Friday, December 11, 2009

A great article by Newsweek on the Afghanistan/Pakistan war

It's great that some of our journalists are addressing some of the fantasies that have been promoted about the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova of Newsweek provide a helpful response to those who promote the notion that the current war is like the Soviet/ Mujahedin war of the 1980s. RLC

Learning From the Soviets
By Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova | NEWSWEEK Dec 11, 2009 [From the magazine
issue dated Dec 21, 2009]

Talk to Russian veterans of Afghanistan and it's hard not to think that
they're rooting for the U.S. to lose. For these proud men, seeing NATO
succeed at a job they botched would deepen the humiliation of defeat. Easier
to affirm that if the Soviets couldn't win there, no one can. "We did not
succeed and you will not either," says Gen. Victor Yermakov, who commanded
Soviet forces in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1983. "They didn't trust us. They
won't trust you." Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, who served in Afghanistan under
the occupation and has just completed a four-year term as Russia's envoy in
the country, is no more optimistic. "We tried to impose communism. You are
trying to impose democracy," he says. "There is no mistake made by the
Soviet Union that the international community has not repeated."

Such unrelenting bearishness is hardly encouraging, and there are undeniably
echoes of the Soviet experience in President Barack Obama's new Afghan
surge. Obama is doubling down on his attempt to do what no foreign power
ever has: defeat an Afghan insurgency and leave behind a stable and
legitimate local regime. The Soviets' misadventures in Afghanistan—begun 30
years ago this Christmas Eve—faced many similar challenges: managing tribal
politics, stemming support for insurgents from over the border in Pakistan,
creating a credible government in Kabul and viable local security forces,
and containing civilian casualties. Yet the differences are equally
profound, and they suggest that America may just manage to succeed where
Russia failed—in part by learning from its own and the Soviets' mistakes.

Moscow's troubles in Afghanistan started nearly the moment the war began,
with a deluge of international condemnation far stronger than the Soviet
leaders ever expected. The U.S. imposed trade sanctions and boycotted the
1980 Moscow Olympics. Obama today finds himself in a very different
position. The NATO campaign enjoys wide international support—including from
Russia, in spirit at least.

But the most important difference between then and now is that the Taliban
isn't backed by a superpower supplying it with money and deadly weapons.
That makes it a far less formidable enemy than the mujahedin of the 1980s,
who were enthusiastically supported and armed by the U.S. and Pakistan.
Washington suspects, with reason, that many of the old insurgents still
fighting today—notably Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani—are getting
covert support from elements in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence
agency. But even if that's true, the ISI's current involvement is nothing
like that of the old days, not least because Pakistan's civilian government
officially opposes the Taliban and had even made sporadic attempts to fight
it. A generation ago, Stinger missiles, supplied to the rebels in large
numbers after 1986 thanks to a campaign by U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson,
effectively robbed the Soviets of their air superiority. Today's Taliban has
no such technological advantage, and few friends. As a result, "the
Americans are in a much better position than we ever were," says Yuri
Krupnov, director of Russia's Institute of Regional Development, which
promotes Russian-Afghan ties. "This will not be a second Vietnam."

Another reason he's probably right is that NATO is proving better at
learning from Moscow's mistakes than the Soviets were. Take civilian
casualties. Initial military victory came almost effortlessly for both the
Soviets and NATO. But both powers soon stepped on the same rake: losing
hearts and minds by accidentally hitting civilian targets. Yermakov recalls
ordering his troops to mine the irrigation channels around the town of
Gardez in 1983. Many dushmany (a pejorative local term for the mujahedin)
were blown up, but so were channels essential for local farmers. "At one
point our aviation destroyed half of Kandahar because somebody did not get
the right instructions," says Alexander Shkirando, a fluent Pashto and Farsi
speaker who spent 10 years in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a political and
military adviser. NATO has made similar blunders—notably two bombings of
wedding parties in Kunduz and Uruzgan—but on nothing like the same scale.
The exact number of Afghan civilian casualties during the Soviet campaign is
hard to come by, but estimates range from 700,000 to more than a million.
According to the United Nations, combined civilian deaths directly and
indirectly caused by the latest war range from 12,000 to 30,000.

The Americans have been careful to avoid the wanton brutality of the Soviets
not only on the battlefield but in their treatment of prisoners too. Even
before U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal commissioned a review earlier
this year, the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004 led to an improvement in the
treatment of detainees at the U.S. interrogation camp at Bagram. And as dire
as conditions at Bagram may have been, they were nothing compared with the
abuse committed by the Soviets' proxy force of Afghan secret police, who
murdered at least 27,000 political prisoners at their notorious detention
center at Pul-e-Charkhi. Russians like to compare the Soviet and U.S.
occupations: Krupnov asks, "Who is more imperialist, the Soviets or the
Americans?" In reality, however, there's a world of difference in the two
armies' behavior.

The Soviets tried a surge of their own in 1984–85, boosting troop levels to
118,000 to clear rebel areas like the lower Panjshir Valley and the
strategic road to Khost. But it didn't work. The mujahedin would "melt away
like mist," recalls Paulius Purickis, an ethnic Lithuanian draftee who
served as a sergeant. "We were never able to engage them in a head-on
battle," he says. General McChrystal hopes to avoid that problem with the
extra troops being made available to him, which will allow him to "clear and
hold" whole provinces, with small forward posts used to befriend and gather
intelligence from locals.

The Soviets also tried to win hearts and minds, of course. But they left
that job to the KGB, with dismal results. Today, rather than run a network
of secret torture centers as the Soviets' proxy Mohammad Najibullah did,
President Hamid Karzai has set himself up as a defender of the rights of
Afghans detained in U.S.-run prisons, something that plays well with the

The Soviets also bungled the process of building relations with tribal
leaders. Vasily Kravtsov spent 12 years in Afghanistan, rising to become the
ranking KGB officer in Kandahar responsible for establishing an Afghan
security and intelligence service in the area. Pashtun tribal politics were
Kravtsov's specialty, and the bane of his life. The problem was, in part, a
communist agenda to enlighten the Afghans by replacing religious schools
with secular ones and to undermine the authority of local mullahs. "We made
stupid ideological mistakes," says Gen. Ruslan Aushev, one of the most
decorated Russian commanders of the Afghan war. "We told the Muslim people
that religion was the opium of the masses!" U.S. officials have tried to be
more culturally sensitive: as McChrystal put it in a recently leaked report,
the American military is shifting away from "an excessively defensive
posture to enable the troops to engage with the Afghan people."

Perhaps the closest parallel—and the area with the most lessons for
Washington today—is in how to shore up the local government. And here again
there is reason for optimism. Moscow's puppet Najibullah was weak and
unpopular and ended up hanging from a lamppost soon after his patrons went
home. Karzai is also little loved. But for all his troubles, he's in a far
better position than his predecessor, for despite electoral gerrymandering
and allegations of corruption, Karzai is still more popular than any other
politician in the country.

That's a huge asset, for getting local government right is probably the
ultimate key to success or failure. To do that, Washington should probably
make a point of ignoring the Russians' advice. Today Russian veterans insist
that the main reason for their failure was their attempt to impose a foreign
mindset on an age-old system of tribal alliances: "Forget your ideas of
bringing democracy there," says Yermakov. But communism wasn't the real
problem, and neither is democracy. Indeed, democracy may be the solution.
Najibullah's government fell not because it was secular and socialist but
because it disintegrated under the twin evils of tribalism and corruption.
Moscow grafted a veneer of communism onto a narrow, repressive, and widely
hated Pashtun tribal clique that was no match for the mujahedin. This
suggests that the key today is to support a government that's as inclusive,
democratic, and accountable as possible. That means doing everything in
Washington's power to get Karzai to clean up his act. The United States,
with its rapid adaptation, has already shown it is in better shape than any
previous invader to win the Afghan war on the ground. The challenge now is
to also avoid repeating Russia's mistakes on the way out—and to become the
first foreign force to leave Afghanistan in better shape than it found it.

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