At a press briefing at the end of a cabinet meeting Wednesday, Trump took questions from the press, and went on for 90 minutes in a rambling monologue festooned from end to end with falsehoods on a variety of subjects.
But then Trump went right off the deep end with a disquisition on the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and his remarks betrayed a perilous, gawping ignorance of the very reason why Afghanistan became such a lawless hellhole in the first place—which is how it came to pass that al-Qaeda found sanctuary there with the deranged Pakistani subsidiary that came to be called the Taliban, which is how al-Qaeda managed to plan and organize the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—which is the very reason the American troops that Trump keeps saying he wants to bring home are still there at all.
“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan,” Trump began. “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.”
They were right to be there.
You’ll want to let that sink in for a moment: on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, Donald Trump endorsed a revisionist lunacy that is currently being championed by a bunch of cranks at the outermost neo-Stalinist fringe of Vladimir Putin’s ruling circle of oligarchs. They’ve already managed to cobble together a resolution in Russia’s Potemkin parliament that is to be voted on next month. It’s jointly sponsored by lawmakers from Putin’s United Russia and the still-existing Communist Party.
The resolution slammed the former Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Andrei Gromyko and Dimitri Ustinov for turning Afghanistan into an apocalyptic wasteland of more than a million corpses and forcing a third of the Afghan population to flee the country as refugees, costing as well the lives of 15,000 Soviet soldiers, for good measure.
And now, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, is saying Gorbachev was wrong, and Brezhnev, Andropov, Gromyko and Ustinov were right, and so are Vladimir Putin’s creepy neo-Stalinist revisionists. Further than that, the idea the invasion bankrupted the Soviet Union, leading to its collapse, and that the Soviets rightly invaded Afghanistan “because terrorists were going into Russia,” as Trump claimed, is a whole-cloth fiction.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board piled on, saying Trump’s comments on Afghanistan were a “slander against every ally that has supported” the US effort in the country and adding, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”
And this hints on a question that many people are asking: Where is Trump getting his information from?
Certainly not our generals.
Or historians. Let’s go back not too far in time.
Through the 1970s, Afghanistan had been governed by a president who was friendly to the Soviet Union, but it was not reliably under Soviet control. That president, Mohammad Daoud Khan, became convinced that the local Communists were plotting against him. He struck first, assassinating one Communist leader in April 1978, and arresting others.
Instead of preventing the plot, this coup-from-above triggered it. In April 1978, the Communists—enabled by their strong presence in Afghanistan’s Soviet-trained military—seized power.
The new regime launched an ambitious modernizing agenda: women’s rights, land reform, secularization. That project went about as well as expected. While the Communists appealed to a small, educated elite in Kabul, they offended the ultraconservative countryside. Violent guerrilla resistance gathered. The guerrillas called themselves “mujahideen,” holy warriors. The Kabul government dismissed them as “bandit elements” and “terrorists.”
By the end of 1979, the Kabul-based Communist government was teetering, nearing collapse. The Soviet authorities in Moscow blamed the incompetence, corruption, and internecine violence of their local allies. In December 1979, they overthrew and killed the then-Communist leader, installed somebody more compliant, and deployed 85,000 troops to enforce their rule over the countryside. The Soviets had expected a brief, decisive intervention like those in Prague in 1968 or Budapest in 1956. Instead, the war turned into a grinding Vietnam-in-reverse. The Soviets withdrew, defeated, in 1989.
Now, Putin doesn’t give a crap about Afghanistan, but he cares about the now broken-apart USSR. In 2005, Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as (depending on your preferred translation) “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” or “a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”—but clearly a thing very much to be regretted.
And in reviving the image of the USSR, the Putin regime tries to rehabilitate and justify the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Trump just did that.
It is now two days since that statement, and there has been no attempt by the White House to tidy things up: no presidential tweet, no corrective statement. The president’s usual defenders—Sean Hannity, Fox & Friends, the anti-anti-Trump Twitter chorus—have likewise ignored the whole matter. They’re back to denouncing the Steele dossier, fulminating against Mueller, and reprising the Clinton-email drama. There’s apparently nothing they can think of to say in exoneration or excuse.
So we understand why Putin is interested in propping up the Soviet Union.
But how that propaganda is reaching Trump—by which channels, via which persons—seems an important if not urgent question.