Gorbachev was right
By Steve Coll The next post in my Afghanistan series is up over at Think Tank. We’re all prisoners of our own experiences. Richard Holbrooke, the Obama Administration’s diplomatic point man on Afghanistan, and the subject of my colleague George Packer’s terrific Profile last week, arrives at the current dilemmas influenced by Vietnam and Bosnia. ...
By Steve Coll
By Steve Coll
The next post in my Afghanistan series is up over at Think Tank.
We’re all prisoners of our own experiences. Richard Holbrooke, the Obama Administration’s diplomatic point man on Afghanistan, and the subject of my colleague George Packer’s terrific Profile last week, arrives at the current dilemmas influenced by Vietnam and Bosnia. General David Petraeus, Obama’s commander for the Middle East and Central Asian region, and General Stan McChrystal, his commander in Afghanistan, arrive at this intersection with the recent lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq ringing in their ears. In some respects the debate over what strategy Obama should now adopt in Afghanistan has become a debilitating contest of historical analogies and comparative case studies. A similar discourse broke out recently after Russia’s incursion into Georgia; the incident occurred during the Obama-McCain Presidential campaign, and McCain invoked comparisons to Hungary, 1956, and even the Second World War. The wise editor of this magazine, setting such comparisons aside, quoted the English theologian Joseph Butler, with whom, frankly, I was unacquainted. Anyway, Butler apparently once wrote, “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” It is a more useful way to think about the value of history in policymaking than the historical-case-study debate method, I agree, and the quotation has stuck with me.
Of course, this philosophy does not make history irrelevant at moments like this. And you might argue that of all the analogies that should be reviewed as Obama makes his choices, those rooted in recent Afghan history are the most useful, since, in some respects, they are “not another thing.”
In the mid-nineteen-eighties, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he inherited a deteriorating war in Afghanistan. He wanted out but he was boxed in by hardliners in his Politburo and military. Gradually, however, he constructed an exit strategy from Afghanistan. It had several components, all of which are present, in amended forms, in the current Obama policy debate.
In Afghanistan, after an initial and failed attempt to use special forces more aggressively to hit Islamist guerrillas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Soviets began to pull back into Afghanistan’s major cities and to “Afghan-ize” their military operations. As they prepared to withdraw, Soviet troops moved away from direct combat, particularly in the countryside, and instead concentrated on training and equipping the Afghan forces. They also provided supplies and expertise the Afghans lacked — air power, for example, and SCUD missiles. As I described in a previous post, this military strategy worked pretty well, and the Soviet city-fortresses withstood heavy assaults from the U.S.-financed mujaheddin even after Soviet troops left the country; they left only a thousand or two military and intelligence advisers behind.
Read the rest here.
Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at the New Yorker.
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.