Russia’s Afghan Valentine Present

The McClatcheyNewspaper group released a story on February 14 (Jonathan Landay, “Is U.S. Repeating Mistakes Soviet Regime Made in Afghanistan?”) based on recently declassified Soviet documents regarding why Mikhail Gorbachev decided the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan was doomed to failure and thus concluded the need to withdraw. The reasons are eerily similar to the problems the Obama administration faces 20 years after the Soviet withdrawal. It is quite a Valentine’s Day present.

The report admits, of course, that the reasons for the Soviet and American interventions in Afghanistan were different. The Soviets invaded in December 1979 to try to prop up a communist regime theyhad helped install, whereas the United States intervened initially because of the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Al Qaeda after 9/11. In the process, the United States assisted in the rise to power of the Hamid Karzai regime, which faces reelection later this year.

There are chilling points of comparability in the 1989 and 2009 situations that should give the Obama administration pause as it contemplates its next moves in Afghanistan. In the Soviet case, these factors led the leadership to conclude their mission was futile and had to be terminated. Should the Obama administration reach the same conclusions?

The McClatchey reports lists four similarities that are worth noting. The first was the failure of the government being propped up by the intervening power to achieve legitimacy. The communist government supported by the Soviets never had any real support, and a combination of ineptitude and corruption has largely created the same problem for Karzai. Although the study does not add this dynamic, the fact that both regimes could be portrayed by their opponents as puppets of the unwanted interveners did not help their popularity. Both the Soviets then and the Americans now backed popular losers.

Second, thecounterinsurgency is not working. The McClatchey report quotes the late Soviet Armychief of Staff, Sergei Akhromeyev, on this point: “After seven years in Afghanistan, there is not one square killometer untouched by a boot of a Soviet soldier. But as soon as they leave a place, the enemy returns and restores it all back the way it used to be.” This, of course, is the classic dilemma of the counterinsurgent: providing security in hostile territory. The problem is that security is only possible if one is physically present to enforce it. That requires a very large force in a place the size of Texas (Afghanistan). The Soviets could not do it with 150,000 troops. If current proposals are implemented, NATO (2/3 American) forces will number about 90,000. Need more be said?

Third, part of the Soviet problem was the inability to seal the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban fighters ignored the border and went back and forth with impunity. As noted earlier in this space, they still do, since both sides of the border are Pashtun lands and the bulk of the Taliban are Pashtun. As the United States found after evicting the Taliban from power, chasing them out of the country is not the same thing as defeating them.

Fourth, the loss of goodwill between the occupiers and the population is the inevitable outcome of a prolonged occupation. Eduard Shevardnadze, then Soviet foreign minister (later president of Georgia), put it then, “Very little is left of the friendly feelings toward the Soviet people, which exised for decades.Very man people have died, and not all of them were bandits (guerrillas). Not a single problem was solved in favor of the peasants. In essence, we waged war against the peeasants.” Recent polls show that favorable opinions of Americans among Afghans is less than one-half, compared to two-thirds in 2007.   

These factors, along with a failing political system and economy, caused the Soviets to leave Afghanistan two decades ago. In essence, the Soviets concluded their quest was quixotic and unsustainable given their own national miseries. Is the situation really so different today?

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