How to Avoid the Soviet Mistakes in Afghanistan

Talk to Russian veterans of Afghanistan and it's hard not to think that they're rooting for the U.S. to lose. For these proud men, seeing NATO succeed at a job they botched would deepen the humiliation of defeat. Easier to affirm that if the Soviets couldn't win there, no one can. "We did not succeed and you will not either," says Gen. Victor Yermakov, who commanded Soviet forces in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1983. "They didn't trust us. They won't trust you." Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, who served in Afghanistan under the occupation and has just completed a four-year term as Russia's envoy in the country, is no more optimistic. "We tried to impose communism. You are trying to impose democracy," he says. "There is no mistake made by the Soviet Union that the international community has not repeated."

Such unrelenting bearishness is hardly encouraging, and there are undeniably echoes of the Soviet experience in President Barack Obama's new Afghan surge. Obama is doubling down on his attempt to do what no foreign power ever has: defeat an Afghan insurgency and leave behind a stable and legitimate local regime. The Soviets' misadventures in Afghanistan—begun 30 years ago this Christmas Eve—faced many similar challenges: managing tribal politics, stemming support for insurgents from over the border in Pakistan, creating a credible government in Kabul and viable local security forces, and containing civilian casualties. Yet the differences are equally profound, and they suggest that America may just manage to succeed where Russia failed—in part by learning from its own and the Soviets' mistakes.

Moscow's troubles in Afghanistan started nearly the moment the war began, with a deluge of international condemnation far stronger than the Soviet leaders ever expected. The U.S. imposed trade sanctions and boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Obama today finds himself in a very different position. The NATO campaign enjoys wide international support—including from Russia, in spirit at least.

But the most important difference between then and now is that the Taliban isn't backed by a superpower supplying it with money and deadly weapons. That makes it a far less formidable enemy than the mujahedin of the 1980s, who were enthusiastically supported and armed by the U.S. and Pakistan. Washington suspects, with reason, that many of the old insurgents still fighting today—notably Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani—are getting covert support from elements in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. But even if that's true, the ISI's current involvement is nothing like that of the old days, not least because Pakistan's civilian government officially opposes the Taliban and had even made sporadic attempts to fight it. A generation ago, Stinger missiles, supplied to the rebels in large numbers after 1986 thanks to a campaign by U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, effectively robbed the Soviets of their air superiority. Today's Taliban has no such technological advantage, and few friends. As a result, "the Americans are in a much better position than we ever were," says Yuri Krupnov, director of Russia's Institute of Regional Development, which promotes Russian-Afghan ties. "This will not be a second Vietnam."

Another reason he's probably right is that NATO is proving better at learning from Moscow's mistakes than the Soviets were. Take civilian casualties. Initial military victory came almost effortlessly for both the Soviets and NATO. But both powers soon stepped on the same rake: losing hearts and minds by accidentally hitting civilian targets. Yermakov recalls ordering his troops to mine the irrigation channels around the town of Gardez in 1983. Many dushmany (a pejorative local term for the mujahedin) were blown up, but so were channels essential for local farmers. "At one point our aviation destroyed half of Kandahar because somebody did not get the right instructions," says Alexander Shkirando, a fluent Pashto and Farsi speaker who spent 10 years in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a political and military adviser. NATO has made similar blunders—notably two bombings of wedding parties in Kunduz and Uruzgan—but on nothing like the same scale. The exact number of Afghan civilian casualties during the Soviet campaign is hard to come by, but estimates range from 700,000 to more than a million. According to the United Nations, combined civilian deaths directly and indirectly caused by the latest war range from 12,000 to 30,000.

The Americans have been careful to avoid the wanton brutality of the Soviets not only on the battlefield but in their treatment of prisoners too. Even before U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal commissioned a review earlier this year, the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004 led to an improvement in the treatment of detainees at the U.S. interrogation camp at Bagram. And as dire as conditions at Bagram may have been, they were nothing compared with the abuse committed by the Soviets' proxy force of Afghan secret police, who murdered at least 27,000 political prisoners at their notorious detention center at Pul-e-Charkhi. Russians like to compare the Soviet and U.S. occupations: Krupnov asks, "Who is more imperialist, the Soviets or the Americans?" In reality, however, there's a world of difference in the two armies' behavior.

The Soviets tried a surge of their own in 1984–85, boosting troop levels to 118,000 to clear rebel areas like the lower Panjshir Valley and the strategic road to Khost. But it didn't work. The mujahedin would "melt away like mist," recalls Paulius Purickis, an ethnic Lithuanian draftee who served as a sergeant. "We were never able to engage them in a head-on battle," he says. General McChrystal hopes to avoid that problem with the extra troops being made available to him, which will allow him to "clear and hold" whole provinces, with small forward posts used to befriend and gather intelligence from locals.

The Soviets also tried to win hearts and minds, of course. But they left that job to the KGB, with dismal results. Today, rather than run a network of secret torture centers as the Soviets' proxy Mohammad Najibullah did, President Hamid Karzai has set himself up as a defender of the rights of Afghans detained in U.S.-run prisons, something that plays well with the population.

The Soviets also bungled the process of building relations with tribal leaders. Vasily Kravtsov spent 12 years in Afghanistan, rising to become the ranking KGB officer in Kandahar responsible for establishing an Afghan security and intelligence service in the area. Pashtun tribal politics were Kravtsov's specialty, and the bane of his life. The problem was, in part, a communist agenda to enlighten the Afghans by replacing religious schools with secular ones and to undermine the authority of local mullahs. "We made stupid ideological mistakes," says Gen. Ruslan Aushev, one of the most decorated Russian commanders of the Afghan war. "We told the Muslim people that religion was the opium of the masses!" U.S. officials have tried to be more culturally sensitive: as McChrystal put it in a recently leaked report, the American military is shifting away from "an excessively defensive posture to enable the troops to engage with the Afghan people."

Perhaps the closest parallel—and the area with the most lessons for Washington today—is in how to shore up the local government. And here again there is reason for optimism. Moscow's puppet Najibullah was weak and unpopular and ended up hanging from a lamppost soon after his patrons went home. Karzai is also little loved. But for all his troubles, he's in a far better position than his predecessor, for despite electoral gerrymandering and allegations of corruption, Karzai is still more popular than any other politician in the country.

That's a huge asset, for getting local government right is probably the ultimate key to success or failure. To do that, Washington should probably make a point of ignoring the Russians' advice. Today Russian veterans insist that the main reason for their failure was their attempt to impose a foreign mindset on an age-old system of tribal alliances: "Forget your ideas of bringing democracy there," says Yermakov. But communism wasn't the real problem, and neither is democracy. Indeed, democracy may be the solution. Najibullah's government fell not because it was secular and socialist but because it disintegrated under the twin evils of tribalism and corruption. Moscow grafted a veneer of communism onto a narrow, repressive, and widely hated Pashtun tribal clique that was no match for the mujahedin. This suggests that the key today is to support a government that's as inclusive, democratic, and accountable as possible. That means doing everything in Washington's power to get Karzai to clean up his act. The United States, with its rapid adaptation, has already shown it is in better shape than any previous invader to win the Afghan war on the ground. The challenge now is to also avoid repeating Russia's mistakes on the way out—and to become the first foreign force to leave Afghanistan in better shape than it found it.