Afghanistan's lessons for Iraq

Experts draw parallels between Iraq's occupation and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

In Iraq, as Afghanistan: few troops

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.

"For the Americans, it is dictatorship or democracy - the word 'nationalism' is never heard," says Mr. Roy. "They can't understand, like in Palestine, that somebody could choose a dictatorship for nationalist reasons. It is something totally unthinkable in Washington."

Hard fight to the exit

One difference between the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq may work in the US favor. While the resistance to the Soviets was "spontaneous and universal," in Iraq it has focused on a narrow region known as the "Sunni Triangle."

And despite the host of problems, many Iraqis remain grateful to the US for ending the Hussein regime.

"If the Americans are able to crush the Sunni Triangle without sparking off other places, it will be OK," says Roy. "They will never win Iraq, but they will get enough time to get out, while saving face and claiming victory."

Even getting to that point will not be easy, if the Soviet experience is any gauge.

Emergency meetings at the White House last week formulated a new strategy, to speed up "Iraqification" of security, by replacing US soldiers with freshly minted Iraqi units.

When the Soviets tried it, political reliability was a major problem, says Davis of Jane's. He saw the results repeatedly: newly recruited Afghan soldiers sitting down to tea with mujahideen units, handing over their guns and going home.

"It starts with a low-level hemorrhaging, desertions of a few people with weapons. Then you have a few officers being shot," says the Bangkok-based Davis. "Then you run the danger - if the opposition in Iraq can attain what it does not have now, which is a degree of political cohesiveness - of whole units going over to the other side.

"In Iraq, the dangers are so much more pressing, because of the speed with which the Americans are trying to push this strategy through," says Davis. "That is bound to be exacerbated by the fact that, right now, [guerrillas] will be ensuring that their moles are in the intelligence services, and signing up to join new units."

One difference in the Soviet and US comparison does not work to US advantage, he says. It took more than three years for the Afghan resistance - unable to shoot straight at the start of the war, and making "stupid mistakes" - to get their act together. That's a luxury US troops don't have in Iraq.

"You've got a disbanded army, Iraqi special forces that were well trained and took minimal casualties in the war, and weapons stockpiles all over the country," says Davis. "So the Iraqis have moved straight into sophisticated guerrilla operations, virtually from day one."

A further parallel is the broader, nation-shaping ambition of the Soviets and US, says Dmitri Trenin, a Soviet military veteran with the Carnegie Moscow office. In the 1980s, Moscow tried to impose a Soviet-type system on Afghanistan; today the US is placing "too much emphasis on democracy, and not enough on good governance and rule of law," he says.

And in Iraq, the US faces difficulty because it is the "perfect machine for waging war," but "not a good machine for imperial policing," Mr. Trenin says. "The US never liked the idea, it doesn't have the culture."

But the root problem is one that has dogged foreign invaders throughout history, Trenin says: "Occupying powers are never popular."

The lessons of the Soviet experience have not been lost on US military historians. Robert Baumann of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, who was a graduate student in Moscow when the war began, wrote a case study on Soviet Afghanistan and discovered what he called a "pervasive pattern: tactical successes that did not add up to tangible, strategic gains." And though he is obliged not to discuss current US military operations, he can speak of the Soviet example.

"Sometimes [Soviet leaders] were captives of their own propaganda," though not telling the public much for the first five years of the war "hurt them badly," Mr. Baumann says.

"Even when they did start reporting combat, it masked the circumstances," says Baumann. "Meanwhile, you've got all these soldiers coming home, with a different version of the truth."

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