Thursday, October 22, 2009

At Least the Russians did Worse

Matt Yglesias reviews Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan:
You read something like this and you really are struck by all the parallels to our current predicament. But at the same time you’re also really struck by the extent to which the situations tend to be parallel, but not at all the same in terms of their quantity. The Soviets, like the Americans, had some trouble understanding Afghan situations on their own terms in part because the Soviet government (like the American government) understood its role in the world in grandiose, highly ideological, propagandistic terms. But while the shape of the problem was comparable, the extent of it really isn’t. The US isn’t even close to being as ideological or propagandistic as the Soviet one. And it’s like this down the list. The Pakistan border situation is a problem for us, but was a disaster for them. The mujahedeen ideological coalition was broader than the one we’re facing, they were better-funded than the people we’re facing. . . .

The one doubts-raising parallel is that the Soviets put almost laughably little thought into why this was important before they invaded. They never asked pro-Soviet forces in Afghanistan to mount a coup, and there was no real reason to think that the coup failing would damage their interests in any way. The invasion became a disaster not so much because the Soviets weren’t able to succeed in a satisfactory way, but because keeping the war up was so costly in times of money, personnel, attention, prestige, etc. while the US countermeasures were very cheap. Which is to say that something can be doable and also not necessarily be worth doing. But a lot of the debate has focused on whether or not the kind of mission General McChrystal has proposed is even possible, and I think the Soviet experience should increase, rather than decrease, our confidence that it is.

In particular, it’s hard to capture the full scope of this in the blog post, but the Soviet war in the early phases was dominated by really nutty operational conduct. For example, they opened their intervention on behalf of the pro-Soviet Afghan government by shooting the leader of the pro-Soviet Afghan government and replacing him and everyone in his regime by leaders of a rival Communist faction. Obviously, that set a bad tone for the whole thing, but somehow they convinced themselves that this move would be welcomed by the local population. I could go on.

Thoughtful, longer review by Ahmed Rashid here.

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