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Afghanistan war: lessons from the Soviet war

In the Marjah offensive of the Afghanistan war, a reporter hears echoes of the Soviet war.

(Page 3 of 4)

For years, Massoud kept the Soviets tied down while focusing on other areas and building a highly proficient regional force denying the communists swaths of countryside. The mujahideen – like the Taliban now – always felt they had time on their side. All they needed to do was wear down the Red Army. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets commanded 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with the 150,000 coalition high expected by next fall with completion of the US troop surge. When the Soviets, who suffered at least 15,000 deaths and thousands of injured, pulled out in February 1989, they had little to show but widespread destruction of much of the country. Three years later, the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul crumbled. Today, it's as if the Soviets had never been there.

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Unlike NATO forces, who now make pointed efforts to protect civilians, the Soviets and their Afghan cohorts often deliberately targeted local populations. Throughout its war, however, the Red Army held little more than the main towns. The countryside remained largely in the hands of the mujahideen. Similarly, today, 70 percent of the country is ranked as "insecure" by the United Nations.

THE parallels of the panjshir with today just keep rolling. Today's insurgents fight much like the mujahideen; and, in fact, many now call themselves mujahideen. Many commanders earned their battle spurs during the Soviet war. Their fighters hide among the locals and, often, are the locals. If things get tough, they deploy elsewhere.

Like Marjah, a deliberate joint NATO-Afghan operation, the Soviets made a point of involving Afghan partners and constantly extolled the effectiveness of the Kabul regime in the hope that Afghan security forces would assume the brunt of the war. In reality, the Soviets were running the show just as US, British, and other forces are today.

Ironically, the Soviets did succeed in creating an effective Afghan fighting force. Following the Red Army withdrawal, the communists fought hard and well against fundamentalist mujahideen supported by the Pakistani military in eastern Afghanistan. The communist regime finally fell for political, not military, reasons. There's little doubt that Afghan security capabilities can be improved today, but can the Kabul regime achieve acceptance?

Red Army commanders were very aware that they couldn't trust "their" Afghans. Massoud's mujahideen enjoyed full details of planned operations before launch. Many government, military, and police officials, including senior commanders, secretly collaborated with the resistance, just as pro-Taliban and other insurgent collaborators have infiltrated most ministries of the current administration.

The Soviets also succeeded in building a highly effective network of informers and often thwarted resistance operations based on this intelligence. But they never gained the upper hand. The more effective guerrilla commanders always seemed to keep two steps ahead of the game. (Twice, while reporting for the Monitor during the 1980s, I was nearly captured by Soviet heliborne troops after being informed upon by local Afghans.)