Afghanistan Is the New Afghanistan

Twenty years ago, the Soviets cut their losses and withdrew from Afghanistan. If it wants to avoid that outcome, the United States should learn its history.

Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images

In a recent ForeignPolicy.com article, Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason argue that Afghanistan is the new Vietnam. They are right, but there is another historical parallel which is both more obvious and less discussed: the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.

U.S. government officials have understandably avoided the comparison. For one, the United States supported the other side: Afghan "freedom fighters" who later became enemies. Further, the Soviets became bogged down in a costly and bloody decade-long quagmire before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately pulled the plug and withdrew. Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan and its attempt to create a working central government in Kabul is broadly (if somewhat inaccurately) deemed a failure.

It’s a failure the United States apparently has no intention of repeating — to the extent that it doesn’t even seem to study it. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual does not mention the Soviet experience once. One analyst told me that when she suggested including the conflict as a way to inform current policy, Pentagon officials seemed to have little awareness about what Moscow had been trying to do there or for how long.

But the United States has much to learn from the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Of course, there are vitally important differences. The United States has Pakistani support, while the Soviets did not. No superpowers back the Taliban now, but the United States supported the insurgents then. American forces are now fighting a distant war, but Afghanistan was proximate to the Soveit Union. And global networks like al Qaeda now fund insurgency in Afghanistan, but barely existed in the 1980s. Still, the similarities are worth considering.

When the United States helped topple the Taliban in the heady days after the September 11 attacks, the plan was to get Osama bin Laden and establish a democratic, pro-American government.  No one planned on an eight-years-and-counting presence that would cost 800 U.S. lives, tens of thousands of Afghan lives, and half a trillion dollars.

Similarly, when Soviet leaders decided to invade Afghanistan in 1979, they did not intend to commit hundreds of thousands of troops over a decade to fight a domestic insurgency. They hoped that while Soviet troops provided training and logistical support to the military of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, economic aid and a massive advising effort would help build up the governing ability of the main political party. The Kabul government would then have the legitimacy and defense capability to stand on its own two legs without Soviet troops. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at that point, seems to have genuinely believed that soldiers would be home within a few months.

In practice, of course, things did not quite work out that way. Much like the efforts of the United States and its allies — building schools without teachers to man them and promoting farming in desertlike areas where nothing grows — the Soviet attempt at nation-building suffered from poor coordination, ill-planning, and a misunderstanding of indigenous culture. Moscow informed soldiers they were not in Afghanistan to spread communism, but to help people feel the tangible benefits of a working government. Still, enthusiastic party workers drew on Soviet propaganda and organizing principles, often alienating the local population.

These problems were compounded by rivalries among various Soviet agencies and institutions operating on the ground. Aid sometimes did not reach its destination because military commanders refused to relinquish the necessary transport vehicles or provide security. In other cases, Soviet representatives found that their Afghan "clients" had no intention of playing along with their nation-building plans. On one occasion, the KGB cultivated and promised protection, money, and a house to the leader of an insurgency group. The local governor, in turn, promptly denied the insurgency leader the promised housing and seized the cell’s weapons.

Likewise, though the Afghan military looked strong on paper, with more than 300,000 men and a generous supply of Soviet weaponry, it proved incapable of leading offensive operations. Within several months Soviet troops were fighting the insurgency directly, while Afghan forces did not take the lead in an operation until 1986. The complaints of Soviet officers working with Afghan troops would sound familiar to U.S. and NATO officers today. Recruitment proved difficult. Desertions were rife. Corruption was widespread. Troops avoided going into battle for fear of retribution against their families.

The broader security and occupation dilemma was familiar as well. The Soviet military was perfectly capable of clearing an area of insurgents, albeit not without significant collateral damage. But Moscow never sent enough troops to keep those areas free of insurgents once an operation was completed. There were never more than about 108,000 Soviet troops operating in Afghanistan at any given time.

Sending in reinforcements was rejected for a number of reasons. For one, it would have risked further angering the local population. Additionally, it would have fueled the already significant criticism of the Soviet Union, both from the West (the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics and enacted an embargo on grain) and developing countries (who supported a U.N. resolution denouncing the invasion and calling for withdrawal). It also would have made the war much more difficult to keep hidden at home. Remarkably, the Soviet press was largely forbidden from mentioning that troops were engaged in combat.

Finally, in both cases there was a misunderstanding of the country’s ethnic politics. In 1979, Moscow installed Dari-speaking Babrak Karmal as leader, despite his weak ties to the country’s Pashtuns. In 1986 it replaced him with Mohammed Najibullah, who highlighted his Pashtun heritage and cultivated strong ties within his ethnic bloc. But Moscow’s overreliance on Najibullah undermined efforts to reach out to the country’s other groups and leaders, such as powerful Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud. Similarly, the dominance of non-Pashtuns since the U.S. invasion has alienated Pashtuns, traditionally Afghanistan’s elites.

Thus, U.S. President Barack Obama is in a situation surprisingly similar to the one in which Gorbachev found himself when he took power in 1985. Recognizing the Afghan war’s utter mismanagement, the last Soviet leader worried about what retreat — failure — would mean for his country’s prestige, its security, and his own political survival. Gorbachev decided quickly that he had to replace corrupt and ineffectual Karmal with someone who could hold together the fractious Kabul regime and reach out to insurgents. Although his first year saw a minor "surge" of military activity, ultimately Gorbachev abandoned the nation-building effort and brought Soviet troops home, meanwhile focusing his efforts on trying to find an international settlement.

The Soviet intervention was disastrous in many ways. But if there is a hopeful historical lesson, it is that Moscow neither won nor lost in Afghanistan. After Soviet troops went home in 1989, the Najibullah regime survived for three years, without any more Soviet soldiers laying down their lives. The Afghan army proved just strong enough to hold its own. Where it could not or would not, militias paid by Kabul did the job. Had the Soviet Union not collapsed, the regime in Kabul might have grown and survived indefinitely.

So far, the Obama administration appears to have no interest in doing what Gorbachev did and cutting its losses. It has embarked on a military and a civilian surge, bulking up the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and involving more aid workers. Administration officials still believe that a stable, democratic Afghanistan is a possibility. But if they ultimately decide to settle for a less ambitious outcome, the Soviet experience suggests that it might not be that bad.

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