27 November 2009


Karma is a bitch, according to this article from today's Wall Street Journal.

A quarter-century ago, [Defense Secretary Robert Gates] was a top Central Intelligence Agency officer aiding the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, and he remembered how a 1985 decision by the Soviet Union to widen that earlier war had failed to turn the tide...

...Few American officials know the Soviets' bitter Afghan predicament better than Mr. Gates. In the 1980s, he was the deputy director of the CIA, overseeing a massive U.S. effort to fund, train and equip the Islamic insurgents, called mujahedeen, who fought the Soviet army to a standstill.

Now some of the most prominent of these insurgents, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, are allied against America with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Almost daily their men are killing Western troops, who often operate from former Soviet bases and use Soviet-drawn military maps with faint Cyrillic markings.

"It's an eerie sense of deja vu," said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution scholar who headed the Obama administration's Afghan policy review in the spring and who in the 1980s worked under Mr. Gates as a CIA officer in the region. "America," he said, "is in the rare position of fighting the same war twice in one generation, from opposite sides. And it's easier to be the insurgents."

Fortunately, I am quite experienced in this. I occasionally play Command and Conquer: Generals from the point of view of the Global Liberation Army instead of the US, so this should be relatively simple, right?

Fortunately, not everything is quite as bleak as the Soviet experience:

There are major differences between the two conflicts. For one, unlike the isolated Soviet Union, America operates in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, part of a coalition of 42 allies. Allied dead, currently 1,528, are barely one-ninth the Soviet toll. Afghan civilian deaths are a small fraction of the estimated one million killed in the 1980s.

Afghans who compare the two campaigns acknowledge the differences, yet argue that these aren't always in America's favor. An examination of this debate over the Soviet experience offers an insight into what American troops are up against -- and the issues President Obama must weigh as he decides the course of an unpopular and costly war he didn't start.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also faced a troop-increase request during his first year, for a war he had inherited. Soviet generals in 1985 asked for tens of thousands more soldiers to bolster their 100,000-strong contingent, roughly the same size as the current Western force in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates, discussing that period in his 1996 memoir "From the Shadows," wrote: "The Soviets had to either reinforce or lose. Because they clearly were not winning." Gen. McChrystal used similar language in his recent warning about possible American "failure" in Afghanistan unless adequate resources are committed. Mr. Gorbachev ended up authorizing a small troop surge; 18 months later, he announced plans for a withdrawal.

The U.S. Army, in a 1989 secret "lessons learned" study of the Soviets' campaign, said they simply didn't have enough boots on the ground. "Insufficient forces were available to expand appreciably the area of physical control, or to identify and attack many insurgent targets at the same time," said the study, now partially declassified. "When major operations were conducted in one part of the country, forces had to be drawn from other areas."

Mr. Gates's knowledge of how the Soviet occupation and its brutalities inflamed local anger contributed to his initial skepticism about a U.S. surge. "I worry a great deal about the size of the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan," he told a Senate hearing in April. "Soviets were in there with 110,000 troops, didn't care about civilian casualties and couldn't win."

Gen. McChrystal, at his meeting with Mr. Gates in Belgium, managed to persuade the defense chief that the U.S., unlike the Soviets, is still welcomed by most Afghans. The general argued that certain tactics such as using Afghan rather than American soldiers for house searches could further blunt perceptions of the U.S. as an occupier and put the momentum in America's favor.

"I take seriously Gen. McChrystal's point that the size of the footprint is [less important than] the nature of the footprint and the behavior of those troops and their attitudes and their interactions with the Afghans," Mr. Gates said in September after talks with military leaders.

Gen. McChrystal has explicitly addressed concerns about falling into Moscow's pitfalls. In his August assessment of the war, he quoted Abdul Rahim Wardak, President Hamid Karzai's defense minister, as telling the U.S.: "Unlike the Russians, who imposed a government with alien ideology, you enabled us to write a democratic constitution and choose our own government. Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you came to rebuild."

But it might be a bit arrogant to claim success where the great powers such as Alexander, the British (twice), and the Russians (twice) have had their share of failure. Fortunately, aside from the argument in favor of stabilizing a largely failed state, there is one other national objective. John Oliver and Jon Stewart explain:

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The Unwinnable War in Afghanistan
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