Reliving the Soviet Experience in Afghanistan
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s(Haymarket Books).
If, as 2011 begins, you want to peer into the future, enter my time machine, strap yourself in, and head for the past, that laboratory for all developments of our moment and beyond.
Just as 2010 ended, the American military’s urge to surge resurfaced in a significant way. It seems that “leaders” in the Obama administration and “senior American military commanders” in Afghanistan were acting as a veritable WikiLeaks machine. They slipped information to New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins about secret planning to increase pressure in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, possibly on the tinderbox province of Baluchistan, and undoubtedly on the Pakistani government and military via cross-border raids by U.S. Special Operations forces in the new year.
In the front-page story those two reporters produced, you could practically slice with a dull knife American military frustration over a war going terribly wrong, over an enemy (shades of Vietnam!) with “sanctuaries” for rest, recuperation, and rearming just over an ill-marked, half-existent border. You could practically taste the chagrin of the military that their war against... well you name it: terrorists, guerrillas, former Islamic fundamentalist allies, Afghan and Pakistani nationalists, and god knows who else... wasn’t proceeding exactly swimmingly. You could practically reach out and be seared by their anger at the Pakistanis for continuing to take American bucks by the billionswhile playing their own game, rather than an American one, in the region.
If you were of a certain age, you could practically feel (shades of Vietnam again!) that eerily hopeful sense that the next step in spreading the war, the next escalation, could be the decisive one. Admittedly, these days no one talks (as they did in the Vietnam and Iraq years) about turning “corners” or reaching “tipping points,” but you can practically hear those phrases anyway, or at least the mingled hope and desperation that always lurked behind them.
Take this sentence, for instance: “Even with the risks, military commanders say that using American Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated.” Can’t you catch the familiar conviction that, when things are going badly, the answer is never “less,” always “more,” that just another decisive step or two and you’ll be around that fateful corner?
In this single New York Times piece (and other hints about cross-border operations), you can sense just how addictive war is for the war planners. Once you begin down the path of invasion and occupation, turning back is as difficult as an addict going cold turkey. With all the sober talk about year-end reviews in Afghanistan, about planning and “progress” (a word used nine times in the relatively brief, vetted “overview” of that review recently released by the White House), about future dates for drawdowns and present tactics, it’s easy to forget that war is a drug. When you’re high on it, your decisions undoubtedly look as rational, even practical, as the public language you tend to use to describe them. But don’t believe it for a second.
Once you’ve shot up this drug, your thinking is impaired. Through its dream-haze, unpleasant history becomes bunk; what others couldn’t do, you fantasize that you can. Forget the fact that crossing similar borders to get similar information and wipe out similar sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War years led to catastrophe for American planners and the peoples of the region. It only widened that war into what in Cambodia would become auto-genocide. Forget the fact that, no matter whom American raiders might capture, they have no hope of capturing the feeling of nationalism (or the tribal equivalent) that, in the face of foreign invaders or a foreign occupation, keeps the under-armed resilient against the mightiest of forces.
Think of the American urge to surge as a manifestation of the war drug’s effect in the world. In what the Bush administration used to call “the Greater Middle East,” Washington is now in its third and grimmest surge iteration. The first took place in the 1980s during the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and proved the highest of highs; the second got rolling as the last century was ending and culminated in the first years of the twenty-first century amid what can only be described as delusions of grandeur, or even imperial megalomania. It focused on a global Pax Americana and the wars that extend it into the distant future. The third started in 2006 in Iraq and is still playing itself out in Afghanistan as 2011 commences.
In Central and South Asia, we could now be heading for the end of the age of American surges, which in practical terms have manifested themselves as the urge to destabilize. Geopolitically, little could be uglier or riskier on our planet at the moment than destabilizing Pakistan -- or the United States. Three decades after the American urge to surge in Afghanistan helped destabilize one imperial superpower, the Soviet Union, the present plans, whatever they may turn out to be, could belatedly destabilize the other superpower of the Cold War era. And what our preeminent group of surgers welcomed as an “unprecedented strategic opportunity” as this century dawned may, in its later stages, be seen as an unprecedented act of strategic desperation.
That, of course, is what drugs, taken over decades, do to you: they give you delusions of grandeur and then leave you on the street, strung out, and without much to call your own. Perhaps it’s fitting that Afghanistan, the country we helped turn into the planet’s leading narco-state, has given us a 30-year high from hell.
So, as the New Year begins, strap yourself into that time machine and travel with me back into the 1980s, so that we can peer into a future we know and see the pattern that lies both behind and ahead of us.
Getting High in Afghanistan
As 2011 begins, what could be eerier than reading secret Soviet documents from the USSR's Afghan debacle of the 1980s? It gives you chills to run across Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting in October 1985, almost six years after Soviet troops first flooded into Afghanistan, reading letters aloud to his colleagues from embittered Soviet citizens (“The Politburo had made a mistake and must correct it as soon as possible -- every day precious lives are lost.”); or, in November 1986, insisting to those same colleagues that the Afghan war must be ended in a year, “at maximum, two.” Yet, with the gut-wrenching sureness history offers, you can’t help but know that, even two years later, even with a strong desire to leave (which has yet to surface among the Washington elite a decade into our own Afghan adventure), imperial pride and fear of loss of “credibility” would keep the Soviets fighting on to 1989.
Or what about Marshal Sergei Akhromeev offering that same Politburo meeting an assessment that any honest American military commander might offer a quarter century later about our own Afghan adventure: “There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels.” Or General Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan, boasting “on his last day in the country that ‘[n]o Soviet garrison or major outpost was ever overrun.’”
Or Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, emphasizing in 1986 the strategic pleasure of their not-so-secret foe, that other great imperial power of the moment: “Concerning the Americans, they are not interested in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it is to their advantage for the war to drag out.” (The same might today be said of a far less impressive foe, al-Qaeda.)
Or in 1988, with the war still dragging on, to read a “closed” letter the Communist Party distributed to its members explaining how the Afghan fiasco happened (again, the sort of thing that any honest American leader could say of our Afghan war): “In addition, [we] completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands [of the population]... One should not disregard the economic factor either. If the enemy in Afghanistan received weapons and ammunition for hundreds of millions and later even billions of dollars, the Soviet-Afghan side also had to shoulder adequate expenditures. The war in Afghanistan costs us 5 billion rubles a year.”
Or finally the pathetic letter the Soviet Military Command delivered to the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989, arguing (just as the American military high command would do of our war effort) that it was “not only unfair but even absurd to draw... parallels” between the Soviet Afghan disaster and the American war in Vietnam. That was, of course, the day the last of 100,000 Soviet soldiers -- just about the numberof American soldiers there today -- left Afghan soil heading home to a sclerotic country bled dry by war, its infrastructure aging, its economy crumbling. Riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized, the Red Army limped home to a society riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized led by a Communist Party significantly delegitimized by its disastrous Afghan adventure, its Islamic territories from Chechnya to Central Asia in increasing turmoil. In November of that same year, the Berlin Wall would be torn down and not long after the Soviet Union would disappear from the face of the Earth.
Reading those documents, you can almost imagine CIA director William Webster and “his euphoric ‘Afghan Team’” toasting the success of the Agency's 10-year effort, its largest paramilitary operation since the Vietnam War. The Reagan administration surge in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been profligate, involving billions of dollars and a massive propaganda campaign, as well as alliances with the Saudis and a Pakistani dictator and his intelligence service to fund and arm the most extreme of the anti-Soviet jihadists of that moment -- “freedom fighters” as they were then commonly called in Washington.
It’s easy to imagine the triumphalist mood of celebration in Washington among those who had intended to give the Soviet Union a full blast of the Vietnam effect. They had used the “war” part of the Cold War to purposely bleed the less powerful, less wealthy of the two superpowers dry. As President Reagan would later write in his memoirs: “The great dynamic of capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism -- money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever.”
By 1990, the urge to surge seemed a success beyond imagining. Forget that it had left more than a million Afghans dead (and more dying), that one-third of that impoverished country’s population had been turned into refugees, or that the most extreme of jihadists, including a group that called itself al-Qaeda, had been brought together, funded, and empowered through the Afghan War. More important, the urge to surge in the region was now in the American bloodstream. And who could ever imagine that, in a new century, “our” freedom fighters would become our sworn enemies, or that the Afghans, that backward people in a poor land, could ever be the sort of impediment to American power that they had been to the Soviets?
The Cold War was over. The surge had it. We were supreme. And what better high could there be than that?
Fever Dreams of Military Might
Of course, with the Soviet Union gone, there was no military on the planet that could come close to challenging the American one, nor was there a nascent rival great power on the horizon. Still, a question remained: After centuries of great power rivalry, what did it mean to have a “sole superpower” on planet Earth, and what path should that triumphant power head down? It took a few years, including passing talk about a possible “peace dividend” -- that is, the investment of monies that would have gone into the Cold War, the Pentagon, and the military in infrastructural and other domestic projects -- for this question to be settled, but settled it was, definitively, on September 12, 2001.
And for all the unknown paths that might have been taken in this unique situation, the one chosen was familiar. It was, of course, the very one that had helped lead the Soviet Union to implosion, the investment of national treasure in military power above all else. However, to those high on the urge to surge and now eager to surge globally, when it came to an American future, the fate of the Soviet Union seemed no more relevant than what the Afghans had done to the Red Army. In those glory years, analogies between the greatest power the planet had ever seen and a defeated foe seemed absurd to those who believed themselves the smartest, clearest-headed guys in the room.
Previously, the “arms race,” like any race, had involved at least two, and sometimes more, great powers. Now, it seemed, there would be something new under the sun, an arms race of one, as the U.S. prepared itself for utter dominance into a distant, highly militarized future. The military-industrial complex would, in these years, be further embedded in the warp and woof of American life; the military expanded and privatized (which meant being firmly embraced by crony corporations and hire-a-gun outfits of every sort); and the American “global presence” -- from military bases to aircraft-carrier task forces -- enhanced until, however briefly, the United States became a military presence unique in the annals of history.
Thanks to the destructive acts of 19 jihadis, the urge to surge would with finality overwhelm all other urges in the fall of 2001 -- and there would be a group ready for just such a moment, for (as the newspaper headlines screamed) a “Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.”
To take full stock of that group, however, we would first have to pilot our time machine back to June 3, 1997, the day a confident crew of Washington think-tank, academic, and political types calling themselves the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) posted a fin de siècle“statement of principles.” In it, they called for “a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities.” Crucially, they were demanding that the Clinton administration, or assumedly some future administration with a better sense of American priorities, “increase defense spending significantly.”
The 23 men and two women who signed the initial PNAC statement urging the United States to go for the military option in the twenty-first century would, however, prove something more than your typical crew of think-tank types. After all, not so many years later, after a disputed presidential election settled by the Supreme Court, Dick Cheney would be vice president; I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby would be his right-hand man; Donald Rumsfeld would be Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the Bush-Cheney transition team at the Department of Defense and then the first post- invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as ambassador to Iraq and UN ambassador; Elliot Abrams, special assistant to the president with a post on the National Security Council; Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; Aaron Friedberg, Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs and Director of Policy Planning in the office of the vice president; and Jeb Bush, governor of Florida. (Others like John Bolton, who signed on to PNAC later, would be no less well employed.)
This may, in fact, be the first example in history of a think tank coming to power and actually putting its blue-sky suggestions into operation as government policy, or perhaps it’s the only example so far of a government-in-waiting masquerading as an online think tank. In either case, more than 13 years later, the success of that group can still take your breath away, as can both the narrowness -- and scope -- of their thinking, and of their seminal document, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in September 2000, two months before George W. Bush took the presidency.
This crew of surgers extraordinaires was considering a global situation that, as they saw it, offered Americans an “unprecedented strategic opportunity.” Facing a new century, their ambitions were caught by James Peck in his startling upcoming book, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, in this way: “In the [Reagan] era, Washington organized half the planet; in the [Bush era] it sought to organize the whole."
“Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” if remembered at all today, is recalled mainly for a throwaway sentence that looked ominous indeed in retrospect: “Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor.”It remains, however, a remarkable document for other reasons. In many ways canny about the direction war would take in the near future, ranging from the role of drones in air war to the onrushing possibility that cyberwar (or “Net-War,” as they called it) would be the style of future conflict, it was a clarion call to ensure this country’s “unchallenged supremacy” into the distant future by military means alone.
In 1983, in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” It wanted, as he saw it, what all dark empires (and every evildoer in any James Bond film) desires: unchallenged dominion over the planet -- and it pursued that dominion in the name of a glorious “world revolution.” Now, in the name of American safety and the glories of global democracy, we were -- so the PNAC people both pleaded and demanded -- to do what only evil empires did and achieve global dominion beyond compare over planet Earth.
We could, they insisted in a phrase they liked, enforce an American peace, a Pax Americana, for decades to come, if only we poured our resources, untold billions -- they refused to estimate what the real price might be -- into war preparations and, if necessary, war itself, from the seven seas to the heavens, from manifold new “forward operating bases on land” to space and cyberspace. Pushing “the American security perimeter” ever farther into the distant reaches of the planet (and “patrolling” it via “constabulary missions”) was, they claimed, the only way that “U.S. military supremacy” could be translated into “American geopolitical preeminence.” It was also the only that the “homeland” -- yes, unlike 99.9% of Americans before 9/11, they were already using that term -- could be effectively “defended.”
In making their pitch, they were perfectly willing to acknowledge that the United States was already a military giant among midgets, but they were also eager to suggest as well that our military situation was “deteriorating” fast, that we were “increasingly ill-prepared” or even (gasp!) in “retreat” on a planet without obvious enemies. They couldn’t have thought more globally. (They were, after all, visionaries, as druggies tend to be.) Nor could they have thought longer term. (They were twenty-first century mavens.) And on military matters, they couldn’t have been more up to date.
Yet on the most crucial issues, they -- and so their documents -- couldn’t have been dumber or more misguided. They were fundamentalists when it came to the use of force and idolaters on the subject of the U.S. military. They believed it capable of doing just about anything. As a result, they made a massive miscalculation, mistaking military destructiveness for global power. Nor could they have been less interested in the sinews of global economic power (though they did imagine our future enemy to be China). Nor were they capable of imagining that the greatest military power on the planet might be stopped in its tracks -- in the Greater Middle East, no less -- by a ragtag crew of Iraqis and Afghans. To read “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” today is to see the rabbit hole down which, as if in a fever dream, we would soon disappear.
It was a genuine American tragedy that they came to power and proceeded to put their military-first policies in place; that, on September 12th of the year that “changed everything,” the PNAC people seized the reins of defense and foreign policy, mobilized for war, began channeling American treasure into the military solution they had long desired, and surged. Oh, how they surged!
That urge to surge was infamously caught in notes on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments taken on September 11, 2001. "[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon... Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq," even though he was already certain that al-Qaeda had launched the attack. ("'Go massive,' the notes quote him as saying. 'Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'")
And so they did. They swept up everything and then watched as their dreams and geopolitical calculations were themselves swept into the dustbin of history. And yet the urge to surge, twisted and ever more desperate, did not abate.
The Soviet Path
To one degree or another, we have been on the Soviet path for years and yet, ever more desperately, we continue to plan more surges. Our military, like the Soviet one, has not lost a battle and has occupied whatever ground it chose to take. Yet, in the process, it has won less than nothing at all. Our country, still far more wealthy than the Soviet Union ever was, has nonetheless entered its Soviet phase. At home, in the increasing emphasis on surveillance of every sort, there is even a hint of what made “soviet” and “totalitarian” synonymous.
The U.S. economy looks increasingly sclerotic; moneys for an aging and rotting infrastructure are long gone; state and city governments are laying off teachers, police, even firefighters; Americans are unemployed in near record numbers; global oil prices (for a country that has in no way begun to wean itself from its dependence on foreign oil)are ominously on the rise; and yet taxpayer money continues to pour into the military and into our foreign wars. It has recently been estimated, for instance, that after spending $11.6 billion in 2011 on the training, supply, and support of the Afghan army and police, the U.S. will continue to spend an average of $6.2 billion a year at least through 2015 (and undoubtedly into an unknown future) -- and that’s but one expense in the estimated $120 billion to $160 billion a year being spent at present on the Afghan War, what can only be described as part of America’s war stimulus package abroad.
And, of course, the talk for 2011 is how to expand the American ground war -- the air version of the same has already been on a sharp escalatory trajectory -- in Pakistan. History and common sense assure us that this can only lead to further disaster. Clear-eyed leaders, military or civilian, would never consider such plans. But Washington’s 30-year high in the region, that urge to surge still coursing through its veins, says otherwise, and it’s not likely to be denied.
Sooner than later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military will have to enter rehab. They desperately need a 12-step program for recovery. Until then, the delusions and the madness that go with surge addiction are not likely to end.
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Arnold Shcherban - 1/9/2011
Bravo, Mr. Belmondo (yours is the famous name) to such a unbiased and sober analysis!
Jean Paul Belmondo - 1/4/2011
I cannot agree more… getting into a rehab is becoming simply critical. We must stop biting ourselves in the chest and saying we are the best and the greatest. This is not just for those of us who have a soft cushion job on the Capitol Hill. This is for everyone, including ordinary citizens.
I lived in Soviet Union for 30 years and witnessed the collapse of the old system. I am now witnessing another one, this time here in the US. We still control the game to some degree thanks to the federal reserve, partial control of the financial markets and the Chinese, who can't sell their junk to anyone else but us only. At least so far. We can still manage the situation to some degree as long as the Federal Reserve books are not audited; Chinese stick to their US export oriented economy instead of reorienting themselves towards the growing masses of domestic consumers; and/or another massive asset devaluation cycle that if it happens, will for sure sink our financial system. We already lost our technological and manufacturing pillars of our economy (2 of 3) and standing on one leg left only - the financial system. How long will we stand? I think as long as Chinese need us and before the US markets become less attractive to them, which will probably happen in the next 15 – 20 years. Until then they will continue to increase their control over our economy and political minds. By the way, you can thank Nixon and his national security advisor Bzhezinsky for that. They are the 2 who conspired against the Soviet Union in the late 60s by making Chinese, never mind that it was and still is a communist dictatorship state, our greatest political and economic ally. Of course, thanks to their narrow mindedness, both had no clue of what this will entail for the US itself in the long run. Finally, uncontrolled free market capitalism finished the game by redirecting domestic (read US) capital investment to Chinese, Brazilian and Indian markets; it generally stayed away from Russian market mostly due to the old ideological stigma and negative political emotions which surprisingly still well alive in Washington DC. Remember, stupidity is hard to cure... It must be a generational thing, one must to pass first. We are seeing simply massive outflow of investment capital and economic resources from the US. Why do you think China is a global player these days? Thanks to all of the above.
Also, just as a thought, what did Soviets learn from their experience? One thing that the author got wrong is that the Soviet Union did not disappear. It simply got changed, it reinvented itself. Russia and its former satellite states are still there and are doing actually quite well, much better then in the 70s. I hear a lot about Russia not being considered as a global power. May I ask why? Did they somehow mysteriously lose their nuclear weapons, which I understand they had plenty, their army, navy? I think not. Russia stopped spending money left and right as it did back in the early 80s and as we (US) do now. Russia got smarter. After it spent itself into a gutter it got born again. It reinvests its wealth domestically and gearing up economically to face to new century. It has China, hungry for resources and new territory on its south eastern border. China is growing and so are Russia's concerns. Enough said. Russia's new economic system, which can be described as a free market oriented state capitalism, is working; and it is working better and better. They still have a way to go but lessons are learned and adaptations are made; its is part of a human nature. Russia's GDP has been roughly around 6 - 8% on average over the last decade. Russia's problems were solved through the collapse of the prior system and rebirth of the new. Could it be avoided? Yes, if the oil prices did not plunge to $9 a barrel in the late 80s and stayed around that benchmark through the rest of the 90s. Soviet collapse had nothing to do with Afghanistan war, Ronald Reagan or other idiotic suggestions you hear from time to time from mass media and political dinosaurs. Soviet Union got financially suffocated thanks to the world crude prices and massive over-investment in otherwise unsustainable financial systems in former domestic and foreign satellite states. Soviets did not have their own Federal Reserve System or control of financial markets or access to the cheap Chinese financing. Oil was pretty much all they had to offer to sustain otherwise unsustainable economy (its own and it’s neighbors). This is no longer the case. Even though they are not benefiting from the foreign investment as much as Chinese or Brazilians do, of which they are very well aware of and are very concerned, they don’t embark on the same political ambitions as they did before. Now it is all about the economy and the welfare of its citizens. Do we have to fallow the path of Soviet Union to get smarter like Russian did? I really hope not for I saw what comes with it. It is simply frightful.
By the way, Putin is a good manager on a state level. He may be not the besat looking guy on the blow but he is certainly not evil. I see him as a patriot of his country and his people; he wants to help Russia to reinvent iteslf as a new country, a new nation, whose citizens can proudly say that they are Russians. There is nothing wrong with that.
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