by Garry Kasparov
There were many bizarre moments during President Trump’s cabinet meeting on Wednesday, but I’ll discuss just one that falls under my domain. Unlike the alleged leader of the free world, I prefer to speak from authority. Despite his claims of expertise on everything from foreign policy to campaign finance laws, every time Trump speaks off-script, the truth is revealed. He’s a Russian matryoshka doll of ignorance, with numerous layers of cluelessness wrapped up inside a total lack of self-awareness.
His response to a question about removing the American presence in Afghanistan took a strange turn when he started talking about the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979: “Russia is there. Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.”
So far, not too bad. If Trump meant Russia is “there” as “in Afghanistan today,” that’s likely true, despite Kremlin denials of aiding the Taliban. Putin is always looking for chaos and to attack American and NATO interests. And Russia was formerly part of the Soviet Union, if not the entire thing.
There is no doubt that the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan contributed to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. It wasn’t so much a matter of economic strain, however, as the psychological blow. I remember the Soviet media’s best attempts at “mission accomplished” propaganda at the time, and it was far from a U.S.-leaving-Vietnam rush to the exits, but people knew a retreat when they saw one. The mighty Soviet military machine — the vanquisher of Hitler, the iron hand of Soviet control across a dozen time zones from Berlin to Chukotka — crawled home to a USSR that had been already shaken by low oil prices, Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms, and Ronald Reagan’s uncompromising stand against the “Evil Empire.”
By the time the Soviet Army returned in 1989, Soviet citizens who had never had a voice in national affairs were beginning to speak up. Occupied Warsaw Pact nations like Poland and Czechoslovakia wondered if the Soviet bear had become a paper tiger. The exit may have been different, but, for the USSR, Afghanistan resembled the American experience in Vietnam with its atrocities, corruption, millions in native casualties, and a shaken sense of national identity for the foreign power.
Trump’s curious tangent went off the rails with his next statement, “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.” Here the history lesson seems to take a dark revisionist turn. Or was it just nonsense? Like professional art critics pondering the works of a kindergarten class, pundits tried to decipher this blatantly incorrect assertion.
Terrorists going into Russia wasn’t even part of the Soviet Union’s pretexts for invading Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviets went in to secure a much-hated pro-Kremlin Communist regime and to kill anyone who resisted. (The similarities with Vladimir Putin’s bloody efforts in Syria today are notable.) The only talk about insurgents was of the local mujahideen variety that was waging guerilla war against the brutal Communist government, with American aid.
As for being “right to be there,” the American President justifying the Soviet invasion of a neighboring country is very dangerous at a time when Putin is doing the very same thing.
Intent on vindicating his own hostile acts, Putin has been steadily rehabilitating the deeds of Joseph Stalin and other Soviet actions. After all, if the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan was wrong — it was officially condemned “morally and politically” in the USSR in December 1989 — what to make of Putin’s invasions of neighboring Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014? With that in mind, the puppet Russian parliament has prepared a resolution declaring that the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was lawful and just and is scheduled to vote on it on Feb. 15.
Just a coincidence? So where did the President get this idea that the Soviets were right to be in Afghanistan? Keen observers have noted that Trump’s Twitter rants regularly regurgitate talking points from Fox News morning shows, but unless I’ve seriously underestimated the show, upcoming Russian parliamentary votes and Soviet history aren’t much in the mix on “Fox & Friends.”
The only beneficiary of Trump making this wild claim is the person who originated it: Vladimir Putin. State-controlled Russian media are delighted to have the American President’s endorsement of the right to invade neighboring countries under the flimsiest of pretexts. Nor is this the first time Trump has shared an oddly specific non-sequitur in line with Kremlin talking points. Last summer he suddenly criticized new NATO member Montenegro, which was the target of a Russian coup plot in 2016.
With Trump’s open admiration for authoritarians like Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman, it’s nice to reminisce about a time when American leaders stood up to dictators instead of parroting them. Rarely heard in this context is the name of President Jimmy Carter, but it was the soft-spoken Georgian who led the international boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Contrast that with last year, when Russia hosted the World Cup despite its illegal annexation of Crimea and continuing invasion of Ukraine. There were no boycotts by the nations of the free world because there are no longer any leaders who think the free world needs defending. Trump’s remarks were historically illiterate, but they were also a failure of character. And that’s something that can’t be fixed only with history lessons.
Kasparov is the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Renew Democracy Initiative