After the first few months of WWI, according to Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, the German general staff knew that their one major hope (to knock out a stronger, more numerous enemy quickly) had been dashed. At this point, the Chief of Staff uttered the immortal words that sum up the incorrigible stupidity of the military mindset: “even if we are ruined by it, it was still beautiful.” One wonders if any Russian general feels the same this week, the fifteenth anniversary of the Russian evacuation of Afghanistan.
It is funny. I went through the eighties as a very active protestor. I talked every day with various leftist friends. We all talked about Nicaragua. None of us talked about Afghanistan. Even when the place was invaded, in 1979, the event was overshadowed, to the average American mind, by what was happening in Iran. Who knew that it was all about the leakage, the leakage? It never penetrated that there was some meaning in the fact that the largest CIA outpost in the world, after Langley, was located in Islamabad. About which we still know next to nothing.
Well, here was a small war (merely a million or so dead and wounded) with big consequences. It struck a fatal blow to one of the great empires of the post WWII world, and its aftermath kidneypunched the other. Just think: the demoralization of the Soviet army – in a country that devoted 15 percent of its GDP to the army, a country in which the army was, supposedly, the only thing that worked – materially deteriorated Soviet morale. Gorbachev, Chernobyl – yes, there were many small stages on the way to the final Soviet rust-out, but Afghanistan was definitely the music in the background, just as Vietnam was the music in the background in the seventies.
And then, the other empire, America the Good. America blindly and blithely arming happy Islamicists with Stinger missiles. Afghanistan was photo op number one for the up and coming right winger in the 80s. How could we not have known? When a group that has an unerring sixth sense for unlucky decisions, not to mention dirty, inhuman ones, was so involved in resisting the Russians in the mountains, we should have paid more attention. The allies are always dirty – Laotian generals neckdeep in opium money, Contra torturers, etc., etc. But since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, it seemed like an easy call to support whoever opposed them. The whole tangle of that history is still tangled, and we doubt we are going to be handed the thread by the 9/11 commission. But we know it is there – just look at the first WTC bombing, look at who facilitated it and how they got here. For instance, look at this Atlantic article, written in 96, which traces the the Cia’s development of the radical Islamic network through the exemplary life of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, the man who was financed and nurtured by the CIA almost to the day he was arrested, in New Jersey, for planning the blowing up of the World Trade Center.
“WHEN Sheikh Omar entered the United States, in July of 1990, via Saudi Arabia, Peshawar, and Sudan on a much-disputed tourist visa issued by an undercover agent of the CIA, his primary purpose was to set up a U.S. infrastructure, a funding mechanism, and an organizational base for Egypt's militant Islamic groups -- an undertaking that he had largely accomplished by the time of his arrest in 1993.”
Those are the larger toxic spills. But I think, even more than the macro and visible events, what happened in Afghanistan set off a chain of small wars that are still going, and that will just get worse if the causes of them aren't made clear, and resistance to those causes doesn't coalesce around a progressive standard. Chechnya is the worst of them at the present time. The U.S., for its own reasons, abetted Yeltsin, one of the great thieves of our time, and – as is the case when you deal with the devil – was forced, by circumstances, to abet Putin. We’ve previously posted about the ‘terrorism of mirrors” that inflected Putin’s campaign for president – terrorist acts in 99 that were attributed to Chechens, even as all indications point to a dirty operation by Putin’s own national police department.
So what happens in the last two weeks? More of the collateral c. from Afghanistan, by way of Chechnya. One of Putin’s strident critics is Boris Berezovsky. We have no time for Boris’ moral character – he hasn’t got any. But that made him a perfect in between man to plan things between Moscow and Chechnya in 99, that oddest of years. When Yeltsin melted in his pilfered fats off the throne, leaving space for Putin, the former head of the secret police started operating like former heads of secret police operate: getting rid of his enemies, and wacking former associates. Boris Berezovsky was among the casualties. When Berezovsky fled to London, he started ratting out the whole dirty deal that had used the death of thousands of Chechnians as a prop to keep the electorate voting for Putin, and implicitly voting to protect Yeltsen’s family from jail time. Ivan Rybkin, the presidential candidate who disappeared, reappeared in a disoriented state, then hightailed it for London himself, was another loud critic of the Chechnyan policy. He was, supposedly, being funded by Berezovsky. Both of these are not harmless critics, in Putin’s view, since both know where the bodies were buried – and I don’t mean that figuratively.
A regime founded on a classic totalitarian big lie – the attack by the Chechens – exists only by means of small lies, the shattered fragments that reflect the original lie to the point of maximum distortion, renews its energies by periodical reinvigorating the causes of violence -- even if it has to counterfeit those causes, produce them in the secret police hq. So no one should be surprised that, as it is an election season, here comes the subway bombing. There are multiple levels in the terrorism that haunts Moscow at election time. Inexplicably, the system keeps failing in elementary ways, all the gates between Grozny and Moscow keep opening up, inexplicably the gross tolls of violence always seem to favor Putin’s ever more nationalistic stances. Yulia Latynina has a scathing column about that subway bombing. Here are few grafs:
“Terrorist acts will continue to happen in Russia for two reasons.
First, because it is in the very nature of the system in place in Chechnya. Chechen field commanders produce terrorist acts, just as the Ostankino meat plant produces sausages. It's their business, just as is the case in Palestine. In both Chechnya and Palestine, there are people with power, influence and money who would not have power, influence and money if there were no terrorist acts.
It is not easy to fight terrorism even in a normal country, just as it is not easy to deal with gangrene even in a clean operating theater.
If, however, the operating theater is located in a pigsty, the nurses have pinched all the lightbulbs and the surgeon is not thinking about how to do the operation right, but about how he can cut off the patient's hand with his gold watch -- then it's a very different matter. And that is the second reason why terrorist acts will continue to occur.”
The problem with taking sides, in Russia, is that the sides are so filthy. It is like a fight in a locked toilet stall where the toilet has overflowed. Latynina properly attacks Putin’s populism, his war on the oligarchs – but this isn’t to defend the owners of Yukos, who basically stole the company from the state. This is a turf war in Shark land, and one’s challenge has to be promoting those sharks who, for their own sharkish reasons, are using the ultimate shock tactic of truth. The truth, at the moment, doesn’t matter – a situation bound to drive a writer mad. A parallel exists in this country, but let’s not go there right now. Barthes used the word “effect” to signify the aura, the premium, that surrounds certain writers, celebrities, objects. In Russia’s situation, the opposite is happening – call it effectlessness. Truth is ripped from its pragmatic coordinates – it is, contra William James, what doesn’t work.
Chechnya goes on. That's the saddest, sickest monument to what the cold war oligarchs, on both sides, did to us.
¶ 4:04 PM