Is the U.S. repeating Soviet mistakes in Afghanistan?

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 14, 2009 

Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, with his son, Maxin, leaves Afghanistan over the Amy Darya River at Termez, Uzbekistan on Feb. 15, 1989.

AP

KABUL, Afghanistan — Twenty years to the day after the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan, Dastagir Arizad ticked off grievances against President Hamid Karzai and the United States that are disturbingly reminiscent of Moscow's humiliating defeat.

"Day by day, we see the Karzai government failing. The Americans are also failing," said Arizad, 40, as he huddled against the cold in the stall where he sells ropes and plastic hoses. "People are not feeling safe. Their lives are not secure. Their daughters are not safe. Their land is not secure. The Karzai government is corrupt."

"The problems we are having are made by the Americans. The Americans should review their policies," he said Saturday. "They should not support the people who are in power."

As Arizad spoke, Pres. Barack Obama's special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was holding his first talks with Karzai in the presidential palace nearby amid mounting U.S.-Afghan tensions fueled by mutual recriminations over the growing Taliban insurgency.

Some Afghan experts are worried that the United States and its NATO allies are making some of the same mistakes that helped the Taliban's forerunners defeat the Soviet Union after a decade-long occupation that bled the Kremlin treasury, demoralized Moscow's military and contributed to the Soviet Union's collapse.

Among the mistakes, these experts said, are relying too heavily on military force, inflicting too many civilian casualties, concentrating too much power in Kabul and tolerating pervasive government corruption.

Violence and ethnic tensions will worsen, they warned, absent a rapid correction in U.S.-led strategy that improves coordination between military operations and stepped up reconstruction, job-training and local good governance programs.

"We have not justified democracy. We have not justified human rights. We have not justified liberalism," said Azziz Royesh, a political activist, educator and former anti- Soviet guerrilla. "Afghans don't like the Taliban. But we haven't shown them a better option."

"I see a time when again there could be thousands of unorganized insurgencies around the country," he cautioned. "The foreigners are the ones who will be targeted. If we don't bring change here, these kinds of incidents will add to the Taliban insurgency."

A public opinion survey released earlier this month underscored the concerns.

The poll, commissioned by ABC News and the BBC, found that while 90 percent of Afghans oppose the Taliban, less than half view the U.S. favorably, down from 67 percent last year. Twenty-five percent also said they believed that attacks on foreign troops can be justified, up from 17 percent in 2007.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded in a Washington Post opinion article Saturday that the U.S., which is planning to almost double the 32,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan over the next 18 months, will lose the war if it can't win Afghans' trust.

"We can send more troops. We can kill or capture all the Taliban and al Qaida leaders we can find — and we should. We can clear out havens and shut down the narcotics trade. But until we prove capable, with the help of our allies and Afghan partners, of safeguarding the population, we will never know a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan," Mullen wrote. "Lose the people's trust, and we lose the war."

A senior official of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, who requested anonymity in order to speak more candidly, said that many allied governments would find it harder to keep troops in Afghanistan "if we don't see some sort of rise in (Afghans') perception of how things are going . . . within the next 12 months."

Some Western officials and many Afghans appear to be hoping that Obama, who last week criticized Karzai for being "very detached," will abandon the Bush administration's unqualified support for the Afghan leader in hopes that he won't run for re-election or is defeated in an Aug. 20 vote.

Soviet leaders, however, believed in 1986 that a change in Afghan leadership would stem that decade's Islamist insurgency. They were wrong.

Of course, there are major differences between the brutal 10-year Soviet occupation that ended on Feb. 14, 1989 — the date it's marked on the Afghan calendar — and the U.S.-led effort to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to a Taliban-ruled sanctuary for al Qaida.

Moscow invaded to save a dictatorial regime that ignited a rebellion when it tried to force communism on a tribal society that remains rooted in conservative Islam and centuries-old tribal law. Some 1 million Afghans died and more than 5 million fled the country as Soviet and Afghan troops fought U.S.-backed guerrillas based in Pakistan.

The 2001 U.S.-led intervention came after the former Taliban regime refused to surrender Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. More than 40 nations have deployed a total of 70,000 troops and are spending billions on schools, clinics and roads, while the United Nations is helping to prepare for Afghanistan's second-ever presidential election.

The effort, however, faces grave uncertainties because the Bush administration, fixated on Iraq, never committed enough troops or developed a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan.

Previously secret Soviet documents made public in English for the first time on Saturday reveal that Obama is facing some of the same problems that compelled former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to order a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The documents, posted on the George Washington University's National Security Archive Web site, show that Gorbachev decided in 1985 to end the Soviet occupation after realizing that Moscow couldn't win a military victory, a point that Obama and senior U.S. commanders repeatedly stress.

Soviet leaders also saw that Afghanistan's ruling communists had failed to earn legitimacy, become self-reliant or improve most Afghans' lives, problems that also afflict Karzai's U.S.-backed government.

"After seven years in Afghanistan, there is not one square kilometer left untouched by a boot of a Soviet soldier. But as soon as they leave a place, the enemy returns and restores it all back the way it used to be," the late Soviet Army chief Sergei Akhromeyev is quoted as saying in notes from a Nov. 13, 1986, Politburo meeting.

Moreover, the documents indicate, Soviet troops were unable to stop U.S.-backed guerrillas infiltrating from sanctuaries in Pakistan, and they fueled support for the insurgents by killing civilians, factors that are aiding the Taliban today.

"Very little is left of the friendly feelings toward the Soviet people, which existed for decades. Very many people have died, and not all of them were bandits (guerrillas). Not a single problem was solved in favor of the peasants," then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze reported to the Politburo on Jan. 21, 1987, according to minutes of the meeting. "In essence, (we) waged war against the peasants."

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Read the National Security Archive's Soviet documents

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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