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.