Some old-timers speak of deja vu all over again: just as Afghanistan became the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, it could also become America’s. Tuesday’s complex attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul — reputed to be a safer place — raises anew questions about the scope of the decade-old U.S. war in Afghanistan, and its chances for success.
Rodric Braithwaite, who served as Britain’s ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992, has just written Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, which details the U.S.S.R.’s ham-fisted efforts to subdue its southern neighbor. In an email chat with Battleland, he also talks of what lessons America might take from its former superpower rival’s debacle there:
Why has Afghanistan proven so tough for so many great powers over the centuries?
“The Grave of Empire” is a tired and misleading cliché. Afghanistan has been successfully invaded many times – by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and a host of others. People mostly cite the alleged British failure in the two British-Afghan wars in the nineteenth century. The British wanted to ensure that they, not the Russians, controlled Afghan foreign policy. They could do it directly, by occupying Kabul; or indirectly through bribery (which they called “subsidies”), political manipulation, and extensive military assistance.
Occupying Kabul turned out to be a mistake: the British lost a whole army in 1842 and were defeated in Maiwand in 1880. They reasserted themselves by burning down Kabul and hanging the notables. They then sensibly withdrew, and adopted the indirect method. This enabled them to control Afghan foreign policy until 1919 when, after repelling an Afghan invasion of India, they decided it was no longer worth the expense. The Afghans date their independence from that year – a measure of British success., not failure.
The real lesson is different, as the Russians and Americans have subsequently discovered. It was drawn by a Russian general in 1921: “The country is extremely well adapted to a passive resistance. Its mountainous nature and the proud and freedom-loving character of its people, combined with the lack of adequate roads, makes it very difficult to conquer and even harder to hold.”
Could the Russians have succeeded in Afghanistan? What was their biggest mistake?
As always, it depends what you mean by “success”. But by most definitions there was little chance that the Russian intervention in 1979 could have succeeded.
The Russians began with a number of advantages. They had a deep knowledge of the country, with which they had been on good relations since 1919. They hoped that Soviet style socialism, which had given their Central Asian republics clean water, health services, education for women as well as men, and a developing agriculture and industry, would do the same for Afghanistan, and so bind it to their side in the Cold War. They had previously worked well with successive governments, including the government of President Daud, who came to power in 1973.
But in 1978 Daud was overthrown in a bloody coup by a clique of Afghan communists, who set up a radical atheist regime based on terror. This rapidly produced armed resistance in the countryside that spread to the towns and degenerated into a civil war. Seriously concerned that this could give the Americans an opening to move in, the Russians reluctantly decided to change the regime. They killed the Afghan president and substituted their own man, hoping that this would stabilise the government and enable them to leave in a matter of months. Instead they found themselves involved in a vicious nine-year war.
This was a serious misjudgement. The Russians knew there was no prospect of “victory” in such a war, so they soon began to look for a way out. Gorbachev came to power in 1985. He stated the dilemma thus: “We could leave quickly, without worrying about the consequences, and blame everything on our predecessors. But that we cannot do. We have not given an account of ourselves to the people. A million of our soldiers have passed through Afghanistan. And it looks as if they did so in vain. So why did those people die?”
He was determined to negotiate his way out of the dilemma as quickly as he could. His aims were ensure that the future government in Kabul was friendly, and well enough armed to defend itself against its enemies. These aims he achieved. When the Soviets pulled out in 1989, they left behind their man Najibullah and a well equipped Afghan army. This modest success came far short of the original Soviet aim of creating a friendly, stable, and modern regime on their southern border.
And it was short lived. Najibullah fell in 1992, when a bankrupt Russia cut off essential supplies of food, fuel, weapons, and ammunition. There followed a very bloody civil war, which was ended by the victory of the Taliban.
What are the parallels between the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans?
There are many parallels and many differences. Unlike the Russians, who inherited a set of half-way viable state institutions, the Americans in Afghanistan have been trying to rebuild the country’s economic and political system, wrecked by three decades of violence, in the middle of a war. They have smarter weapons than the Russians, so fewer Afghans and coalition soldiers are being killed. They have far more international support, a mixed blessing since it means that they have to spend energy on coping with fractious allies, which the Russians never did.
The Russian strategic vision of converting Afghanistan into a friendly modern state was unrealistic. The American strategic vision was not dissimilar, but it was if anything even more ambitious. The aim was to deny a safe haven in Afghanistan to the al Qaeda terrorists that threaten America worldwide. Military action needed to go hand in hand with pressure on the Afghans to run their government and their economy on Western lines, and to modify their established social and religious order to reflect Western principles of human rights, especially in their treatment of women. Such an Afghanistan, so the story went, would refuse support both for the terrorists and for their friends the Taliban.
But you can’t reengineer other people’s societies and political systems so easily, whether you are trying to turn them into “socialists” or democrats. Like the Russians, the Americans have already had to scale down their ambitions drastically. Their vision of a liberal, modernised Afghanistan now looks almost wholly unreal. Like the Russians, the Americans started their adventure with the wrong definition of “success”.
What happens next?
President Obama has slowly been pushed towards the same conclusion as Gorbachev: to withdraw as soon as possible, leaving behind an adequately armed government prepared to take reasonable account of American needs. But he faces the same dilemma too: how can this done without damaging US prestige, betraying the dead, and abandoning Afghanistan to renewed chaos?
President Obama has it harder than Mikhail Gorbachev did. Gorbachev had almost universal support for withdrawal both inside the government and among the public. Even his generals supported a negotiated solution. His Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, and the head of the KGB Vladimir Kryuchkov, were concerned that withdrawal would amount to the betrayal of Najibullah. But Gorbachev had little difficulty in dealing with them firmly. He did not have to face sniping on the wings from his political opposition, or claims from his generals that they could finish the job if only they were given more time and more soldiers.
Nevertheless, a growing realism and the pressures of a war-weary public opinion will presumably push President Obama towards withdrawal, under the best circumstances he can negotiate. He will need to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement not only with the Taliban, but with the Afghan government itself. A crucial difference here is that the Americans have far greater resources than the Russians did. So – unlike the Russians – they ought to be able to support the government they leave behind them indefinitely.
If Obama can negotiate a general settlement supported not only by all the parties inside Afghanistan, but by Afghanistan’s neighbours as well, then he will have achieved more than the Russians did, and Afghanistan will have some prospect of peace after the foreigners leave. But to get everyone to agree to that will be like herding cats, and I would not be too sanguine about his chances of success.