Britain should pull out of Afghanistan, says Gorbachev

The ex-Soviet leader argues the US must take some blame for fanning Islamic fundamentalism

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, has called for fundamental change to world politics against the background of uprisings across North Africa, saying that the will of the people can no longer be ignored.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Independent on Sunday, marking his 80th birthday on Wednesday, Mr Gorbachev also calls on David Cameron to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan. And, in comments that risk provoking outrage in the US, he portrays the war against Islam as a conflict partly of the US's own making.

"It's called the historical and political boomerang," he says, referring to the US's secret funding of Islamic extremists during the 1980s, when the Americans were fighting communism. "[The Americans] were working in secret with those forces with whom they are now fighting. They should accept their part of the blame. Let them say so. I think God has some mechanism that he uses to punish those that make mistakes."

The former communist also expressed disgust at the extravagances of Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club, saying he felt "ashamed" to read of his wealth.

Drawing on his experience of six years governing the USSR, from 1985 to 1991, when he helped end the Cold War and oversaw the collapse of communism, Mr Gorbachev condemns the Western occupation of Afghanistan, and issues a direct appeal to Mr Cameron to act. "I am using this interview to appeal to the Prime Minister to go in the right direction on Afghanistan," he says. "I am appealing to him to set that goal. And I am not saying that he should do it exactly the same way we did it."

Mr Gorbachev became President after Soviet forces had occupied Afghanistan, and oversaw the eventual withdrawal of troops in 1989. He points out that Britain advised against the Soviet invasion, saying the Afghans are a special people who live by their own rules, and that Britain should now heed its own advice.

Earlier this month, Mr Gorbachev welcomed the uprising in Egypt: "The people have spoken and made clear they do not want to live under authoritarian rule." In today's interview, he appeals to a generation of young people to enter politics and the media, to regain control, and to restore democracy, describing himself as an idealist.

At a press conference in Moscow last week, Mr Gorbachev criticised Vladimir Putin's administration as "a sham democracy", saying: "We have institutions, but they don't work. We have laws, but they must be enforced." In today's interview, he repeats this, calling on Russia's leaders to reflect. "Sometimes it's difficult to accept, to recognise one's own mistakes, but one must do it," he says. "I was guilty of overconfidence and arrogance, and I was punished for that.... I am sharing my experience with [Putin and Medvedev], because I don't want them to go astray by making similar mistakes."

Asked if Russia would ever be a superpower again, he says: "I don't think this should be Russia's goal. I think even the US doesn't need to be a superpower. China doesn't need to be a superpower. It's a different world. Relations in the world are different.

"When certain people arise and get power, with such ideas of superpowership, I think such people should be rejected. They should not be allowed to have the mandate of support."

At last week's press conference, Mr Gorbachev also announced the launch of an annual award honouring people "who have changed the world".

Mr Gorbachev has enjoyed strong links with Britain since Margaret Thatcher declared he was a man she "could do business" with. In the interview, Mr Gorbachev reveals his admiration for Mr Cameron and the Big Society. "I welcome David Cameron's work. This idea, or programme, as I understand it, means that the gaps between different groups of people should be bridged. I think this is a very democratic idea, and I support that. So may Britain have its own 'perestroika', but I'm sure the British will find their own way of calling it."

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