Are We Now The Soviets In Afghanistan?

Matt Yglesias asks:

If you read accounts of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, people generally always seem to think that American and Saudi and Pakistani support for the Mujahedeen was an important factor. I don’t see anyone saying “it was all a big waste of time and the same stuff would have happened anyway.”

Ask and ye shall receive! Two days after Matt put up his question, Fred Kagan posted a detailed look at the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. So how important was US support for the Mujahideen in the 1980s?

Urban legend has it that the introduction of American Stinger MANPADs led to Soviet defeat. In fact, Stingers did not show up until 1986, and the Soviets had already lost the war by then and, indeed, taken the decision to leave. The advent of Stingers did not defeat a Soviet strategy that was working; it accelerated the collapse of a strategy that was failing.

Matt also asks,

The Taliban has, as best as anyone knows, nothing remotely resembling [the Mujahideen's] level of external support. So why isn’t that making more of a difference? Is our side actually much less effective than the Soviets were when you control for the change in external support?

While providing an excellent history and analysis of the Soviet intervention, Fred’s article doesn’t compare the relative effectiveness of US and Soviet efforts. Here’s my quick take: The Soviets invaded Afghanistan with roughly 125,000-150,000 troops. They kept them there for almost a decade.

If you consult Brookings’ Afghanistan Index, (p.11) you’ll see that by the end of 2006, there were still only 35,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The number today is only 64,500.

Just over two years ago, Barack Obama gave a speech entitled The War We Need to Win. In it, he insisted that Afghanistan was coming apart because the US never provided the resources, military or otherwise, required for victory. Comparing our troop levels to the Soviets’ only reinforces that point.

Obama promised that the United States would not turn its back on Afghanistan a second time. Yet Democratic support for the war is collapsing, even though it is supposed to be the “good” war and Iraq the “bad” one.

If Republicans have to give Obama the support he needs to win, so be it. But we’d appreciate some bipartisanship on this one.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly

         

14 Comments

  1. We created Osama bin Laden. Reagan called him a “Freedom Fighter”. People tend to forget that. Our biggest monsters are created by the US Military. Who will be the next one to bite us in the behind? When will we ever learn.

  2. No, we are not (we aren't trying to engage in “defensive annexation” [conquest]) in order to create a client state associated with an empire, as the Soviets were. (Our purpose for being there is much different, of course!) We're fighting an often-foreign-to-Afghanistan (be it merely due to arbitrariness by the Brits in the colonial era in drawing boundaries, similar to those in much of the western USA during our own similar period) terrorist, criminal force, not trying to subdue and subject to our rule all the people (anyone at all!).

  3. The similarity is superficial here but worth wondering about, as you have or have at least implied.

    Among some of the indigenous terrorists, and doubtless among those in Pakistan who go to Afghanistan to make trouble, it's the same quote as was reported in one book a short time after the “9-11″ attack: “First we [defeated] the Russians. Now it's the turn of the [same fate for the] Americans.”

  4. “We created Osama bin Laden”

    Man give me a break. How? He was never a part of any group that we ever had direct contact. He never received money, training or weapons from the US. His main activities were as a fund raiser in the middle east for the fight against USSR. Or are we guilty because we helped people who later sheltered bin Laden? BS propaganda with no honesty.

  5. What I mean, is that we fostered the environment enabled his rise and creation of “The Base”. The fact of our involvement in Gulf 1 and Saudi Arabia contributed to OBL's factioning against Western interests.

  6. That's a better way to make the same point, although I still disagree. Doing the right thing and doing the smart thing often have bad consequences. The decision to fight World War II was both right and smart, but pretty much left Stalin in charge of Central and Eastern Europe. That doesn't mean we “created” the Soviet Empire in Europe.

    The anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan “created” Osama bin Laden and would've “created” him even if we were not involved.

    Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is controversial, but nothing short of cutting ourselves off from Saudi Arabia the way we have from North Korea would've satisfied bin Laden, who wants to destroy the Saudi regime. But if you're a fan of diplomatic engagement, that strategy isn't viable. Imagine how many countries we'd have to isolate to satisfy every terrorist out there?

    The bottom line is that Al Qaeda's own extremism is the cause of our conflict.

  7. It's complicated. We funded the insurgency against the Russians through Pakistan's ISI. There's little doubt that some or most of that money went to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

  8. I am under the impression there was no Taliban before the mid-90s. They came into existence because of dissatisfaction with the various mujahidin factions that continued to tear up the country after the Soviets left.

    I'm not sure precisely when Al Qaeda came into existence. Lawrence Wright provides a very good account of its origins in his book “The Looming Tower”. It's pretty comprehensive, and I don't recall any evidence that ISI gave money directly to Al Qaeda or to bin Laden.

    GD, have you actually read somewhere that ISI had a relationship with bin Laden? Are you just assuming that with money floating around some of it went to Bin Laden? And given how many factions were being funded, what is the basis for assessing that “most of that money” went to Al Qaeda?

  9. Soviet war in Afghanistan, Are we now the Soviets?

    This is a question I've been asking myself since we first entered Afghanistan.

    The only logical belief that we can win this insurgency, (in my opinion), would require massive numbers of troops and include military incursions into other countries that neighbor Afghanistan.

    We simply cannot afford anymore military expenditure increases, and, I don't think our allies will provide the assistance we need. The international political implications of cross border incursions could prove disaterous.

    The scenario laid before us threatens to be another humiliating defeat. I am certain that this was explained to the former administration by our military strategic analysts well before these adventures into both Iraq and Afghanistan. If Iraq has broken the bank, then reasonable thought says that Afghanistan may destroy us. I do not believe that such an insurgency can be defeated without massive investment or inhumane military practices. I don’t have the stomach for either.

  10. The main difference I've seen so far between our time in Afghanistan vs. the Soviets is our reason for being there. Please correct me, but the Soviets were essentially there for empire. When they left, the Afghans didn't send bombers into Moscow to kill civilians as punishment. However, if we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban sets up camps once again to come kill us.

  11. adesnik, whether or not the fighters on the Af/Pak border called themselves Al Qaeda or Taliban, they are the same people today they were 30 years ago. The mujaheddin operated from and were supplied through Pakistan with ISI support, partly funded by us, and our allies especially the Saudis. Bin Laden had plenty of his own money too, so I'm not suggesting he could not have created his criminal enterprise without us. But it is true that our meddling and funding helped arm him, just as we helped arm and fund the death squads in Latin America, South America, the Shah, the Marcoses, Noriega and even Castro.

  12. 2009 has been the deadliest year yet, in terms of coalition casualties in Afghanistan. Though you would never know it from watching the news, nearly half of coalition casualties throughout the entire course of the war have occurred in just the last twenty four months.

    I can appreciate that the war in Afghanistan (as opposed to the war in Iraq) was the war that the American people agreed to in 2001, when going after Al Qaida was the priority. However, after nearly eight years of war, we have to be asking ourselves–What is the endgame to this conflict? How long do we envision our armed forces being over there? And how many tens of billions more taxpayer dollars are we willing to spend on this exercise.

    Since Obama has become president, instead of discussing an eventual withdraw from Afghanistant, he has stepped up our involvement. And nary a peep has come from the anti-war crowd and other critics of our involvement in the Middle East.

  13. No, we are not (we aren't trying to engage in “defensive annexation” [conquest]) in order to create a client state associated with an empire, as the Soviets were.

    Really? That will be news to the Afghans… And pretty much every country that we have ever invaded… And pretty every sentient Human being on this planet that was not born in the USA…

    For my amusement and your education, please make a list of countries in which we have closed all our military bases since WWII.

  14. “But it is true that our meddling and funding helped arm him”

    No it did not. OBL was a major fundraiser in the middle east for conflict in Afghanistan. He worked with groups bringing in fighters from outside (Saudi, Egypt, ect) to fight. He raised large amounts of cash none of which came from the US govt. His group tried to get arms from the US and were unsuccessful. Ironically enough they used Soviet designed arms. He was doing this before the US decided to get involved in the conflict and had no connection to the US ever so to imply that the US is responsible, in any but the most abstract way, is just incorrect. It shows about as much logic as the birthers use.

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