By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed
Meri Akhaari Jang: Afghanistan, Soviet Affuaaj kay Inkhala kay Baad (My Last War: Afghanistan after the exit of the Soviet Armed Forces from Afghanistan) Translated by: Dr Najam ul Sahar Butt Author: Makhmut Akhmetovich Gareyev Review by: Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed Published by: Jamhoori Publications 2015; Pgs: 127
The translation of this important book, written by a general of the Soviet Red Army, must be celebrated as a most important contribution by Dr Najam ul Sahar Butt. He has previously translated Russian literature and now a book of vital historical significance has been made available to Pakistani readers.
General Makhmut Akhmetovich Gareyev, who is of Tatar Sunni extraction, is a decorated veteran of the former Soviet Red Army. His long career in the army began in 1941 when as a young lieutenant he fought in World War II, escaping death by mere good luck. He was also the author of several books, holding a PhD in history and military science. He saw active service in World War II, escaping death during a pitched battle in 1943. Thereafter began a long career as an army officer. The present book under review focuses on the events from the time when he arrived in Kabul in 1989 as an adviser to President Mohammad Najibullah (1986 to 1992). He remained in Kabul in that capacity till 1991. By that time, the Soviet army had withdrawn from Afghanistan and only a few military advisers remained to help Najibullah. Gareyev was chosen to lead those advisers.
However, the book also takes up the overall Afghan conflict. We get a candid and balanced evaluation of what started taking shape after Muhammad Daud overthrew King Zahir Shah in July 1973 in a bloodless coup. Daud in turn was overthrown by the Afghan Communists in April 1978, only to be followed later by the Soviet Union sending troops to Afghanistan to help the beleaguered Communist regime in December 1979.
We learn that an oppositional Islamist movement had been evolving from the late 1960s. It intensified in 1975 when big demonstrations took place against Daud who was perceived as being pro-Soviet. Armed conflict followed and the Islamist leaders shifted to Pakistan where they began to be trained by the Pakistani security forces. Although the author does not go into the reasons for Pakistan’s involvement, in my own book, Pakistan: the Garrison State, I mention that Daud had revived the Pakhtunistan issue much to the chagrin of the Pakistan government, which at that time was headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In fact the legendary Colonel Imam told me that in 1973 he had been sent to the US to receive training in armed insurgency with a view to helping the Islamic opposition.
From Gareyev we learn that in 1976 political parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami Afghanistan and Majlis-e-Islamia Afghanistan were founded in Pakistan. Daud was overthrown in April 1978 by the Afghan Communists who had a strong presence in the Afghanistan armed forces. He describes the coup as a military one and not a popular people’s revolution. He is very candid in critiquing the coup because the objective conditions for carrying out radical reforms and ushering in socialism did not exist at all. Consequently, in the name of class war the land reforms and social reforms liberating women and other progressive changes did not rouse popular enthusiasm. On the contrary, the Islamist opposition’s campaign to portray them as un-Islamic and atheistic was successful. The author remarks that Afghan society has historically been known for rejecting intervention and reforms from the central government.
In principle Gareyev takes a stand against foreign powers intervening in the internal conflicts of countries and advises non-intervention to become a standard practice in international affairs. Nevertheless, he reiterates throughout his book that the Soviet Union could not have remained indifferent to political developments on its southern border in Afghanistan. He mentions that the decision to send troops to Afghanistan was debated by the leadership and there was hesitation to commit Soviet troops to that conflict but, given its close proximity, the view finally prevailed to send troops. The US-supported Afghan opposition in Pakistan was constantly interfering in Afghan affairs and supporting the insurgency against the Afghan Communists.
More interestingly, Gareyev deplores the attitude of the Soviet and Russian leadership, at that time headed by Mikhail Gorbachev, for not doing enough to support President Najibullah once the decision to withdraw had been taken. Thus, while the west and its allies, and of course Pakistan, continued to arm the opposition, the Soviet Union did not. That created an imbalance that greatly weakened Najibullah who, at that time, was working towards a modern government including one that gave representation to moderate Islamic forces. Gareyev remained constantly in touch with the Afghan president and did his best to advise him on how to make his troops more effective. The Afghan military, although demoralised and suffering from desertions, was by no means a spent force. It was sufficiently well-equipped and could have continued fighting until more favourable conditions would have been created for Najibullah to negotiate a peaceful transition to a government representing a broad spectrum of Afghan society. On the contrary he was displaced and brutally lynched to death in 1996 after being captured from the UN office in Kabul where he had taken refuge after being ousted from power.
Gareyev calls into question whether the Soviet Union was ever an empire. He argues that even the Czarist Empire never interfered with the culture and rights of its constituent nationalities while the Soviet Union provided equal rights to all those nationalities and regions that became part of the Soviet Union. He does admit some harsh military actions taken by the Soviet Union against breakaway attempts in different parts of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc but rejects that the Soviet Union ever acted as an imperial power comparable to the British or French empires that clearly drew a line between the colonisers and the subject people.
Given the huge amount of literature on the Afghan conflict coming from the west, this translation into Urdu of a book written by a leading authority from Russia is a most valuable addition to that genre of literature.
(The reviewer is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: email@example.com)
The Daily Times, April 28, 2015