I have a little quirk: wherever I travel, I try to get a copy of a local history textbook. So the other day, I opened my copy of a Polish history manual, currently in use in Polish schools, and in the chapter about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan read:

“In December 1979 the Soviet Army marched into Afghanistan, removing Hafizullah Amin, who was trying to take a political course independent of Moscow. His place was taken by Babrak Karmal, who was much more friendly towards the Soviet Union”

And it goes on:

“Gradually the United States began to be more engaged in the conflict, supporting the partisans financially and militarily … in arming the radical Afghan Islamic fighters – the mujahdeen, the US spent 3.5 billion dollars”.

It is a well known story, and nobody has ever tried to deny it. People often tend to think that history, the “science” of the past, is monolithic and unequivocal, because the past and the truth are there for everybody to see, only waiting to be discovered, real and objective for all. It is a myth about history that students of history and historians are more than willing to feed: who does not like to feel good about himself and his trade, after all? But history as is told is, more often than not, a matter of narratives, a sort of morality play with some good elements of drama, rather than pure “archaeological” scientific findings: a good story with an overarching narrative and a moral message is much more meaningful and gripping than a simple list of dates and events, and that is what generally the “good” historian is aiming for.

Not that I would have expected the Poles to express a friendly view on the actions of the Soviet Union, and they might have their good reasons for it. But the Polish history manual conveniently leaves out a couple of important details which would seriously undermine the narrative of an aggressive Soviet Union invading Afghanistan because … well, just because they wanted to and because that’s what the Russians do all the time after all.

There was a widespread international display of outrage at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States went as far as boycotting the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. President Carter had been on the surface pursuing a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, signing a nuclear arms reduction treaty, but Afghanistan changed everything. And just en passant, fast forward 30 years later: reset with Russia, triumphant talk of nuclear arms reduction, then the Russians invade yet another country … doesn’t this all sound incredibly familiar?

With hindsight, there was however very little reason for the US to be shocked and outraged at what the Soviets had done in Afghanistan. In fact, by intervening in Afghanistan, the Soviets did exactly what the United States had wanted them to do. When you take this into consideration, the whole circus of the display of outrage at the breach of international law seems to be just another carefully staged show.

To begin with, Hafizullah Amin, the Afghan President who the Soviets killed in ambush on his Presidential palace three days after the invasion, had become President only 3 three months earlier, in a coup that saw his predecessor Nur Muhammad Taraki killed. Both Taraki and Amin had been key figures in the Saur Revolution, which had taken place in April 1978 and saw the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a secularist and Soviet friendly party, coming to power. The new regime, however, did not have it easy and its secular policies remained deeply unpopular among a largely Muslim population, provoking much unrest and instability, especially in the countryside.

Afghan “freedom fighters”, with God (and the CIA) on their side

In February 1979, the same day Islamic students began their assault on the US embassy in Teheran, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped by men who according to some accounts were wearing Afghan police uniforms and subsequently killed in a botched liberation attempt later the same day. It is alleged that kidnappers had demanded from the Afghan Democratic Party the liberation of some religious prisoner. With the country becoming more and more ungovernable, President Taraki repeatedly asked the Soviets to intervene. While Soviet advisers and the KGB were already operating side-by-side with the Afghan government, Brezhnev said no to a larger commitment of Soviet forces.

On July 3, 1979, six months before the coming Soviet invasion in December, President Carter, at the advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, his National Security Adviser, authorized the CIA to provide the Afghan rebels resisting the Afghan government non-lethal aid. The initial investment was just of $ 500,000, mainly for propaganda and psychological operation, medicals supplies and cash. By this time, Brzezinski felt sure that the Soviets would come to support the Afghan “communist” government. The small amount of the initial aid was motivated by geopolitical concerns too. On the one hand, Brzezinski had plans for Afghanistan to become a sort of Soviet Vietnam, on the other one the US was afraid that if the Soviet Union came to control Afghanistan, they would gain an edge over the whole Persian Gulf. “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would”, Brzezinski would later comment.

When the Soviet Army invaded for real, the American attitude became more ambivalent. “We should not be too sanguine about Afghanistan becoming a Soviet Vietnam … The Soviets are likely to act decisively, unlike the U.S.”, Brzezinski wrote in a classified memo. Later, he showed little qualms about having helped Islamic fighters that later formed the base of the Taleban and Al-Qaeda. “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taleban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” he asked, unrepentant. “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?” These words may come across as astonishingly cynical, but victory in the game of grand politics may come at a very high prize sometimes. The forces of good and freedom may have to work with the devil if they want to prevail. None of this is likely to be found in your typical school history manual, however. Let the high and pure ideals of the young not be confronted too early with the dirty realities of the schemes of big power politics.