Frederick W. Kagan: We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.]

Comparisons between our current efforts in Afghanistan and the Soviet intervention that led to the collapse of the USSR are natural and can be helpful, but only with great care. Below are a number of key points to keep in mind when thinking about the Soviet operations, especially when considering the size of the U.S. or international military footprint.

War did not begin in 1979 when the Soviets invaded. It started in 1978 following the Saur Revolution in which Nur M. Taraki seized power from Mohammad Daoud. Taraki declared the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and set about bringing real socialism to the country.

Soviet advisors recommended that Taraki proceed slowly with social and economic reforms. They recognized that the socialist party (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA) had the support of a tiny minority. They feared that Taraki's plans for aggressive "modernization" would generate an awful backlash. They were right.

The PDPA instituted a number of critical reforms after its seizure of power, including eliminating the "brideprice" that a bride's family received from the groom's family and redistributing land on a large scale. These reforms struck at the heart of Afghan society by destroying key pillars in the social structure. Land redistribution upended rural tribal relations, and the elimination of "brideprice" payments destroyed an important traditional method for bonding families following a marriage. It also struck at the role of women in Afghan society, a broader theme the PDPA pushed that alienated wide sections of a very conservative country. In general, there is no faster way to antagonize a population than by attacking property rights and the status of women. Taraki did both.

By early 1979, the Afghan countryside was in revolt against the PDPA. Forces that would become the mujahideen were already mobilizing across the country to fight against the Taraki government even before the Soviets became involved. Afghan army units in Herat mutinied in March 1979, briefly seizing the city on behalf of Ismail Khan.

Factionalism within the PDPA weakened the government, leading in September 1979 to the assassination of Taraki and his replacement by the brutal and incompetent Hafizullah Amin. The insurgency continued to grow. Insurgents attacked government and military convoys on the roads, and interdicted movement from Kabul to the north along the Salang road. In October, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul cabled: "When government troops and their armor do occasionally venture forth out of their defensive positions to show the flag, the rebels repossess the real estate after they have passed, like the waters of the Red Sea closing in behind Moses and his followers."

By December 1979 the Soviets had reluctantly decided that the PDPA government would either fall or throw in its lot with the United States if they did not intervene decisively. Their intervention took the form of a brilliantly-executed regime take-down at the end of the year during which they killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as his successor. They intended to stay briefly and then hand responsibility to Karmal and the Afghan military...

... In sum, neither insurgency nor violence in Afghanistan results primarily from opposition to external forces. It results instead mainly from internal problems related to the collapse of Afghan society and governance following the Saur Revolution of 1978. The presence of foreign forces and external support to insurgents has raised or lowered the level of violence and its effectiveness, but it has not been the cause of that violence in the last three decades. Nor is the footprint of foreign forces at issue.

The Soviet invasion followed the collapse of security in a period when the USSR maintained only a few thousand advisors. The first months of the Soviet "occupation" saw deliberate and systematic attempts by the Red Army to put the Afghans out in front and support them from fixed bases. The Limited Contingent was drawn into direct combat operations only when that strategy had clearly failed.

The Limited Contingent maintained relatively little force among the rural population in Afghanistan at any time--most of its efforts were focused on securing the lines of communication and the major cities. Most Afghans encountered the Soviets only through the Limited Contingent's deliberate terrorist campaign, waged both from the air and from the ground.

For all of these reasons, there is absolutely no basis for assessing that an increased ISAF/US military presence along the lines being considered will result in some kind of "tipping point" at which local Afghans turn against us because they see us as a Soviet-style occupation force.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Vernon Clayson - 8/28/2009

Mr. Kagan's premise is presumptious. He opines our presence is different than the Russians but that is from his faraway and uninvolved view. Perhaps we could say the view of a cloistered scholar, but the citizens of Afghanistan likely see little difference and likely feel that the ISAF/US is just another overbearing occupier butting in where they aren't wanted. Afghanistan has endured occupiers for millenia, it appears to me that very few of the people care about the concept of nationhood, their concerns seem limited to their family and tribe, and not to a far away and toothless government. The nominal president, presently Karzai, is propped up by the US but the tribes a few miles distant from his headquarters don't care what he says and the farther away from him the less they care. Our interest in Afghanistan is that it provides the opportunity to back out of Iraq gracefully, that was a meaningless effort, this is more of the same.

Joel Rosenblum - 8/28/2009

just wondering. we seem to love bombing those weddings.