The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

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 (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/opinion/29sebestyen.html?pagewanted=1&ref=global). 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.

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