Americans in Afghanistan: Ignoring Lessons of the Soviet Intervention

In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, the United States went to war in Afghanistan. It did so largely ignorant of the lessons of the Soviet intervention in that country two decades before, thinking them irrelevant. Ironically, by ignoring Soviet history, Americans were repeating it. In 1979, Mikhail Kapitsa suggested to his boss, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, that perhaps Moscow should study the 19th and early 20th century British involvement and wars in Afghanistan. Gromyko rejected any comparison between the USSR’s forces and those of the British empire. Yes, Kapitsa responded, “the forces are different. But the mountains are the same.” 

Eighteen years after the U.S. went to war, the parallels with Russia’s experience seem obvious. Not least of them is the difficulty of leaving Afghanistan. Donald Trump promises American troops will be gone by November of 2020. Barack Obama made similar promises in 2014 and 2016. Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev decided it was time to get out in 1986, but Soviet forces only left in 1989. 

So what can Trump learn from Gorbachev’s experience if he seeks to sustain changes that the U.S. has backed, and to avoid what happened a little over three years after the Soviets left, when the Afghan government collapsed and the country was plunged into civil war? I offer four lessons for Washington and the international community to keep in mind as American forces depart. 

US Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Potential Scenarios and Consequences
Andrey Kazantsev
In general, under any scenarios, the war in Afghanistan will continue but without US participation if the Americans leave it altogether. Indicatively, fairly radical forces will win this war.

First, the Afghans may well be more capable at safe-guarding their security than their trainers, or they themselves, think. The surprise of 1989-1992 was not the collapse at the end but the fact that the Afghan government maintained its hold on power throughout that period, even as they continued to fight an insurgency. Afghan leaders begged the Soviets not to leave, certain that their government’s collapse would follow immediately. Contrary to their expectations, Afghan state forces held their own against a variety of mujahideen factions after the USSR withdrew. Moreover, the Afghans whom the Soviets trained, both in the security forces and in other fields from engineering to medicine, remain respected to this day. Today, the Americans are already less involved than the Soviets had been before their withdrawal. With U.S. troops reportedly numbering some 14,000, their numbers are a fraction of the force of approximately 100,000 that Moscow and Washington respectively deployed at the height of their involvement. This undercuts the argument that it is U.S. force presence that is uniquely keeping Afghan government security forces viable. 

Second, the Afghanistan the United States leaves will be neither that which it hoped to build, nor that which existed before September 2001. The Soviets changed the country. So did the Americans. So, what will endure? Among the Afghan security capabilities the Soviets helped develop in the 1980s, what lasted were local/ethnic militias, and the Sarandoy (police) and KhAD (intelligence) services, which had become effectively institutionalized during the years of Soviet-backed rule. The Afghan Army, which the Soviets had tremendous trouble getting off the ground, largely collapsed. Economic infrastructure, meant to replace agriculture demolished by the scorched earth tactics of the USSR and its Afghan partners, did not survive. The United States and NATO have probably done a better job building the Afghan National Army than the Afghan police, a reversal of the Soviet experience. They, too, failed to revitalize agriculture (though they surely did it less harm). The drug trade, which has remained resilient despite their best efforts, however, seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future, with repercussions for Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Policies going forward will need to reflect these realities.

Democratic Afghanistan: America’s Poisonous Baby
Anatol Lieven
The USA will have to support the Afghan state and resolve its internal divisions for all foreseeable time; and whether Americans will have the patience for this is anyone’s guess.

Third, lasting solutions require compromise from all sides. Many Afghans will say that for all of his faults, Mohammed Najibullah, whom the Soviets put in place as they planned their withdrawal, was a powerful leader. Many worry that today’s leaders do not measure up. But when the Soviets picked Najibullah, he was by no means the obvious choice. He succeeded for as long as he did because of his relatively pragmatic policies, encouraged by the Soviets, which included outreach to warlords and rollback of controversial reforms. An enduring peace, which negotiators now seek, will require similar pragmatism and adaptability. With so many stakeholders, Washington and other foreign powers (including Moscow) can help Afghans not just define their path forward, but use their assistance and support to make that path sustainable. In doing so, however, they will have to be clear about their own priorities and goals. 

The importance of foreign support is probably the most crucial lesson, not just for America, but for the global community as a whole. Najibullah would not have held on for over three years had his forces been incompetent or his approach to reconciliation inflexible. However, he fell months after Soviet assistance dried up, which it did when the USSR collapsed. Today, Afghanistan is no less dependent on foreign aid than the Najibullah regime was. Its economic growth prospects are not sufficient for Afghanistan to become significantly less dependent any time soon. For any Afghan government to survive, whether or not fighting continues, foreign money has to keep flowing. Peace would help Afghanistan start to grow its economy more dramatically. In time, a strong economy might even drive out the drug trade. But neither Kabul nor its partners should be under any illusions about how long that will take, and how much help Afghanistan will need in the meantime. Peace, therefore, may lead to military disengagement, but it will be short-lived if economic disengagement accompanies it. If the Americans like the government that emerges in Afghanistan, they can likely be counted on to help. If they do not, and no one steps into the breach, Afghanistan can expect a resurgence of conflict.

Trump, A ‘Normal’ President in Afghanistan
Richard Lachmann
Trump is following in the footsteps of Barack Obama who also acceded to the generals’ demands for more troops in as yet unsuccessful attempt to secure victory. Trump’s increase is, for now, smaller than Obama’s, who doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2009, his first year in office, to 100,000.



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