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How not to end a war

Mikhail Gorbachev called Afghanistan “our bleeding wound”. Why hasn’t Nato learned from the Soviet U

In May 1985, two months after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he sent one of his cleverest generals to Kabul on an urgent, secret mission. The name of General Zaitsev is unlikely to be well known to today's Nato commanders, but perhaps it should be. Back then he was the Red Army's most senior military planner and logistics expert, and Gorbachev ordered him to provide an honest answer to the question: can the USSR win the war in Afghanistan? He returned to Moscow swiftly with a simple answer: no.
Zaitsev concluded that the only way the war could end on Soviet terms would be to seal Afghanistan's border with Pakistan and thereby prevent the movement of arms and "terrorists" from the mujahedin - the Army of God - into the country. At this point, the Soviets had already committed 100,000 troops; the leadership in the Kremlin was told that about a quarter of a million more would be required to trap the guerrillas inside the country.

Politically, that was impossible. After six years of a war that party bosses in Moscow had been told would be a "surgical operation", over in a few months, more than 7,500 soldiers had died. It was draining resources at a time when the USSR was in an acute financial crisis because of plummeting oil prices. Gorbachev and other Kremlin leaders were inundated by letters from families of troops on duty in Afghanistan, and from the general public, asking why "our boys" were dying in a faraway land about which the Russian people knew little.

In all the debates about the west's role in Afghanistan, politicians, soldiers, diplomats and academics rarely refer to the Soviet experience of a war that lasted nearly a decade. Barack Obama and Gordon Brown are known to be wide readers, but one wonders if their bookshelves hold any of the numerous memoirs by Soviet generals about the USSR's Afghan war.

They should, as today's conflict is eerily reminiscent, right down to battles and skirmishes taking place in the same areas, such as Helmand Province. The Soviets could never pacify the south of the country. Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand and a base for Nato troops now, repeatedly changed hands during the war. For long periods during the 1980s, there were intense battles in nearby districts: in Nad Ali, Nawzad and around Marja, a vital centre for Afghan poppy production then, as now.

Listen to a Nato commander talking about the difficulties of fighting the Taliban and you could almost think it was a Soviet soldier from 25 years ago speaking. "Much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the political centres, but we cannot maintain control over
territory we seize . . . Our soldiers have fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills."

It could easily be the voice of a Nato spokesperson on the Today programme. In fact, these are the words of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of the Soviet armed forces, at a meeting of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo on 13 November 1986.

The Soviets searched over many years for an "exit strategy" from Afghanistan, as well as for something that could be described as a "victory". Both were elusive. Critics of current western policy argue that our leaders face similar dilemmas but don't know what the answers are. Yet the Soviet experience is, at the very least, an object lesson in how not to end a war.

Gorbachev used to call Afghanistan "our bleeding wound", but he could not staunch it without losing face or - so he thought - damaging the prestige of the USSR. Newly revealed material from Russia shows how the Soviet leadership dithered and prevaricated fatally. Gorbachev repeatedly made what he said was “a firm decision" to pull out the troops, but then found reason to delay. "How to get out racks one's brains," he complained in the spring of 1986, according to Politburo minutes. "We have been fighting there for six years and if we go on like this it might be another 20."

Withdrawal was a long-drawn-out agony over four years. By the time the last troops left, in February 1989, more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers had died and so had roughly 750,000 Afghans. Gorbachev was haunted by the humiliating image of the last Americans leaving Saigon by helicopter from the roof of the US embassy. "We cannot leave in our underpants . . . or without any," he wrote to one of his aides towards the end of 1988. And like all politicians, he was concerned about how he could spin defeat into something less embarrassing. "We must say that our people have not lost their lives in vain," he told the Politburo.

It was the only war that the Soviet Union lost, and the defeat had far-reaching consequences. The military disaster in Afghanistan was one of the main reasons that first the Soviet empire in Europe, and then the USSR itself, fell. It meant the Russians were no longer prepared to send their troops into battle anywhere. It fuelled the dramatic revolutions in the autumn and winter of 1989 when communist regimes collapsed in a dizzying few weeks. Defeat in the hills around Kabul led directly - and swiftly, within months - to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Victor Sebestyen's book "Revolution 1989: the Fall of the Soviet Empire" is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (£25)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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