Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The familiar road to failure in Afghanistan: Financial Times

The familiar road to failure in Afghanistan

By Rodric Braithwaite

Published: December 21 2009 20:00 | Last updated: December 21 2009 20:00

Pinn illustration

On Christmas day 1979, 30 years ago, Soviet forces poured into Afghanistan. Two days later Soviet special forces killed Hafizullah Amin, president, in his Kabul palace. The Russians imposed their puppet, Babrak Karmal, in his place. Led by Jimmy Carter, the US president, and Margaret Thatcher, the UK prime minister, the world united against this latest example of cynical and ruthless Soviet imperial aggression against a small neighbour. Financial, economic and military assistance to the growing insurgency flooded in from Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US and Britain. Nine years later, on February 15 1989, the Soviets withdrew, a superpower humiliated by a rag-tag army of pious peasant fighters armed by Charlie Wilson, US congressman, with the Stinger missiles that drove the Soviet battle helicopters out of the sky.

Thus the myth. The reality was more complicated. A good place to start is 1919, when an Afghan army invaded India. The British rapidly defeated them, but in the subsequent peace negotiations they abandoned the 80-year-old monopoly of Afghan foreign policy for which they had successfully fought in the 19th century.

Freed from British tutelage, the Afghans promptly recognised the infant Soviet Union. The Russians had a major, indeed a "legitimate", interest in close links with a country strategically situated on their southern border, a potential source of instability, drugs, Islamic fundamentalism and American intrigue. They were happy to work with whoever was currently in power in Kabul. They trained Afghan officers and engineers and built many large projects including a national highway, a strategic road tunnel through the mountains, one of the largest agricultural projects in Asia and the Polytechnic Institute in Kabul.

By the 1970s they had also developed a close but unhappy relationship with the Afghan Communist party, which was fatally split between moderates led by Karmal and extremists led by Nur Mohammed Taraki and Amin. In a bloody coup, to which the Russians were probably not a party, the Communists overthrew President Mohammed Daud in April 1978. The extremists then won the factional fight. They believed that the methods pioneered by Stalin could transform Afghanistan into a secular "socialist" country in a matter of years, and began to imprison and execute their opponents in large numbers.

Opposition rapidly spread throughout the country. In March 1978 insurgents, joined by the local garrison, took over the provincial capital of Herat. Stories unbacked by evidence say that up to 100 Soviet advisers and their families were slaughtered.

The Kabul government panicked and appealed to Moscow to send troops. Moscow refused and Aleksei Kosygin, Soviet prime minister, told Taraki: "We believe it would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people." His words were prophetic.

The insurgency went on growing. The Russians continued to turn down repeated Afghan requests for troops. But the Soviet general staff did do some contingency planning, and sent detachments of special forces and paratroopers into Kabul and the air base at Bagram as a precaution.

In the autumn things deteriorated much further. Amin murdered Taraki, took over the country, stepped up the arrests and executions and began to talk to the Americans. So far, the Russians' attempts to influence the course of Afghan politics had been completely ineffective. Now they feared that the place would slip away from them entirely. They decided something must be done. The KGB made some ineffectual attempts to assassinate Amin. But the military option began to seem unavoidable.

The Russians' objectives were modest. They wanted to stabilise the Afghan government, secure the roads and the main towns, train up the Afghan army and police and then leave. At that point an argument opened up in Moscow. The politicians agreed with the KGB that a force of 30,000-40,000 should be sufficient. The military wanted something much more substantial: they had after all sent some half a million soldiers to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968. The force that finally went into Afghanistan consisted initially of about 80,000 troops. Ironically, Amin believed until the very end that the Russians were coming in response to his repeated requests, and he sent a senior staff officer to the Soviet frontier to smooth their passage.

The 40th Army, as it was called, was inadequate. It was put together in a hurry and, though it grew to about 100,000 men, it was always too small: the military later came to believe that they would have needed 32 divisions to subdue Afghanistan and close its border with Pakistan. It was designed to fight on the North German plain, and so was neither equipped nor trained to face an insurgency. The Russian soldiers did eventually learn to fight effectively in the mountains and in what they (and the British soldiers who followed them) called the "green zone", the lethal tangle of booby-trapped irrigation ditches, vineyards and narrow village streets of the cultivated valleys. But it took time. They lost a lot of people in the process. And they killed a great many Afghans in a war as brutal as the American war in Vietnam.

Two-thirds of the soldiers were engaged in defence: garrisoning the towns, searching villages, manning guard posts along the roads. The aggressive fighting was done by special forces, paratroopers and reconnaissance troops, supported and transported by armoured vehicles and helicopters.

Despite their losses, the Russians won most of their fights. They kept the main roads open, something we cannot always do today. They broke mujahideen attempts to besiege cities. They mounted large operations, mustering up to 12,000 troops, to suppress mujahideen bases and formations. They put together an Afghan army, armed with heavy weapons, which often fought well enough, despite the distressing tendency of Afghan officers to change sides and of soldiers to return to their villages when the going got rough.

But the Russians never got over their basic weakness: they could take the territory, but they never had enough troops to hold it. As one Russian critic put it, they had tactics but no strategy.

From the beginning there were critical voices both inside and outside government. The criticism grew as the bodies began to come home in their zinc coffins. People complained bitterly that the war was pointless and shameful, and that their sons were dying in vain. In 1983 the government began to look for an exit strategy. Soon after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 – well before the first Stinger was fired – he told the Afghans that the Soviet troops would pull out in a year or 18 months.

That was easier said than done. The Russians needed to save face, to leave a friendly regime behind them, to say that their young men had not died in vain. The mujahideen wanted victory, the Pakistanis wanted to install their allies in Kabul and the Americans wanted to go on making the Russians bleed in revenge for Vietnam. But after two years of bitter negotiation, the Russians achieved much of what they needed. Their new man, Mohammed Najibullah, remained in control in Kabul and after nine unsatisfactory years the 40th Army withdrew in good order. Some 15,000 Soviet soldiers had died, and perhaps as many as 1.5m Afghans.

Najibullah lasted two more years. Then President Boris Yeltsin's new government in Moscow cut off supplies of food, fuel, and weapons and, like the British puppets of the 19th century, he was overthrown and eventually killed. After a vicious civil war, it was left to the Taliban to restore order.

The lessons of history are never clear, and it is risky to predict the future. The British and the Russians won their wars but failed to impose their chosen leaders and systems of government on the Afghans. The western coalition already has as many troops in Afghanistan as the Russians did, and smarter military technology. But neither the British prime minister nor the generals have explained to us convincingly why we should succeed where the Russians and the British failed, or why fighting in Afghanistan will prevent home-grown fanatics from planting bombs in British cities. Tactics without strategy indeed.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite was British ambassador to Moscow, 1988-92. His book 'Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989' is to be published by Profile Books in March 2011


Comment: History is a guide to action. In Iraq and increasingly in Afghanistan

there is and will be the military occupation by the U.S.A. Killing Machine mis-led

by its Amerikan Warlords of a foreign country.

Has the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghan been that long ago? Has the defeat of the great U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam been that long ago? Different people from different generations of age among people will result in different memory banks .
Some remember better than others IF they are aware back then. How many of us were keeping track of news events thirty (30) years ago in the Middle East?

When did you last see a map of the Middle East? Do you even know what country is north, east, west and/or south of Afghanistan?!?!?

Nowadays, the continued dumb Sleeping Beauty act of the Amerikan people is not much better than it was right before 911! You do remember 911 do you not?

Let's start referring to U.S. citizens as those living inside the U.S. borders, not use the term America exclusively to those inside the U.S.A. The identity label of Americans can and should include the people of all of the Americans; that includes Central and South/Latin America!

Venceremos Unidos! Education for Liberation!

Peter S. López, Jr. aka~Peta





No comments: