Will We Learn Anything from Afghanistan? William R. Polk, Part 1

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PolkPhoto.jpegWilliam R. Polk's first appearance as an Atlantic author came 55 years ago. While Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, while Americans were absorbing the impact of the launch of Sputnik, while the showdown over integrating Little Rock Central High School continued, he wrote an article for us in 1958 called [yes] "The Lessons of Iraq." You can read it here and note how much of the analysis still applies.

In the years since then Polk has been a scholar and diplomat concentrating mainly on Middle Eastern affairs. Three years ago he made a return visit here to report on his latest trip to Afghanistan.

Now he has written a two-part essay on what Americans should take from their past ten-plus years of combat in Afghanistan. Through all these decades, a central theme in Polk's writing has been the crucial importance of recognizing and learning from strategic mistakes -- but also the seeming impossibility of doing so. This first of his dispatches concentrates on the lessons of the Soviet Union's struggles in Afghanistan. This one is about 3500 words long, or the scale of a medium-sized Atlantic story. I turn the stage over to William R. Polk.
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Introduction:
  President Obama intends to "wind down" the Afghan war over the next years and to leave only a training mission there.   He inherited from President Bush and has continued, even enlarged, the American expenditures -- thousands of casualties, hundreds of thousands of wounded and a trillion dollars.   The experience has been, or should have been, as Kipling wrote of another war, "no end of a lesson."  Yet, I wonder, has it really been a lesson, and have we heeded it?  Might we do the same things again?

    As I have ruminated for years over these questions, which may be nearly vital for our country and our beliefs, I have reached the conclusion that we do not see or understand the similarities of events; rather we think of each venture as unique.  What happened in Vietnam has no relevance to what happened in Iraq.  After all, the  two countries are far apart, speak different languages and...well you know the rest....

    Fortunately, most of the current wars appear to be over even though they have left us with huge burdens.  But, as we survey what may be the prospect of new burdens, do our leaders connect the past to the present and the future?  I find little evidence to suggest that they do.

    Perhaps, I have thought, this is partly because of our rotation of leadership.  The new leaders are sure that they can do better what the former leaders did badly.  It is also, I think, because our memories are weak and our attention spans are short.    Perhaps we really don't care.  Or all the above.

    Here, I am trying to do two things, hence two papers I lay before you:  the one is that by looking not only at our involvement in the current war, Afghanistan, but also looking at what the Soviet Union did and tried to do there, I can single out a few things that should command attention even of our leaders.  The other, addressed in my second paper is,  given what we know and what we have experienced, what now makes sense for us to do.

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What the Russians did in Afghanistan And What We Can Learn From It.
By William R. Polk

I have long been a student of Afghan affairs.  I first went there in 1962 when I was a Member of the Policy Planning Council.  During that visit, I made a 2,000 mile trip around the country during which I managed to talk with dozens of village elders, government officials and the diplomats and advisers from all the main states.  The result was a policy paper I presented to the Secretary of State's policy committee.

    The main argument in my paper was that the wisest policy for America was a modest and discrete involvement designed to help the Afghans manage their own affairs.  To accomplish this goal,  I proposed various ventures in education, health and infrastructure.  

    Above all, I proposed, America should avoid actions that were likely to restart the "Great Game,"  the competition for control of Afghanistan between Imperial Russia and the then British-dominated South Asia.  Neither we, nor the by-then Soviet Russians, nor the by-then independent South Asians - and certainly not the Afghans - would gain.   What the British called a "Forward Policy" had long since proven wasteful, sterile and self-defeating.  Its modern version, proclaimed by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was likely to repeat in Afghanistan what he and his brother Allan were already doing in Iran:  ultimately nullifying attempts, slow and weak as they were, toward increased national capacity and improvement of life.
Secretary of State Rusk was complimentary of my effort but cautioned me not to waste my time: Afghanistan was not then and would never be of any significance..  Believing this, we phased down from the Dulles policy because we were distracted by urgent considerations in Vietnam.  The Russians, similarly, eased their activities because they too were distracted by other events, notably in Eastern Europe.  And, onto this relatively open field, the Afghans began a program of national enhancement.   The university took the lead.  Ideas, programs and even new styles of social interaction and dress appeared.  It was as though the Afghans had heard Chairman Mao say "let a hundred flowers bloom."  They -- not he -- meant it.

But the modernization movement was shallow and weak.  It needed all the help it could get.  What I had urged we do might have made a crucial difference, but our policy machine had only two settings, full speed ahead or stop.  No moderation.  We didn't quite stop, but we came close.  And we drifted with events so when the King's cousin, Daud Khan overthrew the various and competing reformers and radicals, and installed a rightist dictatorship, we hardly noticed.
Neither, at first, did the Russians.  In fact, they were quite content with the Daud dictatorship.   As the former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, in his excellent study of Soviet policy , has observed,

"Because the Soviet government valued its relationship with the Daud government, the Ambassador and the Chief Soviet Military Adviser were instructed to have no dealings with the PDPA [Communist Party] leaders."

 As we did in Iran and elsewhere, they conducted their more sensitive relationships through their intelligence channel. There message they sent along that channel was dispiriting to the Afghan Communists: stop fighting among yourselves support President Daud.

The Afghan Communists did not listen.  Few though they were  -  Braithwaite suggests only about 1,500 -- they were determined to seize power.  Although we do not know much about their thinking, it is likely that they were driven rather than inhibited by recognition of their weakness.  As they watched Daud purge one after another of his initial allies, they must have realized that if they did not seize power, Daud would imprison or kill them too.  And, because they were split between an urban, university-oriented faction (known as Parcham) and a rural-based faction (known as Khalq), Daud found them an easy target.   He took the initiative and began on April 25, 1978  to arrest the leaders, some of whom he had killed, but he purged too casually: from prison, the would-be rebels managed to get their junior military officer allies to strike on their behalf.

The coup itself, as coups often are, was the easy part.  But the inexperienced young Party chiefs and their army colleagues soon overplayed their hands.  Even when their objectives were laudable, as some were, they were unpopular among the generally conservative society.  So eleven months after the coup, the army mutinied. Russian officers were killed and the regime teetered.
What the Russians then faced sounds very familiar to us today with just the change of a few names and dates.  What, the Russians leaders wondered, was their real interest:  if they moved to protect their Afghan allies, they might disrupt the Russian-American détente which, despite Soviet repression of revolts in Eastern Europe, Leonid Brezhnev thought of as his "page in the history books."   Was Secretary Rusk right?  Was Afghanistan not important, or at least not important enough to risk other policy goals?  And what response might a new "Forward Policy" draw?

The Soviet government had reason to worry about a possible American reaction even though Afghanistan was not a major American concern.  Neighboring Iran was.  And  there the American position, the very keystone of the then American Middle Eastern policy, the Shah's regime, had been rudely overturned by the January 1979 Revolution.  As the Russians were reacting to the revolts in Eastern Europe, it must have seemed to them not inconceivable that the Americans, motivated by their belief in the "Domino Theory" (that when one ally falls, the others are likely also to fall), would react to their Iranian fiasco by invading Afghanistan.   Even if they did not send in troops, the Russians must have considered, the Americans might seek to establish intelligence-gathering bases to replace those they had operated in Iran.  Worse, in the context of the Cold War, they might get themselves into position to engage in espionage among the restive Muslim population of Central Asia.  Suddenly Afghanistan seemed significant.

But not, of course, as significant as Eastern Europe.  So wise statesmen exercise what they believe to be prudent.  But in strategy what passes as prudence is sometimes the first step in a process that soon becomes imprudent..  What they did was similar to the cautious first steps President Kennedy took on Vietnam almost twenty years before - send in some "advisers," food and other non-lethal aid.  If more was needed, send weapons and set about training the native army on how to use them.  Not much would be needed in their wars, both the Americans and the Russians believed.  Intervention could be limited in both scale and time.  All was under control.  

What was not under control was the local ally.  As in Vietnam so in Afghanistan, the native government failed to rise to the challenge.  Worse, it presented to its own people, and gradually to the world, the face of a vicious, totalitarian, corrupt regime.  

The Russians were under no illusions about the Afghans. Braithwaite found evidence in their archives of their recognition of  "the deviousness, brutality, and incompetence of their Communist allies in Kabul."  When the Afghan Communists tried to justify their policy by comparing it to Stalin's purges, the "evolved" Soviet leadership was infuriated.   What Stalin did was long ago and no longer permissible.

Undeterred, the Afghan Communists arrested and killed tens of thousands of their fellow citizens.  Massacres were followed by new uprisings which in turn were bloodily repressed.  They found it convenient when some of the repressions were blamed on the Russians.  Increasingly, even whole formations of army troops deserted to the rebels.  

As  the weeks and months passed and clashes increased in scale, the "men on the ground," the embassy, the KGB station and the military advisers urged deeper involvement.  Heeding their demands while seeking to assuage  religious and ethnic sentiments, the Soviet government began to send in small detachments of  Central Asian Turkish-speaking Muslim troops.  This was an advantage the later American forces did not have:  the Americans must have appeared to Afghans, as we see in photos, like beings from outer space in their odd helmets, eye shades and camouflage uniforms.

The initial contingents did not suffice.  There was always a need for more.  The next step was to bring in the Soviet equivalent of the Green Berets or Special Forces, the  SpetNaz.  Initially, their task was to defend the other Russians, but gradually, of course, they were drawn into the conflict.  As Braithwaite wrote,

"Thus by the late summer of 1979 several of the military units that were to play a significant role in the first days of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan were already in place....Step by step, with great reluctance, strongly suspecting that it would be a mistake, the Russians slithered toward a military intervention because they could not think of a better alternative."

During this period, when not distracted by events in Eastern Europe, the Politburo was thrown into turmoil.  As we now know, even some of those we in the West thought of as the hardest of the hardliners were opposed to intervention.  Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, was recorded as saying (as Braithwaite summarized the record),   "If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people.  The Soviet Union would look like aggressors.  That was unacceptable....Tanks could not solve what was essentially a political problem.  If the revolution in Afghanistan could only be sustained with Soviet bayonets, that was a route down which the Soviet Union should not go."

And while many in Washington continued to argue about the reality of a Sino-Soviet split,  Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko sourly commented that "It would be a splendid present for the Chinese [because] All the non-aligned countries would come out against the Soviet Union."
 
Leonid Brezhnev observed that the Afghan army was falling apart and the new and unpopular Afghan government just wanted the Russians "to fight their war for them."  The Russians were equally blunt in talks with the Afghans.  Alexei Kosygin lectured the Afghan president, a fellow Communist, that 'If we sent in our troops, 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 part of your own people.  And people do not forgive that kind of thing.'"

Another argument must have been in the minds of those aging men.  Although it is hardly known outside of the Kremlin, there was a precedent to make the Soviet leaders hesitant. This Russian intervention would not be the first.  In 1929, Stalin had sent a task force of a thousand men, dressed in Afghan army uniforms, to help the then ruler keep his throne.  They failed. Amanullah Khan fled and the military mission was withdrawn. Subsequently, the officer who had led the mission was shot.  In high stakes Soviet leadership, it was prudent to remember the past.

But probably the deciding cause was that even in the Politburo few people had any idea of what might be involved.  As Braithwaite writes - similar words might have written about America's wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan --  "Needless to say, the experts who actually knew about Afghanistan - and there were many of them in the Soviet Union in those days - were neither consulted nor informed." Instant experts came to the fore while seasoned observes were shunted aside: "no one in authority bothered to debrief [the very able Soviet ambassador who had spent 7 years in Afghanistan] or ask his opinion.... When the crisis peaked, the senior Soviet officials in the Afghan capital were men with little or no experience of the country."

What differed from Vietnam was that, unlike the American generals in Vietnam,   the Soviet Army leaders were strongly opposed to intervention.  The chief of staff argued all the way to the Politburo:

"the Afghan problem had to be settled by political means; the Afghans had never tolerated the presence of foreigners on their soil; the Soviet troops would probably be drawn into military operations whether they liked it or not.  His arguments fell on deaf ears..."
 When the decision to intervene was made by the civilian Party leadership on Christmas day 1979,  a powerful military force that ultimately numbered over a hundred thousand men and women, supplemented by various paramilitary formations, raced toward Kabul.

Powerful though the Soviet army was, it proved insufficient.  The chief of the Soviet General Staff told them it was.  I have never met a general who believed he had enough men or equipment. Counterinsurgency theory, based on the Vietnam war, held that the ratio of soldiers to natives needed to be about 20 or 25 per thousand.  The Soviet forces always would fall far short of that.  The 100 thousand they could muster gave a ratio of about  3 soldiers per thousand.  (The American ratio has varied around 2 per thousand.)

To supplement what their own personnel could do, the Russians soon moved to create or reform existing organizations in the military and police.  Their efforts with the Afghan army were, at best, of limited success.  On paper, it was a formidable force, and the Russian-trained officer corps was actually reasonably competent, but the soldiers were mainly  "Shanghaied" villagers.  They not only could not be relied upon to act independently (as is true in Afghanistan today despite years of training and billions of dollars committed to this goal) and ran away when under fire (as our troops today complain they often do),  but also about two in each three deserted with their weapons.  Many joined the resistance or turned over their weapons to it.

The more entrepreneurial of the peasants-turned soldier learned to turn desertion to a profit.  They took advantage of the offer of a bounty to enlist. "Renting" tribesmen was a Soviet policy copied twenty years later in northern Iraq by General Petraeus.  As he said, "money is my most important ammunition in this war."  While it made Petraeus's reputation, it did not work for him any more than it did for the Soviets.  Many Iraqis and  Afghans pocketed the money and when convenient walked home.  The Afghans may have been shrewder military-businessmen: as the Russians learned, some "soldiers" changed sides time after time.  

The Soviet program with the gendarmerie was more successful.  The political police, the KhAD, Khadamat-e Etela'at-e Dawlati, which were partially patterned on the Soviet Spetsnaz and the KGB's special forces, and Kashad were more effective or at least more long lasting.   Although their brutality created masses of new enemies for the Russians, they continued to employ them.  After renaming them, President Karzai today continues to use them.

 Unlike the Americans, the Russians did not use foreign mercenaries or Russian "contractors." In 2009, the 60,000 American regular troops were overmatched by some 68,197, often third-world, mercenaries.  Blackwater, aka Xe, has become a major contractor with an income of c. $1 billion.  It is not alone.   Most American installations are now guarded by private armies.

Almost from the beginning the Soviet forces engaged in counterinsurgency tactics.  The Russians learned that they could get better intelligence, and so win battles and avoid ambushes, if they performed "civic action."  Instead of money, they offered services.  Inspired by the Médecins Sans Frontières,  they trained intelligence officers in rudimentary medical skills - as American forces later did -- before sending them out into the villages.   They undertook large-scale programs also in education,  government reform, social affairs including women's rights, irrigation and road building.  Remarkably, they trained over 70,000 workers in relatively modern techniques.   But, as Braithweaite has written,

"They discovered...that most Afghans preferred their own ways, and were not going to change them at the behest of a bunch of godless foreigners and home-grown infidels.  The Russians did not, and could not, address this fundamental strategic issue."  

At the urging of the neoconservatives, the American government would later fall into the same trap:  the history they did not heed proves that while the reforming of a government is sometimes possible, the restructuring or recasting of a whole society is almost certainly beyond the capacity of foreigners.  It must evolve internally or it will not evolve at all.  

More pointedly, if reform of any sort or the provision of aid is tied to the tactics of foreign control, it will be regarded by the natives not as beneficial but as the very front line in the war.  Neither the Russians nor the Americans have learned this simple truth.

After five years of warfare, a new Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev began to try to negotiate and scale back.  In November 1986, it arranged to install a new, still Communist-dominated but more broadly based, government in Kabul.  As in Hamid Karazai's Afghanistan today, Muhammad Najibullah's government then set out a two-pronged policy:  build up the army and gendarmerie but proclaim a policy of national reconciliation.  To enhance Najibullah's prestige, the Russians increased their aerial bombing of areas they did not control.

Meanwhile, the guerrilla war continued.  As Braithwaite points out, the toll on the Soviet force, particularly on helicopters, was only a small fraction of the cost to America during the Vietnam war.  And he dispels the myth that the American provision of the "Stinger" SAM was what turned the tide:  "Gorbachev had decided to withdraw a full year before the first Stinger was fired."
Another myth attributes a particularly sinister tactic to the Russians:  the seeding of rebel areas with bombs disguised as toys or cattle food.  As Braithwaithe points out, these devilish devices were copies of bomblets  first used by Americans in Vietnam.

Gorbachev decided in 1986 to get out of Afghanistan and began, as President Barak Obama was later to do, by withdrawing a part of the Russian contingent.  He quickly discovered that getting out was slower and harder than going in.   Chief of the Soviet General Staff Sergei Akhromeev summed up the failure:

"In the past seven years [600,000] Soviet soldiers had had their  boots on the ground in every square kilometer of the country.  But as soon as they left, the enemy returned and restored everything the way it was before.  We have lost this war. "

The Russians finally turned to diplomacy, but they were too late.  Not having opted to negotiate, they found that the insurgents, having victory in sight, were in no mood to give up any advantage.  Thus, they refused to sign the agreement formalized on April 14, 1988 in Geneva  between the Afghan government and Pakistan (which was involved both because it was sheltering millions of Afghan refugees and because it was the conduit of aid to the insurgents) and guaranteed by the United States and the USSR.   

That was nearly but not quite the end of the Communist regime.  Even with its 300,000-man army, it rapidly gave up most of the country.  As did the Saigon regime, it lasted a further three years without external support.  Finally, in 1992 it literally ran out of gas: the weapons the Russians had left behind could not be used against the rebels who steadily consolidated their gains.  The real price of the war was then to be paid, first by the Afghans and then by the Russians.  

The insurgents had proved unbeatable partially because they were not unified; now the lack of unity made it impossible for them to govern.  With the Russians gone, they turned on one another, tore the cities - particularly Kabul --  into rubble and caused about a quarter of a million more Afghans to flee or die.  

The price the Russians paid, like that being paid by America, was to be measured in shattered lives, wasted treasure and warping of institutions.  Post-traumatic stress disorder was not then so well understood in Russia and the Russian government was less sympathetic or helpful to its veterans.  But, recognized or not, about one in two soldiers suffered from it.   Malaise reached every corner of Russia and played no small part in the collapse of the Soviet system.  America is today far stronger, but the final tab of America's Afghan adventure - in money, institutions and beliefs -- has yet to be paid.  

End of part 1.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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