Victor Sebestyen: U.S. Can Learn From Russia's Afghan War





[Victor Sebestyen is the author of “Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire.”]

The highly decorated general sat opposite his commander in chief and explained the problems his army faced fighting in the hills around Kabul: “There is no piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another,” he said. “Nevertheless much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize.

“Our soldiers are not to blame. They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.” He went on to request extra troops and equipment. “Without them, without a lot more men, this war will continue for a very, very long time,” he said.

These sound as if they could be the words of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, to President Obama in recent days or weeks. In fact, they were spoken by Sergei Akhromeyev, the commander of the Soviet armed forces, to the Soviet Union’s Politburo on Nov. 13, 1986.

Soviet forces were then in the seventh year of their nine-year-long Afghan conflict, and Marshal Akhromeyev, a hero of the Leningrad siege in World War II, was trying to explain why a force of nearly 110,000 well-equipped soldiers from one of the world’s two superpowers was appearing to be humiliated by bands of “terrorists,” as the Soviets often called the mujahideen.

The minutes of Akhromeyev’s meeting with the Politburo were recently unearthed by American and Russian scholars of the cold war — these and other materials substantially expand our knowledge of the Soviet Union’s disastrous campaign. As President Obama contemplates America’s own future in Afghanistan, he would be well advised to read some of these revealing Politburo papers; he might also pick up a few riveting memoirs of Soviet generals who fought there. These sources show as many similarities between the two wars as differences — and may provide the administration with some valuable counsel.

Much of the fighting during the Soviet war in Afghanistan was in places that have grown familiar to us now, like Kandahar and Helmand Provinces. The Soviets’ main base of operations was Bagram, which is now the United States Army headquarters. Over the years, the Soviets changed their tactics frequently, but much of the time they were trying and failing to pacify the country’s problematic south and east, often conducting armed sweeps along the border with Pakistan, through which many of the guerrillas moved, as the Taliban do now.

That war was characterized by disputes between soldiers and politicians. As Russian documents show, the politicians ordered the invasion against the advice of the armed forces. The chief of the Soviet Defense Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, raised doubts shortly before Soviet forces were dispatched on Christmas Day 1979. He told Dmitri Ustinov — the long-serving defense minister who had been a favorite of Stalin — that experience from the British and czarist armies in the 19th century should encourage caution. Ustinov replied: “Are the generals now making policy in the Soviet Union? Your job is to plan specific operations and carry them out ... . Shut up and obey orders.”

Ogarkov went further up the chain of command to the Communist Party boss, Leonid Brezhnev. He warned that an invasion “could mire us in unfamiliar, difficult conditions and would align the entire Islamic East against us.” He was cut off mid-sentence: “Focus on military matters,” Brezhnev ordered. “Leave the policymaking to us.”

The Soviet leaders realized they had blundered soon after the invasion. Originally, the mission was simply to support the Communist government — the result of a coup Moscow had initially tried to prevent, and then had no choice but to back — and then get out within a few months. But the mujahideen’s jihad against the godless Communists had enormous popular support within the country, and from outside. Money and sophisticated weapons poured in from America and Saudi Arabia, through Pakistan.

The Soviets saw withdrawal as potentially fatal to their prestige in the cold war, so they became mired deeper and deeper in their failed occupation. For years, the Soviets heavily bombarded towns and villages, killing thousands of civilians and making themselves even more loathed by Afghans. Whatever tactics the Soviets adopted the result was the same: renewed aggression from their opponents. The mujahideen, for example, laid down thousands of anti-tank mines to attack Russian troop convoys, much as the Taliban are now using homemade bombs to strike at American soldiers on patrol, as well as Afghan civilians.

“About 99 percent of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan were won by our side,” Marshal Akhromeyev told his superiors in November 1986. “The problem is that the next morning there is the same situation as if there had been no battle. The terrorists are again in the village where they were — or we thought they were — destroyed a day or so before.” Listen to a coalition spokesman now explaining the difficulties its forces are facing in tough terrain, and it would be hard to hear a difference.

There are many in Washington now calling on President Obama to cut his losses and find an exit strategy from Afghanistan. Even if he agreed, it may not be an easy business. When Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in March 1985 he called Afghanistan “our bleeding wound.” He declared that ending the war was his top priority. But he could not do it without losing face...


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