Afghanistan war: lessons from the Soviet war
In the Marjah offensive of the Afghanistan war, a reporter hears echoes of the Soviet war.
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Moscow's attempts to establish hard-core militia fronts by purchasing their allegiance also faltered. The old adage of "you can only rent an Afghan, you can never buy him" remained the rule of thumb. Many militia had "just in case" arrangements with the mujahideen, just as today numerous police and military units collaborating with NATO forces have their own deals with the insurgents.Skip to next paragraph
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While the coalition may claim the Marjah offensive routed the Taliban, it will probably have little impact on the long-term fighting capability of the opposition, even if NATO holds terrain captured.
To claim success shows a poor understanding of Afghanistan. Only a small proportion of the insurgents are actually fighting. The majority of sympathizers will have buried their weapons or simply blended in among the civilians. Others are in the process of deploying elsewhere, just as Massoud used the interim to organize fighting fronts throughout the north. There's no way that all these areas can be controlled militarily.
Many of the Western governments operating in Afghanistan focus on their own zones, such as the Dutch in Uzurugan and the Germans in Kunduz. Most officers come for six-month deployments, a period in which no one can even begin to understand this country. It is this lack of understanding about Afghan culture and thought that is the biggest problem today. Crucial, too, is the need for a long-term approach for the next 30 years. Talk of exit strategy only plays into the hands of insurgents biding their time.
The Western missions, barricaded in Kabul compounds, are out of touch with what's happening on the ground. So are their intelligence operations. They spend billions on recovery or security initiatives, yet are reluctant to invest in credible information efforts.
As the Marjah operation demonstrates, there is still the belief that the problem can be resolved by clearing out the insurgents militarily, and holding the territory while installing new top-down structures – "a government in a box."
For most Afghans I've talked to on recent trips to Kabul and eastern, central, and southern Afghanistan, justice, not security, is the principal concern. Even where the military is in control, Afghans slip out to Taliban-controlled areas to seek fair dealing, having more confidence in Taliban sharia courts than in Karzai-regime judges. They see lack of rule of law and international community failure to develop a functioning economy, particularly in the countryside where 80 percent of Afghans live. And they increasingly perceive the coalition as a foreign occupation force, much like the Soviets.
The Soviets thought they could subdue Afghanistan through brute force, political indoctrination, and bribes. They wanted to put across the notion that their form of government had far more to offer than the jihad embraced by the mujahideen. They lost.
The West, following dangerously close to the path of its Soviet predecessor in Afghanistan, must show that it isn't there to impose its own views but to help ordinary people feel they have a future.
•Edward Girardet, author of "The Soviet War" and a forthcoming 30-year retrospective on Afghanistan, has reported for the Monitor since 1979.