Small Wars Journal

'Follow the Bear' in Afghanistan -- crazy or clever?

I always find it interesting when two sets of researchers look at the same data and arrive at completely different conclusions.

Earlier this week, Dave posted an essay on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan from the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Written by Larry Goodson and Thomas Johnson (professors at the Army War College and Naval Postgraduate School, respectively), the essay asserts that the United States is mimicking Soviet practices in Afghanistan and will thus suffer the same disastrous fate.

Goodson and Johnson believe that a population-centric security strategy is inappropriate for largely rural Afghanistan, that the Afghan government is too unpopular to achieve legitimacy, and that it is unrealistic to build useful Afghan security forces within a relevant period of time. According to Goodson and Johnson, the U.S. will do no better than the USSR at implementing these practices. Small Wars Journal readers have already engaged in a vigorous discussion of this essay, which I recommend.

But was the Soviet strategy, which Goodson and Johnson blame the U.S. for following, really a failure? In "Follow the Bear," an essay published in February 2010 by Proceedings, four field-grade U.S. officers (three of whom served in Afghanistan) claim that the Soviets improved their tactics around 1986 and by the end were implementing many practices now found in FM 3-24. The authors assert that the Soviet end-game exceeded expectations, that the Soviets departed Afghanistan on their own terms, and that they left behind a friendly government that had the potential to last -- and did in fact outlast the Soviet Union itself (I have cited "Follow the Bear" elsewhere). They conclude that "following the Bear" is a good idea.

Here they are, one set of facts of the Soviet end-game in Afghanistan, two sets of analysts, and two different conclusions. I encourage readers to compare and contrast the two and to discuss their findings in the comments. Policymakers formulating the American end-game in Afghanistan might benefit from the discussion.

Parallels with the Past--How the Soviets Lost in Afghanistan, How the Americans are Losing

Follow the Bear


Pol-Mil FSO

Fri, 04/29/2011 - 6:31am

As the Cold War fades from historical memory there seem to be more and more instances of historical revisionism that view positive aspects of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. To be blunt, I see this as analogous to discussing the positive aspects of the Nazi occupation of Europe. The Soviet Union was an evil regime responsible for more deaths than probably any other regime in world history other than Communist China.

I have to politely disagree with any assertions that the puppet Afghan government under Soviet occupation enjoyed any sort of legitimacy with the Afghan people. The survival of the Najib regime after the Soviet withdrawal was due only to an ability to gain temporary support through bribery and tribal manipulation, and to the disunity of the mujahideen groups.

One of the most dubious parts of the Proceedings essay was its claim about the effectiveness of the Soviet puppet regime in Kandahar in the late 1980s, an assertion that seems to be based on a single Soviet source. This seems to be an ironic example of the losers writing the history. We unfortunately lack any historical accounts from the victors and probably never will see any since most of the mujahideen came from an oral culture. As an aside, I once tried without success to get Haji Agha Lalai, a Kandahar Provincial Council member and head of the regional reconciliation commission, to talk about his experiences in the mujahideen fight against the Russians in Kandahar.

Finally, any association that the Afghan people may draw between the Soviet occupation and current coalition efforts is, I believe, not a positive development for the Afghan Government's ability to establish popular legitimacy.

JackC (not verified)

Wed, 04/27/2011 - 12:08pm

That should be "as to be unrealistic."

JackC (not verified)

Wed, 04/27/2011 - 12:07pm

The problem is the Washington crew has, as normal, set their objectives so high as to be realistic.

If your goal is to leave in place a somewhat survivable government, possibly permanently dependent on large amounts of aid and attention - then perhaps the Soviet experience was a success.

If your goal is to police all "ungoverned spaces," leaving no region in Afghanistan or Pakistan suitable for a relatively small organization like Al Qaeda to plan or organize in - then it is a failure, since the Communist Afghan government did not have control of all of Afghanistan, let alone transform "Af-Pak".

As it is, I think Goodson and Johnson are themselves too kind to our own situation. The Communist Afghan government had stronger security and intelligence forces, and probably a stronger population base - in a less overall screwed up and divided country - then our current protege.

Chuck (not verified)

Wed, 04/27/2011 - 3:22am

It is an interesting contrast of the information. The Soviets did change tactics, and it sure does look like there are some parallels. The question that always comes out for me is how long after a superpower leaves does the country have to survive to be considered "successful" or a "win?" Using forever as a viable named nation seems too big a standard; but that is what appears to be required.

Is it really one set of facts? When I read the analyses by these different people I always get the feeling that they are looking at different numbers than are generally available, and are probably limited to their own area or command.