Here is a brief summary of the discussion from our group of unit 2.9 -- compiled to make up for my absence for large parts of last week.
The discussion on Afghanistan focussed on the extent to which a discernable Soviet policy towards the Middle East could be seen in this period and whether their invasion of Afghanistan should be considered in relation to this. Giles suggests that Afghanistan should be considered on its own merits as a Soviet attempt, in a limited manner, to re-impose Marxist control on a country in which divisions were apparent.
By highlighting the limited and short-lived nature of the planned operation, it was argued that this was not part of a Soviet Grand Strategy to secure further buffer zones to the South of the Soviet Union or the East of Iran. The Cold War context must not be forgotten, however, and it could be argued – and has been argued by Western observers – that the Soviets were also motivated in part by the failure of SALT II in Senate and the deployment of Pershing Missiles in Germany.
A separate thread considered the U.S.’ wisdom in arming the Mujaheddin and also the consequences or blowback from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for the period of détente which had been witnessed in superpower relations.
A view developed of Soviet policy at the time as being defensive and opportunistic which tied in with the original presentation’s argument that in fact Afghanistan was not part of a Soviet Grand Strategy.
A more nuanced view of the Soviet strategy in Afghanistan, as suggested by Sergio, would be to see it as part of a failed effort by the Soviets, begun by Khrushchev and continued by Brezhnev, to develop a Soviet profile in the Middle East by creating a front against imperalism and thus U.S. interests. A deal of effort and cash was spent for little reward.
The thread on the conflict in the Africa quickly becomes a debate on the nature of Soviet foreign policy in the Cold War and the extent to which a Grand Strategy can be determined from Soviet actions and interventions in the Third World.
Essentially, one can conclude that at this stage in the Cold War the interaction between the two superpowers had become a zero-sum game in which tactical and reactive measures were taken to counter similar by one’s opponent at the expense of strategic and proactive moves which would have appeared more logical with the benefit of hindsight. Observing the Cold War moves from a contemporary perspective reveals a seemingly disjointed narrative.
The need of the two superpowers to exert their influence beyond their immediate geographical vicinity was apparent throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As the extent of the U.S. failure in Vietnam became apparent, there was a feeling in Washington that the U.S. was steadily losing its global influence. This was compounded in Africa with the Angolan Civil War and the Ogaden War.
While the Soviet Union appreciated the dangers represented by the process of de-colonialisation along the southern perimeter of its sphere of influence (broadly speaking), there is little evidence of a Soviet Grand Strategy in the Third World as perceived by the U.S.
Sean argues that Soviet involvement under Brezhnev in Africa in the 1970s (cf the fall of Haile Selassie, Portuguese withdrawal from the continent) was opportunistic, as could be witnessed by the variety of means by which it supplied its aid. That Gorbachev reduced Soviet involvement in the region demonstrates its marginal role in Soviet foreign policy objectives. Dropping the African objective when it became too costly demonstrates that the Soviets were less interested in winning Africans to the Communist cause then acting as a thorn in the side of the west which had traditionally through its role as colonial power held sway in the region. The Soviet design, if there was one, was to stir up conflict and prevent Africa from becoming a pro-western bloc.
In the discussions, Paul draws out the point that throughout the Cold War there is very little evidence to suggest the presence of a grand strategy in Soviet thinking – much of Moscow’s foreign policy decision-making can be seen to be opportunistic, the involvement in Vietnam as a means of drawing the U.S. in being the clearest example.