WITH THE 30TH anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan approaching, the question retains its fascination: Why did the Russians do it? The misguided Afghan War sounded the death knell of the Soviet empire. How could they have been so stupid?
With the United States several years into its own Afghan War, the question possesses more than academic interest. However wrapped in irony and paradox, history is offering us instruction that we ignore at our peril.
When it came to divining the motive behind that Soviet invasion, Richard Pipes, the Harvard historian and Russian expert, expressed considerable certainty. As he told the New York Times in early 1980, the incursion into Afghanistan showed that the Soviets were on the march. "Russians do not seize territories that have no strategic importance," Pipes announced.
Afghanistan has no natural
resources of importance, and the
risk of antagonizing the West is very
high for a bit of mountainous territory
with a primitive economy, with
a population that has never been
subdued by any colonial power.
To run all these risks for the sake of
occupying this territory makes
little sense--unless you have some
ultimate, higher strategic objectives.
Pipes and others believed the ultimate Soviet objective was to seize control of Persian Gulf oil, something they insisted the United States prevent. President Jimmy Carter heeded that demand. In what became enshrined as the Carter Doctrine, he declared that attempts "by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf" would constitute "an assault on the vital interests of the United States," to be "repelled by any means necessary." Everyone understood "outside force" to be a thinly veiled reference to the Soviet Union.
Yet in reality, the Kremlin had no intention of using Afghanistan as a jumping-off point for a grand offensive across Iran and Iraq to the oil El Dorado of Saudi Arabia. Nor did the Soviet legions possess the capability of doing so. Pipes got it wrong. According to their own lights, the Soviets had entered Afghanistan for defensive purposes--to prevent this remote outpost of communism from slipping out of the Soviet orbit.
Allow the Afghans to go their own way, and other Soviet satellites might follow--or so the Kremlin feared. To preserve their empire, therefore, Soviet leaders embarked upon what became a costly, open-ended war, oblivious to the fact that the real threats to their empire were internal: the Soviet economy had stagnated, and the Soviet system was fast losing its legitimacy. The Kremlin's stubborn insistence on keeping a grip on Afghanistan served only to hasten the empire's demise--a process helped along when the U.S. and its allies famously funneled arms and money to Afghan "freedom fighters" resisting Soviet occupation.
Meanwhile, the force that actually threatened the Persian Gulf appeared not outside but inside: Saddam Hussein's Iraq. During the 1980s, Washington had forged a marriage of convenience with Saddam, supporting his war of aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, President George H.W. Bush called the marriage off and thereafter denied its existence. The Carter Doctrine underwent a subtle transformation: preventing outsiders from dominating the Gulf no longer sufficed; defending the Gulf now required that the United States establish itself in a position of unquestioned primacy. The Gulf War began the effort, still ongoing, to incorporate the Persian Gulf more directly into the American empire.
That effort offended the sensibilities of some Muslims and provoked considerable resistance. American officials spent the next decade fixating on Saddam, said to be the source of all the woes afflicting that part of the world. In the meantime, a more genuinely dangerous adversary was gravitating to Afghanistan, of all places. …