In Afghanistan, history rhymes
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: 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.
IN AFGHANISTAN UNTIL 2020 OR BEYOND?
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.