President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE claims to know a lot more about a lot of things than anyone else: military strategy, ISIS, drones, campaign finance laws. But as his comments at his recent Cabinet meeting — or press conference, or whatever it was — showed, his grasp of Cold War history is not only weak but fundamentally wrong.
When asked about whether he would follow the U.S. pullout from Syria with a similar exit from Afghanistan, Trump referred to the Soviet experience of the 1980s — and got it about as wrong as possible. “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan,” Trump blurted out, “was because terrorists were going into Russia.”
The president already has been slammed by any number of historians — as well as by his usual allies on the Wall Street Journal editorial pages — but it is worth recalling for a moment how the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan actually unfolded. It also is worth asking where the president is getting his information about Russia and Afghanistan, because it cannot possibly be from any of the handful of experts left in his administration.
There were no “terrorists” infiltrating the old USSR from Afghanistan in 1979. There was, however, a nominally communist, pro-Soviet client state in Kabul that was teetering on the edge of destruction. The Soviets, burned by the Egyptian turn away from the USSR and toward the West earlier in the 1970s, were worried about losing another client.
The Soviet Union based its own legitimacy on the spread of its system of government, and every loss of a friendly regime was a black eye for Soviet communism. In 1968, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sanctioned the invasion of then-Czechoslovakia rather than allow liberalizers in Prague to leave the Soviet sphere, thus creating a “Brezhnev Doctrine” in Soviet-controlled Europe. In 1979, the Kremlin made the stunning move of extending this doctrine so that no pro-Soviet state anywhere would ever be allowed to leave Moscow’s orbit.
How do we know any of this? Because Soviet leaders themselves said so. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government declassified documents from the period, including actual transcripts of Politburo meetings.
There were no terrorists. There was no threat to the USSR.
The instability in Afghanistan was a popular uprising, and the old men of the Kremlin knew it. As then-KGB chief (and, later, Soviet party boss) Yuri Andropov said in March 1979, nine months before the invasion:
“We know Lenin’s teaching about a revolutionary situation. Whatever type of situation we are talking about in Afghanistan, it is not that type of situation. Therefore, I believe that we can suppress a revolution in Afghanistan only with the aid of our bayonets, but that is for us entirely inadmissible.”
Not so inadmissible, as it turned out, once the chaos in Kabul deepened. And yet, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko agreed with Andropov early on, adding that once the Soviet Army enters Afghanistan, it “will be an aggressor. Against whom will it fight? Against the Afghan people first of all, and it will have to shoot at them.”
And shoot at them it did, in staggering numbers, as the Soviets fought to control almost every inch of the country. This was not a limited incursion to destroy nonexistent terrorist bases; it was a full-on invasion that began with Soviet special forces and intelligence units showing up in Afghan uniforms, killing the incompetent leader who was losing control of the situation and installing a Soviet-picked successor who then asked for “help.” Multiple Soviet divisions crossed into Afghanistan and, over the next several years, engaged in brutal offensives that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians — war crimes that were intentional efforts to destroy any popular resistance to Moscow’s installed regime.
So, where, exactly, did Trump get the idea that invading Afghanistan was an act of self-defense by a terrorism-plagued Soviet Union? One possibility is that the president is confusing the Soviet war in Afghanistan with the Russian rationale for destroying the tiny region of Chechnya, in southern Russia. (It is not accurate to speak of the “invasion” of Chechnya, because Chechnya itself is part of the Russian Federation.) The Chechen war is a complicated conflict, but there really are Chechen terrorists and Putin isn’t the first Russian leader who fought there.
It is also possible, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, David Frum of The Atlantic, and others have pointed out, that Trump got the more Russia-friendly version of the Soviet invasion from Vladimir Putin himself. Since we cannot know what Putin says to Trump, anything is possible; it is certain, however, that Putin has been on a steady, determined course to reverse the judgment of history about the USSR and its crimes.
One thing Trump got right: The Afghan war helped to bring down the Soviet Union. Even a closed, authoritarian society couldn’t hide the thousands of body bags coming back from Central Asia. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, referred to Afghanistan as “a bleeding wound” and, in 1986, pleaded with his colleagues in the Kremlin to see reason: “What, are we going to fight endlessly, as a testimony that our troops are not able to deal with the situation?”
The “situation” to which Gorbachev referred was not a terrorist threat but the fact that the various tribes and groups in Afghanistan could only agree on one thing: They wanted the Soviet invaders out of their country. Their resistance to the imposition of a Soviet-client government cost the Afghan people 2 million lives.
Soviet forces, after taking nearly 15,000 casualties, finally departed in 1989, leaving behind widespread destruction, mountains of corpses, and a civil war that would be the breeding ground for instability — and yes, terrorism — for years to come.
President Trump’s final verdict on the Soviet invasion? “They were right to be there.”
Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. His latest book is “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” You can follow him on Twitter @RadioFreeTom. The views expressed in this column are his own.