The December Decision
By Stirling Newberry
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 30 June 2005
On October 9th 2001, in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks and as part of the preparations for going to war in Afghanistan, a series of essays were prepared on previous involvements in that country. One of documents prepared, edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, was on the lessons of the Soviet invasion and occupation from 1979 until 1988. Afghanistan has a long history of foreign intervention, having been one of the key squares in the "Great Game" between Russia and England.
In dry national security prose, the report noted that "the last war of the Soviet Union created or aggravated the internal dynamics that eventually culminated in the dissolution of the country itself." This is, perhaps, too strong a phrasing, but it certainly didn't help. Moreover, the ease of the invasion and the failure of the occupation created certain sharp lessons for other powers that seek to impose their will by direct force.
The first lesson was the invasion itself: in the run-up to the invasion, the USSR General Staff objected to the small size of the force and the rather broad objectives. The USSR wanted to root out those who had crossed it and impose a Soviet-style government on Afghanistan, not merely fulfill some simple regime change or removal of particular leadership.
The second lesson followed from the first: the USSR had limited intelligence about the political make-up of the factions in Afghanistan, and they expected it to be like other poor peripheral countries, for example, Mongolia. This lack of clear information and willingness to "form a picture" were mistakes that compounded the lack of force commitment. The Soviet Union expected to be seen as liberators, or at least as an improvement, bringing with them technology, teaching and training. Instead they found that the populace rejected them as "infidels," and instead of being able to secure the cooperation of the local power centers, they found little immediate resistance, but also no reconciliation. Even their own friends on the ground were divided along ethnic and religious lines.
This much became clear rather early, and the military leadership pressed for either withdrawal of the "Limited Contingent" or some clearly defined goal or exit strategy. Neither was accomplished, because of the political centralization and rot within the Soviet Politburo itself. In 1985, the Politburo decided to decide, but it would wait until 13 November 1986, when there would be a full discussion of how to exit from Afghanistan. By this point, Gorbachev accuses their allies of "walking like a pretzel" - meaning weaving around every issue and being disingenuous - and warns that unless some important change of policy is undertaken, that Afghanistan will continue for another 20 or 30 years of fighting. It is now 20 years from the time of that meeting, and the fighting has continued, even if the USSR is now a motif for t-shirts, and not a government.
But it is Gromyko who argues for realpolitik in the meeting: that there are still political options, even though military ones have failed. He argues that an attempt to modernize Afghanistan is not realistic, that the USSR will have to accept Afghanistan as a neutral country, and he notes there is no internal support: the USSR has lost as many men from Afghanistan as it drafted. The politburo called for a hard exit date, a withdrawal of troops within two years. But it would not save the USSR or its political allies in Afghanistan.
By 1988, the Soviet military and political establishment were busy doing a post-mortem on Afghanistan. The political leadership agreed that going in had been a mistake, but argued that there had been repeated requests from a fellow Soviet bloc government - and thus a legitimate use of military power. The military assessment was far harsher and far more direct, as expressed in a CPSU letter of 10 May 1988.
The lessons the Soviet military drew were concise:
- Insufficient intelligence;
- The ability of small units to use terrain against large formations;
- "Complete disregard" for the local populace and its reactions;
- Failure to win the populace over to the regime;
- Placing all reliance on a "military solution";
- Long term combat operations degrading the military.
From the US side, the lessons to be drawn from the Soviet invasion were a complementary image: political failure combined with loss of control of the road network, which led to an increasing reliance on helicopters, which were vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles.
And now we have reached that most dangerous of mileposts: the transportation network that the military relies on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. Strategy is what you can do with what you can get there. The gem of the Cold War military system was not the fighter bombers, the aircraft carriers, or even the ICBM deterrent, instead it was the logistical network that allowed the US to project force farther and faster than any other nation, such that no nation felt itself too far out of American reach for too long.
The indications in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan were that American logistical capability was stretched, that there had been failures of new software and shortages of needed equipment. This failure becomes more visible with time: the lack of armored HumVees and flack jackets were the flesh wounds, caught by IED shrapnel. The loss of the ability to truck material and the reliance on rotary wing aircraft is a more dangerous failure, and a more militarily grievous loss, because it costs that which is very expensive to replace: pilots, specialists and commanding officers. The kind of people of which there is a limited supply, and which take years to fully replace.
It is this same attrition of valuable personnel which ended up being the death knell for Soviet occupation. It could no longer staff its chain of command, coordinate or control defense missions, nor could it reliably move people from one place to another. This undercut the political objectives of "national reconciliation," because reconciliation is dependent on a clear and imposing presence which cannot be delayed, denied or defeated.
The harsh conclusion is that the very documents being read in the Pentagon in the days after 9/11 provided clear warnings not to go into a nation without intelligence, not to go in with a "limited contingent," not to set large and sweeping goals of political transformation, and not to rely on an increasingly fragile military instrument to effect change. The Downing Street Memos show how, systematically, these points were ignored by key US envoys to Great Britain, and the final invasion of Iraq ended up looking like the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR. That is, politically compelled for ideological reasons, but constrained by economic and military shortages.
With the crash of a Chinook troop transport helicopter, lost, in all probability, to hostile fire, the parallels between the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq should be held to closer parallel. Consider that, from the point of invasion to the 10 May letter, the Soviets had suffered, on average, 5 killed per day of involvement, and 13 wounded. The United States has suffered only 2.3 killed, but 16 wounded. In other words, the intensity of American combat in Iraq differs from the Soviet presence in Afghanistan only in that better American evacuation and medical technology, plus better armor, saves 3 people every day who otherwise would have died.
In short, the United States is fighting its own version of the war that, according to the the foreign policy intellectual establishment, either brought down or hastened the fall of the USSR. We have engaged in the same mistakes: the Downing Street Memos of March 2002 show a determination to invade but an admission that there is poor intelligence on troops, deployment of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the state of Saddam's air force. There is no mention made of non-conventional or guerrilla warfare, just as the planning documents of the Soviet invasion do not once mention the possibility of a resistence developing. There is a reliance on an outside trained elite that, it is admitted, has no credibility on the ground.
It was a Soviet politician who reminded his fellow politburo members that with each person's death and closing of the eyes, a unique world comes to an end. It might also be added that when a nation closes its eyes to the lessons of the past, it too sets itself on a course toward its own death, a journey to that country "from which no traveler returns."