What Obama Could Learn from Gorbachev

Is Afghanistan the new Vietnam? From the White House to the Pentagon and the Beltway glitterati, historical analogies are all the rage. Legions of strategists are beefing up their Iraqi-inspired schemes with lessons from the Vietnamese jungles.
These renewed debates about Vietnam are so striking because they reflect an unwillingness to engage with the politics and history of the country where American and NATO troops are actually fighting and dying. No period of Afghan history is more relevant than that defined by the war with the Soviet Union. Yet most Americans still view it through the Hollywood lens: Rambo III and Charlie Wilson’s War made Americans the central heroes who successfully deployed their Afghan pawns to bring down the “Evil Empire.”

What could we learn from revisiting the Soviet experience through more sober eyes? Historical comparisons offer no magical solutions to complex political problems, but in this case they suggest ways to arrive at a deeper understanding of the forces that have transformed Afghan society over the past thirty years.

First, the story of the Soviet-Afghan war challenges the view that Afghanistan is a timeless “graveyard of empires.” The war itself was a catalyst for dramatic change. Soviet arms robbed the country of more than a million people and scattered millions more – including most of its educated elites. They decimated its infrastructure and critical sectors of the state and economy. Soviet policies empowered minority communities. Tribal and ethnic identities rapidly shifted in response. For their part, the mujahidin, armed and backed by the U.S. even before the Soviet invasion, left a deep mark on the Afghan social fabric, not least by eliminating secular opposition figures. Poppies, landmines and cheap guns were the fruits of Cold War “victory.” The Taliban movement was another. The country has not recovered.

Second, though it is commonplace to be scornful of the Soviet venture in Afghanistan, it is critical to recognize the structural dynamic that now makes the position of the U.S. closely resemble that of the Soviets in the 1980s. The USSR was a one-party dictatorship, and its forces showed far less restraint toward civilian populations than U.S. and NATO troops. In Afghanistan, however, the differences narrow.

Moscow and Washington became embroiled there because their elites calculated that great power interests were at stake on the Hindu Kush. Both claimed self-defense (against al-Qaeda terrorism and US “imperialism,” respectively), even as they failed to grasp the nature of the foe, in one case a small, but spatially diffuse global network of militants loosely joined together by anti-imperialist ideals, and in the other a superpower with little capacity, as it turns out, to govern the region.

More important, the challenges confronted by the superpowers resemble one another in that both became trapped – not by supposedly primordial tribes, Afghanistan’s jagged terrain, or even by the “rage” of jihad – but by their own Afghan proxies who spoke the languages of socialism and democracy, but who pursued their independent interests. The Soviets intervened in December 1979 to back Afghan communists who had seized power in April 1978 and who ruthlessly set upon their enemies and violently unleashed a revolution to end feudalism and liberate women. But the KGB repeatedly expressed exasperation at their inability to control the Afghan communists or temper their radicalism. The Afghan communists’ brutal detentions, torture, and murder compounded the Soviets’ troubles by stoking the resistance.

In Hamid Karzai, the U.S. has created a similar liability. American troops find themselves fighting for a government whom many, if not most, Afghans regard as illegitimate. The fault lies not with the Afghans alone, but with the great powers who, forgetting the history of colonialism, mistakenly believed they could govern through intermediaries who lack support within their own societies.

Lastly, the Soviet defeat should evoke cautious humility rather than schadenfreude. The Soviets enjoyed the logistical advantage of fighting in a neighboring country. They had personnel, including Uzbeks and Tajiks, who knew Afghan languages and who had local ties and experience. The U.S. faces a logistical and intelligence nightmare and is struggling to identify an enemy that is formidable even without a superpower patron.

The Soviet-Afghan war also bears practical lessons for the current U.S. escalation. In detaining Afghans in the lawless environs of Bagram, conducting aerial raids (including drone attacks), and pledging more than a billion dollars for uncontrollable “tribal militias,” the U.S. is repeating the worst Soviet mistakes. Backed by a vast complex of social scientists, journalists, and think tank pundits, American elites hold fast to the view that the military can remake foreign countries at will. Whether fighting Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans or Pakistanis, they imagine that heterogeneous political scenarios can be subsumed under the single, universal rubric of “counterinsurgency,” with a military solution always close at hand.

Some Soviet authorities knew better. The U.S. would do well to listen to them now. One is a September 1979 KGB memo calling for pressure on the Afghan leadership to create a broad-based coalition government including the opposition. Another is Gorbachev’s plan of 1986 to extricate the USSR by pursuing national reconciliation and international diplomacy. The U.S. has tragically neglected these approaches, narrowly seeking a military victory and ignoring Afghanistan’s complicated past.

Robert D. Crews is Associate Professor of History at Stanford University and co-editor, with Amin Tarzi, of The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Harvard University Press).

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