The ghost of Afghanistan looms over Ukraine

In a land bordering Eurasia, a pivotal region that can guarantee stability or create serious instability, the specter of its entry into 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 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 a fast-and-furious operation, which would not weigh on the already troubled state budget and remind the American-led First World that Moscow is willing to defend its sphere of influence militarily.

But what the Kremlin ignores, or perhaps knows but underestimates, is that a deadly snare has been prepared in that theater 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 a proxy war of attrition with the goal of bringing about, or at least facilitating, a 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 an instrumental role in catalysing 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 Western-made advanced weaponry, supported by regional powers’ intelligence and capable of making up for the losses overnight.

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 (mujāhidīn) attracted annually by the echo of Jihad coming from the Hindu Kush and relaunched by mosques throughout the Middle East. More than 10 billion dollars were invested in the Afghan theater by the United States and its partners. The arsenal that was made available to the insurgents 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: anti-Soviet hate.

The Reagan presidency persuaded many nations to join the proxy war, some by providing weapons, some by supplying intelligence and some by exporting fighters. 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 battlefield and suffered from problems in terms of interdepartmental communication and intelligence gathering. The mujahideen, on the other hand, could boast familiarity with the terrain, useful when conducting asymmetrical Thermopylae-style battles, infinite liquidity supplied by a series of shadowy circuits, such as the Haqqani network, the possession of 24/7 intelligence 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 theater of proxy warfare: they made it a laboratory.

The mujahideen bore the burden of crushing the Red Army, the military-industrial 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 battle-test the effectiveness of new weapons – 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 dying 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 in the subsequent years by that 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 mujahideen would soon prove useful in Yugoslavia, where they were recycled against the Serbs. And as it is true that the Al-Qaeda threat, symbolized by 9/11, was later capitalised to remake the face of the Middle East in the name of the Project for a New American Century and to prolong the Unipolar Moment, from whose breast came the milk of contemporary Afghanistans: from Syria to Ukraine. Tomorrow, perhaps, a new Afghanistan could appear somewhere between Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific, in one or more of those lands affected by the US-China competition.