Steve Coll: Gorbachev Was Right About Afghanistan

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[Steve Coll is president of New America Foundation, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.]

We’re all prisoners of our own experiences. Richard Holbrooke, the Obama Administration’s diplomatic point man on Afghanistan, and the subject of my colleague George Packer’s terrific Profile last week, arrives at the current dilemmas influenced by Vietnam and Bosnia. General David Petraeus, Obama’s commander for the Middle East and Central Asian region, and General Stan McChrystal, his commander in Afghanistan, arrive at this intersection with the recent lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq ringing in their ears. In some respects the debate over what strategy Obama should now adopt in Afghanistan has become a debilitating contest of historical analogies and comparative case studies. A similar discourse broke out recently after Russia’s incursion into Georgia; the incident occurred during the Obama-McCain Presidential campaign, and McCain invoked comparisons to Hungary, 1956, and even the Second World War. The wise editor of this magazine, setting such comparisons aside, quoted the English theologian Joseph Butler, with whom, frankly, I was unacquainted. Anyway, Butler apparently once wrote, “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” It is a more useful way to think about the value of history in policymaking than the historical-case-study debate method, I agree, and the quotation has stuck with me.

Of course, this philosophy does not make history irrelevant at moments like this. And you might argue that of all the analogies that should be reviewed as Obama makes his choices, those rooted in recent Afghan history are the most useful, since, in some respects, they are “not another thing.”

In the mid-nineteen-eighties, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he inherited a deteriorating war in Afghanistan. He wanted out but he was boxed in by hardliners in his Politburo and military. Gradually, however, he constructed an exit strategy from Afghanistan. It had several components, all of which are present, in amended forms, in the current Obama policy debate.

In Afghanistan, after an initial and failed attempt to use special forces more aggressively to hit Islamist guerrillas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Soviets began to pull back into Afghanistan’s major cities and to “Afghan-ize” their military operations. As they prepared to withdraw, Soviet troops moved away from direct combat, particularly in the countryside, and instead concentrated on training and equipping the Afghan forces. They also provided supplies and expertise the Afghans lacked—air power, for example, and SCUD missiles. As I described in a previous post, this military strategy worked pretty well, and the Soviet city-fortresses withstood heavy assaults from the U.S.-financed mujaheddin even after Soviet troops left the country; they left only a thousand or two military and intelligence advisers behind.

Gorbachev’s Afghan client, President Najibullah, seized the space created by the Soviet transition. He negotiated with tribes, won defections, and preached relentlessly about national unity and Islam. If you listened to his unifying rhetoric by 1989, it would be very difficult to tell that he was once a communist secret-police chief; his playlist sounded similar to the Islam-friendly nationalism of the late Saddam Hussein period in Iraq. Najibullah was a tough guy, too, and in the Afghan context his strength and ruthless reputation seemed to aid his political strategy. In essence, he practiced and partially succeeded at a prospective Obama approach that is short-handed as “reconciliation” or “national reintegration” in reference to the Taliban. Najibullah never brought his main enemies into the fold, but he bought time and held his ground in what amounted to a prolonged stalemate.

Gorbachev had a broader vision for his exit strategy than merely propping up Najibullah to conduct tribal negotiations, however. He believed that the Soviet Union and the United States, having effectively concluded their debilitating and devastating proxy war in Afghanistan, now had a shared interest in promoting stability in South and Central Asia. Gorbachev advocated U.N.-brokered regional negotiations aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan and isolating Islamist extremists. This in turn would create stability along the southern rim of the Soviet Union, where Muslim populations resided. Surely, Gorbachev argued, the United States did not wish to see anti-American Islamic extremists come to power in Kabul, at least not without the ameliorating effect of coalition arrangements and power-sharing with Najibullah? Didn’t the United States want moderates to prevail in Pakistan, next door, where a fragile constitutional democracy had only recently been restored?..
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