KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — On Wednesday, President Donald Trump, who for years has disparaged the war in Afghanistan, managed to rewrite the last 40 years of Afghan history in a matter of seconds.
In the middle of a 90-minute cabinet meeting, the third U.S. president to oversee the Afghan war went on a startling rant that put his apparent lack of interest in and disregard for the United States’ longest-ever foreign incursion on full display.
“Russia used to be the Soviet Union … Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan … The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan,” he said.
Trump’s odd amalgamation of some historical facts, with modern day talking points from the global war on terror, and what could only be musings from his own imagination, shocked not only Afghans – who were aghast at the U.S. president’s seeming misunderstanding of their history – but also Western pundits, who saw his defense of Soviet occupation as an anachronism.
Gary Kasparov, Russian chess champion and human rights activist, took to Trump’s favorite medium, Twitter, to shed light on the confusion caused by the president’s strange backing of Washington’s long-time rival: “The USSR was right to be in Afghanistan?! Not even Russia says this anymore! Has Trump forgotten which country he sold out to?”
The USSR was right to be in Afghanistan?! Not even Russia says this anymore! Has Trump forgotten which country he sold out to?
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) January 2, 2019
In Kabul, Trump’s bizarre distortion of Afghan history — the Soviet occupation actually began as a way to protect the communist governments from internal strife and the increasing people-led uprisings against their brutality — even earned the criticism of the national unity government, which for so long had stood by Trump and his Afghanistan strategy.
Afghan government officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, rebuked his rewriting of a history they knew intimately.
In a statement issued shortly after reports of Trump’s comments reached Afghanistan, Ghani said, “After the invasion by the Soviet Union, all presidents of America not only denounced this invasion but remained supporters of this holy jihad of the Afghans.”
Acting Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, son of the high-profile anti-Soviet commander, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was far more direct, tweeting, “Soviet occupation was a grave violation of Afghanistan’s territorial integrity.”
Rabbani’s description of the Soviet occupation seems to echo the 1982 words of then President Ronald Reagan, who said, “The Soviet Union bears a grave responsibility for the continued suffering of the Afghan people, the massive violations of human right, and the international tension which has resulted from its unprovoked attack … The Afghan people will ultimately prevail.”
Rahmatullah Nabil, the former director of the Afghan spy agency, offered up his own history lesson, complete with a caveat that the U.S. should not “abandon” Afghanistan, as it did after the Cold War.
“Mr Pres @realDonaldTrump let me make a point in a manner that appeals to you. The Soviet Union lost in AFG & US won the Cold War because of the many sacrifices that AFGs made, several million AFGs were killed or injured. The US reaped tremendous economic benefits from winning….” Nabil tweeted.
the ColdWar yet US abandoned the AFGs, we suffered fr many rs & eventually the tragedy extended to US in Sep 2001. Those that fail 2 learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it: Hopefully you are smart enough not to make the same mistake when it comes to abandoning AFG.
— Rahmatullah Nabil (@RahmatullahN) January 3, 2019
To Afghans, Trump’s apparent defense of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is dangerous because it showed that the man who should be their nation’s most staunch ally was discounting the massive toll the decade-long Soviet occupation took on the Afghan people.
During the reign of the communist regime backed by the Soviet Union, thousands of Afghan families were torn apart as the Marxist governments of the time imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands of Afghan men and women they accused of being Islamists or dissenting against the government.
At the time, the Pol-e Charkhi prison, just outside of Kabul, had become the site of rampant torture — including electrocution and beating prisoners with cables — and mass graves for prisoners who were executed without trial. By 1987, it was estimated that at least one million Afghans had been killed in the conflict. Millions more became refugees in Pakistan, Iran, Europe, Australia, and the United States.
Seeing the abuses of the Soviet-backed communist governments, hundreds of thousands of Afghans joined in the resistance, first against communism and later against Soviet occupation. Everyone from farmers in Herat, to university students in Kabul and resistance fighters in Khost province.
Soon after the uprisings, Washington, still embroiled in the Cold War, embraced the resistance movement, providing them with arms and training in what was then the largest-ever covert CIA operation. In fact, at a 1985 White House meeting with top-level resistance commanders, Ronald Reagan, for whom Trump claims to have an affinity, likened the Mujahideen — the very men Trump claimed were terrorists — to “the founding fathers.”
Trump’s rewriting of Afghan history is indicative of his larger goal: that it is time for the U.S. to give up on a war that has cost Washington upwards of $45 billion a year. An American withdrawal has long been debated in both the U.S. and Afghanistan, but rarely ever addressed as an actual, practical possibility.
Former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, made this point when reports first began to emerge of Trump’s alleged calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
“Even if US ends up departing in 5 or 10 years from now rather than in next 6, 12 or 24 months, we must plan and make our arrangements as if it were going to occur tomorrow. In other words, we need real urgency on this right away,” tweeted last month.
Even if US ends up departing in 5 or 10 years from now rather than in next 6, 12 or 24 months, we must plan and make our arrangements as if it were going to occur tomorrow. In other words, we need real urgency on this right away.
— Janan Mosazai (@JananMosazai) December 21, 2018
Even after Trump did commit to stay in Afghanistan as part of his South Asia strategy, it seemed as if he continued to pay little attention to the country. It was mentioned only once during his 2018 State of the Union address. For months, Afghan officials released statements about phone calls with Vice President Mike Pence, who has no military responsibility whatsoever. There were few, if any, reports of direct talks with Trump. In fact, it was Pence, not Trump, who visited leaders in Kabul in 2017. When Trump did make his first trip to visit U.S. soldiers abroad last month, it was to Iraq, not Afghanistan.
Western pundits, meanwhile, saw traces of rhetoric being espoused by Russian President Vladimir Putin all over Trump’s words. In 2005, during an address to the parliament, the Russian President said, “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”
Last month, Russian lawmakers approved a draft resolution defending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Glenn Kessler, a columnist for the Washington Post, put it bluntly: “Is it possible that Trump’s remarks on Afghanistan –and that the Soviets invaded because of “terrorists” — reflect a conversation he had with Putin?”