Archive for October, 2009

The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

October 30, 2009

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Victor Sebestyen about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and its parallels with the current US military effort there ( Mr. Sebestyen quotes frequently from recently uncovered transcripts of conversations between members of the Politburo and the Soviet army about the war and its implications. He implicitly suggests that the US will suffer the same fate as the Russians.

There are undoubtedly similarities between the situations that Soviet and American forces faced in Afghanistan, including: the difficult terrain; the irregular tactics of the enemy; the religious motivations of the insurgents; the militants’ sanctuary in Pakistan; Saudi support for the Afghan fighters; and the unpopularity of the Afghan government being supported.

However, there are significant differences that Mr. Sebestyen fails to acknowledge, such as: the reasons for intervention; the nature of the political system introduced by the foreign invaders; the level of international support for the mission; and the tactics used by the counterinsurgents. These dissimilarities complicate comparisons between the Soviet and American campaigns.

Unlike the Soviets, the US invaded Afghanistan in response to a direct attack against its homeland and its citizens, and when the US arrived it helped overthrow an unpopular regime rather than prop up a hated faction. The US promoted a democratic system of government that gave more power to the Afghan people, not an authoritarian communist administration that repressed them. The US has support from the international community, including the UN and NATO, and is not acting unilaterally. And the counterinsurgency forces are trying to protect Afghan civilians from militants, as opposed to pursuing an indiscriminate scorched earth campaign. These facts largely prevented the Americans from being perceived as hostile occupiers, which creates a different dynamic on the ground vis-a-vis the Soviet occupation.

Whether the US can or will achieves its objectives in Afghanistan is uncertain. However, policymakers and the American public should not assume that failure is inevitable merely because the Soviets were unable to succeed.

The New US Approach to Intra-Islamic Struggles

October 29, 2009

In a recent blog, Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark) discusses the new US approach to intra-Islamic struggles, citing the case of Indonesia as an example( He compares the new hands-off policy towards religious arguments between Muslims to that of the Bush administration, which aggressively attempted to promote moderate versions of Islam, and argues that the Obama way is more effective.

The US has little ability to directly boost the position of moderates within the Islamic world. The most efficacious way to combat extremism is to pursue policies that benefit Muslims around the world rather than alienate them, such as promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and avoiding being perceived as occupiers in Muslim countries.

The actions of extremists will also influence the debate. Suicide bombings by Al Qaeda and its affiliates which kill innocent men, women and children will likely reduce the level of support for violent jihadists, which the public backlash against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan following recent attacks demonstrates.

Karzai, the Taliban and the Drug Trade

October 28, 2009

In an article published today (, the New York Times revealed that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has been receiving money from the CIA for nearly eight years. Ahmed Wali Karzai is widely suspected of being involved in drug trafficking and other illicit activities that the Taliban also engage in for financial gain. Many senior officials believe that the CIA’s association with him undermines America’s counterinsurgency efforts, which have recently become intertwined with counternarcotics missions, and they want the US to stop dealing with Mr. Karzai.

But the CIA’s involvement with Mr. Karzai appears to have yielded benefits for the US. Mr. Karzai has recruited personnel and set up bases for the Kandahar Strike Force, a paramilitary group that works closely with American special operations forces to combat terrorists and insurgents in the city of Kandahar. He has also served as an intermediary between US intelligence officials and Taliban leaders who have considered quitting the insurgency, and he might play a valuable role in this regard if the coalition puts greater emphasis on persuading elements of the Taliban to switch sides, as some analysts have recommended.

Mr. Karzai may not be a model citizen, but the US will sometimes have to deal with unsavory characters to advance its foreign policy goals. Mr. Karzai is a major powerbroker in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest, and his desire to prevent the Taliban from regaining power could make him a valuable asset to the US.

On a somewhat related note, the drug trade in Afghanistan is not the sole source of funds for the Taliban, nor is it the largest. The Taliban gets most of its money from foreign donors in the Middle East, and extortion also provides a major revenue stream. American counternarcotics efforts will not likely put a major dent in the Taliban’s ability to bankroll the insurgency, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, has acknowledged. The program might actually be counterproductive if it alienates Afghan farmers who rely on poppy farming for their livelihoods, because it could motivate them to support the Taliban. It would be more useful for American military forces to focus directly on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions and not be distracted by narcotics issues.

Training Tribal Militias in AfPak

October 27, 2009

There is intense debate about whether the US should send more troops to Afghanistan as President Obama considers Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more soldiers and Marines to fight the Taliban. But most officials and analysts agree that American forces should train Afghans to perform counterinsurgency operations so that they can ultimately take over responsibility for securing their country, a development which would enable Western troops to withdraw without leaving a power vacuum that anti-American elements could fill.

Thus far, the US and its NATO allies have been trying to build up the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), but success has been limited for several reasons, including corruption, ethnic rivalries and the weakness of the central government. A more promising approach would be to work with local tribes, especially the Pashtuns living in southern Afghanistan where the Taliban is strongest, to create tribal militias capable of fighting insurgents (Kyle Flynn, a former Special Forces NCO who served in Afghanistan, has suggested something similar). The Pakistanis might be amenable to training Pashtun fighters on their side of the border, where the Taliban and other militants currently have a sanctuary, in order to relieve the pressure from the US to attack militant strongholds (although the logistics of getting tribesmen out of dangerous areas in Pakistan for training would be complicated).

Coalition forces should also train Tajik tribes in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban has recently established a greater presence. German forces, the leading NATO contingent in the area, have engaged in firefights with insurgents in Kunduz Province. Kunduz used to be a fairly safe place where soldiers could patrol in unarmored vehicles, but now they do not even travel in armored vehicles without a convoy.

The US and its allies are trying to create a strong national government and security apparatus in a place where neither has ever existed. The coalition should recognize the tribal nature of Afghanistan and adjust its training strategy accordingly.

A Bloody Reminder That Iraq is Still Unstable

October 26, 2009

The war in Afghanistan is now overshadowing the conflict in Iraq in terms of public discussion and media coverage, especially while President Obama is debating whether to send an additional 40,000 troops to fight the Taliban.  Further contributing to the change in focus is the assumption that American troops will soon leave Iraq (Under the current Status of Forces Agreement between the American and Iraqi governments, all US soldiers and Marines are supposed to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011).

But two suicide bombings in Baghdad on Sunday served as a bloody reminder that Iraq is still unstable despite improvements in security since 2007.  The coordinated attacks killed at least 155 people and wounded 500, and they also severely damaged the Justice Ministry and a provincial council building.  Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and former Baathists for the carnage.

Violence is expected to intensify before national elections scheduled for Jan. 2010, and the 120,000 American troops now in Iraq will remain there until after the voting.  Military planners hope to reduce that number to 50,000 by Aug. 2010, but if the situation deteriorates the scheduled withdrawals could be postponed (the Status of Forces Agreement could also be renegotiated at the request of the Iraqi government, and the final pullout date could be pushed back).

Any delay in the removal of American troops from Iraq could impact the war in Afghanistan, where military commanders want more “boots on the ground” to fight insurgents.  US ground forces are stretched thin between the two conflicts, so continuing to maintain a large force in Iraq will free up fewer soldiers and Marines for service in Afghanistan.  Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has warned that the US and its allies could lose the war against the Taliban in the next 12 to 18 months if reinforcements are not sent.  Many analysts believe that 40,000 additional troops will not be enough to turn the tide in Afghanistan, and the US would not be able to augment the force level further if its commitment in Iraq is not reduced.