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We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan

And 2009 isn't 1979.

2:58 PM, Aug 21, 2009 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Unsurprisingly, large sections of the Afghan people fought bitterly against the invaders who were fighting on behalf of a puppet government that they had installed and that had the support of virtually no one. The most bitter fights were in the north, especially in Tajik areas. The Soviets tried repeatedly to clear the Panjshir Valley but could never do so. They fought ferociously to maintain freedom of movement through the Salang Tunnel, which was the target of continuous insurgent interdiction attempts. In the south, Jalalluddin Haqqani's forces isolated the Afghan and Soviet garrison in Khowst, cutting the Khowst-Gardez road and requiring the Soviets to resupply the garrison by air. The Soviets fought the largest battle of the war to open the K-G road during Operation MAGISTRAL (MAINLINE) in 1987. The commander of the Limited Contingent, Colonel General Boris Gromov, personally oversaw the operation. The Soviets were able to resupply the garrison by road, but the insurgents cut the road again as soon as the Limited Contingent withdrew its forces from the area.

Urban legend has it that the introduction of American Stinger MANPADs led to Soviet defeat. In fact, Stingers did not show up until 1986, and the Soviets had already lost the war by then and, indeed, taken the decision to leave. The advent of Stingers did not defeat a Soviet strategy that was working; it accelerated the collapse of a strategy that was failing.

Soviet strategy failed because it is almost impossible to imagine it succeeding. The combination of the weakness of the puppet government with the total unsuitability of Soviet military forces for the mission at hand virtually doomed the effort from the start.

The war did not end with the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The socialist government--headed since 1986 by Najibullah--continued for three years after the departure of the Limited Contingent. It fell to the combined forces of the Northern Alliance, which could not establish its own legitimate government and fell, in turn, to the Taliban in 1996. Even then, conflict continued right up to the U.S. attack in 2001.

In sum, neither insurgency nor violence in Afghanistan results primarily from opposition to external forces. It results instead mainly from internal problems related to the collapse of Afghan society and governance following the Saur Revolution of 1978. The presence of foreign forces and external support to insurgents has raised or lowered the level of violence and its effectiveness, but it has not been the cause of that violence in the last three decades. Nor is the footprint of foreign forces at issue.

The Soviet invasion followed the collapse of security in a period when the USSR maintained only a few thousand advisors. The first months of the Soviet "occupation" saw deliberate and systematic attempts by the Red Army to put the Afghans out in front and support them from fixed bases. The Limited Contingent was drawn into direct combat operations only when that strategy had clearly failed.

The Limited Contingent maintained relatively little force among the rural population in Afghanistan at any time--most of its efforts were focused on securing the lines of communication and the major cities. Most Afghans encountered the Soviets only through the Limited Contingent's deliberate terrorist campaign, waged both from the air and from the ground.

For all of these reasons, there is absolutely no basis for assessing that an increased ISAF/US military presence along the lines being considered will result in some kind of "tipping point" at which local Afghans turn against us because they see us as a Soviet-style occupation force.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.