In Afghanistan, history rhymes

By Bernd Debusmann
June 29, 2010

The faltering war in Afghanistan brings to mind a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain and a less famous one by Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Twain: “History does not repeat itself but it rhymes.” Gates: “Tough decisions: Â… how to get out, when, and without losing face.”

The Gates quote, in his 1996 memoir (From the Shadows), refers to the Soviet leadership which by the mid-1980s had decided to end its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan but had not figured out exactly how to do that.

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989, at the end of an exit strategy which began with a sharp increase in the number of troops and centered on building up government forces to fight an insurgency rapidly gathering momentum.

Sound familiar? Since taking office, President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 51,000 troops into Afghanistan “to provide the time and the space for the Afghan government to build up its security capacity, to clear and hold population centers that are critical, to drive back the Taliban to break their momentum.”

Next, a transition phase, beginning in July 2011, “in which the Afghan government is taking more and more responsibility for its own security.”

That rhymes with the way then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev extricated his country from Afghanistan. Not long after taking power in 1985, he ordered the deployment of thousands of additional troops and told his generals they had a year to crush the U.S.-backed opposition. Failing that, they would have to pull out. They did, after four years, not one.

By the end of this year, the length of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will exceed that of the Soviet Union. U.S. and NATO troops already outnumber the 115,000 soldiers Moscow deployed at the height of the Soviet involvement. By the end of summer, 105,000 U.S. troops will be in place, plus around 40,000 NATO soldiers.

When to withdraw substantial numbers of American forces is a tough decision still to be made by Obama and his new commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, America’s most celebrated soldier. He replaced Stanley McChrystal, who was fired on June 22, the second four-star general to lose his job as top commander in Afghanistan in just over a year. They were removed for very different reasons but their cases speak volumes about disarray in Obama’s Afghan policy.


No hard-and-fast date has been set for the end of the transition and there is no shortage of experts who think U.S. troops will still be in Afghanistan by 2020 or beyond. Their eventual departure will cause America to lose face in the volatile region, as did the Soviet Union.

There are many verses in the Soviet and American adventures in Afghanistan that do not rhyme but here are two more that do: foreign invaders backing corrupt governments lacking legitimacy, and insurgents more motivated than government forces.

A key difference: the Soviets were fighting insurgents across the entire country, the Americans and their allies are focused on the south, where the Taliban are strongest.

The two wars also differ in tactics and the number of casualties. In a campaign in which 14,500 Soviet soldiers died, the Russians employed scorched-earth tactics that leveled entire villages and by some estimates killed more than a million civilians. In contrast, the NATO death toll stood at 1,879 (1,139 of them Americans) at the end of June. The number of Afghan civilians killed since the invasion, in October 2001, has been estimated at between around 10,000 and 13,000.

In the casualty-averse democracies that make up the coalition, the war is so unpopular that key members are beginning to set their own withdrawal timelines, regardless of what the United States is doing.

The Netherlands is set to withdraw its 2,000 troops by the end of this year, Canada is scheduled to pull out by next summer, Poland said this week it would bring home its forces by 2012 and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, which provides the second-largest contingent in the coalition, says he wants British troops out of Afghanistan by the time of the next general elections in 2015.

That shows limited faith in the ability of the world’s only superpower to turn the tide in a war that is going from bad to worse. Or to come to a decision on how to get out, when, and without losing face.


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Hi Mr Debusmann,

Thank you for your reply.

In the Afghan context, I am not sure what constitutes a “legitimate” government, but I believe that local/tribal/regional governance bodies that work fairly (from the Afghan cultural perspective) for the people they represent has been in place for centuries. So might it be sufficient for a limited national (confederation? federal?) government to be able to better communicate with the regional governing bodies, serve as an honest broker in determining shared interests, promote the “common good” in commerce/resource distribution, and coordinate the common defense of all Afghans? If so, some near future version of the Karzai government, minus the corruption, plus more communication and better regional representation, might give nation building a chance. Such a government might not be “legitimate”, but it could be effective.

At any rate, if the US policy acknowledges that that there is no military solution, and instead uses military action as a means to shield nation building work from the violence of the Taliban and other radical extremist groups, we will leave the path of prior history (i.e. the British empire or the Soviet invasion). I can’t predict if this would be enough, but it can be a new history.

It is also possible that a significant majority of the Afghan people might regain hope and seize the chance to save their children from the years of war and destruction that they have suffered. The Afghan people have plenty of good reasons to not trust the US to stay, but the years of Taliban rule were not well liked by the majority of the Afghan people. And contrary to comments above, the vast majority of the Afghan people are not driven by hate, any more than the hard working, well intentioned US service people are. I thank the US military for their professionalism, and for representing our country so well.

Sorry for my long winded comments and questions. I just fear that a “bug-out” strategy will have the US back in Afghanistan around 2020, but under even more terrible circumstances. I think the lowest cost solution is to keep trying. Let’s not put this problem on our kids too!

Posted by Rumphius | Report as abusive

The adage “never start a war you can’t end” applies only to wars with a chance of being won. And it’s old school, only for people with a common cause, a winning attitude and a greater desire for living than death.

The school now in session is about setting loose wars that can only last and last, seemingly, forever. Those who start and fund – more precisely, invest in selling materiel for – America’s numerous failed modern wars aren’t the ones fighting them. They’re the ones laughing all the way to the bank – louder, the longer the wars last.

Afghanistan is just such a case in point. It should never have been started to begin with, so don’t bother even trying to reason why. The longer it lasts, the worse it keeps getting, and the hollower its proponents’ excuses.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Samuel Clemens also stated “What we learn from History is that we learn absolutely nothing from History.” Do Alexander, Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. ring a bell?

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

The sad part of the story is that the Afghans have never in their history had such a weak military intrusion in their land. Perhaps a general with prostrate cancer can turn the events around in favour of the invaders. the old general is also the first who received appreciation from the enemy. No wonder how could he work and take orders from the clowns?
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive