Paul Robinson: Russian Lessons in Afghanistan

Roundup: Talking About History

[Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is completing a book on the history of Soviet economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan.]

We met on a wet winter day outside Altufievskaia station at the northern end of the Moscow subway system and drove into the countryside. Once the senior official responsible for Soviet economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan, Valerii Ivanov has had frequent visitors from the West since 2001. Each time, he explained his experiences developing the Afghan economy, and each time his visitors nodded politely and promptly ignored everything he said.

The situation in Afghanistan now is quite different from what it was in the 1980s. President Hamid Karzai enjoys genuine popular support, unlike the Soviets and their allies in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Taliban, despite their safe havens in Pakistan, receive nothing on the scale of money and weapons that the Mujahideen did in the 1980s. Nevertheless, casual dismissal of the past reveals a dangerous smugness as well as a profound ignorance of the Soviet-Afghan relationship.

Overshadowed by the publicity for President Barack Obama’s surge of additional troops to Afghanistan, the promised civilian surge of economic and technical assistance has attracted far less attention. Obama has pledged “a dramatic increase in our civilian effort,” including at least 600 nonmilitary advisers and billions of additional dollars of economic aid.

To win the war, however, the United States has to use its dollars much more effectively than Ivanov and his fellow Soviets did. To date, it has not done so. In May, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, Marine Corps Gen. Arnold Fields, published his first audit report. Despite billions already spent, he could not be sure that U.S. funds had been well used.

America’s British and Canadian allies have also been talking of shifting their focus from combat to economic development. But their aid performance has been no better. A recent internal assessment for the British Department for International Development noted that more than half the UK’s projects were likely to fail and only 4.5 percent provided “value for money.” Nipa Banerjee, formerly Canada’s senior aid official in Afghanistan, wrote in February 2009, “There seems to be little concrete evidence that aid activities are having a positive impact on the lives of Afghans. Despite deployment of vast efforts, impact on the ground appears inadequate.”

Simply increasing the amount of aid is not the solution. The problem is neither too little money nor too few civilian advisers. These were not the problems for the Soviets either. Something deeper was, and is, at fault.

It suits our prejudices to imagine that the Soviets were solely agents of destruction. Yet while one arm of the Soviet state blew things up, the other built them, repaired them, and trained the local people to maintain them. In the upstairs office of his dacha, at the end of a bumpy village road that could do with some reconstruction of its own, Ivanov printed off a list of projects the Soviets had completed. The relevant archives had disappeared, he complained, apparently tossed out by some bureaucrat in the 1990s, a time when Russians were trying to expunge any memory of their years in Afghanistan. (As a historian, I can only despair at such vandalism. Nevertheless, I have been able to confirm most of the details from other sources.)

Long before and all through the military occupation, the Soviets built roads, electric power stations and power lines, irrigation canals, factories, housing, grain elevators, bakeries, wells, automotive repair plants, airports, technical colleges, and much more. They trained tens of thousands of Afghan specialists, provided hundreds of thousands of tons of humanitarian assistance, and distributed food, seed, and fertilizer. They built schools and hospitals, too. “Equipment and medicines for two clinics, school desks and blackboards, furniture and clothing for young children,” were among the aid delivered to Kabul, a 1988 issue of Sotsialisticheskaia Industriia reported.

Soviet economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan got underway in earnest in the mid-1950s during the premiership of Mohammed Daoud. The primary aim was political—to ensure that Afghanistan was friendly and stable—and the underlying economic premise was that Third World countries remained backward because of a lack of capital and the lingering results of colonial exploitation. Development meant building an independent industrial economy from its basic infrastructure up, using foreign aid to compensate for the lack of capital. The resulting industry would in turn generate more capital, which could be used to pay off debts and invest in more industry, thus kickstarting a virtuous circle of economic growth.

This logic meant that development became a simple engineering problem, a matter of building “stuff’,” which in turn was meant to generate more “stuff.” It was, in a way, an extension of Lenin’s equation that communism = Soviet power + electrification.

The problem was that although the roads were built, the electrical stations constructed, and the canals dug, nothing followed. Roads did not increase commerce, electricity did not encourage private factories, and irrigation failed to boost agricultural productivity. A Soviet economist lamented that, despite all the aid, GDP per capita actually declined in the 1960s. Although it rose slightly in the 1970s, the gain was insignificant. “If the current tempo is maintained,” another Soviet expert commented, “Afghanistan will never reach the global average.”

In part, this was because of the industrial model. Both Soviet and Western aid largely bypassed the agricultural sector and did nothing to help the mass of the rural population in what is, after all, an almost entirely rural country. Irrigation projects—the Soviet-built Jalalabad and Sarde irrigation systems and the American-supported Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA)—absorbed most of the money earmarked for agriculture. They did more harm than good. The HAVA, for instance, managed to reduce, rather than increase, agricultural production, as it led to waterlogging and later salination of the irrigated fields.

The industrial model was not the only problem. Soviet analysts eventually identified two key failings: lack of human capital and weak institutions. In so doing, they discovered something the West has only woken up to lately...

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