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Opinion

A reality check for Obama in Afghanistan

He's facing pressure to increase US troop levels there. Has Washington learned nothing from the Soviet experience?

By Walter Rodgers / February 17, 2009



OaKton, Va.

History may not repeat itself, but all too often it recycles mistakes. In 1961, before the Vietnam War became full-fledged, former Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned President Kennedy not to fight a land war in Asia. Over the next 14 years, more than 58,000 Americans died as Washington ignored his advice and ramped up operations.

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Today, the US is stuck in another land war in Asia: Afghanistan. The original mission was to capture Osama bin Laden, disable Al Qaeda, remove the Taliban, and keep the country from being a safe haven for terrorists. After seven years of fighting, hundreds of dead US soldiers and thousands more wounded, those objectives have not been met.

And now the US wants to double down, adding as many as 30,000 additional US troops there to get the job done.

Sharp lessons from the Soviets

It's unfathomable that Washington learned so little from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which ended in an ignominious retreat followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later. The Soviets lost 15,000 soldiers.

In the brief honeymoon after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, US and Russian intellectuals and officials met to analyze the Afghan war and concluded it would have required 750,000 to 1 million Soviet troops to subdue Afghanistan. But Moscow never deployed more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at any one time. The Soviets discovered they could win battles but never hold more than a few cities in a country the size of Texas.

The United States now has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Even if President Obama agrees to double that amount, the effort will be wasted. Half a million US troops might not be enough. It wasn't in Vietnam. Mr. Obama needs to recognize that hesitation to expand the war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with will or cowardice and everything to do with wisdom.

The totalitarian Soviets lacked the political will to deploy three quarters of a million troops. Kremlin mossbacks knew even the docile Russian populace of the Communist era wouldn't buy it. In 1979, when the ruling Politburo reluctantly decided to send in the troops, it was bitterly opposed by the chief of staff, Marshal of the Army Nikolai Ograkov. He flatly first told then-Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov and later party leader Leonid Brezhnev that a war in Afghanistan would be a huge mistake. So controversial was the decision to commit Russian forces that only a handful of senior members of the ruling Politburo participated. In the end, those elders chose to go in, primarily because they feared the US was trying to destabilize Afghanistan and sew it into the West's patchwork encirclement of the Soviet Union.

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