19 years ago the Taliban came for him. Najibullah was seized from his UN asylum, tortured, castrated, dragged through the streets, and hung as a warning. No one knows exactly when he died during this ordeal.
Najibullah’s death marks the end of an era for Afghanistan. Well, that may be too bold of a statement; the Taliban was already well established. The grisly events of 28 September 1996 were a final rejection of Russian meddling. The secular pro-Soviet Najibullah was propped up by the Soviets during their hasty retreat from Afghanistan. Meanwhile civil war waged on. The Soviet exodus hadn’t changed anything. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 doomed Najibullah. He managed to hold out for a while, but it was only a matter of time before the Taliban made their move. Najibullah’s bloody, mangled corpse was the final tombstone of Russian imperialism in Afghanistan…
Last night’s 60 Minutes featured an excellent interview with Putin. After a decade and a half in power Putin seems to be reaching his peak: he exudes shrewd confidence and meets, or dodges, every question with a perfect answer. Currently, Putin is looking for ways to keep the Assad dynasty, a long time ally of Russia, afloat. This is no easy feat since Syria is crumbling into brutal, bloody, conflict ever since the arrival of revolution. The rise of ISIS does not help the situation.
Russia’s grasp in the Middle East has always been loose. Russia was in chaos when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and failed to keep pace with Great Britain in the “Great Game” of conquering Afghanistan. Attempts to pressure Turkey and Iran in the early Cold War were squarely rebuffed by a vigilant Truman. The 1950s brought some improvements for Russia’s position: Russia was able to take advantage of anti-colonial and anti-Western sentiment in the Cold War to make inroads into the Middle East. Soviet leaders encouraged the brand of Arab nationalism championed by figures like Nasser. Unfortunately for the USSR (and its successor, Russia), Middle Eastern politics proved exceptionally volatile. Russia’s interests in the region evaporated, with Syria and Afghanistan being two strongholds (maybe Libya too). Fearing an Islamic coup after the Iranian Revolution, the Soviets fumbled Afghanistan with a failed war that turned nearly the entire Muslim world against Russia. Luckily al-Assad remained faithful.
Al-Assad remains faithful. Yet again, what other choice does he have? His regime rapidly fell into disarray with the onset of civil war after the Arab Spring protests. The rapid coalescence of ISIS has had a massive impact on the conflict, with ISIS making enormous territorial gains against a tottering Syrian regime.
Just as before with Afghanistan, Russia is seeking to sure up its interests in a difficult region by funneling in military aid. They have some presence in Syria, largely in an advisory role; yet again, Vietnam and the Soviet-Afghan War were proceeded by advisers being sent. There is talk nowadays of Russia starting airstrikes against ISIS, although Putin has not yet expressed an interest in having Russian boots on the ground.
On the interview with 60 Minutes Putin made his intentions sound genuine. Always a friend of sovereignty, and always fearful of unlawful revolutions (is there any other kind?), Putin defined his interests as preserving the lawful government of Syria.
While this defense of de jure government is typical of Putin there are much deeper factors at play here. For starters, Putin is obviously trying to sure up Russia’s last ally in the Middle East. Anyone with eyes can see that.
Why else might Putin be choosing to get involved at a time when Russia is economically hamstrung? Shall we make a list?
- What better way to fly in the face of sanctions and international ridicule than by being even more active than usual. A nation like North Korea defies sanctions by steaming ahead with nuclear programs. A nation like Russia is not so easily slowed by sanctions and its not difficult for Putin to project regional power.
- The current events in the Middle East are notable in that they are profoundly influence by a non-state actor, namely ISIS. They are also notable in that the United States is atypically sitting this one out, preferring to play a supporting role to regional actors. America’s strategy remains ambiguous, as does its approach. By getting directly involved in the conflict Putin once again reveals that he has a consistent, clear, and carefully calculated foreign policy. Putin didn’t just jump into this right after Ukraine; he is carefully pulling his punches. Putin is picking up slack and taking the initiative: he is the leader here and he is two steps ahead. Apparently Syria, Iraq, and Iran secretly pledged intelligence sharing to Russia. Maybe Russia’s “foothold” in the Middle East isn’t as weak as it seems?
- Russia is being proactive about the inevitable collapse of ISIS. After the Soviet-Afghan War many of the mujahideen fighters who gained experience fighting the Red Army went back to their home countries, destabilizing them further. Russia does not wish to see further instability, and it also does not wish to see the return of fighters to the currently pacified Chechnya.
- Finally, entering Syria further enhances Putin’s anti-American rhetoric. Putin sees the US as the primary impetus in the collapse of Ukraine and Syria, and he views the unilateral War on Terror as the event which created ISIS. Putin doesn’t seek global influence, but he does want Russia to be a regional hegemon. He cloaks his regional activities in the language of fixing problems created by the US. If you believe that the US indirectly created ISIS, than you are going to respect Russia when they undertake the burden of fixing the ISIS problem-a burden which the US has thus far ignored.
- Keeping Syria alive justifies Russia’s foreign policy coup some years back when the US was considering airstrikes. Russia negotiated an agreement for Assad to let go of his chemical weapons, which took the wind right out of the US sails. Saving Syria years ago leads to another point:
- Putin believes Assad can be saved or, at least, he wants to believe it. Assad is the last chance Russia has in the region and Putin needs Assad. Contrary to what some media outlets suggest (that Russia is prepping for what happens once Assad falls) I believe that it is Putin’s goal to see Assad’s regime remain stable.
- All of this likely enhances Putin’s own popularity with Russian citizens who generally wish to see a strong, vibrant Motherland.
Of course, Charlie Rose brought up a sharp criticism of Putin’s plans for Syria. What if Russia is just contributing to the problem? Putin defended Assad and ultimately justified brutality over disorder, but I can’t tell if he appreciates the connection between brutality and disorder. To what extend is Assad the force of order and to what extent is he the actual disease? Can you go on ruling a population after you unleashed chemical weapons to choke their cries for democracy?
While the destabilization of Iraq contributed to the birth of ISIS, what can be said about the backing of secular Muslim leaders that was common practice on both sides of the Cold War? Is Arab nationalism sufficient for stable, inspiring governments?
Is nothing else, radical Islam is a reaction against this form of secular government. It is a rebellion against the perceived Western interference that inflates these regimes, and it is a flat out rejection of secular norms. Supporting dictators was the logical move in the Middle East. Democracy doesn’t exactly have strong roots and atheistic Communism lacks a widespread appeal for a culture that does not separate religion and politics. But secular governments are become increasingly untenable in a region, and the rise of terrorism as a last resort is a key indicator of this. In fighting ISIS is Russia cleaning up the mess left by the USA, or is Russia merely trying to pay off a cheque that has bounced one too many times?
Do I think that Russia will get involved in the same way they did in Afghanistan? No. Putin is too smart for that. But to some extent I feel like Russia has not learned anything. Somehow, they didn’t get the message from the bloody tattered corpse of Najibullah swinging in the breeze. It is abundantly clear that secular dictators have failed.
Of course, it is even more abundantly clear that radical ideologies are even more dangerous. Secular governments are mired in the past while terrorism destroys its own future. What then is the logical policy to take in the Middle East? Can the major actors of the world create any stability here?
Putin has cast his die, and he is in support of the lesser evil. When faced with Assad or ISIS, choose Assad. This isn’t a long term solution, but a short term patch. Yet again, Putin seems to implicitly accept-and embody-the notion that a nation needs all the time it can get to finally achieve stability. Of course, what if the Assad regime has lived its lifespan and what if now we are finally seeing a revolution that will bring lasting stability to the Middle East? Will democracy somehow manage to emerge from the smoldering wreckage of ISIS? Can we even be confident that ISIS will collapse.
Backing Assad is a temporary move and can go any number of ways. Far from coming from a position of strength, it seems like Putin is living paycheque to paycheque, pragmatically taking advantage of whatever he can and hoping risks pay off. Putin has been very lucky so far.
Meanwhile Assad’s luck seems to be scattering to the wind like the last agonized screamed of Najibullah.
Update: 10/1/15. So Putin is not attacking ISIS but rather Western backed Syrian Rebels. Of course, by Putin’s definition the Syrian Rebels are terrorists.