red line of the United States. Afghanistan was to become the terminus of Soviet expansion in Asia. And for the curse of the Tomb of Empires to be renewed, mortally bogging down the Russian soldiers, the United States made Afghanistan more than just a theatre of proxy warfare: they made it a laboratory.

The mujahideen bore the burden of crushing the Red Army, the military complex of the United States had the honour of arming them with the latest inventions from the Pentagon’s macroscopic research and development sector. Afghanistan as a laboratory in which to test the effectiveness of weapons never tested before. Like the FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to be used against Mil Mi-24 helicopters.

The consequences

The war in Afghanistan, together with the Polish revolution led by Solidarity was the blade that bled dry the already moribund Soviet Union, accelerating its decline and inevitable implosion. An epoch-making victory, because it was the last chapter in the Cold War. A half-way victory for others, because of the nefarious blowback generated by the Frankenstein that was the jihadist international.

It is not easy to determine who is wrong and who is right, since history, (un)objective by definition, is a matter of perspectives. And, in fact, if it is true that to defeat the Soviet Empire the United States inadvertently created Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, it is equally true that the international mujahideen would soon prove useful in Yugoslavia shattered in an anti-Serbian key. And as it is true that the Al-Qaedist threat, symbolized by 9/11, was then capitalised to remake the face of the Middle East in the name of the Project for a New American Century and prolong the Unipolar Moment. From its breast came the milk of contemporary Afghanistan: yesterday Syria, today Ukraine and tomorrow, probably, a periphery of Eurasia and/or the Indo-Pacific dear to China