In Afghanistan, lessons from the Soviet war

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It was early summer, 1982. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was gathering momentum against the mujahideen, the country's disparate but increasingly widespread resistance movement. I'd just trekked for 10 days across rugged mountains from neighboring Pakistan to the beleaguered Panjshir Valley, an assertive thorn against the Red Army's might barely 40 miles north of Kabul.

I was traveling with a half-dozen mujahideen guerrillas accompanying a French medical team being sent to replace a group of volunteer doctors working clandestinely among the civilian population.

My purpose was to report on the largest Soviet-led offensive against the mujahideen to that date. More than 12,000 Soviet and Afghan troops would attempt to crush 3,000 fighters led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the "Lion of Panjshir" and one of the 20th century's most effective guerrilla commanders.

Last month's NATO-led operation in Marjah in Helmand Province – the largest offensive of the current war – put me in mind of the Panjshir. There are clear lessons from the nearly decade-long Soviet occupation that the international community might heed in its ninth year of war in Afghanistan, with the biggest battle campaign now under way.

The Panjshir push was roughly the same size as the Marjah offensive – called Operation Moshtarak – and involved 10,000 to 12,000 coalition and Afghan troops. In the Soviet war, Western journalists reported primarily from the guerrilla side. But in contrast to most of today's media, embedded with NATO troops, we had constant access to ordinary Afghans. We walked through the countryside sleeping in villages, with long evenings spent drinking tea and talking with the locals. Frank conversation doesn't happen when one party wears body armor or is flanked by heavily armed soldiers: Afghans will only tell you what they think you want to hear. Or, even more crucial, what suits their own interests. Hence the highly questionable veracity of opinion polls in Afghanistan today.

Similar to the Marjah offensive, the Soviets warned the population of the impending attack with propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts. They appealed to the Panjshiris to support the government in return for cash and other incentives, such as subsidized wheat. Their tactic was to force the guerrillas out, but allow the civilians to remain. To make their point, the communists lambasted the guerrillas as criminals supported by foreign interests in the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, a tactic similar to those used by the Americans against the Taliban today....

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