Victor Sebestyen: What Obama should learn from the Soviet mistake in Afghanistan





[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 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....


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