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by William H. Benson

January 18, 2001


     Afghanistan was again in the news in a small blurb on the back page.  The ruling group, called the Taliban, imposed the death penalty for anyone who converts from Islam to another religion.  Also, any non-Muslim found trying to win converts would be killed.  To an American living in the 21st century with a tradition of separation of church and state, these laws are absolutely baffling.

     Twenty-one years ago Afghanistan made headline news.  Two days after Christmas in 1979 the Soviet Union attacked its southern neighbor with MI24 helicopters, MIG jets, tanks, and heavy artillery, ostensibly on invitation from Afghanistan’s Communist party.  Soon, over 100,000 Soviet troops had flooded this poor Asian country.

     The rest of the nations flew into a rage.  It seemed that the Russians wanted to conquer the world.  By mid-January President Jimmy Carter had declared economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, particularly a grain embargo, announced a boycott of the summer Olympics to be held in Moscow, and recalled Ambassador Thomas Watson from Moscow.  The grain embargo hurt the American farmers, and the Olympic boycott bitterly disappointed the American athletes.

     Carter’s popularity plummeted, but what else could he do?  A direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union was out of the question, coming right on the heels of Vietnam.  The world considered the situation hopeless, for it seemed that the Russians would have their own way upon the Afghan people. 

     The extraordinary battles turned vicious, fought between armies of modern tanks, and ragged men, women and children armed with home-made grenades, catapaults, stones, ancient rifles.  The Afghans even brought down helicopters with hand grenades tied to kites.  The Russians soon controlled the cities and the transportation routes, but the Afghan rebels, called the muhjahidin, with their own fierece brand of guerilla warfare, possessed the countryside.  These unflinchingly hard tribesmen won again and again.

     During the eight years of war some one million Afghan people, both rebels and civilians, died, and the Soviets drove another five million into exile in Pakistan and Iran.  One muhjahidin commander, Abdul Haq Afghani said at the time, “The only really hard thing is this: in the beginning we felt the whole world was with us, now we know we are alone.”  Alone they fought.

     In February of 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev admitted defeat and announced that his troops were leaving Afghanistan, and within a year they were gone.  The Communist government they left behind hung on to power, amazingly enough, until 1992, but eventually, the Taliban, with their harsh brand of Islamic fundamentalism, took the reins of government.

     The Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan is often compared to the United States’s debacle in Vietnam, and a lesson is to be learned.  People fighting for their own country on their own land, even without technologically-advanced weapons, possess a strong enough reason that they can defeat the enemy–even a superpower.

     The outcomes in Afghanistan and Vietnam did not exactly fit into the standard geopolitical model of the Cold War that Americans of the mid-twentieth century perceived the world.  And in these early days of the new millennium Americans find themselves bewildered by the world’s new crop of “isms”–such as Islamic “fundamentalism”.

     The Taliban ruler, Mullah Mohammed Omar, announced on Radio Shariat last week, “The enemies of Muslims are trying to eliminate the pure Islamic religion throughout the world.”