Updated: Jun 23
Afghanistan: when I was a teenager I was liable to fall for rationalistic explanations for wars—so that America invaded Afghanistan to build a key oil pipeline, such, so it seemed, were the obvious machinations of US imperialism; and the war in Iraq was, obviously, a “war for oil”—“No war for oil! No blood for oil!” (grab a placard—protest!).
If only the world were that way—it would be so much better; if only we were governed by Machiavellians who invaded countries with the long-term view that a strategic oil pipeline could be laid through that country; and, yet, in reality, we are not—although even our analysts, in government itself, suffer from “teenage rationalism” (perhaps because that is what our schools and universities teach them).
Hence, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, American analysts insisted that the Soviets were after a “warm-water port” and that Afghanistan was “the road to Pakistan”—and to the Persian Gulf, to the oil lands. This was Zbigniew Brzeziński’s view—Carter’s advisor, ultra-rational “grand chessboard” theorist.
Yet it was incorrect—teenage rationalism is incorrect, man does not makes decisions like that. The actual reasons for the Soviet intervention were in no way so rational—as the excellent book Afghansty reveals, almost en passant (I’ve read this book—an account of the Soviet invasion from within the Soviet side, a social history in effect—three times now; it’s that good).
The Soviet intervention came about due to a confused and last-minute decision, almost forced by the pace of events. To set the scene: Soviet-aligned Afghan Communists had seized power in Afghanistan a few years earlier. Yet despite being secular Marxists, many trained in Western universities (such as Columbia), the Afghan Communists remained Afghans first and last—that is to say they ran their government on a tribal basis, complete with tribal feuds (Hamlet-style bedchamber murders and suffocations).
What caused Soviet intervention? The Communist leader Taraki, whose safety the Soviet premier Andropov had personally guaranteed, was murdered by his rival Amin. This was perceived by Andropov as a personal affront to his self-respect and power: he had guaranteed a man’s safety, that man had been murdered—it made Andropov look powerless and impotent (always a dangerous situation for any man—not least for a man who had come to political maturity under Stalin). This was the crucial factor that led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—an event that was pivotal to the eventual collapse of the USSR.
It should be added that the Politburo—Andropov himself—were perfectly aware as to why it was irrational to invade Afghanistan:
1. at least half the country was in open revolt against the Communists;
2. the Afghan Communists were a minority and were an unreliable and traitorous lot (murdering each other all the time, to a degree that shocked men who had grown up under Stalin);
3. the Afghan army was weak, the Soviet army lacked linguistic experience in the area—Soviet Muslim troops might be unwilling to fight their co-religionists, the invasion might inflame the Central Asian republics against Moscow;
4. no army since Alexander the Great had subdued Afghanistan—“graveyard of empires”;
5. an invasion would ruin the carefully constructed détente with the US that had been built up in the 1970s;
6. the US would exploit Soviet intervention with Vietnam-style aid to the Afghans;
7. there was no geostrategic or economic benefit from an occupation of Afghanistan, a totally undeveloped country—it would be a pure resource drain.
The Soviet leadership knew and discussed all these points—basically, agreed that it made no rational sense to invade Afghanistan. Then they did it anyway. The reason was that it was personal—Andropov’s honour, to be frank, had been insulted. Further, the Soviets felt loyalty to the Afghan Communists—beleaguered by an uprising in half the country. To a limited extent they had met these men—they were, however incompetent and fractious, “our boys”; and they would be massacred if the rebellion prevailed. The Soviet leadership, in other words, felt loyalty to their “co-religionists”—just as many mujahideen around the world did to their fellow Afghan Muslims during the war itself.
The final decision to invade was taken, late in the evening, almost as an afterthought when the Politburo had retired—and it was taken because the Afghan Communists were beleaguered. The Soviets cut in—assassinated Amin, the treacherous Communist leader who insulted Andropov—and placed a “legitimate” Communist in charge. This was done despite the fact that all the drawbacks, right up to the fact the US might back an insurgency to bleed Soviet “blood and treasure”, were known; and despite the further fact that many Politburo members were against the invasion.
Meanwhile, Western analysts, men like Brzeziński, insisted that the Soviet invasion was part of a “grand strategy” to incorporate Afghanistan into the USSR, to reach a “warm-water port” in Pakistan, or to threaten the Gulf oil fields. Not in the least—the Soviet decision came down to personal relations between leaders, an insult to a man’s honour (he gave his word), and to a feeling of obligation to men who shared a “religious belief” with those in Moscow.
If man made decisions on a rational basis—to achieve a “warm-water port”—the intervention would never have happened. The Soviet leaders had covered, in rational terms, all the drawbacks—and there were only drawbacks to the invasion. The operation made no rational sense and was instrumental in the USSR’s collapse—and it was known to be irrational by the men who implemented it (because man does not make decisions in a rational way).
Hence if you think like a “rational teenager” when it comes to state actions you will be wide of the mark. Iraq was not invaded for oil—you would do better to look at the relationship between George W. Bush and Blair, at the personal animosity of the son towards his father’s enemy (Saddam) and the desire to impress dad by destroying “the family enemy”, and to look at the genuinely held, if delusional, belief propagated by neoconservatives that envisioned Iraq transformed into Ohio-on-the-Tigris.
From foreign policy to vaccinations, the “conspiracy theory” view is too rational—man talks about reasons, lists all the reasons it would be fatal to invade Afghanistan (or the Ukraine, Mr. Putin), and then goes and does it anyway because he has suffered a personal insult and because “our boys” are in danger. That is how it happens.