To the Editor:
In “A New Soviet Strategy” [October], Francis Fukuyama misrepresents an article of mine in the Washington Post (May 13, 1979) analyzing the background of the Communist coup in Afghanistan and the policy options now confronting the United States in South Asia.
If I may briefly summarize what I elaborated in 3,000 words, my article made the following major points (the quotations are from the article):
- The Kabul coup “came about when it did, and in the way that it did” as the tragic culmination of a cycle of challenge and response set in motion by the Shah with U.S. encouragement. Throughout the cold war, Moscow had given little encouragement to the Afghan Communists, supporting a succession of conservative Kabul regimes so long as they pursued a Soviet-tilted brand of neutralism. Moscow began to change this policy only after the Shah sought to draw the Daud regime into a Western-tilted, Teheran-centered, regional economic and security sphere beginning in 1974. As Daud moved increasingly to the Right in his foreign and domestic policies, Moscow reacted by taking a new interest in Afghan Communist affairs. The Communists were just beginning to build a unified organization with Soviet help when Daud staged his unsuccessful preemptive strike against the party in April 1978, ordering the assassination of a key Communist trade unionist and the mass arrest of other party leaders. It was Daud who provoked the showdown struggle in which the Communists seized power.
- Evidence available to date indicates that the coup was a hastily improvised, eleventh-hour affair, and “it is misleading, therefore, to depict it as a deliberate Soviet gambit in the global strategic chess game.” At the same time, given the extent of the Soviet military and intelligence presence in Kabul, it is difficult to believe that there was no Russian involvement. The unusually effective precision bombing of key targets during the critical moments of the fighting strongly suggested the use of Soviet pilots. “Eventually, Moscow would no doubt have tried to put the Communists into power in one way or another, given the political vacuum that Daud had created by abolishing the monarchy and failing to replace it with another viable system. As it happened, however, events forced the Communists to stage their coup long before they were organizationally prepared to govern the country.”
- Although Moscow’s client regime is narrowly based, one should bear in mind that the Islamic rebels opposing it also have serious weaknesses. Divided by ethnic, sectarian, and personality conflicts, they do not command a degree of popular allegiance comparable to that enjoyed by the Khomeini forces in their struggle against the Shah. Afghanistan is in for “a protracted, slow-burning civil war in which the outcome may not be clear for some time.”
- Faced with such an uncertain prospect, the United States would be wise to maintain a hands-off policy, “seeking to keep the onus on Moscow for any expansion of hostilities between Kabul and its neighbors.” Pressures for U.S. help are likely to grow, but American involvement would be risky because Moscow might feel compelled to retaliate, unleashing guerrillas of its own in politically vulnerable border areas of Pakistan and Iran as a means of relieving pressure on Kabul. Pro-Kabul and Pushtun tribal separatists are increasingly active in these border areas. Soviet ideologists have long emphasized that the Baluch and Pushtuns are separate nationalities and have given intermittent support to the separatist cause. But Moscow has downplayed separatism in recent years as part of its larger effort to offset Chinese influence in Islamabad and Teheran. It is not inevitable that Moscow will invite the risks of a Balkanization strategy, and in any case, pro-Kabul elements are not yet dominant in Baluch and Pushtun politics. Pakistan and Iran still have time to build up their anti-Soviet defenses by coming to terms with Baluch and Pushtun moderates on constitutional and economic issues.
According to Mr. Fukuyama’s paraphrased version, I said that Moscow had “a right to install a pro-Communist regime in Kabul,” while treating Afghanistan as beyond “our own sphere of legitimate action.” As the above indicates, however, he has put words in my mouth. My article did not discuss our competition with the Soviet Union in terms of what is legitimate, but rather in terms of what is effective. Thus, I showed that it was counterproductive for Daud and the Shah to have polarized the power struggle in Kabul, however legitimate it might have been, and that the Soviet response to their pressures, however deplorable, was not only eminently predictable but had, in fact, been explicitly anticipated by the British Ambassador. By the same token, my primary reason for advising against Western support for the anti-Kabul rebels now is that this might make an already bad situation considerably worse by exposing politically spongy border areas of Pakistan and Iran to potentially damaging Soviet countermoves.
Mr. Fukuyama disregards the complex regional realities that I emphasize, and the few brief references to the domestic dynamics of Afghanistan that he does make reveal astonishing ignorance. Referring to Daud’s right-wing, feudally-based autocracy, he informs us that it was typical of “left-wing nationalist regimes” in the Third World. Yet the point of departure for an informed discussion of recent events in Kabul is the fact that Afghanistan has never had a significant left-wing nationalist alternative to the Communists. Despite his initial pro-Moscow foreign policy tilt following his 1973 coup, Daud’s domestic economic and social policies were at best centrist and in most respects ultra-conservative. More important, once he had taken power, he proceeded to affront nationalist sentiment and play into the hands of the Communists by concluding the bitterly controversial Helmand treaty with Iran and another unpopular agreement with Pakistan ending Afghan support of Baluch and Pushtun separatists.
In general, Mr. Fukuyama’s comments are singularly misdirected, since I am one of the few American observers who argued over the past thirty years that Afghanistan did belong within the legitimate sphere of American action and should be given much greater emphasis in both economic and military aid. During the Dulles period, I warned repeatedly that American military alignment with Pakistan for the sake of short-term intelligence advantages would prove disastrous, in the long run, by antagonizing Afghanistan and opening the way for Soviet penetration of the Afghan armed forces. For three decades, the United States has lost one opportunity after another to influence the outcome in Afghanistan when the environment for its intervention was relatively favorable. Now, when its options are sharply circumscribed, Mr. Fukuyama rushes onto the scene, breathlessly announcing that the Russians are coming.
Selig S. Harrison
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
New York City
Francis Fukuyama writes:
Selig S. Harrison’s reasoning is similar to that of William Shaw-cross in a different context. We bombed Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge killed two or three million people, and yet Shawcross argues that we are the guilty ones. So with Mr. Harrison. In his article, he did not literally say that Moscow had a “right” to establish a Communist regime in Afghanistan. What he did was to present two facts: our side sought to draw Kabul into a “Western-tilted, Teheran-centered, regional economic and security sphere”; their side retaliated by overthrowing Daud and provoking a civil war which by one recent estimate has already consumed 250,000 lives. He chooses to blame our side for lack of restraint, while treating the actions of the other side as a tragic but predictable response. But the discrepancy between the provocation and the response was enormous, and by no means predictable: Daud did nothing that other Third World nations have not done, nothing that the Soviets could not have tolerated, and nothing they have not in fact tolerated prior to the late 1970′s. Soviet policy, therefore, marks a departure, and for that reason is very troubling. To say that the coup was predictable is in effect to concede Moscow’s right to forbid Afghanistan to seek genuine non-alignment in a situation which had little or no bearing on Soviet security.
As for my astonishing ignorance of Afghanistan’s “complex regional realities,” Mr. Harrison’s characterization of Daud’s domestic policies as “centrist and in most respects ultraconservative” strikes me as betraying, if not ignorance, certainly a willful distortion of the facts. Daud may not have lived up to Mr. Harrison’s ideal of a left-wing nationalist, but he did declare a socialist ideology for Afghanistan, nationalize the banks, promise sweeping socioeconomic reforms, and create a National Revolutionary party to implement his program. In any case, Mr. Harrison’s own characterization of Daud’s foreign policy as “a Soviet-tilted brand of neutralism” seems to concede the better part of my point.
Finally, I could not agree more that the United States ought to have taken a more active interest in Afghanistan prior to April 1978. It may be the case that Mr. Harrison has for long argued that Kabul “should be given much greater emphasis in both economic and military aid.” But then I find it very curious that he should have taken the trouble to lambaste the Shah for having done precisely that.