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

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]).

Related Links:

Russians Mark Twentieth Anniversary of Afghan War's End

WorldFocus on Afghanistan

Pakistan's Prospects

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Obama's South Asia Policy

Military Occupation of Kashmir

Bruce Riedel Interview

Clues to Obama's South Asia Policy


Anonymous said...

The soviets were there to occupy Afghanistan. Americans are there not for oil or democracy, BUT to make sure PakArmy-ISI-Talibans coalition does not overrun Kabul. Its a big difference.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a recommendation by Hassan Abbas, Research Fellow, Project on Managing the Atom/International Security Program at Harvard University Belfer Center:

The prevailing democratic transition in Pakistan, despite its
limitations, provides the best opportunity for it, as well as for India and Afghanistan, to halt the region’s extremist trends through joint cooperation and trust building. Creative American policies can play a significant role in this context. If this window of opportunity proves to be short-lived, given the entrenched
tensions between Pakistan’s civil and military institutions, then it would destabilize the whole region even further. Any rise in Indo-Pakistani tensions only benefits the forces of darkness in South Asia. On the positive side, most Pashtuns increasingly realize that Talibanization has tarnished their image and yearn to recapture their lost identity. The appetite of FATA’s residents for self-governance outside the old tribal
arrangements, as well as their desire to break the shackles imposed by the militants, deserve recognition as well as international support. An Iraq-style “surge” in Afghanistan and unilateral incursions in FATA are unlikely to be seen as reflecting any change. The Obama administration has the credentials to challenge the status quo and take difficult decisions for the cause of peace and justice in South Asia.

Please read full report here

Riaz Haq said...

As Obama ponders US policy and more US troops in Afghanistan, there are echoes of Soviet defeat, according to BBC:

By the late 1980s, Moscow's exit strategy was basically the same as Nato's today - to build up an allied government in Kabul with sufficient trained army and police forces to defend itself, thereby allowing foreign troops to leave.

But even with the backing of a 100,000-strong Soviet army and billions of rubles in aid, the Afghan government struggled to establish its legitimacy and authority much beyond the capital - much like President Hamid Karzai's Western-backed administration today.

This bleak assessment of the situation in late 1986 by the Soviet armed forces commander, Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, sounds eerily familiar.

"Military actions in Afghanistan will soon be seven years old," Mr Akhromeev told Mr Gorbachev at a November 1986 Politburo session.

"There is no single piece of land in this country which has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nonetheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of rebels.

"The whole problem is that military results are not followed up by political actions. At the centre there is authority; in the provinces there is not.

"We control Kabul and the provincial centers, but on occupied territory we cannot establish authority. We have lost the battle for the Afghan people".

By that point, Soviet trainers had created an Afghan army 160,000-strong - double the size of the force Nato has trained so far - together with thousands of much-feared secret policemen.

Yet once Soviet forces had left, they could do little more than defend Kabul and a few other cities.

Only massive military aid, coupled with incompetence and in-fighting among the US-backed mujahideen opposition, allowed the Afghan government Moscow left behind to cling on in Kabul for a few more years before finally collapsing.

There were familiar problems too with the financial assistance Moscow gave.

It hoped the funds would bolster the capacity of the Afghan government and pay for projects that would benefit people, winning hearts and minds.

However corruption rendered much of its useless.

As the Politburo discussed a new aid request from Kabul in January 1987, Marshal Sergei Sokolov said: "In 1981, we gave them 100m roubles of free assistance. And all of that went to the elite. And there was nothing in the hamlets - no kerosene, no matches."

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an excerpt from a story "Klashnikov Central" by Nazia Parvez on Darra Adm Khel arms manufacturing cottage industry that makes a variety of arms including Klashnikov AK-47 assault rifles:

According to a popular tale, the origins of Darra's unusual industry date back to the days of the Raj, when the town's craftsmen replicated a rifle stolen from the British by a Punjabi fugitive. The skills were subsequently passed down from one generation to the next, and the manufacture of arms came to be considered an art form.

For much of the 20th century, Darra's arms industry was modest. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the entire NWFP became the staging ground for the jihad, or holy war, and large quantifies of weapons were shipped across the border to Afghanistan to arm the Mujahideen resistance. Since then, indigenous manufacturers in the NWFP, and Darra in particular, have continued producing AK-47s--replicas of the fabled Russian assault rifle, the Kalashnikov--as well as an array of other weapons.

Today, there may be as many as 3,000 gun manufacturers in Darra, employing more than 20,000 people--about three quarters of the town's inhabitants. According to the Small Arms Survey, the town produced an incredible 20,000 small arms in 2003. Such is the scale of the industry now that Darra represents one of the largest private arms manufacturers in Asia.

As I walk through the town with my guide Saeed, I find myself getting used to the intermittent crackle of gunfire, and soon it becomes mere background noise.

Above the shops, hand-painted wooden signs depict caricatures of guns. Inside, the merchants sit around casually, waiting patiently for customers; some lounge on mats laid on the bare cement floors. They drink tea, read the newspaper and make idle conversation.

Their simple displays provide a showcase of the latest weaponry. In one shop, lines of AK-47s hang from nails. Rickety cabinets with dusty acrylic panels are crammed full of pistols. A wooden shelf is stacked with boxes of ammunition. These sit unassumingly next to a flute and a pewter vase that holds a knot of gaudy plastic flowers. Near the ceiling, a fading picture of the Kaaba in Mecca sits in a gold frame.

Stepping into the side streets reveals a surreal world in which each stage of production is laid bare. The initial phases take place on the fringes of town, where the raw materials are processed. In an archaic electric mill, a young man nonchalantly operates a saw behind a huge heap of rough-edged timber. And in a house converted into a metal-shop, an old man sits in front of a burning furnace hammering heated steel rods. The thick smoke that belches from the fire has turned his white beard the colour of charcoal and covered the walls with a thick layer of soot. Returning to the street to catch our breath, we pass a warehouse filled with steel rods, their ends conveniently coloured according to their size.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are excerpts from a BBC report today about the British Army Chief Gen Richards' pessimistic assessment of Afghanistan:

The West can only contain, not defeat, militant groups such as al-Qaeda, the head of the UK's armed forces has said.

General Sir David Richards, a former Nato commander in Afghanistan, said Islamist militancy would pose a threat to the UK for at least 30 years.

But he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show a clear-cut victory over militants was not achievable.

The BBC's Frank Gardner said the comments reflect a "new realism" in UK and US counter-terrorism circles.

Our security correspondent said such an admission five years ago might have been considered outrageous and defeatist....
Britain has lost 343 soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001.

But Gen Richards told the BBC it was not possible to defeat the Taliban or al-Qaeda militarily.

"You can't. We've all said this. David Petraeus has said it, I've said it.

"The trick is the balance of things that you're doing and I say that the military are just about, you know, there.

"The biggest problem's been ensuring that the governance and all the development side can keep up with it within a time frame and these things take generations sometimes within a time frame that is acceptable to domestic, public and political opinion," he said.

He said extremist Islamism could not be eradicated as an idea.

"I don't think you can probably defeat an idea, it's something we need to battle back against as necessary, but in its milder forms why shouldn't they be allowed to have that sort of philosophy underpinning their lives.

"It's how it manifests itself that is the key and can we contain that manifestation - and quite clearly al-Qaeda is an unacceptable manifestation of it," he said.

Riaz Haq said...

In a CNN interview, Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit, says al Qeada is much bigger than it was on 9/11.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are a few excerpts from an Op Ed by Ejaz Haider published in The Express Tribune:

The fact is that the Afghanistan problem is not just about the Haqqani Network. Afghanistan has multiple problems, most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the Haqqanis. Even if the Haqqani Network were entirely taken out, Afghanistan would remain largely the same. In fact, if the only stumbling block between an Afghanistan gone bad and an idyllic Afghanistan were the Network, Afghanistan would have been a piece of cake, not the wicked problem it has become.

Secondly, if the insurgency in Afghanistan was only run by the Haqqanis, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) would not be conducting thousands of night operations for the last year-and-half across all of Afghanistan, operations that are terribly unpopular.

Thirdly, if use of force was the only answer to Afghanistan’s problems, the US would have, by now, brought it under control. But the use of force, by itself, is clearly not enough. As Mr Abdullah Abdullah told me in April in Washington, what is missing is the ability of the Afghan government to reach out to its people. It is common knowledge that the Afghan governors cannot even survive in their respectivevilayats without striking some kind of deal with the Taliban commanders in the area.

Fourthly, the three spectacular attacks in recent weeks, beginning with the downing of a Chinook carrying a SEAL team, the suicide attack that injured 70 US troops, both in Maydan Wardag, and now the September 13 Kabul attack clearly show that the line of communication of the insurgents cannot stretch back to North Waziristan. All these attacks have happened deep inside the Afghan territory and indicate the steady loss of control of territory by the Afghan government and the foreign troops.

If, for the sake of the argument it is conceded that the Taliban line of communication does extend back to North Waziristan, then the ability of the fighters to go deep in and mount attacks makes an utter mockery of the military and intelligence capabilities of the US and its allies despite the tremendous resources at their disposal.

Fifthly, as should be clear from Sirajuddin Haqqani’s interview to Reuters, his fighters are not based in North Waziristan. It makes eminent sense for him to have relocated to the Loya Paktia given the heightened frequency of the drone attacks in North Waziristan and the fact that the Network controls the three provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. They are also unlikely to be based either in Dande Darpa Khel in North Waziristan or Zambar in Khost, both locations known to intelligence agencies.

Finally, Siraj’s interview dispels the propaganda that the Haqqani Network is Al Qaeda. Instead, Siraj told Reuters that “we would support whatever solution our shura members suggest for the future of Afghanistan”, a clear reference to the Afghan Taliban leadership. Siraj also said that they rejected previous attempts at talks by the US and the Afghan government because those overtures were aimed at “creating divisions” among the Taliban. It is therefore misleading to suggest that the Haqqanis operate outside the overall strategic objectives of the Taliban.