Fighting the Same War Twice?

On Christmas Day 30 years ago, the Soviets went into Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel on the lessons the U.S. needs to learn to avoid their fate.

12.24.09 7:57 PM ET

Thirty years ago, on Christmas Day 1979, the Soviet 40th Red Army invaded Afghanistan and began the conflict that still wracks that country today. For the Soviet Union, the invasion turned into a disaster that contributed to the collapse of communist system and the Russian empire. The mujahedin that defeated Moscow were based across the border in Pakistan. Today, the United States is fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan operating from a safe haven in Pakistan. Many suggest that the outcome will be the same for the United States as it was for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—ultimate defeat at the hands of the insurgency. That analysis misses the many fundamental differences between the two wars.

While pundits may find the cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empire simplistically attractive, there is every reason to believe smart policies can still avoid such an outcome.

I was in the CIA’s operations center that Christmas eve monitoring the invasion. Rarely does a country fight the same war twice in one generation. Even more unusual is to fight it twice from opposite sides. Yet that is in many ways what America is doing today in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the CIA engineered the largest covert operation in its history to defeat the Soviet 40th Red Army in Afghanistan working from a safe haven in Pakistan. The one major similarity between the two wars, the role played by Pakistan, is the key for victory for America again the second time around.

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The first and perhaps most critical differences between the U.S. and USSR in Afghanistan are over goals and objectives. The United States intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 on the side of the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan only after the Emirate had been used as a base for the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. The American goal, endorsed by the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was self-defense against a government that had allowed its territory to be used for an act of war against another state. No American has any has any desire to control or dominate Afghanistan; we just want to be sure we will not be attacked again from its soil.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 was a very different matter. The Soviet leadership wanted an Afghanistan that would be like other Soviet satellite states, under virtual Soviet imperial rule with only the façade of independence. The Soviet invasion and the attempt to impose communism on a rural and largely illiterate Islamic country with a history of xenophobia produced the predictable result, a mass national uprising. With the exception of small pockets of the urban middle class, virtually the entire country was violently opposed to the new occupation and its atheist ideology.

In contrast, polls consistently show most Afghans have supported the coalition forces that overthrew the Taliban from 2001 on, although that support is now dwindling as the coalition has failed to provide law and order and reconstruction. The Taliban insurgency is largely restricted to the Pashtun belt in southern and eastern Afghanistan. It has virtually no appeal to the 60 percent of Afghans who are not Pashtuns. Thus the most difficult battle space the Soviets fought over, the famous Panjsher Valley, home of the legendary Ahmad Shah Masoud (the Lion of the Panjsher), is today a quiet and calm part of the country with no Taliban presence because it is an exclusively Tajik area.

In short, while the Soviets faced a national uprising, we face a minority insurgency that is self- constrained from much of the country. Moscow’s task was much more difficult than the one facing NATO today.

The Soviets responded with a ferocity and brutality that made the situation even worse. At least a million and a half Afghans were killed, another five million or so fled the country to Iran and Pakistan (one out of three Afghans), and millions more were displaced inside the country. A country that began the war as one of the poorest in the world was systemically impoverished and even emptied of its people. Millions of land mines were planted by Moscow all over the country, the Taliban still digs them up to make bombs. Nothing even approaching this level of horror is happening today in Afghanistan.

The 1979 Soviet invasion was condemned by virtually the entire world except for its client states. The campaign to assist the Afghan insurgency, the mujahedin, enjoyed the backing of countries around the world including China, the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others.

The NATO forces in Afghanistan today have the support of the United Nations and operate under a UN Security Council mandate. The International Security Assistance Force, created by the UN in 2001, has troops from over 40 countries currently in Afghanistan.

If the differences between the American and Russian experience are significant, there is also at least one major similarity, the role played by Pakistan. In the 1980s, President Zia ul Huq agreed to support the mujahedin insurgency despite the enormous risk involved in provoking the Soviet Union, then the world’s largest military power. The Soviets responded with an intense covert campaign to foment unrest inside Pakistan, especially in the border areas and in the refugee camps.

Ironically, Pakistan again today is the safe haven of the Taliban insurgency and its logistical supply line. The Taliban’s core leadership resides in Pakistan and it funnels supplies to its fighters from Pakistan. Even more ironically Pakistan also serves as the major logistical line for the NATO forces in Afghanistan as well. The majority of supplies American and other coalition forces depend on to survive arrive via Pakistan from the port of Karachi. Pakistan is the most important player in the conflict again--and getting the Pakistani connection right is the single most important challenge America faces in this war.

There is no inherent reason the NATO and American war in Afghanistan will follow the pattern of the Soviet war. The differences between the two outweigh the similarities, especially in what most Afghans want for their country. While pundits may find the cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empire simplistically attractive, there is every reason to believe smart policies can still avoid such an outcome. But the key will still be in Islamabad.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. He chaired President Obama’s strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last winter and is author of The Search for Al Qaeda.