Afghanistan: Soviet failures echo for US
Control of roads and rural areas vexes coalition effort.
Recent headlines from Afghanistan have read like a history lesson from the Soviet 1980s.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That war "devolved into a fight for control of … the road network," concludes a 1995 US Army study. Militants are now stepping up attacks against American supply routes, destroying some 200 trucks in Pakistan this month.
Anti-Soviet militants controlled "the rural areas," says a former Soviet official. Today's militants have a "permanent presence" in 72 percent of the country, according to a Dec. 8 study.
There are differences between then and now. Yet 20 years later, many problems are similar: The US and NATO control neither the countryside nor the militants' hideouts in Pakistan, and as civilian casualties increase, Afghan anger is mounting.
To succeed, America needs solutions that eluded the Soviets. "It doesn't really matter what you do in Kabul or the provincial capitals," says David Isby, author of "War in a Distant Country – Afghanistan: Invasion and Resistance."
The problem, Mr. Isby adds, is that the Soviets "weren't able to control the grass roots."
The same thing is happening now, according to Dec. 8 report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS). The pattern of attacks against coalition forces and the Afghan government suggests that militants have significant operations in provinces that make up nearly three-quarters of Afghanistan's area, it argues.
The US military has questioned the report, saying it overstates the opposition's influence. Yet Afghans say that coalition forces control little beyond Afghanistan's major cities.
"From the border of Kabul to the Iranian border, there is fighting everywhere," says Mohammed Yunus, an Afghan truck driver.
His tanker truck is one of scores sitting along the highway into Kabul, a miles-long roadside caterpillar of brightly painted metal waiting for 9 p.m., when trucks are allowed through the capital.
He has traversed Afghanistan for 10 years as a truck driver, but "during the past year, violence has gone to its peak," he says.
The ICOS study notes that three of the four major highways out of Kabul are "compromised by Taliban activity."
"It is no real surprise that the current strategy tries to control the cities and towns, but it is reminiscent of the Soviet era," writes Larry Goodson, a professor at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in an e-mail.
"By the mid-1980s, the USSR concentrated on controlling the urban areas … and the major road network, conceding the countryside," he adds.
Still, the major threat to American convoys has arisen not here but in Pakistan, where militant groups have found sanctuary.
It is a renewal of tactics used in the 1980s. The Soviet Army's "ultimate survival depended on its ability to resupply itself," according to the 1995 study by Lester Grau of the Foreign Military Studies Office in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
"Afghan guerrillas learned to ambush supply convoys and cut the roads," he adds.