Afghanistan's lessons for Iraq
Experts draw parallels between Iraq's occupation and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The young Soviet soldier was bewildered, and in the hands of Afghan guerrillas, when he spoke a few years after Moscow's Christmas Day 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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"Everybody [in Afghanistan] used to say to me, 'Friend, friend,' " the POW told Anthony Davis, a military analyst with Jane's Intelligence Review. "Then they turned around and stabbed us in the back."
As America's ambitious nation- building campaign in Iraq comes under more frequent attack from increasingly sophisticated forces, analysts are drawing some lessons from another conflict: the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its defeat at the hands of the US-backed mujahideen.
The analogy is not perfect: Soviet forces invaded to prop up a cold war client regime, and destroyed entire villages to get at the enemy - using magnitudes more violence than that currently deployed by US troops in Iraq.
And unlike the Soviet example, no superpower is aiding the Iraqi resistance today. Americans are suffering far fewer casualties, as well, which have been magnified by Western media coverage that, for the Soviets, simply didn't factor until the final years of the Afghan campaign.
But the senior US officer in Iraq recently dismissed the resistance as "strategically and operationally insignificant," just as the Kremlin once expected that poorly trained and equipped Afghan rebels would cower before its military might.
There are many other parallels with the Soviet mire, analysts say, that should yield valuable lessons and warnings for the Pentagon today.
"They welcomed us with flowers - I saw it with my own eyes," says Makhmut Gareev, the Soviet general whose small team of advisers kept the Afghan regime afloat for nearly three years, after the Soviets pulled out in 1989.
Just as the Pentagon top brass asked for - but did not receive - many more troops before the Iraq war, the Soviet General Staff advised that 30 to 35 divisions would be necessary to stabilize Afghanistan. Only 4 or 5 reserve divisions were sent, for a mission expected to be quick and low profile.
Within months, widespread resistance had begun; within years, the Soviet inability to seal the borders and control ground with so few troops enabled the guerrillas to create a pipeline for weapons and recruits.
"It's the same mistake [US Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld made in Iraq," says the white-haired octogenarian Mr. Gareev, who heads up Russia's Academy of Military Sciences. "I would have left all the Iraqi border guards under American control. Now terrorists are flocking to Iraq.
"They disbanded the Army, police, and frontier guards," says Gareev, who in 1996 wrote one of the most detailed assessments of the Soviet experience. "What was [Rumsfeld] going to count on?"
The ratio of Soviet forces to population - some 130,000, for 24 million Afghans - roughly matches that of the US in Iraq. Only 56,000 of the 130,000 Americans troops there are combat trained, however, in a nation of 23 million Iraqis.
Some faulty assumptions appear eerily similar. The Kremlin did not expect Afghans to fight back, and the Soviet military mind-set was geared toward fighting a massive conventional war in Europe, not controlling hit-and-run bands of guerrillas.
In Iraq, too, US commanders have been frustrated by the inability of their overwhelming firepower to stamp out the resistance. The rising US death toll has prompted in recent days a significant boost in the scale of military counterattacks.
Boosted also are strong vows to arrest and kill Iraqi rebels, or to ensure, in the words of one officer, that they are required to stay in hospital "for the rest of their natural lives."
The Soviets and Americans both "neglected one vital element: nationalism," says Olivier Roy of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, an expert on political Islam who has covered Afghanistan since the Soviet era. A CIA report made public last week described how growing disillusionment among Iraqis is increasing support for the resistance.