Category Archives: Central Asia

Ayub Khan, Fake Deserter Spy Hero

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 248-251:

It had in fact struck the independent Pukhtun of several Indian regiments in France that the German jihad leaflets presented an opportunity to enter enemy lines under false pretences in order to spy–an old Pukhtun trick played on British camps during small wars in their tribal areas. In early 1915 some Afridi and Mahsud asked their British officers for permission to attempt the ruse in the German trenches, but were turned down on account of the dangers of being shot at any stage of trying it. One of the men denied permission was a young pre-war Mahsud NCO named Ayub Khan. In December 1914 he had been stationed in British India near Waziristan with his regiment the 124th Baluchis, and his Mahsud company had been ordered to sail for France as casualty replacements for the 129th Baluchis. Twenty-two of his company’s Mahsud had straightaway deserted to dodge the overseas draft, but Ayub Khan had declined to go with them, in itself an indication of professional commitment. Indeed, once his British officers had discovered the desertions, Ayub Khan had sworn to them, according to the 124th Baluchis’ regimental history, ‘he would either die in France or return an Indian officer’. In France in early 1915, Ayub Khan joined the 129th under the command of their pre-war officer Harold Lewis. The two got on well as Ayub Khan tried to impress for a promotion, although Lewis had drawn a line at his request to desert to spy. But Ayub Khan made up his own mind to do so, vanishing from the 129th’s trenches in the early morning darkness of 22 June. At midnight that day he dropped back in over the parapet, very tired, and refusing to give Lewis any account of his escapade until he had got some sleep.

On waking he told Lewis where he had been. ‘I went up to the German wire, lay down, and slept,’ Ayub Khan began. ‘As dawn broke I stood up, raised my hands and called out “Musalman”.’ He was welcomed into the German line, assumed to be a deserter; ‘I was treated well, and the men in the trenches gave me cigarettes.’ He was then taken four miles to the rear on a light railway, to the German-occupied French town of Marquillies. ‘I waited outside a big office. At length I was called inside and interrogated by a Staff Officer through the medium of an officer who spoke very bad Hindustani.’ Following questions about the BEF, the interrogating staff officer–the Prussian Generalleutnant Kurt von dem Borne–told Ayub Khan ‘how wrong it was for Mussalmans to fight against the allies of Turkey’, and asked why he had deserted. ‘I am of an independent race,’ Ayub Khan replied, ‘I am not an Indian. I do not see why I should daily risk my life.’ He added there were twenty more Mahsud of the 129th Baluchis who felt the same. ‘We all want to desert, but we dared not come over together lest we should be mistaken for a raiding party and be fired on and killed. We decided that I should come alone and arrange matters.’ Von dem Borne offered Ayub Khan 20 marks for each of the other twenty Mahsud, equivalent to 300 rupees in total, if he returned to the Indian trenches and brought them over to the Germans. Ayub Khan struck the deal, agreeing a time and place for the mass desertion, and was taken by motor car to the German front line to crawl back to the 129th Baluchis. The morning of his return to the regiment, Ayub Khan showed no inclination of sticking to his side of the bargain with von dem Borne. Rather, he poured out to Lewis every scrap of military intelligence he could. He had spent his time with the Germans making a mental note of all he saw, so he was able to report a range of information, of a kind considered valuable on the western front: German regimental numbers he had seen on epaulettes; the technical details of German trench construction down to the design of parapets, machine gun nests and dug-outs; and the layout behind the German trenches, including ammunition dumps and the whereabouts of von dem Borne’s headquarters.

Word of Ayub Khan’s story soon reached James Willcocks and he went up to the 129th’s trenches to hear it from the man himself. ‘Ayub Khan carried his life in his hand,’ Willcocks reflected, ‘for had his actions caused one doubt of any kind among his captors he would assuredly have been shot.’ Yet Willcocks still tested the young Mahsud NCO’s word by directing the Indian Corps’ artillery to fire on one of the spots he had identified as an ammunition dump. Willcocks took the ensuing ‘very considerable explosion’ as the proof he needed, and spontaneously gave Ayub Khan 300 rupees to match von dem Borne’s offer, along with a special promotion in the field to a higher grade of NCO. He also directed that a large sign be put up above the 129th Baluchis’ trenches saying ‘The Traitor Has Been Shot’. This was a ruse ‘to notify the Hun that the treachery had been discovered’, and therefore to pre-empt any shelling of the regiment’s line by the Germans ‘in a fit of pique if they felt tricked’.

Lewis felt that Ayub Khan’s solo spying surpassed the bravery even of the 129th’s Punjabi Muslim machine gunner Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross. For Lewis, Ayub Khan’s devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy was unique. John Hannyngton, the 129th Baluchis’ commanding officer, and Willcocks agreed: they recommended Ayub Khan for a VC. The BEF authorities, however, rejected the recommendation and forbade Ayub Khan’s story from going public under a censorship ban. Their concern was that self-appointment as a spy was no example to the British soldier, who should not be encouraged to do the same.

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Rise and Fall of Chinese Silk Trade

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 97-100:

Not long after the time of Christ, the straitlaced Roman philosopher-orator Seneca voiced a frequently heard denunciation: “I see silken clothes, if one can call them clothes at all, that in no degree afford protection either to the body or the modesty of the wearer, and clad in which no woman could honestly swear she is not naked.” If salt was China’s premier domestic product, silk was China’s first international trade commodity. This remarkable textile gave its name not only to the route (the Silk Road) across which it was traded to the Near East and the Mediterranean but also to the Latin name for China (Seres or Serica). Silk was an ideal product for long-distance trade: high in value but low in bulk and weight, and not subject to deterioration in transit.

Before the time of Christ, high quality silk fabrics had made their way westward in sufficient quantities to motivate some of Alexander the Great’s campaigns and then, as we have seen, to become the subject of denunciation in Rome for their extravagance and for their sheerness. Large amounts of silk fabric were periodically exported to the rough nomadic peoples living north of China, as part of the price paid for peace along the Great Wall. From China, the technique spread to Korea in the fourth century and thence to Japan. India probably learned the technology at about the same time. Finally, around A.D. 550, Bombyx mori eggs were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire in hollow canes carried by certain Indian monks who had lived for a long time in the Central Asian oasis city-states on the Silk Road. But the mere possession of eggs did not assure the successful development of sericulture.

Silk has always been an elite product, amounting to less than 1 percent of cotton and 3 percent of wool production in the twentieth century. In world trade, it reached its peak in about 1920, when its major use was for women’s silk hosiery—perhaps the only mass use of silk in its history. Thereafter, artificial fibres—rayon, nylon, orlon, etc.—were developed and replaced silk in many of its previous uses. Although silk technology was developed in China, by the mid-1930s Japan was the dominant Asian and world producer, partly because of aggressive adoption of the best production methods, especially quality control, and partly because Chinese production was seriously disrupted by unrest, revolution, and Japanese invasion.

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Notable British Consuls in Kashgar

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 59:

Kashgar’s consulate was the most remote of Britain’s diplomatic outposts in Asia, a three-week ride on horseback from India. The people who passed through included some of the most remarkable figures from the colonial past. The half-Chinese Sir George Macartney, whose same-named ancestor was Britain’s first ambassador to China in the eighteenth century, served as consul here between 1890 and 1918. Sir Percy Sykes, who effectively ran Persia during the First World War, relieved Macartney briefly in 1915.

Great Game players, both legendary and unsung, were regular visitors. Francis Younghusband stayed a winter. He went on to lead a British invasion of Tibet in 1903–4, only to experience an epiphany on the roof of the world that transformed him from an empire-builder into a soldier-mystic. In 1918, Colonel F. M. Bailey was at the consulate en route to an extraordinary series of adventures in central Asia. They included helping to propagate the revolt among Muslims which resulted in so many Kyrgyz crossing into Xinjiang after the Russian Revolution.

Bailey was such an effective spy that he was recruited by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to hunt himself, the British agent who was stirring up the peoples of central Asia against their new communist masters. He was also a noted naturalist, just as Sykes and Eric Shipton, the last British consul in Kashgar, were part-time explorers. In the days of empire, it was possible to serve your country and collect rare butterflies on the Tibetan plateau, conquer unclimbed mountains or cross unmapped deserts.

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Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

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How Persia Turned Shi‘a

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2546-69, 2585-99:

It is uncertain just when the Safavids turned Shi‘a; in the religious context of that time and place, the question is somewhat artificial. Shi‘a notions were just one part of an eclectic mix. By the end of the fifteenth century a new Safavid leader, Esma‘il, was able to expand Safavid influence at the expense of the Aq-Qoyunlu, who had been weakened by disputes over the dynastic succession. Esma‘il was himself the grandson of Uzun Hasan, the great Aq-Qoyunlu chief of the 1460s and 1470s, and may have emulated some of his grandfather’s charismatic and messianic leadership style. In 1501 Esma‘il and his Qezelbash followers conquered Tabriz (the old Seljuk capital) in northwestern Iran, and Esma‘il declared himself shah. He was only fourteen years old. A contemporary Italian visitor described him as fair and handsome, not very tall, stout and strong with broad shoulders and reddish hair. He had long moustaches (a Qezelbash characteristic, prominent in many contemporary illustrations), was left-handed, and was skilled with the bow.

At the time of his conquest of Tabriz, Esma‘il proclaimed Twelver Shi‘ism as the new religion of his territories. Esma‘il’s Shi‘ism took an extreme form, which required the faithful to curse the memory of the first three caliphs that had preceded Ali. This was very offensive to Sunni Muslims, who venerated those caliphs, along with Ali, as the Rashidun or righteous caliphs. Esma‘il’s demand intensified the division between the Safavids and their enemies, especially the staunchly Sunni Ottomans to the west. Recent scholarship suggests that even if there was a pro-Shi‘a tendency among the Qezelbash earlier, Esma‘il’s declaration of Shi‘ism in 1501 was a deliberate political act.

Within a further ten years Esma‘il conquered the rest of Iran and all the territories of the old Sassanid Empire, including Mesopotamia and the old Abbasid capital of Baghdad. He defeated the remnants of the Aq-Qoyunlu, as well as the Uzbeks in the northeast and various rebels. Two followers of one rebel leader were captured in 1504, taken to Isfahan, and roasted on spits as kebabs. Esma‘il ordered his companions to eat the kebab to show their loyalty (this is not the only example of cannibalism as a kind of extreme fetish among the Qezelbash).

Esma‘il attempted to consolidate his control by asserting Shi‘ism throughout his new domains (though the conventional view that this was achieved in a short time and that the import of Shi‘a scholars from outside Iran was significant in the process has been put into doubt). He also did his best to suppress rival Sufi orders. It is important to stress that although there had been strong Shi‘a elements in Iran for centuries before 1501, and important Shi‘a shrines like Qom and Mashhad, Iran had been predominantly Sunni, like most of the rest of the Islamic world. The center of Shi‘ism had been the shrine cities of southern Iraq.

But Esma‘il’s hopes of westward expansion, aiming to take advantage of the Shi‘a orientation of many more Turkic tribes in eastern Anatolia, were destroyed when the élan of the Qezelbash was blown away by Ottoman cannon at the Battle of Chaldiran, northwest of Tabriz, in 1514. A legend says that Esma‘il vented his frustration by slashing at a cannon with his sword, leaving a deep gash in the barrel.

After this defeat Esma‘il could no longer sustain the loyalty of the Qezelbash at its previous high pitch, nor their belief in his divine mission. He went into mourning and took to drink. Wars between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi‘a Safavids continued for many years, made more bitter by the religious schism. Tabriz, Baghdad, and the shrine towns of Iraq changed hands several times. Shi‘a were persecuted and killed within the Ottoman territories, particularly in eastern Anatolia where they were regarded as actual or potential traitors. The Safavids turned Iran into the predominantly Shi‘a state it is today, and there were spasmodic episodes of persecution there too, especially of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews—despite the ostensible protected status of at least the latter two groups as “People of the Book.” One could make a parallel with the way that religious persecution intensified either side of the Roman/Persian border in the fourth century AD, in the reign of Shapur II, after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The Safavid monarchs also turned against the Sufis, despite the Safavids’ Sufi heritage. The Sufis were persecuted to the point that the only surviving Sufi order was the Safavid one, and the others disappeared or went underground. In the long term, the main beneficiary of this were the Shi‘a ulema. This was important because the Sufis had previously had a dominant or almost dominant position in the religious life of Iran, especially in the countryside.

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Persia Under the Mongols

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:

Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.

The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.

Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.

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Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

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