TOPICS > Politics

Afghanistan: War Without End?

December 27, 1985 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Soviet troops crossed the border into Afghanistan six years ago today. Afghan guerrilla fighters immediately took up the physical fight against them; the United States and others took up the rhetorical one, and both fights continue as we speak tonight. President Reagan’s birthday message today was: the Soviets are using barbaric methods of war, and the United States still stands with the Afghan freedom fighters against them. The anniversary word on the physical war itself is that it remains the same, only worse.

The fighting has intensified in the past year. The Soviets have brought in more firepower against guerrilla hideouts. They have launched more attacks on the towns and civilian populations that sustain the rebels.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, former National Security Adviser: Soviet policy in Afghanistan right now is the contemporary case of genocide. It’s very brutal.

JIM LEHRER: The Muslim Mujahadeen guerrillas are backed by a reported $250 million in covert U.S. aid and double that from China and Saudi Arabia. Now they have more and better weapons to assault Soviet bases and convoys. The result from most accounts is stalemate and more casualties. A United Nations human rights report estimated more than a half-million Afghan civilians have died in the fighting.

At least four million more, almost a third of the population, are refugees in Pakistan and Iran. And the Soviet forces, now numbering more than 100,000, have by Western intelligence estimates suffered between eight- and 15,000 killed in six years of combat. Almost as dramatic as the escalation is the change in Soviet coverage of the war through its controlled television and press.

Footage such as this is becoming more commonplace on Soviet television. One reason is that the Soviet commitment and casualties have grown too large for the government to conceal from the people. The Soviets rotate about 100,000 troops into the country every eight months, which means the word has to get around, says Moscow correspondent Dusko Doder.

DUSKO DODER, Washington Post: These people have parents, relatives, and the number of people that have become aware of the war is far greater. And of course, each year the number of parents whose kids, either 17 or 18, are about to be drafted — they’re concerned. They don’t want their kids to go to Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: The particular brutality of this guerrilla war in which neither side shows much interest in taking prisoners also is coming home to the Soviet people. Doder related a story about his Moscow driver, who lost a nephew in Afghanistan.

DUSKO DODER: He had to go to a funeral. He asked for a day off and then he came all crushed because the coffin was closed and they were not allowed to open it. And in the Orthodox tradition you have to always open the coffin before it’s buried. Which meant to them, and probably correctly, that the body has been butchered or in bits and pieces — Lord knows what. And of course, you know, people grieve over things like that, and the word gets around.

JIM LEHRER: The Soviet coverage is increasingly accompanied by commentary that compares the fighting with the World War II patriotic resistance to the Nazis. That suggests Afghanistan has become a struggle for the Soviet homeland. But even with mounting casualties and coverage, few experts any longer compare the Soviet experience in Afghanistan with that of the United States in Vietnam.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I don’t think the people are war-weary. I don’t think they have enough sense of what’s going on. There is some subterranean feeling and more people are beginning to die. Nothing compared to the sense of fatigue and resentment and division that the Vietnamese war generated in our country.

JIM LEHRER: But no one in the West knows for sure if the new Gorbachev leadership in the Soviet Union wants to cut its losses in Afghanistan or make it a Soviet province, whatever the cost. At the November summit, Reagan administration officials thought Gorbachev was dropping some tantalizing hints of Soviet flexibility. But now they wonder if his words reflected more diplomatic subtlety than a real change in policy. Outgoing National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane said that remains a riddle.

ROBERT McFARLANE, National Security Adviser: All of us present at the meetings in Geneva heard a very businesslike, reasonable-sounding tone on the subject of Afghanistan. Since then, however, General Secretary Gorbachev has spoken again on the subject. What he told the Supreme Soviet on November 27th left little room for encouragement. It was point for point the established Soviet position maintained for the past six years of occupation. That is, that the United States is the problem, and the Mujahadeen resistance are simply counterrevolutionary gangs hired from the outside.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, the war goes into its seventh year, amid reports the Soviets are preparing yet another offensive.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more on the official U.S. view on the war and the prospects for a settlement, we have with us Arnold Raphael, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, meaning he is the State Department’s main point man on Afghanistan. Mr. Raphael, can you tell me to what extent have the Soviets consolidated their position in Afghanistan in the past year?

ARNOLD RAPHAEL: I think we’ve seen much greater intensity in the war in the past year. There are 120,000 Soviet occupation forces. They’re using special forces much more than they have. We’ve seen increased bombing there [in the] past year — carpet bombing of villages, napalming of civilians — and this continuation of genocide directed against the Afghan people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Genocide in what way? I mean, what are they doing?

ARNOLD RAPHAEL: Well, now more than one third of the Afghan people are refugees, either refugees in their own country or in neighboring countries. The Soviets, for example, use mines which are disguised as toys, which children pick up, doing great damage to the children and great harm to the people. It is in every sense of the word genocide. There has been increasing pressure on Pakistan. Over 40 Pakistanis have been killed this year in cross-border attacks from the Kabul regime. So they’ve intensified the war, but we have to remember that their losses have also intensified. They’re paying a high price. We estimate conservatively that more than 30,000 Soviet casualties have occurred since the beginning of this war.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What specifically is U.S. policy trying to achieve there?

ARNOLD RAPHAEL: We have one very clear goal, which is the removal of the Soviet occupation forces. And in order to achieve that, in our view, the Soviets have to make one very crucial determination, that the advantages of a negotiated withdrawal outweigh the price of the continuing occupation of Afghanistan.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But what is the U.S. doing to persuade the Soviets of that?

ARNOLD RAPHAEL: We have to pursue two specific courses. One, we have to increase the cost in terms of international political diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union, and second, there has to continue to be increased military pressure by the resistance on the Soviet Union inside Afghanistan. And if both those courses are pursued, we believe that the Soviets will begin to rethink the need for a negotiated settlement to get out of Afghanistan.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, the U.S. recently agreed to be a guarantor in a politically negotiated settlement. What exactly does that mean and what’s behind that, very briefly?

ARNOLD RAPHAEL: Well, we’ve agreed to guarantee a settlement if it is balanced and comprehensive. And in our view, a balanced and comprehensive settlement must include the full withdrawal of Soviet troops, must include the Afghan people determining their own future, and must include the return of all refugees. And if a settlement does that, then we, to show our interest in a peaceful resolution of the conflict, we’d be willing to guarantee that settlement. But it must be that kind of settlement.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how hopeful are you that this is — well, where do you see this in the process? Is it anywhere near reality?

ARNOLD RAPHAEL: I wish we knew. They’ve just finished the sixth round of proximity negotiations in Geneva under the U.N. The Soviets are making more conciliatory sounds about Afghanistan. But the proof will be whether or not on the ground they begin to take actions that indicate they want a negotiated settlement, and so far we haven’t seen that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, we’ll come back. Jim?

JIM LEHRER: A second opinion now from Senator Gordon Humphrey, Republican of New Hampshire and chairman of the congressional task force on Afghanistan. He joins us tonight from public station WGBH in Boston. Senator, are you picking up any signs that the Soviets want out of Afghanistan?

SEN. GORDON HUMPHREY: None whatsoever, Jim. And I find it ironic and symptomatic that the president today said that we stand squarely behind the people of Afghanistan in their struggle for freedom, that the Soviets are using barbaric tactics, yet on the other hand just a week or 10 days ago the president’s secretary of commerce was in Moscow with several hundred American businessmen and -women seeking new commercial contracts. Well, we need to bring to bear every kind of pressure we can — military, economic, diplomatic and commercial pressures. And you don’t do that in the midst of this Afghan war by sending the Secretary of Commerce to Moscow.

Now, the problem is that our policies are inconsistent. And you know why that is? It’s a management problem. There’s nobody, not in this entire federal government, there is no one person with any clout who spends full time overseeing our effort in Afghanistan. And as a result you’ve got all of these executive agencies going off and pretty much doing their own thing, and therefore our policies are not nearly as effective as they could be if we had one person in charge of this effort.

And I suggest that it’s such an important effort that it deserves, it’s a special situation and it deserves a special management structure. Today it’s just buried in the welter of priorities that the president and everyone else have to deal with — terrorism, for example.

JIM LEHRER: What about the — Mr. Raphael’s talking about the U.S. is trying to raise the cost to the Soviet Union for staying in Afghanistan and also trying — the U.S. Is also trying to play a role and say, “Okay, look, we’ll help you get out, you know, if you do this, this, this.” You don’t think that’s going to work?

SEN. GORDON HUMPHREY: It might, but what is clear is that the Soviets only respond to pressure and only respond to self-interest. So we have to exert sufficient pressure to make it in their self-interest to leave and to permit the people of Afghanistan to determine for themselves what kind of government they want.

JIM LEHRER: Like what? Besides not doing — not sending the Secretary of Commerce to Moscow, what should the United States do to put the kind of pressure on that you think would cause the Soviets to say, “Okay, enough, we’ll leave”?

SEN. GORDON HUMPHREY: Well, first of all, we need that structural change. We need somebody put in charge. Nobody’s minding the store today.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, but what would that person do?

SEN. GORDON HUMPHREY: Well, I’ve suggested formally to the White House that they create a special office which would — whose occupant would report directly to Don Regan and who would make recommendations, catalogue all of the opportunities — military, economic, diplomatic, commercial, all of them — and report directly to Don Regan and say, “Here’s what we ought to be doing,” and then that would be decided in the White House. And then this same person, overseer if you will, would ensure that all of the executive agencies, who are so preoccupied with other things, focus and work together in a coordinated fashion.

Now, that’s a general remedy, a management remedy. But what we need to do in terms of policy itself, in the military area we’re not providing the kind of weapons the freedom fighters need. They have nothing with which to detect mines. That’s a real problem for them. They have nothing of any reliability with which to ward off attacks by air, which are the most devastating attacks the Soviets deliver.

In the diplomatic area we still — you know, here we are denouncing this criminal regime, along with the U.N., by the way, which denounced the human rights violations in Afghanistan just a week ago — here we are denouncing this criminal regime set up by the Soviets in Kabul. Yet for heaven’s sake, we still have diplomats, relations with this criminal, unlawful regime. We ought to withdraw our diplomats. We ought to seek the unseating of that government at the U.N., at the IMF, at the World Bank.

JIM LEHRER: I hear you. All right. Thank you, Senator.