Commentary Magazine

The New Freedom Fighters


Eight countries succumbed to Marxist rule during the 1970’s: Vietnam, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Mozambique, South Yemen, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. Today, all but two of these countries—South Yemen and Vietnam—have active resistance movements. Up to now, insurgencies in Communist countries were always swiftly suppressed; the march to Communist totalitarianism appeared irreversible. Now for the first time, as a checklist of world guerrilla movements shows, anti-Communist insurgents are managing to sustain protracted wars against Soviet-backed governments with an astonishing degree of success.

In Afghanistan, which boasts the world’s largest—and fiercest—anti-Communist guerrilla war, badly outgunned mujahedeen have battled more than 115,000 Soviet troops to a military standoff. After five-and-a-half years of war, the Soviets have killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans, driven over six million people from their homes, and absorbed 15,000 casualties. Yet the Soviets’ best efforts, assisted by a massive array of the most complex war technology and in the absence of any moral or humanitarian scruples, have failed to extinguish the Afghans’ will to resist.

In Angola, the 40,000 troops who make up Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA force control one-third of the country and are contesting another third—so successfully that the 35,000 Cuban troops on loan from Castro may be losing their taste for further battle. There are frequent reports of Cuban units refusing to fight. One Cuban colonel defected recently, explaining that he was “tired of burying Cuban soldiers in Africa.”

In Nicaragua, an estimated 20,000 guerrillas continue to hold their ground against the Sandinista regime. Insurgents operating out of Nicaragua’s mountainous northern provinces are said to have inflicted an estimated $150 million in damage to trucks, bridges, silos, and farms last year. According to Western diplomatic sources, the Sandinistas recently relocated at least 30,000 peasants sympathetic to the contras to camps in government-controlled territory.

In Ethiopia, Colonel Mengistu’s Marxist government faces assaults from two major insurgencies and several smaller ones. Secessionists in Eritrea now control 85 percent of that northern province, while another group of insurgents has taken over three-fourths of the province of Tigre.

In Mozambique, insurgents are active in nine of the country’s ten provinces, roaming the countryside almost at will, and harassing major urban areas.

In Cambodia, 25,000 anti-Communist fighters have joined forces with 35,000 Chinese-backed Communist guerrillas in an attempt to oust 180,000 Vietnamese troops. Despite serious setbacks in a major Vietnamese offensive this spring, the insurgents are reported to be operating deep inside Cambodian territory, concentrating on hit-and-run attacks and economic sabotage.




So diverse are the local circumstances in these various countries that no single set of rules can explain the rise of resistance in all of them. In some cases, such as the war in Afghanistan, the rebels are fiercely religious traditionalists. Here the mujahedeen’s faith holds the resistance together in a war that is seen as a jihad against the Russian infidel, so much so that religious leaders frequently double as guerrilla commandos. The puppet Karmal regime attempts to play down the antagonism between Islam and Marxism, but the Afghans have only to look across the border to learn the truth. Of the 26,000 mosques which flourished in the Central Asian Republics prior to Soviet control only 450 remain.

Religion is not quite so crucial to other insurgencies but it still plays a role both in sparking resistance and strengthening rebel morale. Mozambique’s President Samora Machel, for example, alienated large number of his countrymen by exiling priests, confiscating Church property, closing down Catholic hospitals, and banning parochial schools. The same is true of Nicaragua, where friction between the government and the Catholic Church is frequently mentioned by contra recruits as one of their major grievances against the Sandinista regime.

In other places, guerrilla ranks are swollen with ex-leftists whose resentment of foreign control has turned them against their former ideological comrades. Ethiopia is a case in point. Prior to the Marxist coup which overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974, the Soviet Union provided arms and training to Eritrean nationalists in their fight against Ethiopia’s “colonial presence.” Now that the fight is over, and the Soviets have friends in Addis Ababa, the Eritreans frequently find themselves facing Soviet guns. Between those guns and the bombs covered with Cyrillic script, Eritreans are losing their taste for Soviet-style Marxism.

Anti-Communist resistance has also been spurred by the economic incompetence of Soviet-backed regimes. Many Soviet client states are now discovering that Moscow is stingy with economic aid and covetous of their mineral resources. In Afghanistan, the Soviets “buy” natural gas at prices well below world-market levels and then deduct this amount from the Afghan “war debt”—the cost of maintaining the Soviet occupying army. In Mozambique, they take gold, coal, copper, and tantalite, and offer only obsolete Soviet-bloc machinery and Soviet “expertise” in return. On top of that, the Kremlin has also begun turning a deaf ear to Mozambique’s incessant calls for more economic aid, prompting President Machel to seek Western assistance.

Nor is Ethiopia the only one among the new Marxist states that cannot feed its people. Mozambique and Afghanistan also face serious famine, as does Cambodia, which has never recovered from its murderous experiment in “land reform” under the Khmer Rouge. Nicaragua is not yet in such dire straits, but has instituted food rationing to combat shortages.

A large part of the agricultural failure in these countries is due to factors like poorly-planned land reform, collectivization of farms, and lack of hard currency to buy seed and fertilizer. But in at least two places, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands will starve to death as a direct result of the war against the guerrillas. Food has become a major weapon in the Communist arsenal of anti-insurgency techniques. In Afghanistan, Soviet pilots have been fire-bombing harvest-ripe fields, hoping to starve the Afghans into submission. In Ethiopia, the regime has deliberately kept international relief organizations from distributing food in guerrilla-held areas.

Ethiopian leaders have apparently taken a lesson from the Soviet experience in suppressing the uprising of Muslim tribesmen in Central Asia during the 1920’s known as the Basmachi rebellion. At the height of the 1923 famine, the Red Army cut off trade and communications between the towns and the countryside, isolating the resistance. While half-a-million people starved, the Soviets doled out food to collaborators, but refused it to areas sympathetic to the rebels.




Now as then, the Soviet Union shows no sign of going soft. In one of his first acts on assuming power, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the funeral of his predecessor, took President Zia of Pakistan aside and warned him to tone down his support for the Afghan resistance—or else. (Pakistan provides sanctuary for 3.4 million refugees as well as mujahedeen, and permits international aid to be channeled to Afghanistan through its territory.)

Gorbachev’s actions so far have matched his words. In the first four months of 1985, according to Pakistani officials, Soviet planes violated Pakistani airspace no fewer than 83 times (in contrast to 88 such violations in all of 1984). The Soviets have also stepped up action inside Afghanistan over the past year. The same pattern holds for such Soviet client states as Angola and Vietnam.

Yet guerrilla movements do not achieve victory primarily on the battlefield; they defeat stronger opponents not so much by winning wars as by not losing them, by convincing their opponents that the cost of the war is too high and the gains of victory too minor to be worth further expenditure of blood or money. But they cannot accomplish this feat of “outlasting the enemy,” in Walter Laqueur’s words, unaided. While the idea of the indigenous guerrilla triumphing against great odds retains a powerful hold on the American imagination, it is largely a myth. In reality, almost all modern rebel movements have been dependent on the assistance of foreign nations, especially in their early stages.

Just as Communist takeovers were accomplished in the past with the aid of the Soviet Union, so too will the current wave of anti-Communist movements need ongoing outside help if they are to succeed. In Nicaragua, the contras require a continuing supply of arms, ammunition, and logistical support from the U.S. government as well as secure bases in Honduras; these must be bought by U.S. support to the Honduran government. In Afghanistan, the mujahedeen need military and humanitarian assistance from the West, and continued sanctuary in Pakistan; here too the price is U.S. military aid to the government of President Zia. In Angola and Mozambique, the insurgents need aid to replace the funds which South Africa no longer supplies.

Unfortunately, there is some question as to whether this aid will be forthcoming, and in the requisite amounts. Unlike the Soviet government, which takes a very long-range view of foreign-policy issues (in Afghanistan, for example, the Soviets began planting the seeds of an Afghan Communist party in the early 60’s), U.S. policy toward anti-Communist guerrilla groups swings wildly with every change of administration. The Carter administration largely ignored or even actively discouraged resistance movements. Some years ago Jonas Savimbi gave a chilling account of a meeting he had with State Department officials during a 1979 visit to the United States. “They said I was wasting my time, that the Carter administration did not want to be bothered by UNITA,” Savimbi told the editors of the New Republic. “They asked me why I was afraid of Communism. They even said mine was a lost cause and that I should give up.”

Although the Reagan administration shows more enthusiasm for aid to anti-Communist insurgencies than its predecessor, U.S. policy is still skewed by internal inconsistencies and partisan rivalries which create odd biases. Thus, aid to Savimbi’s UNITA has been prohibited by the Clark Amendment (recently under challenge in Congress); in Mozambique the U.S. provides support for the government of over $20 million in emergency food supplies, technical assistance, and what is called “non-lethal” military aid (e.g., uniforms). Nor has the Reagan State Department repudiated its designation of the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) as “mercenaries” and “tools of South Africa”—despite the fact that South Africa terminated its support and signed a mutual nonaggression pact with the Machel regime over a year ago, while the MNR has continued to flourish.

The Democrats, reluctant about Africa, are quixotically enthusiastic when it comes to Asia. Last March, for example, Stephen Solarz, the liberal Democratic Congressman, proposed $5 million in aid to the non-Communist resistance organization in Cambodia. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, charging ahead of the White House on this issue, voted 24-9 in favor of Solarz’s motion, and in late July of this year the House gave final approval to a $10-million, two-year commitment.

Democrats in the House and Senate have also played prominent roles in raising the American ante in Afghanistan. Unable, at least at first, to obtain a mere $14 million in “humanitarian” aid for the Nicaraguan contras, the administration had no difficulty persuading an eager Congress to give Afghan guerrillas $280 million in 1985.



There is a simple explanation for this inconsistency. Aid to Afghanistan and Cambodia seems safer to many members of Congress than aid to other places because it is unlikely that U.S. troops would ever be sent to that distant corner of the world, at least in the post-Vietnam era. In the case of Nicaragua, on the other hand, as in that of El Salvador, there is a lingering suspicion that American military aid might escalate into direct U.S. action. Paradoxically enough, some Congressmen hesitate to involve America in the conflict in Nicaragua precisely because U.S. interests are so directly involved there.

Then, too, the justice of both the Afghan and Cambodian causes is so obviously beyond dispute that Congress feels comfortable about them. In both these countries the enemy has been obligingly straightforward, crushing resistance under invading tanks without a trace of ambiguity. Nicaragua, on the other hand, is not quite so clear-cut, being another one of those confusing civil-war situations that Americans almost by instinct tend to shy away from.

Marxist dictators are remarkably adept at exploiting American uneasiness in this regard. Marxists always start out by speaking in the language of democracy, concealing their real intentions until later. Thus, in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega courts American public opinion with pledges to uphold democratic values while his government brutalizes minorities and lays down mechanisms for social control that have been perfected in the Soviet Union and East Germany.1

For that matter, there are many Americans who would not be troubled even in the absence of these democratic pledges. If the Nicaraguans want to be Communists, so the argument goes, it really is none of America’s business; after all, the right to national self-determination reigns supreme. And there are even those who dissent on Cambodia and Afghanistan. The same intelligentsia which maintained that the United States could not win a war in Vietnam now can be heard asserting with equal confidence that the Soviets cannot lose the war in Afghanistan. Fighting to the death is all very gallant, they reason, but the end result will be the same whether partisans fight or acquiesce in Soviet domination.

Thus, the noted Asia expert Selig Harrison writes in Foreign Policy that America’s only choice in Afghanistan is to ignore the wishes of the mujahedeen and support the Pakistani-Soviet peace negotiations. The alternative, in his view, would mean “watching helplessly as the resistance is decimated in future years.” In a similar vein, the prominent Australian academic David P. Chandler has written that the U.S. government is more interested in “encouraging Cambodians to kill each other, and some Vietnamese, in the name of ‘freedom’” than in recognizing the benefits of a Vietnamese-controlled government. Chandler’s use of quotation marks around the word freedom here is revealing. It suggests that many in the West no longer believe that political liberty is worth dying for, an attitude which, if widely accepted, would signal the ultimate triumph of Marxist materialism in the West.




Outside the advanced societies of the West, however, the idea of political liberty still burns with its accustomed flame. The simultaneous emergence of anti-Communist rebel movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is no coincidence. It signifies that the tables are turning. The USSR, the colonial power in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, is under assault, and by some of the same forces which accelerated the destruction of the old European colonial empires it has replaced.

At some point, as resistance spreads, Moscow will inevitably face the defeat of one of its clients, and the overthrow of an establishd Marxist revolution. Such an event would be of the greatest possible significance. Just as the U.S. pullout from Vietnam encouraged Communist insurgents throughout the world, so would the overthrow of a Moscow-backed Marxist regime exacerbate the tensions rending the Soviet empire. For the many nations and former nations resentful of domination by the Kremlin, the myth of Soviet invincibility will have been shattered.

Hundreds of thousands of ill-fed, badly-clothed men are fighting and dying for freedom around the globe. They are not asking Americans to spill blood for their cause, but only to spend money—and relatively paltry sums at that. An American failure to assist them would be not just a moral failure, but criminal negligence of our own interests and our own identity.




1 See “Nicaraguan Harvest” by Mark Falcoff in the July COMMENTARY—Ed.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.