The Soviets' Mistakes in Afghanistan (and Ours?)

A few months old in magazine terms, and 21 years old in historical terms, but veritably ripped screaming from today's headlines: I found this today in the June issue of Harper's, and then found it reproduced online via the "Relentless Liberal."

It's a "May 10, 1988, letter from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to all Party members" that seems so perfectly designed to make a polemical point about the U.S.'s current situation in Afghanistan that one might guess it's a hoax.

But not, as far as I know. I quote from it:

we did not even have a correct assessment of the unique geographical features of that hard-to-enter country. This was reflected in the operations of our troops against small, highly mobile units, where very little could be accomplished with the help of modern military technology.
In addition, we completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan has always been met with arms in the hands of the population. This is how it was in the past, and this is how it happened when our troops entered Afghanistan, even though they came there with honest and noble goals.


Babrak Karmal became head of the Afghan government at the time. His first steps in that capacity gave us grounds to hope that he would be able to solve the problems facing his country. Nothing new emerged, however, in his policies that could have changed for the better the attitude of a significant portion of the Afghan population toward the new regime. Moreover, the intensity of the internal Afghan conflict continued to grow, and our military presence was associated with forceful imposition of customs alien to the national characteristics and feelings of the Afghan people....


Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan continued, and our troops were getting engaged in extensive combat actions. Finding any way out became more and more difficult as time passed. Combat action is combat action. Our losses in dead and wounded—and the Central Committee believes it has no right to hide this—were growing heavier and heavier....


The Afghan losses, naturally, were much heavier than ours, including the losses among the civilian population.
One should not disregard the economic factor either....The war in Afghanistan has cost us 5 billion rubles a year.

To be sure: Past guarantees are no performance of future results, those who condemn history are ignorant enough to repeat it, you can only trust a Communist to be a Communist, and this time bringing Afghan rebel guerrillas to heel just might work if only Obama doesn't go wobbly. But...well, I guess we'll see.

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  • Suki||

    To be sure: Past guarantees are no performance of future results, those who condemn history are ignorant enough to repeat it, you can only trust a Communist to be a Communist, and this time bringing Afghan rebel guerrillas to heel just might work if only Obama doesn't go wobbly. But...well, I guess we'll see.

    Glad you ended it that way. We have been much more successful than the Soviets in our visit to Afghanistan. Obama seems like he is doing his best to reverse that. Hopefully brighter heads (without halos) will prevail.

  • ||

    So everything that's going wrong in Afghanistan is exclusively Obama's fault? You really believe that?

    Srsly, your daytime avatar is so much smarter.

  • ||

    If you drop the "exclusively" then it is right though.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Srsly, your daytime avatar is so much smarter.

    She's right. You are a slobbering jackass.

  • Tman||

    Whilst this memo has listed plenty of similarities with our current operations, our goals are and always have been significantly different than the Soviets. One need look no further than the mess in Chechnya to get a more accurate comparison of the soviet "solution" to their terrorist problems.

  • Suki||

    Well said!

  • Mad Max||

    Babrak Karmal - remove one of the "b"s and you get *Barak* Karmal. Add a "c" and you get *Barack* Karmal. Karmal is basically a Muslim name, like Hussein, so it's Barack Hussein. Add the "Obama" and you get Barack Hussein Obama. I bet *some* people will dismiss this as a coincidence.

  • anonymous||

    Only the mentally sound ones.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Oh, c'mon, give Max credit. That was funny.

  • Moose||

    A nice start, Mad Max, but you gotta add in some bullshit numerology:

    Look at the letter counts! Babrak is six letters, Karmal is six letters. Include "Obama", and you get 665. The fact Barack Obama and Babrak Karmal are ONE is the key to the whole affair. 665 + 1 == 666, proof that Babrak Karmal is really the President of the United States!

    Further proof lies in the name Barack Hussein Obama, which is 18 letters long. 18 is 6 thrice, or 666!

    Oh noes!

  • CTHORM@IBIS||

    I'm buying me a few copies of the ol' good book, some more ammo and Dennison's finest chili. It's gonna be a long winter in hell.

  • ||

    Glad you ended it that way. We have been much more successful than the Soviets in our visit to Afghanistan. Obama seems like he is doing his best to reverse that. Hopefully brighter heads (without halos) will prevail.

    WTF? After 8 years the Karzi government (for lack of a better term) has gotten itself re-elected with only one fucking third of the vote being fraudulent. We've managed to to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani populace to such an extent that nobody controls 80% of the countryside and allied casualties continue an 8 year upward trend.

  • ||

    Whilst this memo has listed plenty of similarities with our current operations, our goals are and always have been significantly different than the Soviets. One need look no further than the mess in Chechnya to get a more accurate comparison of the soviet "solution" to their terrorist problems.

    Reality 101 pop quiz!

    Fill in the blanks. The road to hell is paved with ______________.

    No good deed goes __________________.

    You can lead a horse to water _______________.

  • Tman||

    Reality pop quiz 2001!

    In 2001, after suffering the most devastating attack since Pearl Harbor, the US should have _______________ the Islamic terrorist havens in Iraq and Afghanistan..

  • ||

    J Sub D will tell you they should have showered them with love. Or maybe shot George Bush as an act of good faith. But one thing is for sure, killing our enemies is not something he will tolerate.

  • LJM||

    Wow, John. There wasn't a single honest sentence in that post.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Yeah, WTF ever, John.

  • ||

    I know! I know!

    The US should have bombed Saudi Arabia!

    Did I get that right?

  • Tman||

    No!

  • B||

    Wow, what a stupid fucking response.

    I know I got it right.

  • ||

    a. nuked

    b. razed, built a remembrance monument in, and then left

    c. not adopted or otherwise pretended to fall in love with the people of

    d. raided in conjunction with local militias and self-interested neighbors

    Super bonus: What's the difference -Russian- efforts in Chechnya over the past few years and ours in Afghanistan?

    Answer: After a combination of Russian co-option of local militias and ruthless killing of insurgents, violence in Chechnya's fallen drastically.

    Meanwhile, American military officials are convincing themselves that the solution is to build hospitals and schools and "reconstruct" areas that have never been constructed before, while having their butts handed to them by an enemy that spends no more than a couple hundred million a year.

    ...

    Yes. I'm a bit frustrated.

  • Robert||

    I remember ~30 yrs. ago someone from the Spartacus Youth League telling me (as part of a small audience) that having the Red Army there was...,"Well, it's better than the mullahs!"

    And you know, in retrospect, he was right...even though it's as hopeless now as then.

  • Lee Cruz||

    Apparently the ardent supporters have never actually been to Afghanistan.

  • ||

    Throughout 05 through 08, the Reason position was always that Afghanistan was the good war and that Iraq was the bad war. No one here ever questioned AFghanistan. I often said that the only reason they didn't question Afghanistan was that it was more convienent to go after Iraq and that as soon as Iraq settled down Reason would go after Afghanistan just like it did Iraq.

    Sure enough, the Iraq war is winding down and Reason is relentlessly going after the US effort there just like they did in Iraq.

    I am skeptical about increasing our involvement in Afghanistan. And I am even willing to listen to arguments that we should leave altogether. But, I will not listen to anything Reason has to say on the subject. They have no credibility on matters of war and peace or foreign policy whatsoever. The Reason position is always that the US is wrong, its enemies are right, and whatever problems in the world are the US's fault. You can just sense the smug sense of satisifaction they get from posting about how badly things are going somewhere. Notice, they never say a damn thing about Iraq now that things are going better, but they put up ten posts a day when things were tough.

    Sorry Reason, even if you are right it is only because a broken clock is right twice a day.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Yeah, Reason forgets the reason behind the invasion of Afghanistan.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Drink?

  • LJM||

    The Reason position is always that the US is wrong, its enemies are right, and whatever problems in the world are the US's fault.

    Why do you feel it necessary to always misrepresent the arguments of people with whom you disagree? I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you're not just a liar, but when you write sentences like that, you're lying.

  • LJM||

    I posted before I saw Mr. Doherty's post below.

    So, John, are you man enough to admit you were wrong? I hope you are.

  • LJM||

    Hm. I guess not.

  • Lee Cruz||

    The US Government violated the Airline's second amendment right to protect their property. Had they never tried to regulate air travel, you could argue that never would have happened. 9/11 was a power grab, can anyone say otherwise?

  • Brian Doherty||

    Reason does not, as its regular readers (including John) know, have a party line that dominates all our staff or writers on foreign policy especially; however, I was being an American-hating defeatist about the Afghan war in print since December 2002:
    http://reason.com/archives/200.....fghanistan

  • ||

    I know it's not politically correct to say so, but our error in Afghanistan wasn't in attacking the Taliban, it was in trying to be the altruistic sugar daddy that would rebuild it with a democratic government. A more realistic, modest approach would have been to go in far more aggressively, kill anyone who so much as thought about being a Talib, put the most Machiavellian guy left standing in power and told him to keep a lid on the jihad-crazed fucksticks or we'd be back.

  • ||

    Oh, and then leave. Quick, cheap and effective.

  • ||

    Unfortunately, that is exactly what the ISAF did (apart from leaving). The problem is, for a host of reasons (ethnic differences between most of the current government and most Afghans, the existence of safe havens in Pakistan's FATAs) the Taliban are back and will take over the moment the ISAF leaves. If the US leaves now, it will have to do so with full knowledge that the Taliban will take power soon after.

  • ||

    Fine, if they want to call themselves the New Taliban, the Reformed Taliban, the Shire Taliban...who cares? The point is to make sure they know a gigantic barrel of whoop-ass will be cracked open if they let jihadis use their nation as a Petri dish for activities that will kill Americans.

    Leaving is important, too.

  • ||

    The point is to make sure they know a gigantic barrel of whoop-ass will be cracked open if they let jihadis use their nation as a Petri dish for activities that will kill Americans.

    I think the Taliban knew this before 2001. The US bombed them in 1998 in retaliation for the far less lethal US Embassy bombings.

    The problem is not that the Taliban need to be made to understand that the US will retaliate every time they plot, or help others plot attacks on them. The problem is that the Taliban are a bunch of crazies who will do that kind of crap anyway.

  • ||

    No. They didn't. The 1998 "cruise attacks" amounted to nothing but a few dozen precision-guided munitions on generic, low-tech training camps. Whose impact, due to the specific camps targeted, wound up killing more anti-Indian Pakistani terrorists who were not members of Al Qaeda than it did anti-American terrorists. The entire enterprise was political figleaf to continue business as usual, not a serious attempt to disrupt, let alone destroy Al Qaeda - and was rightly taken as a sign of a lack of seriousness.

  • ||

    No. That is not what ISAF did.

    ISAF spent the first two years post invasion patrolling in Kabul, with a strength of about 5,000. Since 2003 it has conducted a half-assed reconstruction mission, with the bulk of its troops coming from countries that had no intention of actually fighting in Afghanistan as opposed to showing the flag and getting a nice pat on the head from Uncle Sugar.

  • ||

    This has slowly changed as ISAF's gradually merged with the U.S.-led OEF, but even OEF's been nothing but a combination of SOF missions, limited patrolling by conventional units backed up by artillery and air support, and half-assed attempts at population control via armed social work and American tax-payer supplied white elephants. Certainly nothing resembling a high-intensity, no-holds barred war effort.

  • Kolohe||

    Putting aside the fact that I seriously disgree with some of the characterizations in some of your posts above, what exactly would 'high intesity, no holds barred war effort' look like - that would be *different* than what the Soviets actually did?

  • Agent Provacateur||

    Jeffersonian:

    Excellent, but isn't that more Jacksonian?

  • Agent Provacateur||

    Jeffersonian:

    Excellent, but isn't that more Jacksonian?

  • robc||

    What Jeffersonian said.

    That would have taken 18 months tops, and wouldnt have involved Iraq at all.

    I personally like the "we are going to come in and fuck with you and kill everyone in your government, then we are going to leave, but if you dont behave, we will come back and do the same fucking thing again".

    As much as I opposed Iraq, that strategy works there too. The day after Hussein was captured, we could have brought all the troops home "Form a new government and dont fuck it up or we will be back".

  • robc||

    Nation building is easier as threat than actually being there. You do have to follow up on your threats however.

  • ||

    that seems so perfectly designed to make a polemical point about the U.S.'s current situation in Afghanistan that one might guess it's a hoax.

    Except that it's not. Did you even read what you quoted?

    The problem isn't the "extensive combat actions." Nor is it the case that "very little could be accomplished with the help of modern military technology.

    Indeed, by contrast, modern military technology was extremely helpful in reversing the course of the Taliban-Northern Alliance war, and the US has overwhelmingly won extensive combat action.

    The seems like a memo portending that the invasion of Afghanistan itself would be a quagmire. But it was wasn't. The Soviets had massive military losses; that isn't and hasn't been the US problem.

    I don't see how you can read this memo and think that it's perfectly appropriate at all. Some of it may be appropriate, but it also describes a military experience utterly unlike that of the US in Afghanistan.

    Of course, simply because we could invade Afghanistan in a way that the Soviets couldn't doesn't mean that reconstruction of the country would be even. But this memo is a mixture of things that might apply to the US and some things that definitely don't.

  • ||

    Well we are better at killing them than the Soviets were. We are better at preventing them from killing us than the Soviets were. We even are much more humane about killing them than the Soviets were.

    But they still manage to kill some of us, and they get better at it day by day, year by year. They learn and adapt.

    And what do we accomplish?

    It is not an unwinnable war. No war is.
    It is kind of unwinnable the way we are fighting it though. We can't bully them into submission, and we can't win a drug war.

    To win the war, we need to abandon the stupid drug war.
    We need to decentralize our assistance.

    Do that, and the war wins itself.

    I said way back when that between Afghanistan and Iraq, Afghanistan would always be the harder one.

  • Mo||

    Of course, one advantage we have that the Soviets didn't have. We're not going against Afghans trained and armed by a superpower. The Soviets were.

  • ||

    We haven't made every mistake the Soviets did - but we've made enough of them, and added a few more of our own.

  • ||

    Stay the course, children! Victory will come in Afghanistan soon enough. But only after we have free healthcare here. So pay up, suckers.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Now Nancy, don't forget to tell them that after they pay for the free health care (because free means FREE), they'll also have to belly up for the free, economy-boosting-and-expanding carbon tax.

    No way can we win in Afghanistan until we've done those two really important things.

  • affenkopf||

    Saudi Arabia reains the real enemy.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    kwais,

    I'm on board with what you're saying. But a) we're not going to give up the stupid drug war, and b) how much would winning cost?

    I suspect that abandoning the drug war wouldn't reduce the cost of victory by very much.

    But one of my contentions has long been the following -- you've been there, so I'd be interested in your opinion of this.

    The people in Iraq and Afghanistan have no f***ing clue how to create a rational working government, or how to impose simple law and order on their own turf. One of our colossal mistakes is expecting them to do so at the drop of a hat (or bomb as the case may be).

    What we should have done in both cases, was set up the government to impose law and order ourselves. Then let them work their people into the operation of it as they learned how to.

    You hope that one day they can take it over, but don't expect it to happen any time soon. Hence the big price tag.

    The people turn to the Taliban (or whatever they turn to in Iraq) because there's no stability and no law and order anyway, so what the hell? And there's no law and order because we've grabbed up a bunch of camel herders and said "Here, you're free now. Go ye merrily forth and create a modern nation."

    Who's surprised that they can't do it?

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Jeffersonian, robc,

    As much as I agree with your general intent, I don't believe the tactic you're suggesting is ever going to work. These idiots aren't afraid of death, that's part of the problem.

    We'd have to turn the bombing of Afghanistan into a quarterly event. Because an annual ground invasion would simply cost too much.

    I've long said, when it comes to Afghanistan I don't see any good answers. What's the threat of bombing them back to the Stone Age mean to someone who's already used to living at roughly that level?

    We needed to do something. But the minute we left they'd be building more training camps. And if we stay, well you see how that's going. The US is never going to be willing the pay the price for ultimate victory.

    And even if we did, there's still Pakistan, Iran, and the whole rest of the Muslim universe that poses very nearly the same problem.

  • hmm||

    You forgot. "Never get involved in a land war in Asia."

  • hurly buehrle||

    Afghanistan seems to me like a classic round-peg-square-hole problem. What the Soviets learned there, and what we should have learned in Vietnam, is that you aren't going to accomplish your military/political goals in another country if those goals have zero support among that country's population. And simply, the people living in Afghanistan really seem to want to live in a decentralized non-state organized around ethnic/tribal identity. And they really don't care to be shoehorned into an artificial nation-state called Afghanistan or anything else. This is what we're trying to force on them, just as the Soviets were (even if they were there at the request of the nominal government at the time).

  • ||

    Its all a sick joke. The US partners with evil regimes, those regimes don't give a fuck about the people, the people hate the regimes and the US.

    The US either leaves well enough alone, or has to continue killing until they get it, which they already do, so back and forth until the end of empire.

  • ||

    There should have been two simple phases to the Afghan campaign. First and foremost a campaign to find and kill or capture Osama Bin Laden and as many other Al Quaeda leaders as possible ans second a punitive campaign against the Taliban to send a very clear message that harboring terrorists was not going to be tolerated and would be harshly dealt with.

    The Taliban per se were not a threat to the US and no particular American interest was served by overthrowing them. Removing the Taliban and installing a "stable democracy" was something that we seem to have gotten into because some of the factions or countries whose support we needed demanded it and we were desperate to clothe the enterprise in a suit of international cooperation.

    Seems to me it's a double failure. Osama, or whoever is now controlling his image, is still thumbing his nose at the world and noone knows where AQ will strike next and the nation-building efforts is sinking into a cesspool of graft and corruption threatened by a revitalized insurgency.

    A punitive expedition would have taken less than two years with a possible quick rinse and repeat, either in Afghanistan or some other shithole, now and then since.

  • ||

    Put me in the punitive expedition camp, with a green light to cross the border into Pakistan to finish the job there.

    Oh, and allow a legal market for Afghani opium. I would guess that loosening controls on medical opiates and giving Big Pharma a license to buy from Afghanistan would do wonders to get us on the right side of the Afghan farmers without having to legalize heroin (although we should that, too, it Ain't Gonna Happen).

  • Mo||

    Of course the Soviets had problems with the Afghans. The mujaheddin were getting significant assistance, both military and training, from the US. My guess would be that we would have a much tougher time if Russia or China were explicitly arming and training Taliban fighters. That probably has a significant effect on why that campaign didn't take as long to start falling apart.

  • ||

    R C Dean

    In general I have no problems with our predator raids in Pakistan (well, hardly any, anyway) but I find myself exceedingly uneasy about putting ground troops into a country with which we are putatively allied without its governments consent.

    On the other hand spying is fair game. Trouble is we're either not doing enough of it or what we are doing seems to be exceedingly ineffective.

    Even if I were an all-out enthusiast about our Afghan and Mesopotamian adventures, I would still be critical of the utter lack of anything resembling good intelligence.

  • ||

    I would guess that loosening controls on medical opiates and giving Big Pharma a license to buy from Afghanistan would do wonders to get us on the right side of the Afghan farmers...

    Yeah, but that might piss off the Tasmanians.

  • ||

    In general I have no problems with our predator raids in Pakistan (well, hardly any, anyway) but I find myself exceedingly uneasy about putting ground troops into a country with which we are putatively allied without its governments consent.

    Well, you have to ask yourself which is more valuable to the US - the goodwill of a Pakistani government that can't control its own territory, or the extermination of AQ in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • ||

    Yes, I agree, it involves a decision about whether we're going to try to maintain the alliance.

    And, yes, alliances are pretty useless unless both sides benefit.

  • دردشة||

    thanks

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