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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Can the U.S. win in Afghanistan? Ask the Russians

Readers closely following world news will have noticed quite a few articles recently about the situation in Afghanistan, all with pretty much the same slant: The Taliban is getting stronger, and the central government in Kabul is getting weaker (or, at the very least, has failed to extend its governance much beyond the city borders heavily guarded by U.S. and other "coalition" troops.) Today's New York Times features one of the more ominous of these stories: "Afghan Death Toll Up as Iraq's Falls."

The death toll the Times is talking about, of course, is that of coalition troops: "Among the American-led forces in the two countries, 46 service members were killed in Afghanistan, compared with 31 in Iraq, the second straight month in which combat deaths in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq."

Coalition forces in Afghanistan number 32,000 U.S. troops and 38,000 from other countries, for a total of 70,000. "The Pentagon is now considering sending an additional 7,000 troops to help tamp down the worsening violence," the Times (ie, reporter Mark Mazzetti) tells us.

Now, I don't consider Wikipedia an infallible source, but according to its entry on the decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Soviets had more than 100,000 troops in the country at the height of that conflict, and the Afghan forces fighting the mujahideen resistance numbered more than 300,000 (how much fighting they really did, of course, is another question.) I think it is fair to say that the Soviets threw pretty much everything they could, including their most advanced weaponry, against the mujahideen. Result: They lost.

Of course, the two situations might not be entirely comparable. The anti-Soviet insurgency was backed by the C.I.A., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other countries, and domestic support for the Soviet war effort was seriously waning by the time the Soviets withdrew in 1989 (indeed, disillusonment with the war no doubt accelerated the fall of Communism.) But the Taliban, which was born out of that war, is obviously a force to be reckoned with, especially with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and unable to "redeploy" many more troops to Afghanistan. And it is quite likely that, just as in days of old, the Taliban is receiving considerable assistance from Pakistani intelligence and maybe even elements of the Pakistani army. Indeed, all that "deal-making" between Pakistan and tribal leaders on the Afghan border that U.S. officials are grumbling about might be more than just deal-making. Perhaps the Pakistanis were never our "allies" in the "war on terror" after all? (more background on this issue can be found in this June 30 Times article by Mazzetti and David Rohde.)

The situation in Afghanistan is sort of the elephant in the room these days, for both presidential candidates. We know where McCain stands on sending troops hither and thither; but Barack Obama, along with many other Democratic Party critics of the war in Iraq, has made it clear that he thinks the U.S. needs to refocus its efforts on Afghanistan and that Iraq has been a distraction that keeps the military from sending forces where they are really needed. In fact, Obama is not really the antiwar candidate some of his supporters imagine him to be; he just has a different view of where we should be fighting.

Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's "Vietnam," and Iraq is the U.S.'s second "Vietnam." Will Afghanistan become the U.S.'s "Iraq"? It seems quite likely to me, unless the coalition learns the lessons that the Soviets learned the hard way: There are no real military solutions to conflicts in the Middle East, nor anywhere else for that matter.

Addendum: The Washington Post has a more detailed article on the same subject today by Josh White. (Reminder: This blog assumes that readers are registered on the Web sites of the three major U.S. dailies and can read their content. If you're not, you should be--it's easy, and it's free!)

More relevant news: The Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. is using spy satellites to follow the movements of the Iraqi army. It seems our Iraqi allies are no more trustworthy than our Pakistani allies.

Update (July 3): Washington Post reports Chairmen of Joint Chiefs says not enough troops for Afghanistain because of Iraq war.

1 comment:

Anne Gilbert said...

The trouble with Afghanistan is, all sorts of people and countries have tried to invade and take over Afghanistan. This pattern might even be said to go back to Alexander the Great, who apparently marched through there with no particular result. Then the Iranians tried in the first half of the 19th century. They lost Herat for their pains. The British tried, twice in the 19th century. They didn't get anywhere, either. We all know what happened to the Russians when they tried. Will the Americans succeed where the o thers have fialed so badly? I doubt it, And all that will happen is, the Taliban will get stronger and stronger.
Anne G