Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lessons from the Soviet Afghan Experience?

The subject of an essay in today's Foreign Affairs.

Stumbling blocks for the U.S., of course: tolerating the level of brutality Najibullah employed to get to the top; and a willingness to keep the gravy train flowing into Kabul.

Comments welcomed.

Interesting insight, that brings to mind this Oct. 13 RT excerpt, which came from someone in the DC area:

"When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan they were viewed as being hostile by everyone, while the US is really not viewed as an occupier. The Soviets were always viewed as an occupier."


Taking the above quoted excerpt at face value, the current US led occupation force in Afghanistan has a better chance of success than the Soviet experience.

Afghanistan has been referred to as the Soviets' "Vietnam."

Upon the US withdrawal from South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government lasted about the same amount of time (roughly one year less if I'm not mistaken) as the last Afghan Communist government, following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There's a consensus that Karzai isn't the right person to preside over Afghanistan. At the same time, American strategists should be reminded of the South Vietnamese experience of revolving door governments, which fell short in eliminating Vietcong/pro-North Vietnamese sentiment in South Vietnam.

The point being that a simple change in scenery may not be enough to better position the interests of the current foreign occupation presence in Afghanistan. A likely exit strategy might seek to ensure as best as possible, an agreeable post-occupation Afghanistan. The problem is that such a withdrawal plan can eventually lead to a different result from what was agreed. Moreover, the hypothetically agreed settlement might very well short of what's otherwise preferred.
"The Soviets and their proxy regime in Kabul were hoping for a post-withdrawal settlement under which Pakistan and the United States would stop arming and financing the mujahideen. That did not happen."

Indeed, even though the US government agreed to do so if the Soviets withdrew their forces.

Yet another reason the Russian government distrusts the USG.

As opposed to the Soviet experience building an Afghan Army the US insists on taking the finest mountain light infantry soldiers in the world, loading them with ~80lbs of armor/gear, complaining about their lack of upper body strength (hello-their geography/climate means they develop powerful cardiovascular capacity, not upper body strength. Don't whine about capabilities they don't have-exploit the ones they do!), and wonders why Afghan troops thus burdened aren't any better at chasing the Taliban up the hill than our troops are.

The prognosis ain't good.
Very worthy article. Somebody had to say this.

Your article provides a perspective long overlooked and long needed. It also raises some questions that would be useful to debate.

"The initial stability of Najibullah’s government suggests that Afghans will assume responsibility for the fate of their government when the foreign footprint in their country has been sharply reduced -- but only if an outside patron is prepared to supply and equip Afghan forces. The central government in Kabul is strengthened when it sends gifts to the provinces rather than collecting taxes from them. But someone has to pay for this. The United Kingdom lavished resources on India in the nineteenth century; the Soviet Union sent billions of rubles to Afghanistan. Is Washington prepared to play such a role today?"

It may be possible to sustain for a while the Karzai government and its army with a much smaller foreign footprint coupled with a flow of foreign aid funds. But I thought that the problem for Najibullah was not primarily the loss of Soviet funding - it was the breakdown in law and the administration of justice as a result of warlordism. The Taliban were initially popular in the Pashtun regions not because they provided an alternative source of money but because they provided law and order, however harsh it soon turned out to be.

If we are looking for a "decent interval" between our departure and the collapse of the Karzai regime, the analogy with Najibullah could well be true. Although it is not unlikely that divisions on the Taliban side could deepen once we are gone, it is harder for me to see how we can sustain the Karzai regime unless it can achieve a legitimacy that it does not now possess. The prospects outlined by Johnson and Mason in Military Review need to be confronted if we are not to continue failing:
Sorry - the link to the pdf was truncated in posting. Will try again:
Sorry again. Just needed to expand the window to see the whole link.
Actually, the Soviets had a comprehensive politico-military-economic-advisory strategy for leaving Afghanistan, that worked pretty well, until Boris cut off the money:

"There is a literature and a common perception that the Soviets were defeated and driven
from Afghanistan. This is not true. When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, they did so in a
coordinated, deliberate, professional manner, leaving behind a functioning government, an
improved military and an advisory and economic effort insuring the continued viability of the
government. The withdrawal was based on a coordinated diplomatic, economic and military plan
permitting Soviet forces to withdraw in good order and the Afghan government to survive. The
Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) managed to hold on despite the collapse of the
Soviet Union in 1991. Only then, with the loss of Soviet support and the increased efforts by the
Mujahideen (holy warriors) and Pakistan, did the DRA slide toward defeat in April 1992. The
Soviet effort to withdraw in good order was well executed and can serve as a model for other
disengagements from similar nations. "

But we're really too proud/stupid/wrapped up in our "triumph over Communism" to do much more than denigrate an example we could learn a lot from. This is shown by how we to this very day mischaracterize the Soviet effort in Afghanistan.
Why the Time for Afghan Analysis is Over

Is it a sure thing that Najibullah would've prevailed without the aid the other side received? Also keep in mind that Najibullah was relatively well stocked with weapons.

It would be interesting to get the above referenced author's reply to the article featured at this blog post.

There seem to be valid points made on both sides of the issue on whether to continue on in Afghanistan.

The article you cite notes that Najibullah's army had a thirty percent desertion rate and a less than a 2:1 ratio against the mujahideen. Much of his army was also under the control of warlords (eg. Dostum). The regime controlled only the cities (about fifteen percent of the country) and in these cities depended on flour deliveries coming by air from the Soviet Union.

It is true that we will never know what might have happened if the Russian Federation had continued to aid Najibullah, and I agree that American misunderstanding needs to be corrected insofar as the Soviet withdrawal did not leave a collapsed state in its immediate wake. However, I wonder how the Najibullah regime could have survived even with outside funding in view of its weaknesses.

The chances of our leaving a viable state behind in Afghanistan are even more bleak if the trends of the last few years do not reverse.
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