Soviet ghosts in Afghanistan

A defense commentator cites eerie parallels between the language of today and at the end of the Soviet invasion.

Although ISAF commander Gen. John Allen this week is giving Congress the old gung-ho line about the war in Afghanistan, the bottom seems to have dropped out of public pessimism about it.

The Lexington Institute’s Dan Goure argues that the very scenario that war advocates mocked at the time of the invasion has come true — the U.S. is the Soviet Union, and even its leaders are beginning to sound alike:

Comments by senior Soviet leaders about the reasons for Moscow’s failure in Afghanistan are eerily similar to those being made today. In a 1986 Politburo meeting focused on the Afghan situation Premier Mikhail Gorbachev remarks, “The goal we posed was to expedite withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan and at the same time to ensure an Afghanistan that is friendly to us. This was to be achieved via a combination of military and political means. But there is no movement in any of these directions. Afghan government positions have not strengthened.” Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko chimes in with “social conditions in Afghanistan made it impossible to solve the problem in short order…” The Deputy Minister of Defense, later Chief of the Soviet General Staff, Marshal Sergei Akhromeev then delivers a devastating assessment of the security situation:

There is not one military objective that has been posed and not achieved, but there is still no result. The problem is that military results are not being reinforced by political ones … We have lost the fight for the Afghan people. Only the minority of the people support the government. Our army … is capable of maintaining the situation as it is. But under these conditions, the war will continue for a long time.

Goure’s headline is about the “grim lessons” the Soviet withdrawal offers the U.S., but “lessons” implies something constructive, the opportunity to do something different. But his conclusion is deeply fatalistic:

The grimmest lesson from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is that Soviet foreign policy and intelligence experts warned that the failure of the pro-Moscow regime to survive would likely result in “Islamist fundamentalists coming to power.” Despite assertions by the administration that al Qaeda has been decimated and driven from Afghanistan, is there any reason to believe that having made virtually every mistake Moscow made, our withdrawal will not result in the Taliban’s “reconquesta” of their country and the recreation of a safe haven for al Qaeda? 

In other words, the whole war will have been another colossal waste and not even achieve the strategic goal of denying the bad guys an ungoverned space.

Actually, it might not be that bad.

Afghanistan as Switzerland, Kabul as Indianapolis, the “Central Asian roundabout” — all that stuff was never going to happen. But the key difference between the U.S. and Soviet pullouts could be the lingering presence of American troops in key sections of Afghanistan. The Soviets did not leave behind a corps of special operators to prosecute the most vital missions, relying on Afghans who ultimately were not up to snuff. The presence of American special operators, however, could mean the U.S. always will be able to count on going after at least the most dangerous al Qaeda and Taliban bad guys, denying them the time and space they enjoyed before the invasion.

This isn’t much of a silver lining. It requires a commitment almost in perpetuity, and it can’t by itself guarantee the stability of the central government. If today’s Kabul government falls, the new bosses might not be so welcoming of the American presence. You can drive yourself crazy imagining all the nightmare scenarios five or more years from now, when an unfriendly regime attacks the remaining American bases around Afghanistan, forcing U.S. troops to fire on the units they once trained or flee altogether.

And there’s another important difference between the U.S. and Soviet situations: Before Sept. 11, the U.S. did not have the terror-industrial complex it now runs every day around the world, pursuing and killing bad guys as a standard matter of course. The surveillance, intelligence and special operations apparatus took time and a king’s ransom to get running, but now that it is, terror networks might find it that much harder to mount a surprise attack inside the U.S. (We hope.) Even worst-case political scenarios in Afghanistan might not mean the threat level to American citizens at home goes back to the same level as before the war.  Thin gruel, though.

Still, Allen could be right: He and other American commanders could be correct that the thousands of American lives and billions upon billions of dollars were worth it, and the resulting Afghanistan can hang together and function enough to avoid once again becoming a petri dish for terrorists. The problem is, there aren’t many “lessons,” from the Soviets or anyone else, that justify much optimism.