- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003


by Angelo Rasanayagam

I.B. Tauris, $29.95, 301 pages.

Few people are as uniquely qualified as Angelo Rasanayagam to write about Central Asia. A career official of the United Nations, he was chief of mission for the United Nations. in Iran and later became director of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Peshawar, Pakistan. This last position put him into direct contact with the millions of refugees who had been forced to flee their homes and with the multiple relief organizations that had come to their aid.

In “Afghanistan: A Modern History,” written since retirement ,Mr. Rasanayagam uses the knowledge thus gained to present to the reader a fully detailed account of Afghanistan’s fall into communism, and the chaos and eventual theocratic dictatorship that resulted from it.

Because of a one-time prime minister’s fixation on the creation of Pashtunistan, an entity designed to unite the Pushtu speakers of Afghanistan, a majority of the population, with those Pushtu speakers of northern Pakistan, Afghanistan managed to antagonize Pakistan and with it its then military ally, the United States. The Soviets, seeing an opportunity, offered military and economic aid to the cash-strapped Afghans, and also military training to members of its ragtag army. Scholarships were also offered to civilian youth.

Returnees brought back with them not only the skills they had been taught, but also a dependence on Soviet thought and methods. They also had a great urge to modernize, which brought them into conflict with the bulk of the population’s resistance to change. The uneducated majority was content to govern themselves through their qawms, or local councils, and viewed all mandates from the capital as intrusions in their affairs. In particular, they insisted on the strict separation of the sexes, with the women wearing the chador.

The new communist government that emerged began a series of reforms that seemed desirable but were implemented so clumsily that agricultural production plummeted and local resistance developed. The clerics or mullahs were often the leaders in revolt since their land fiefdoms were threatened. The staunchly anti-communist Pakistan government and its religious institutions aided resistance. The Afghan government, seeing its control of the country slipping away appealed more and more for Soviet aid.

The author quotes Soviet transcripts, not detailed in footnotes unfortunately, on the debate that raged within the Kremlin on whether in addition to armaments, Soviet troops should be sent to Afghanistan. There was a good deal of opposition, but finally in response to repeated Afghan pleas and the dread of losing a communist state Soviet troops were committed.

To counter this blatant act of aggression, the United States began assisting the insurgents and was soon followed by Saudi Arabia. The sums involved were massive. The author tells us that military aid alone grew from $30 million in 1981 to $280 million in 1985, with the Saudis matching every dollar. Refugee flow was equally enormous, amounting to more than 5 million people and hundreds of millions of dollars.

These vast sums of money adrift in an impoverished population were bound to have a degrading influence on the country. Poppies became a dominant agricultural crop, and as arms flowed in, drugs using the same trucks flowed out.

After losing 15,000 killed and hundreds of millions of dollars, the Soviets cut their losses and left; control was abandoned to local warlords who usually divided on ethnic lines. Crime, greed and stupidity flourished. Finally, into this sea of chaos the Taliban arrived. They were successful in disarming the Pushtoun warlords, the author writes, because “they were perceived as outsiders, motivated by religion and not identified with any particular tribal affiliation.” But their rule proved disastrous.

People starved. Schools ceased operating because most of the elementary school teachers had been women, and health services disintegrated for the same reason. The Taliban leaders seemed more concerned with matters such as the proper length of a man’s beard than the distribution of food to the starving.

Although the author includes a summary of American victories in Afghanistan and the installation of a new Afghan government, his account of the current scene is rather skimpy. He complains, for example, that the donor nations are slow in meeting their commitments; but this is fairly normal and does not signify much. From the evidence he presents, we know Afghanistan will not become a highly centralized state. The question, however, of whether a functioning democratic government can now be implanted is not sufficiently addressed. Nevertheless, this is a valuable reference on communism in Afghanistan and its aftermath.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.

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