Book Review: The Valediction – Two Independent Journalists’ Dig for the Truth of the Other Afghanistan War

RIAN archive 476785 Soviet Army soldiers return from Afghanistan.
RIAN archive 476785 Soviet Army soldiers return from Afghanistan.(Image by Wikipedia (commons.wikimedia.org), Author: Yuriy Somov / Юрий Сомов)

By Natylie Baldwin, Oped News, 10/20/21

“The Afghan government was supporting Islam but Saudi Arabia wanted to spread radical Islam into Central Asia. They also wanted to control future oil pipeline routes. Pakistan wanted to legitimize its occupation of Afghan lands stolen by the British Empire in the 19th century and control events in Kabul. Communist China wished to curry favor with the United States and expand its control over its Muslim Xinxiang province. And the U.S.? The U.S. wanted to f*ck the Soviet Union for Vietnam and roll back the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 once and for all.” (p. 110)

Afghanistan has been in the news recently due to the end of the U.S.’s formal 20-year war there. However, there is a much longer history for the U.S. in that unfortunate nation that has been caught in the middle of imperial rivalries and power plays. That history has largely been obscured since the end of the Cold War. Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould have entered to shed light on this history in The Valediction, a book they describe as a novelized memoir.

The book does read like a novel with a fast-paced and compelling narrative that keeps the reader engaged and wanting to dig into the next chapter to see what happens. Though the book weaves in some longer history, the main focus is on the journalistic odyssey of the authors, which started in 1981 with a trip to Afghanistan to get on-the-ground information on what was really happening in the war that had been framed in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter as the greatest threat to world peace since WWII. The Reagan administration had subsequently intensified the rhetoric against the Soviet Union about the Afghan intervention. It was convenient for both the Carter and Reagan administrations that western journalists generally had little access to Afghanistan within a month of the invasion due to the Afghan government kicking them out under accusations of lying. This led to Americans having scant information about what was really happening there.

The story of how co-author Fitzgerald said he managed to get access to Afghanistan elicited a grin from this writer. He simply looked up who the UN representative for Afghanistan was in that ancient 20th-century artifact known as the phone book and went from there. Needless to say, after the first trip, it was clear things were totally unlike the narrative that was being pushed by the U.S. government and mainstream media.

A war in Afghanistan was, by all rational measures, not in the Soviets’ interests. There had been every indication by the late 1970s that the Soviets had wanted progress on arms control negotiations and a continuation of the de’tente policy. There have been suggestions that Brezhnev did not have consensus support in the Soviet government for the invasion. The authors and some others suspected that the Soviets were provoked into invading.

Many readers are likely familiar with Zbigniew Brzezinski’s infamous boast in a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur that, as Carter’s national security advisor, he’d helped goad the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan, which he described as “the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”

Central to provoking the Soviet invasion, the book argues, was the assassination of Adolph Dubs, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Indeed a good portion of the book revolves around the authors’ investigation into unraveling the mystery surrounding the murder, which uncovered conflicting reports from representatives of the State Department, the CIA and DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency], and the KGB. As the authors ask:

“Who would kill an ambassador? Not a rival superpower trying to get the American Congress to sign a nuclear arms deal they’d desperately needed. And certainly not a third-world backwater desperate for U.S. aid and recognition. Only someone trying to provoke retribution. And who would want that retribution? Zbigniew Brzezinski… What was a known Russia-hater doing in the Carter administration in the first place and why had the “Peace President” elevated his role to cabinet level?” (pp. 64-65)

Dubs, who had significant diplomatic experience with the Soviets and more nuanced views, was working at cross-purposes with Brzezinski. He believed he could diplomatically get then-Afghan-leader Hafizullah Amin to move away from any loyalty to the Soviets. To further this project, he’d had fourteen secret meetings with Amin, in order to avoid sabotage by Brzezinski. Dubs thought the kind of destabilization favored by Brzezinski in Afghanistan would provoke the Soviets and was dangerous. According to an interview Fitzgerald conducted with Afghanistan expert Selig Harrison:

“…I met him [Dubs] out there that summer. He was alone and I had a long evening with him. He came out with a very sophisticated conception of what he was going to do, which was to try to make the US-educated Amin into a kind of Tito, in other words, detach him. Dubs knew how subtle an operation it had to be. He had no illusions it could be done quickly. He would still be pretty close to the Russians, but he’d have more freedom of action and it would be enough to make it safe from our point of view. He met with Amin fourteen times and quickly understood that he was not a loyal Communist. He even bragged that the Soviets needed him more than he needed them. But the trick would be to keep a back door open to American influence while not triggering Soviet countermeasures… [the Soviets] were greatly alarmed because they thought Amin might be a CIA agent. And Brzezinski was actively promoting an aggressive covert anti-Soviet Afghan policy without the State Department’s knowing much about it. So it was extremely dangerous.” (p. 74)

Though the machinations around Afghanistan were started under Carter and Brzezinski, they were continued and expanded under Ronald Reagan, who had Richard Pipes – another Russophobic ideologue with a Polish background – on his national security council. By 1983, it was becoming clear to those who had genuine knowledge of what was occurring in Afghanistan that the Soviets wanted to get out and were willing to allow a coalition government after getting rid of Amin’s successor, Babrak Karmal, whom they’d grown to greatly distrust. But the U.S. didn’t seem at all interested in a Soviet exit, rebuffing Soviet overtures to negotiate a 6-month withdrawal in which they could save face in exchange for the U.S. giving up its support for the Islamist insurgency. Instead the Reagan administration announced increased support for the extreme nihilistic Islamist insurgents that were fighting the Afghan government.

“The irony was sublime. The U.S. wanted to overthrow a Communist government that the Kremlin viewed as a middle class bourgeois disaster with no support from the population. And the Kremlin was right. Communism couldn’t exist without a working class, and Afghanistan simply did not have one. But that trivial detail didn’t matter to Washington.” (p. 86)

The authors’ efforts to get the real story on Afghanistan were not exactly rewarded by the mainstream media. Pitches to CBS and later ABC were met with attempts to significantly downplay the authors’ actual reporting or kill it since it didn’t fit the narrative established by “Gunga Dan” Rather, a narrative that the White House wanted reinforced: Soviet soldiers were all over Afghanistan, brutalizing civilians and perpetrating their own dirty little Vietnam-style adventure on behalf of an expansionist agenda. Each pillar of this narrative was contradicted by the authors’ research as well as observations and interviews with an array of individuals in Afghanistan.

Often lost in the coverage of Afghanistan and the wars that have been fought there by empires is the Afghans themselves who had their own interests. Those interests included finding ways to modernize their country and improve the quality of life for their citizens. Various Afghan leaders of the 20th century attempted to pursue these objectives under a combination of nationalist and socialist political influences – the details of which would be shaped by the country’s unique geography and culture. But these projects were always tragically derailed by outside hegemons.

As noted in the epigraphic quote to this review, this had gone back at least as far as the British and the sabotage of Afghan society was executed by many opportunistic players during the Cold War. In an interview with Fitzgerald, China was cited, in addition to the U.S. and Pakistan, as a country that had provided training and/or arms by a former fighter for U.S.-backed Islamist terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

There are some things in the book that readers will have to decide for themselves the degree of importance and plausibility to assign to, such as certain connections made to rivalries among royal families and elite institutions from hundreds of years back. Another involves the man who is referenced in the subtitle of the book: Desmond FitzMaurice. He is described as a composite character and, interestingly, he is also the character that seems the most fantastical. It is these aspects that I imagine contribute to classifying this book as a novelized memoir. However, there are many other named people the authors discuss as providing important pieces to the Afghanistan puzzle that, along with the extensive research and contextual on the ground experience during the period in question, make for an interesting and informative read.

Alexandra B. Hall: Biden Has a Chance to Increase Nuclear Security

Fallout Shelter

By Alexandra B. Hall, The National Interest, 9/6/21

Ploughshares Fund’s Roger L. Hale Fellow, Dr. Doreen Horschig, has released a new interactive report “The Biden Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review: New Policies to Prevent Nuclear War.” This report highlights the history of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and urges the Biden Administration to not only follow through on its campaign promises in regards to nuclear nonproliferation but asks Biden to “be bolder than his predecessors” to change the status quo on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

On the latest episode of Press the ButtonHorschig and her co-host Tom Collin discuss what President Joe Biden should address in the NPR. As Horschig explains, the NPR started in 1994 under President Bill Clinton and was developed to ensure that each administration makes clear their objectives and goals regarding nuclear security. Over the past four administrations, Horschig explains that “there has been a great degree of continuity in U.S. nuclear strategy even as nuclear forces and force posture have evolved significantly over that period.” She points out that across political party lines “we have had no review make a serious commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.”

Looking at the Obama and Trump administrations, both expanded nuclear weapons modernization programs. While President Barack Obama had ambitious goals at the outset to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy, Horschig explains that he was not able to achieve them all. She states that President Biden now has the chance to “make his more progressive nuclear security agenda happen.”

Horschig dives into Biden’s “long-standing views to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy, to decrease the likelihood of nuclear war, and to oppose the development of unneeded new nuclear weapons.” She points out that “we have him on record as a senator, as vice president, and as a presidential candidate, when he has consistently promoted a more limited role [for nuclear weapons], and the NPR now gives him an opportunity to really follow through on his words.”

Up till now, U.S. nuclear policy has been focused on addressing the very unlikely threat of an intentional nuclear attack. Horschig argues that the “Biden NPR should be based on the overarching goal of preventing nuclear warfare,” but through the lens of “reducing the risk of accidental war.” This pivot in policy would allow the administration to address the greatest risk of nuclear war—an accidental attack due to “human error or false alarm, or miscommunication.” In the report she outlines that since the beginning of the cold war until today, these errors have in fact been more likely to lead to nuclear war than any credible threat of an actual nuclear attack….

Read full article here.

Scott Horton Crushes Neocon War Propagandist Bill Kristol in SoHo Debate on U.S. Interventionism

“Antiwar.com’s editorial director Scott Horton faced influential neoconservative Bill Kristol in a Soho Forum debate on U.S. interventionism in New York City on October 4th. After their opening statements, it became clear that Horton had the facts on his side while Kristol had nothing but platitudes. The event was a scathing indictment of the interventionist ideology that fueled Washington’s disastrous post-9/11 wars.” – Antiwar.com

China’s Fortune Cookie Crumbles: Ross Ashcroft Interviews Michael Hudson

Photograph Source: Central European University – CC BY 2.0

Originally published at Counterpunch, 9/30/21

With China’s increasing wealth, Western investors want some of the action. One of those investors is a bullish gentleman called George Soros. However, the Chinese are acutely aware that with Western investment comes inequality. So as Beijing begins to rethink how to do proper economic growth, we ask, will China learn from Western mistakes? 

Ross Ashcroft: Michael, we join you at a time where a lot of people think the unipolar world could have maintained its supremacy. Turns out it hasn’t. Multipolar world is here to stay. You of late have been quite vocal about George Soros, no less. Mr. Soros has been casting aspersions about various things, but one of them is talking about the Chinese economy and why Black Rock, amongst others, should be allowed to invest there, because ultimately it’s going to undo American interests. Can you unpack that for us because it seems very complicated? 

Michael Hudson Well, George Soros’ dream is that China would do what Yeltsin did to Russia – that it would privatise the economy, really carve it up and let US investors buy control of the most profitable heights. In that way, the foreign investors would be able to sort of get the profits of Chinese industry, Chinese labour, and it would become the darling stock market of the world, just like Russia’s stock market was the leading booming stock market of 1994-96. China would be run to benefit US investment bankers. Soros is furious that China is not following the neoliberal policy that the United States is following. It’s following a socialist policy wanting to keep its economic surplus at home to benefit its own citizens, not American financial investors. For Soros, this is a clash of civilizations. His proposed strategy is to stifle the Chinese economy by putting sanctions against it, to stop investing in it so as to force it to do to itself what Yeltsin did to Russia. 

Ross Let’s hear it in his words. He says: ‘The BlackRock initiative imperils the national security interests of the US and other democracies because the money invested in China will help prop up President Xi’s regime, which is repressive at home and aggressive abroad. Congress should pass legislation empowering the Securities and Exchange Commission to limit the flow of funds to China. The effort ought to enjoy bipartisan support’. He’s not mincing his words, is he? 

Michael Hudson He thinks that China actually needs American dollars to build its factories and invest. He thinks that somehow China’s balance of payments is going to fall apart without the US market, without US investors telling President Xi what to do. The Chinese government won’t have a clue as to what to invest in and how to let the ‘free market’, meaning George Soros and BlackRock and other companies, operate. So he’s living in a dream world where other people need us. It’s like a guy who doesn’t realize his girlfriend doesn’t need him anymore….

Read the full interview here.

Russian Authorities Investigate Torture Allegations in Prisons

Videos alleging to show incidents of torture within the Russian prison system are being investigated by authorities. What follows is a report by RT’s Gabriel Gavin. But first, Fred Weir, long-time Russia correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor commented on Facebook:

It’s clear that the Russian state has sanctioned this, and that the sudden wave of media attention on horrific prison conditions is not spontaneous. But it’s hard to argue that green-lighting a media campaign like this is a bad way to handle this. I’ve often observed that — for better or worse — meaningful change in Russia often comes from the only agency within this system with the authority to implement it, ie. the Kremlin. Think perestroika.

Advocates for prison reform have labored in the shadows for years, fighting cases of individual prisoner abuse in the courts, sometimes successfully, but often getting pressured by authorities or even blackballed as “foreign agents” for their efforts. Now, suddenly, a signal from above has clearly been given that it’s time to clean things up. A lot of critics will sneer that it’s all window dressing, arguing that authoritarian states can’t reform themselves, etc. But we have seen an awful lot of positive, evolutionary, change in Russia over past decades, to the extent that today’s Russia is a totally different planet from the USSR. A much more livable one in many ways. So, two cheers for this.

Barbarism behind bars: Rape & torture in Russia’s prisons laid bare by thousands of leaked videos, human rights activists tell RT

By Gabriel Gavin, RT, 10/8/21

A chilling archive of footage purportedly showing the abuse of inmates in Russian prison colonies has already sparked a probe and cost several officers their jobs. The group behind the leak tells RT there’s still more to come.

A decade ago, Vladimir Osechkin was sentenced to seven years behind bars over fraud allegations brought by the daughter of an influential Moscow politician. Released quickly on parole, he left the country as soon as travel restrictions imposed upon him were relaxed and is still reportedly wanted for questioning on a number of charges. Now, though, as the founder of human rights group Gulagu.net, he has managed to upend the country’s penal system from afar.

Earlier this week, a tranche of videos that Osechkin and his colleagues say were taken by officers inside a prison hospital in Russia’s Saratov region have caused shock and outrage in the country. In one, a man believed to be an inmate at the tuberculosis facility can be seen laying strapped to a bed and screaming while staff repeatedly violate him with a stick in a horrifying minutes-long ordeal.

Other clips released by Gulagu.net claim to show prisoners being urinated on and forced to perform sexual acts in front of the camera. The outcry in the wake of their publication has even reached the Kremlin, with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, saying that, “if the authenticity of these materials is confirmed, then of course it is a pretext for a serious investigation.”

However, the director of the country’s federal prison services, Alexander Kalashnikov, has quickly moved to dismiss four officers from the region over the incident. After the clips were released on Wednesday, the top penal boss fired Pavel Gatsenko, the head of the Saratov hospital where the incidents were alleged to have taken place, as well as a number of senior officials. Kalashnikov has apparently also moved to sack the overall head of Saratov’s prison service, Colonel Alexey Fedotov, “for serious miscalculations in operational and service activities.”

Read full article here.

Anatol Lieven: Has Neo-Orientalism Killed Our Ability to Sense the Limits of Western Global Influence?

By Anatol Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, 9/28/21

….The denial of the importance of local histories and traditions, as well as the lessons drawn from the imperial history of the West, is intrinsic to the American and European sense of ideological mission in the world, which underpins their claims to global and regional hegemony. It is also to some extent intrinsic to how the Western bureaucracies concerned operate. Bureaucracy, as well as ideology, demands universal templates, universally applicable. For the bureaucracy to function smoothly (as opposed to the achievement of actual change), local expertise is more a hindrance than a help. 

Furthermore, the fact that in many parts of the world, the priority of personal safety (known in British officialdom as “The Duty of Care”) means that Western officials can barely travel outside the capital cities, or even outside their own embassies and international hotels. After a couple of years, having failed to develop any serious knowledge of one society, they hop on to try to implement identical programs in another society — which they also fail to study. The result: programs that have only the most tangential relationship to local reality, and consequently, don’t stand the remotest chance of even limited success.

For example, British officers and officials working in Helmand province of Afghanistan were on the most part completely ignorant of the local Battle of Maiwand in 1879, in which Afghans defeated a British army. Every Helmandi knew of this battle, and most were convinced (absurdly, but still) that a key motive for the British military presence today was to get revenge for Maiwand.

Academia has played its own part in undermining the West’s ability to engage meaningfully with political, social and economic developments elsewhere in the world. Recent decades have seen a steep decline in history and area studies (and foreign languages in the United States and UK). Their place has been taken by disciplines based overwhelmingly on Western liberal prejudices masquerading as objective general theories, with “rational choice theory” as the crassest version of this.  

Additional pressure against the serious study of other cultures has been provided by the legions of academics who have adopted crude and conformist versions of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” thesis, whereby every Western attempt to study other cultures on their own terms can automatically be suspected of Western quasi-racist “essentialism” and denounced accordingly. This has had an especially destructive effect in the area of anthropology.

The weird thing about this is that this supposedly “anti-colonial” ideology not only denies any autonomous culture to other peoples in the world, but contains an implicit assumption that all human beings (unless warped by evil Western influences) are at heart Western liberal college professors. This is in fact a nice liberal-sounding version of the famous statement of the U.S. Marine general in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket: “Inside every Gook there is an American waiting to get out.”

All too often, these illusions are fostered by liberal urban intellectuals and activists from the countries concerned, who have tremendous emotional and practical incentives to present their countries as intrinsically modern (with modern implicitly defined in entirely Western terms). Emotionally, this serves their own passionate desire to be part of the West and treated as equals by their Western colleagues. Practically, they soon learn that if they want Western jobs and money it is a good idea to reinforce Western ideas. As urban intellectuals, they may also be sincerely ignorant of most of their own country, as well as sincerely contemptuous of its population. 

Since such people are often the only ones to whom Western journalists and officials seriously listen, the result can be a sort of copulation of illusions….

Read full article here.

Paul Robinson: What Motivates Russian Military Intervention?

Map of Eurasia

By Paul Robinson, Irrussianality, 9/28/21

…The [RAND] report concludes that, ‘By comparison either to the Soviet Union or to the United States, Russia’s military interventions have been modest in scale and number and limited in geographical scope.’ As you can see from these charts, the Russian Federation’s military footprint abroad is much smaller than that of the USSR. Moreover, the great majority of its generally very limited ‘interventions’ have taken place within the space of the former Soviet Union.

Modern-day Russian, therefore, is much more regionally-focused than was the Soviet Union and its primary focus is regional stability.

The report analyzes a variety of motivations for military intervention previously identified in scholarly literature on the topic. It dismisses most of them as not relevant or only marginally relevant to the Russian case.

For instance, the report says that there is little or no evidence that
Russian military intervention is driven by economics or by ideology. Likewise the study dismisses the idea that Russia is afraid of the ‘diffusion’ of democratic ideas from neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and therefore seeks to prevent democracy from taking root there. As the report says:

“We certainly do not have examples of Russian leaders speaking of their fear of the demonstration effects of Ukrainian democratic success on the Russian populace. Moreover, we know that Russian elites have a very low opinion of their Ukrainian counterparts; it is difficult for them to conceive of the possibility that Ukraine can survive without Western assistance, let alone become a thriving democracy.”

Also rejected is the ‘wag the dog’ theory. Russia doesn’t engage in military activity in order to distract attention from internal problems, claims RAND. “There is scant evidence to suggest that Putin has ever felt that his popular support, the bedrock of his power, was under serious threat,” says the report, besides which there is no statistical correlation between low levels of government support and foreign intervention. In fact, as this chart shows, military intervention has declined under Putin compared to his predecessor, Yeltsin (i.e. since 2000)…

Read full article here.