On December 24, 1979, 30,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and overthrew then-president Hafizullah Amin. The Soviets replaced Amin with Babrak Karmal and attempted to stabilize their new client regime — but the Afghan people rebelled. The USSR sent more soldiers, until more than 100,000 controlled the major cities and towns and scattered rural garrisons. But the mujahidin (freedom fighters) proved invincible. At home in the mountainous terrain, spurred on by a longstanding tradition of resisting foreign invaders, blessed by the knowledge that they were fighting fi sabilillah, and increasingly assisted by outside forces, the Afghan guerrillas proved an able David against the Soviet Goliath.
Morally and fiscally bankrupted by its expensive, humiliating, and debilitating decade-long debacle in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. At the time, most Afghan mujahidin probably did not appreciate the world-historical significance of their struggle. But today we can see that the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan, and the resistance that invasion inspired, signed the death warrant not only of the Soviet Union but of communism as a viable ideology. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, communist regimes worldwide lost their pseudo-religious fervor and opted for pragmatic approaches that were often barely distinguishable from those of capitalist countries.
Would the Soviet Union, and communism in general, have collapsed without the defeat in Afghanistan? Most historians would probably answer “yes.” They would argue that the Soviet Union and the world communist movement failed due to their internal contradictions and economic failures, and that the USSR’s Afghan catastrophe merely hastened the inevitable.
But this was far from obvious in 1979. Today we often forget that throughout the 1970s, Marxian communism and socialism appeared to be winning their battle against liberal capitalism. During that decade the Soviet Union matched and nearly surpassed the West militarily. Back in 1962, every member of John F. Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had urged the president to launch an attack on Cuba that would have precipitated World War III! They knew the US still enjoyed a huge nuclear advantage, but was losing it rapidly (fortunately Kennedy kept his own counsel). By the early-1970s, the Russians had more nuclear firepower than the Americans, as well as an army that could have easily overwhelmed NATO’s and conquered Western Europe without breaking a sweat. Only the US threat of “Mutual Assured Destruction” by nuclear weapons could have prevented a communist takeover of Europe, had the Kremlin actually intended such a thing.
But more important than raw military strength is the power of ideas. Here, too, the communists seemed to be prevailing. It wasn’t just the Americans’ disgraceful defeat in Vietnam that convinced most thinking people that the future lay with the left, not the right. In the world of arts, literature, and ideas, left-wing thinking of one sort or another was all but obligatory. The problem was that Western elites had lost their religious faith. Communism and other varieties of leftism offered a vigorous and virile substitute for religion — an all-embracing sacred narrative and a firm set of values worth altruistically living and dying for. By contrast, liberal capitalism lamely preached the banal virtues of material self-interest and a vapid “do your own thing” conception of freedom.
Since the intellectuals of the 1970s were predicting the imminent demise of religion, it seemed obvious that the most militantly anti-religious substitute-religion, communism, had a leg up on the competition. Everyone then was expecting more left-wing revolutions and resistance victories like those in China, Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam. Nobody at the time could imagine that the next revolutionary milestone would be a religiously-driven transformation of Iran, or that the next successful resistance movement would involve Afghan Muslims rebelling against communism.
The sheer unexpectedness of the Afghan victory is apparent in Zaid Hamid’s From Indus to Oxus, a vivid memoir of the author’s days fighting with the Afghan mujahidin. Hamid, now a noted Pakistani defense analyst and television personality, recounts the terrors and triumphs of non-professionals fighting a vastly better-equipped professional army in some of the world’s most difficult terrain. Young Zaid Hamid and his mujahidin brothers did not realize that they were about to defeat the world’s biggest military — and change the course of history by collapsing the world’s largest country and annihilating the planet’s then-dominant ideology. On the contrary, Hamid joined the mujahidin out of a sense of religious duty driven by desperation. It seemed then that communism was a virtually unstoppable force. If the Russian Communists successfully absorbed Afghanistan, would Pakistan and Iran (and the whole Persian Gulf region) be next? Much of the historic Muslim world had already been incorporated into the Soviet Union and yoked to its official atheist ideology. The fall of Afghanistan, it seemed, might lead to even worse catastrophes for the Muslim Ummah.
As it turned out, the disaster waiting to happen was not a Soviet march to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, but the fractious factional fight that followed the mujahidin’s victory. Guerrilla commanders became warlords and turned on each other. The spirit of Islamic unity that had prevailed during the war against the Soviets quickly dissipated as the noble instinct of self-sacrifice in a blessed cause gave way to baser instincts of greed, rivalry, and desire for power.
The Afghan people had once again succeeded in driving out a foreign invader. But they did not succeed in designing workable institutions of Islamic governance capable of uniting their country and the larger Muslim world. This failure enabled yet another invasion and occupation — this time by the Americans in 2001.
The Afghans’ mixed success is characteristic of the political efforts of Muslims of our era. We often succeed in overthrowing tyrants and repelling foreign occupations. We know what we don’t want. But we don’t always have a clear vision of what we do want and how to go about getting it.
Next door to Afghanistan, the ancient nation of Iran experienced similarly tumultuous events in 1979. Like the Afghans, Iranians rose up against a foreign occupation of their country — the US puppet regime headed by the Shah. Thanks to the genius of Imam Khomeini, and a willingness to make immense sacrifices, the Iranian revolutionaries succeeded in replacing the regime they didn’t want with a viable Islamic Republic. But the world’s superpowers, terrified by the resurgence of Islam, frantically cobbled together a ruthless “containment” strategy (beginning by unleashing Saddam Husayn against the Islamic Republic) that prevented the Iranian revolutionary model from spreading to other nations.
In hindsight, the USSR’s December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan now looks less like the beginning of the end of communism, and more like the opening round of a long-term ideological struggle between Western humanism and Islam. Communism was simply the most militant form of humanism — a heretical spin-off from Christianity whose central tenet is the worship of humans. Unlike liberal “secular” humanism, communism was more or less aware of its own status as a substitute religion. It was a virulent millennial crusade aimed at establishing paradise on earth, at gunpoint if necessary.
Following the demise of the communist sect of Western humanism, the liberal secular humanist capitalists have intensified their war against the Islamic awakening. But just as the communist war on Afghanistan carried within it the seeds of communism’s undoing, the current Western war on Islam has destroyed the liberal illusions of the self-styled humanists, revealing them as the ruthless totalitarians they really are. Due to the all-out militarization of Western politics and culture triggered by the 9/11 false flag operation (the opening shot of the current phase of the war on Islam) nobody who is paying attention any longer believes that the Western nations are “free” or “democratic.” Religions, especially false ones, need ideals to inspire and motivate their followers. In its invasions and occupations, its stolen elections and Orwellian surveillance networks, its cages in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and its seemingly endless parade of bloody deceptions and false flag operations, secular humanism has smashed its own idols, mutilated its own ideals, and revealed itself as the satanic hoax it always was.
Communism collapsed after one decade of war in Afghanistan. Has secular humanist capitalism likewise planted the seeds of its own destruction in the same blood-nourished poppy fields?