Sunday, February 15, 2009
20th Anniversary of Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan
"They should get out as soon as possible. Or they'll be picked off like clay pigeons in target practice."
The above words of warning to America are attributed by the NPR radio to former Soviet Afghan war veteran, Lt. Sergei Maximov, on the 20th anniversary of the humiliating defeat of the Soviet empire twenty years ago today.
On February 15, 1989, the last Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan, nine years after they swept into the country. The Soviet action involved more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers and resulted in large numbers of killed and wounded both among them and among the Afghan population.
Remembering the fateful war that brought down the Soviet Union, another war veteran, former sergeant Boris Raisky, chimes in, "I realized we were fighting a counterinsurgency against local partisans. By definition, that's an unwinnable war."
As the 44th president of the United States, one of the greatest challenges Barack Obama has inherited from former President George W. Bush is the growing strength of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The ferocity of the Taliban fighters has already stretched the Afghan war into its eighth year, making it the second longest war in the American history. With the US decision to send another 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, it seems more and more likely that the Obama presidency will be defined by the Afghan war in the same way that the LBJ presidency was defined by America's deepening involvement in the Vietnam war engulfing the entire Indochina region. In some ways, the Obama challenge is much more difficult because of the dire economic situation that America is facing today. Can Obama win the war he says America needs to win?
According to the Wall Street Journal, this year has been the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban for hosting al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Suicide attacks and roadside bombs have become more dangerous, and Taliban fighters have infiltrated wide swaths of countryside and now roam in provinces on Kabul's doorstep. Deep dissatisfaction with the Karzai government, increasing Afghan civilian casualties and money from expanding poppy cultivation and trade are helping the Taliban in their quest to oust foreign forces.
The Soviet Afghan war veterans are not alone in their pessimism. "Of all the lands of the earth, Afghanistan has been among the least hospitable to foreigners who come to rule, or to teach them how they should rule themselves", writes Patrick Buchanan in his opinion on Creators.com.
The conservative American columnist further adds,"America and NATO have never been nearer to strategic defeat". In this latest assessment, Buchanan joins Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, the UK's commander in Afghanistan's Helmand province in Afghanistan who declared in October that the Afghan war can not be won. "We're not going to win this war", he told London's Sunday Times in October.
"It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army." he added. Later, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has retained his job in the Obama administration, basically agreed with the British brigadier's assessment without admitting that "the war can not be won". Instead, Gates said, "despite challenges, there was no reason to think success could not be achieved in the long run".
Before arriving in Kandahar last month, Gates spoke grimly of a "sustained commitment for some protracted period of time. How many years that is, and how many troops that is ... nobody knows."
Some Soviet veterans believe U.S. and NATO forces can learn from the Soviet failure. But Gen. Ruslan Aushev, one of the heroes of the Soviet war, says crucial lessons are being ignored — including the importance of building the infrastructure and government institutions the Afghans desperately need.
"What goals did the Americans set when they went into Afghanistan?" he asks. "To make life better for the Afghan people. Are they living better there today? No."
Can Obama change the course of the current Afghan war and set a new precedent in Afghanistan as a successful foreign power in a a historically defiant land? Will Obama reach a political settlement with the Taliban, wind down the Afghan war reasonably successfully and bring the troops home? The people in the Islamic world do not appear to be particularly hopeful on this point. Pre-election polling found tepid enthusiasm for Obama. A July-August 2008 BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA poll of 22 countries around the world found the Middle East region to have the lowest level of enthusiasm for Obama. While results indicated more favored Obama than McCain in each of the four Middle Eastern countries polled, the total percentage expressing support for Obama was very low in the larger countries (26 percent in both Egypt and Turkey) and fell short of a majority in the smaller countries (39 percent in Lebanon and 46 percent in the United Arab Emirates [UAE]).
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