Small Wars Journal

Déjà  vu from the Soviet archives

Yesterday, Dave cited this op-ed from the New York Times written by a historian who chronicled the collapse of the Soviet Union. He opened with this excerpt:

THE highly decorated general sat opposite his commander in chief and explained the problems his army faced fighting in the hills around Kabul: "There is no piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another," he said. "Nevertheless much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize.

"Our soldiers are not to blame. They've fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills." He went on to request extra troops and equipment. "Without them, without a lot more men, this war will continue for a very, very long time," he said.

These sound as if they could be the words of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, to President Obama in recent days or weeks. In fact, they were spoken by Sergei Akhromeyev, the commander of the Soviet armed forces, to the Soviet Union's Politburo on Nov. 13, 1986.

The op-ed, a quick summary of top-level Soviet policy in Afghanistan, concludes with this:

In 1988, Robert Gates, then the deputy director of the C.I.A., made a wager with Michael Armacost, then undersecretary of state. He bet $25 that the Soviet Army wouldn't leave Afghanistan. The Soviets retreated in humiliation soon after. Mr. Gates, we can assume, paid up.

I am sure Robert Gates never imagined that 20 years later he would find himself flying into Bagram for exasperated conferences with his generals.

Soviet tactics in Afghanistan were brutal in the extreme and the slaughter and refugee crisis that ensued in the 1980s in no way compares to the current experience.

But although the U.S. has used a much gentler hand than the Soviets, the results (or lack thereof) seem the same. Perhaps those Afghans who choose to fight don't care what tactics, techniques, and procedures their enemies use. Now the hope is that one final addition of troops and reconstruction spending will isolate those Afghan recalcitrants and achieve a recognizable improvement in stability.

Success requires commitment. But commitment makes failure much more painful. Military historians have many examples in both categories. Committing to success means taking a risk on great pain, a dilemma President Obama and his advisers must now understand.