Thursday, October 1, 2009

Steve Coll is missing the forrest for the trees...

I like Steve Coll. His book Ghost Wars:The Secrete History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, is probably the best single volume on both Afghanistan and American foreign policy. But he is missing a number of a salient points in his recent blog post comparing the U.S. COIN strategy in Afghanistan to the Soviet COIN strategy:

Then, during the late nineteen-eighties, faced with a dilemma similar to that facing the United States, the Soviets tried to “Afghan-ize” their occupation, much as the U.S. proposes to do now. The built up Afghan forces, put them in the lead in combat, supplied them with sophisticated weapons, and, ultimately, decided to withdraw. This strategy actually worked reasonably well for a while, although the government only controlled the major cities, never the countryside. But the factional and tribal splits within the Army persisted, defections were chronic, and a civil war among the insurgents also played out within the Army, ensuring that when the Soviet Union fell apart, and supplies halted, the Army too would crack up and dissolve en masse. (I happened to be in Kabul when this happened, in 1992. On a single day, thousands and thousands of soldiers and policemen took off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and went home.)

Finally, during the mid-nineteen-nineties, a fragmented and internally feuding Kabul government, in which Karzai was a participant for a time, tried to build up national forces to hold off the Taliban, but splits within the Kabul coalitions caused important militias and sections of the security forces to defect to the Taliban. The Taliban took Kabul in 1996 as much by exploiting Kabul’s political disarray as by military conquest. The history of the Afghan Army since 1970 is one in which the Army has never actually been defeated in the field, but has literally dissolved for lack of political glue on several occasions.

The first point he misses in this post, but does deal with in a post he made a few days later, is that the U.S. was actively working against the Afghan (or Soviet puppet, depending on your point of view) government right up through the early 1990s. The weapons and training given by both the U.S. and Pakistan intelligence services went a long way in bringing down the Afghan government.

Ironically, another point he makes in the second post is that the American effort to stabilize Afghanistan, after we decided to stop funding the insurgency, was only an, at best, half hearted effort (I think Bush 41 was a dud; complete lack of strategic imagination on a number of issues; handled the Soviet collapse well).

With all of this in mind it stands to reason that we are in a much better position then the Soviets were for the following reasons:

#1. There is no super power supporting the Taliban today. In fact, both India and China seem to be playing a constructive role. And of the U.S. is committed (for now..)

#2. The Pakistanis have a very different view of Taliban than they did of the Mujahadeen.

To expound a bit on point #1, the world has really changed since the 1980s. Back then India was a basket case, China was a less developed country, the Soviets were still the Big Bad and the U.S. wanted a good relationship with Pakistan to hedge against an Indian/Soviet alliance and as a nice place to spy on China and Russia. By the mid 90s we decided we cared about Pakistan's bomb and slapped them with a nonsensical sancations regime that would last until the 2001 and we decided we didn't care at all about Afghanistan.

Today its all changed. China is a growing economic power that needs two things, resources and regional stability, and a stable Afghanistan may just help them achieve both. India is economically joined-at the hip to both China and the United States and we aren't going anywhere when it comes to South and Central Asia because of our relationships with those two countries.

Pakistan, which has oscillated back and forth on being a basket case, is a less sure ally today then they were in our proxy war against the Soviets but they are clearly scared to death of the Taliban, and, unlike during the 1990s, we've completely forsaken the notion that Pakistan is somehow sovereign and we run raids into the Swat valley with alacrity.

In conclusion, we are not rerunning the Soviet mistakes on Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was opposed by the whole world; the U.S. invasion is currently supported by 41 countries. The Soviet army wasn't much better than the Afghan army; with tales of widspread desertion and drug use among Soviet conscripts its a wonder they were able to hold out as long as they did. The U.S., on the other hand, has a large and extremely well trained volunteer force that has a great deal of experience dealing with COIN missions in the last few years.

No comments: