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Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives

An insight into Soviet thought during the invasion of Afghanistan.

Order "Lenin's Brain" here.

Takeaways


  • Afghanistan was lost and that there was nothing the Soviet Union could do to stop it. The USSR's reputation would be damaged and its influence in the region lost.
  • On February 1, 1989, the last Soviet troops were withdrawn, but the civil war continued and, in fact, never ended.
  • The major talking points were distributed to forty-six "communist and workers parties of non-socialist parties" in a memo entitled, "About the propagandistic coverage of our actions in relation to Afghanistan."
  • "You should not act as the accused but as the accuser. I think there are enough facts for this position. Therefore it is extremely important not to defend but to attack."
  • "The change of leadership in Afghanistan is a purely internal matter. No one has the right to tell Afghanistan what to do or how to act."

The Politburo faced an uphill public relations battle after the invasion of Afghanistan. Its official story was full of holes. Its troops and special forces had somehow been invited to assist the Afghanistan revolution by puppet leaders appointed only after the coup.

Amin was supposedly condemned to death by a fictitious Afghanistan Revolutionary Council. Radio announcements of these events had originated from within the Soviet Union, not from Kabul.

The Soviet propaganda machine sprang into full gear. The major talking points were distributed to 46 “communist and workers parties of non-socialist parties” in a memo entitled, “About the propagandistic coverage of our actions in relation to Afghanistan.”

These friendly communist and socialist parties were given six points:

1. The Soviet Union sent troops at the request of the Afghanistan leadership.

2. The Afghanistan government requested Soviet assistance only for their battle against foreign aggression.

3. Foreign aggression threatens the Afghan revolution and its sovereignty and independence.

4. The request for assistance came from a sovereign Afghan government to another sovereign Soviet government.

5. The naming of the new leadership of Afghanistan was an internal matter decided by its own Revolutionary Council.

6. The Soviet Union had nothing to do with the change in government, which was exclusively an internal matter.

Although some of these points defied credibility, they were nevertheless supplied for the public discourse.

An even more urgent need was to coach the new Afghan government on how to conduct diplomacy.

Already on January 4, 1980, the wily Andrei Gromyko, long the face of Soviet diplomacy, instructed the new Afghan foreign minister (Dost) on how to present the case to the Security Council of the United Nations.

The “Memo of the basic points of a conversation of Gromyko with foreign minister Dost. January 4, 1980” comprises a monolog by Gromyko, rather than a “conversation” between him and Dost:

“GROMYKO: I want to share with you, Comrade Minister, some thoughts about the U.N. Security Council and your forthcoming remarks. Of course, these ideas are not final, but they reflect the views of our country about the events in Afghanistan and its vicinity.

“First. Western powers, particularly the United States, have launched hostile propaganda against the Soviet Union and against revolutionary Afghanistan. Imperialism has decided to ‘blow off steam.’

“Second. With respect to the tone of your presentation at the Security Council, you should not act as the accused but as the accuser. I think there are enough facts for this position. Therefore it is extremely important not to defend but to attack.

“Third. It is essential to emphasize that the introduction of the limited military contingent in Afghanistan was done by the Soviet Union in response to numerous requests of the government of Afghanistan. These requests were made earlier by Taraki when he was in Moscow and by Amin.

“Carter wants to create the impression that the Soviet Union received this request only from the new government of Afghanistan, but you can decisively refute this notion using exact dates and details.

“Fourth. You must clearly emphasize that the limited Soviet contingent was introduced to Afghanistan only to assist against unceasingly aggressive forces, particularly from Pakistan, where refugee camps have been converted by the forces of the United States, other Western countries and China into staging areas for foreign fighters.

“Fifth. The change of leadership in Afghanistan is a purely internal matter. No one has the right to tell Afghanistan what to do or how to act.”

Dost’s role in this conversation was to listen and then to thank Gromyko for his time and remarks.

Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in March of 1985. He inherited a war that had become a Vietnam-like quagmire. From its earliest days of power, the Gorbachev team, led by foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, concluded that the Soviet Union must find a face-saving way out of Afghanistan.

The ineffective Babrak Karmal was replaced by the former chief of the Afghan secret police, Mohammad Najibullah, who also was unable to negotiate a national reconciliation. In 1988, the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement known as the Geneva Accords, which called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops with a United Nations’ special mission to oversee the agreement.

On February 1, 1989, the last Soviet troops were withdrawn, but the civil war continued and, in fact, never ended. By 1996, the Taliban had gained control of most of Afghanistan, although hostilities continued, and they ruled from 1996 until their ouster in 2001.

The Soviet withdrawal represented one of the low points in Soviet history. One of the last documents in the Central Committee files is a position paper prepared by Shevardnadze and five other Politburo members on January 33, 1989, three weeks before the departure of the last contingent of Soviet troops.

The downbeat memo confirms the tense situation in Afghanistan as both sides awaited the February 15 deadline:

“The government is holding its positions but only due to the assistance of Soviet troops, and all understand that the main battle lies ahead. The opposition has even reduced its activities, saving its strength for the next period.

“Comrade Najibullah thinks that they are prepared to move after the withdrawal. Our Afghan comrades are seriously concerned as to what will happen.

“They express their understanding of the decision to withdraw troops but soberly think they cannot manage without our troops. The current situation raises for us a number of complicated issues.

“On the one hand, if we renege on our decision to withdraw troops by February 1, there would be extremely undesirable complications on the international front. On the other hand, there is no certainty that after our withdrawal there will not be an extremely serious threat to a regime which the entire world associates with us.

“Moreover, the opposition can at any time begin to coordinate its activities, which is what American and Pakistan military circles are pushing for. There is also a danger that there is no true unity in the Afghanistan party, which is split into factions and clans.”

The memo concludes that the Afghan government can hold Kabul and other cities, but expresses concern that a siege could starve out these cities. Soviet troops would be needed to keep supply lines open, but there is no way, under existing agreements, to keep them in the country.

In effect, the Gorbachev government was conceding that Afghanistan was lost and that there was nothing the Soviet Union could do to stop it. The USSR’s reputation would be damaged and its influence in the region lost.

Gorbachev’s decision not to further prop up foreign communist regimes eventually became the Gorbachev Doctrine of non-intervention in Eastern Europe and East Germany.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from Paul R. Gregory’s book, “Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives” (Hoover Institution Press, 2008). Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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