In 1988, the Soviet army left Afghanistan after a concerted campaign by the western-backed mujahideen. But since then, many enduring myths have grown up about the war-torn country. In his new book, Jonathan Steele sorts the fact from the fiction
Soviet troops prepare to leave Kabul on 25 April 1988. But did the mujahideen actually drive them out? Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
1. Afghans have always beaten foreign armies, from Alexander the Great to modern times
Afghan history is certainly littered with occasions when foreign invaders were humiliated. But there have also been many cases when foreign armies penetrated the country and inflicted major defeats. In 330BC, Alexander the Great marched through the area of central Asia that is now Afghanistan, meeting little opposition. More than a millennium later, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan also brushed resistance aside.
Ghosts of Afghanistan: Hard Truths and Foreign Myths
Since Afghanistan emerged as a modern state, there have been three wars with Britain. The British invasion of 1839 produced initial victory for the intruders followed by stunning defeat followed by a second victory. In 1878, the British invaded again. Though they suffered a major defeat at Maiwand, their main army beat the Afghans. The British then re-drew the frontier of British India up to the Khyber Pass, and Afghanistan had to cede various frontier areas. In the Third Anglo-Afghan war, the fighting was launched by the Afghans. Amanullah Khan sent troops into British India in 1919. Within a month they were forced to retreat, in part because British planes bombed Kabul in one of the first displays of airpower in central Asia. The war ended in tactical victory for the British but their troop losses were twice those of the Afghans, suggesting the war was a strategic defeat. The British abandoned control of Afghan foreign policy at last.
The results of the three Anglo-Afghan wars undermine the claim that Afghans always defeat foreigners. What is true is that foreigners have always had a hard time occupying the country for long. The British came to understand that. From bitter experience they kept their interventions short, preferring domination over foreign affairs to the option of colonisation that they adopted in India.
2. The Soviet invasion led to a civil war and western aid for the Afghan resistance
Armed opposition to the government in Kabul long pre-dated the arrival of Soviet troops in December 1979. Every one of the Pakistan-based Afghan mujahideen leaders who became famous during the 1980s as the Peshawar Seven and were helped by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China had gone into exile and taken up arms before December 1979, many of them years earlier. As Islamists, they opposed the secular and modernising tendencies of Daoud Khan, [the Afghan PM] who toppled his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973.
Western backing for these rebels had also begun before Soviet troops arrived. It served western propaganda to say the Russians had no justification for entering Afghanistan in what the west called an aggressive land grab. In fact, US officials saw an advantage in the mujahedin rebellion which grew after a pro-Moscow government toppled Daoud in April 1978. In his memoirs, Robert Gates, then a CIA official and later defence secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama, recounts a staff meeting in March 1979 where CIA officials asked whether they should keep the mujahideen going, thereby "sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire". The meeting agreed to fund them to buy weapons.
3. The USSR suffered a massive military defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of the mujahideen
This is one of the most persistent myths of Afghan history. It has been trumpeted by every former mujahideen leader, from Osama bin Ladenand Taliban commanders to the warlords in the current Afghan government. It is also accepted unthinkingly as part of the western narrative of the war. Some western politicians go so far as to say that the alleged Soviet defeat in Afghanistan helped to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. On this they agree with Bin Laden and al-Qaida's other leaders, who claim they destroyed one superpower and are on their way to destroying another.
The reality is the Afghan mujahideen did not defeat the Soviets on the battlefield. They won some important encounters, notably in the Panjshir valley, but lost others. In sum, neither side defeated the other. The Soviets could have remained in Afghanistan for several more years but they decided to leave when Gorbachev calculated that the war had become a stalemate and was no longer worth the high price in men, money and international prestige. In private, US officials came to the same conclusion about Soviet strength, although they only admitted it publicly later. Morton Abramowitz, who directed the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time, said in 1997: "In 1985, there was a real concern that the [mujahideen] were losing, that they were sort of being diminished, falling apart. Losses were high and their impact on the Soviets was not great."
4. The CIA's supply of Stinger missiles to the mujahideen forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan
This myth of the 1980s was given new life by George Crile's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War and the 2007 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks as the loud-mouthed congressman from Texas. Both book and movie claim that Wilson turned the tide of the war by persuading Ronald Reagan to supply the mujahideen with shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down helicopters. The Stingers certainly forced a shift in Soviet tactics. Helicopter crews switched their operations to night raids since the mujahideen had no night-vision equipment. Pilots made bombing runs at greater height, thereby diminishing the accuracy of the attacks, but the rate of Soviet and Afghan aircraft losses did not change significantly from what it was in the first six years of the war.
The Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was made in October 1985, several months before Stinger missiles entered Afghanistan in significant quantities in the autumn of 1986. None of the secret Politburo discussions that have since been declassified mentioned the Stingers or any other shift in mujahideen equipment as the reason for the policy change from indefinite occupation to preparations for retreat.
5. After the Soviets withdrew, the west walked away
One of the most common promises western politicians made after they toppled the Taliban in 2001 was that "this time" the west would not walk away, "as we did after the Russians pulled out". Afghans were surprised to hear these promises. They remembered history in rather a different way. Far from forgetting about Afghanistan in February 1989, the US showed no let-up in its close involvement with the mujahideen. Washington blocked the Soviet-installed President Mohammad Najibullah's offers of concessions and negotiations and continued to arm the rebels and jihadis in the hope they would quickly overthrow his Moscow-backed regime.
This was one of the most damaging periods in recent Afghan history when the west and Pakistan, along with mujahideen intransigence, undermined the best chance of ending the country's civil war. The overall effect of these policies was to prolong and deepen Afghanistan's destruction, as Charles Cogan, CIA director of operations for the Middle East and south Asia, 1979–1984, later recognised. "I question whether we should have continued on this momentum, this inertia of aiding the mujahideen after the Soviets had left. I think that was probably, in retrospect, a mistake," he said.
6. The mujahideen overthrew Kabul's regime and won a major victory over Moscow
The key factor that undermined Najibullah was an announcement made in Moscow in September 1991, shortly after a coup mounted against Gorbachev by Soviet hard-liners collapsed. His longtime rival, Boris Yeltsin, who headed the Russian government, emerged in a dominant position. Yeltsin was determined to cut back on the country's international commitments and his government announced that from 1 January 1992, no more arms would be delivered to Kabul. Supplies of petrol, food and all other aid would also cease.
The decision was catastrophic for the morale of Najibullah's supporters. The regime had survived the departure of Soviet troops for more than two years but now would truly be alone. So, in one of the great ironies of history, it was Moscow that toppled the Afghan government that Moscow had sacrificed so many lives to keep in place.
The dramatic policy switch became evident when Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of one of the mujahideen groups, was invited to Moscow in November 1991. In a statement after the meeting, Boris Pankin, the Soviet foreign minister, "confirmed the necessity for a complete transfer of state power to an interim Islamic government". In today's context, the announcement could be compared to an invitation by Hillary Clinton to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to come to Washington and a declaration the US wanted power transferred from Karzai to the Taliban.
The move led to a wave of defections as several of Najibullah's army commanders and political allies switched sides and joined the mujahideen. Najibullah's army was not defeated. It just melted away.
7. The Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven
Osama bin Laden got to know the mujahideen leaders during the anti-Soviet jihad after traveling to Peshawar in 1980. Two years later, his construction company built tunnels in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan that the CIA helped him to finance and which he was later to use to escape US bombing after 9/11.
He returned to Saudi Arabia, disillusioned with the Saudi royal family for collaborating with the US in the Gulf war against Saddam Hussein in 1990–1991. In Afghanistan, there was cause for disappointment too. The mujahideen's incompetence was preventing them from toppling Najibullah. Bin Laden turned his attention to jihad against the west and moved to Sudan in 1992. After Sudan came under pressure to deport him in 1996, Bin Laden had to find somewhere else to live. Najibullah had finally lost power in Afghanistan, and Bin Laden decided it might be the best place after all.
His return in May 1996 was prompted less by a revival of interest in Afghan politics than by his need for a safe haven. His return was sponsored by the mujahideen leaders with whom he had become friendly during the anti-Soviet struggle. He flew to Jalalabad on a plane chartered by Rabbani's government that also carried scores of Arab fighters.
It was only after the Taliban captured Jalalabad from the mujahideen that he was obliged to switch his allegiance or leave Afghanistan again. He chose the first option.
8. The Taliban were by far the worst government Afghanistan has ever had
A year after the Taliban seized power, I interviewed UN staff, foreign aid workers and Afghans in Kabul. The Taliban had softened their ban on girls' education and were turning a blind eye to the expansion of informal "home schools" in which thousands of girls were being taught in private flats. The medical faculty was about to re-open for women to teach midwives, nurses, and doctors since women patients could not be treated by men. The ban on women working outside the home was also lifted for war widows and other needy women.
Afghans recalled the first curbs on liberty were imposed by the mujahideen before the Taliban. From 1992, cinemas were closed and TV films were shortened so as to remove any scene in which women and men walked or talked together, let alone touched each other. Women announcers were banned from TV.
The burqa was not compulsory, as it was to become under the Taliban, but all women had to wear the head-scarf, or hijab, unlike in the years of Soviet occupation and the Najibullah regime that followed. The mujahideen refused to allow women to attend the UN's fourth world conference on women in Beijing in 1995. Crime was met with the harshest punishment. A wooden gallows was erected in a park near the main bazaar in Kabul where convicts were hanged in public. Above all, Afghans liked the security provided by the Taliban in contrast to the chaos between 1992 and 1996 when mujahideen groups fought over the capital, launching shells and rockets indiscriminately. Some 50,000 Kabulis were killed.
9. The Taliban are uniquely harsh oppressors of Afghan women
Afghanistan has a long history of honour killings and honour mutilation, going back before the Taliban period and continuing until today. They occur in every part of the country and are not confined to the culture of the Pashtun, the ethnic group from which most Taliban come.
Women are brutalised by a tribal custom for settling disputes known asbaad, which treats young girls as voiceless commodities. They are offered in compensation to another family, often to an elderly man, for unpaid debts or if a member of that family has been killed by a relative of the girl.
On the wider issue of gender rights, the Taliban are rightly accused of relegating Afghan women to second-class citizenship. But to single the Taliban out as uniquely oppressive is not accurate. Violence against women has a long pedigree in all communities in Afghanistan, among the Shia Hazara and the northern Tajiks, as well as the Sunni Pashtun.
Underage marriage is common across Afghanistan, and among all ethnic groups. According to Unifem (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) and the Afghan independent human rights commission, 57% of Afghan marriages are child marriages – where one partner is under the age of 16. In a study of 200 underage wives, 40% had been married between the ages of 10 and 13, 32.5% at 14, and 27.5% at 15. In many communities, women are banned from leaving the house or family compound. This leads to a host of other disabilities. Women are not allowed to take jobs. Girls are prevented from going to school. In the minds of western politicians and the media, these prohibitions are often associated exclusively with the Taliban. Yet the forced isolation of women by keeping them confined is a deep-seated part of Afghan rural culture. It is also found in poorer parts of the major cities.
10. The Taliban have little popular support
In 2009, Britain's Department for International Development commissioned an Afghan NGO to conduct surveys on how people compared the Taliban to the Afghan government. The results suggested Nato's campaign to demonise the Taliban was no more effective than the Soviet effort to demonise the mujahedin.
One survey reported on Helmandis' attitudes to justice systems. More than half the male respondents called the Taliban "completely trustworthy and fair". The Taliban took money through taxes on farm crops and road tolls but did not demand bribes. According to the survey, "Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviours they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners)."
Does the US understand why Afghans join the Taliban? Do Afghans understand why the US is in their country? Without clear answers, no counter-insurgency strategy can succeed. A 2009 survey commissioned by DFID in three key provinces asked what led people to join the Taliban. Out of 192 who responded, only 10 supported the government. The rest saw it as corrupt and partisan. Most supported the Taliban, at least what they called the "good Taliban", defined as those who showed religious piety, attacked foreign forces but not Afghans and delivered justice quickly and fairly. They did not like Pakistani Taliban and Taliban linked to narcotics. Afghans did not like al-Qaida, but did not equate the Taliban with this Arab-led movement.