Afghanistan: Soviet failures echo for US

Control of roads and rural areas vexes coalition effort.

Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science Monitor
Tough Job: Truck driver Mohammed Yunus says security across Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically in the past year.

Recent headlines from Afghanistan have read like a history lesson from the Soviet 1980s.

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.

Moreover, it underscores the importance of Pakistani militants in Afghan wars. After the recent attacks in Pakistan, the local truckers' association said Monday it would no longer carry US equipment to the Afghan border. On Thursday, more than 10,000 Pakistanis, supporters of the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami party, protested allowing US forces to ship supplies through Pakistan.

The US supplies arrive at Karachi by sea. American officials are now looking into using the longer and more costly overland route through Central Asia.

"The Soviets were unable to close sanctuaries in Pakistan," says Isby, the author. "America really has to do it now."

In that regard, the US might have greater opportunity for success than the Soviets did.

America was working with Pakistan in the 1980s to undermine the Soviets, funding the mujahideen. Today, Pakistan remains America's ally, though its efforts to dismantle militant sanctuaries have been stuttering.

Also in America's favor is the fact that while the insurgency is spreading, its roots are in the Pashtun south. The anti-Soviet insurgency was national.

"Against the Soviets, the [most effective] insurgents were non-Pashtun," says Isby, citing Ahmed Shah Masood, an ethnic Tajik from north of Kabul who was assassinated just before 9/11 by alleged Al Qaeda agents.

Obama's 'surge' not enough?

From the perspective of Zamir Kabulov, the former Soviet official, President-elect Barack Obama's proposed troops surge for Afghanistan is not enough.

The Russian diplomat has perhaps a unique view on Afghan history. He was in Kabul at the height of the Soviet-backed Communist regime in the mid-1980s. He returned to see the government fall to the mujahideen in 1992. Now, he is Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan.

The Soviets had nearly 400,000 Soviet and Afghan soldiers at their disposal – more than twice what the US and NATO have here – and yet they still failed, he notes.

The coalition's stretched resources have created an unwanted echo of the worst of Soviet times, Professor Goodson says.

"As the war … went on, the Soviets realized they had to get at the mujahideen in the countryside and so began a genocidal policy toward the rural villages and households," he says. Today, "every incident of inadvertent civilian casualties … awakens bad memories for the Afghans."

So do America's attempts to change Afghan society, says Mr. Kabulov. Just as the Americans have tried to improve women's rights and instill democracy, the Russians tried to instill Communism.

"After [the Soviet-backed government] stopped trying to impose socialism on the people, the [Afghan] Army started to believe that they were fighting for their own cause," he says.

"The biggest mistake we made was to try to spread our ideology among them," adds Viktor Pavlov, chairman of the Yekaterinburg chapter of the Russian Union of Afghan War Veterans.

The best course, Kabulov suggests, is to help Afghans help themselves.

US and NATO "underestimate the Afghans – they don't address the issue of … trying to build a strong national state," he says.

The Soviet failure illustrates the fruitlessness of military might alone, Goodson agrees: "A more effective approach centers on relief, economic development, rule of law, and good governance, with the security pillar of nation-building being just an enabler of the other pillars."

Anand Gopal contributed from Kabul; Fred Weir from Moscow.

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