Once upon a time, in the 1990s, I was going to write the ‘autobiography’ of an Italian man who was a ‘sleeper agent’ for the USSR. We chatted in Ashkabad, London, Pantelleria, Rome and various other Italian cities.
The ‘autobiography’ fell through because of various complicated reasons. Now he is dead. Here is an extract from what he told me… Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
In December 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and I was on the Russian/Afghan border.
The attack on Afghanistan was totally stupid. No reason for it. And, in Afghanistan, the Russians did something much worse than the Americans ever did in Vietnam. The Americans committed their My Lai massacres, but they were not part of an official policy; with the Russians, it was a planned military strategy.
I was told this story by a Ukrainian friend….
He spoke the local Afghan languages fluently and was employed by the Soviet government as an agent in Afghanistan just before and during their war there. My friend told me the Soviets extensively employed Central Asians and Caucasian Muslims – mainly Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks and Turkmen – whom they equipped with sophisticated personal weapons and sent into Afghanistan to act as killing squads, acting freely and independent of the Soviet and Afghan government armies. They belonged to the worst segments of Soviet society and one of the first things they did was to play a double game, make contact with the Afghan rebels and sell them weapons. Later, they became bandits inside Afghanistan, which is what they had been in their home countries.
My friend was once travelling from Herat in north west Afghanistan across the border to the town of Mary in Turkmenistan and he was robbed by one of these bands. They took his Kalashnikovs and jeep and everything else and he had to walk most of the way.
I was occasionally inside Afghanistan myself during the war and what I saw was complete anarchy. Being a closed Soviet war, there was none of the press cover, dialectics and moral niceties of the American war in Vietnam. It was simply a criminal action run by the criminals who by now ran the Soviet Union and they were fighting utter barbarians – The Afghans are nothing less than that.
We could go into complicated sociological analysis, but we wouldn’t get very far. The problem with true colonial wars is that your enemies really are savages and it is better not to be caught because they will cut you to pieces. When the Italians were famously defeated by the Ethiopians at Adwa in 1896, all 2,000 Italian prisoners were sent back castrated. In Afghanistan, some Russians were skinned alive.
The fact is that, in Afghanistan, everybody killed each other just for the sheer excitement of it and neither side was fighting for any principle. You could buy anything and everything across the border in Pakistan because the Russian soldiers were prepared to sell anything. Both the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam lost their war and one reason is that they were racist. Every army, for psychological reasons, has to look on the enemy as inferiors. But the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan looked on their own local allies as inferiors; that is a recipe for total disaster.
As far as I understand it, the South Vietnamese Army was not a rotten, corrupt mess. It started out being efficient and had well-motivated, committed soldiers; many were massacred because of their commitment after the North Vietnamese won. But the Americans showed contempt for their South Vietnamese allies just as the Russians despised their Afghan allies – as they did all Central Asians. You cannot win if you despise your own side.
An imperial power can win a war in a Third World country provided its immense economic and military resources are channelled towards at least one section of the population and you treat them as your equals. If you don’t, you will lose. When the British fought an open war against guerrilla insurgents in Malaya – and their secret war in Oman 1967-1975 – they never underestimated their allies. They never despised the local population and they succeeded because they used their energy very selectively by reinforcing segments of the country which would eventually unify the state.
Historically, the British seldom underestimated the people they conquered, but they stayed very aloof. In India, they kept themselves apart from the Indians, they socialised in their own clubs and took elite, controlling jobs for themselves. The Russians, on the other hand, sent settlers into all their colonies and they permeated every layer of society doing even menial jobs. When the time came to leave India, the British could virtually walk to the boats and leave en masse; very few stayed and most of those were in good consultancy and supervisory roles. The Russians ended up poor, isolated from their homeland, trapped into staying doing menial jobs, being mechanics and driving taxis in their former colonies.
Yet people who lived under the British Empire tended not to dislike the Brits. Whereas people who lived under Soviet domination did hate the Russians. I don’t know the reason for that, but perhaps it was because the Russians, like the Turks of the Ottoman Empire before them, were not so visibly superior to the peoples they conquered. The British – although they did not rub the conquered people’s noses in it – had a far more visible superiority to the nations they conquered – in technology, finance, social structure and military power. It was, perhaps, more acceptable to be ruled by the British than by the less-wealthy and less-organised Russians or Turks. The Russians are also disliked in their former colonies because they were very violent towards the locals.
The Americans failed in Vietnam despite their immense military power because they had a superiority complex and, ironically, the direct result was that they lost badly to a more lightly equipped guerrilla army. The Russians were beaten out of Afghanistan for much the same reason and in much the same way and now the fundamentalist Taliban have taken over, backed by the appalling Pakistan government. The end result of both wars was the worst of all worlds for the defeated Russians and the defeated Americans.
The Americans should have learned their most basic lesson in World War Two at Monte Cassino, where other countries fought on their behalf. They are a great industrial nation and, so long as they use their factories, workers and capital, they can win any war. But they must never get involved in fighting an actual war themselves. They were not at Monte Cassino because they got themselves bogged down fighting at Anzio.
Hollywood provides perfectly suitable substitutes for Americans who want to fight wars but with none of the attendant dangers you encounter in real ones. In 1975, with the disaster of Vietnam upon them, the Americans partly learned this lesson and soon afterwards combined their two great strengths. Having got out of the War, they elected a Hollywood actor (Ronald Reagan) as President and then, by running a military and industrial race and evoking the name of a movie, Star Wars, they rapidly defeated the Russians.