Will We Look
Like the Soviets When We Leave Iraq?
By Marc Kaufman
Sunday, September 7, 2003;
Well-equipped foreign troops were under daily fire from
determined if ragtag guerrillas, and casualties steadily mounted.
Much of the world was opposed to the military action, and opposition
was especially strong in Muslim countries. Islamic holy warriors
were eventually drawn to the fight, bringing funds and increasingly
extreme tactics. The occupying forces sought to modernize a
traditional Muslim society and do it quickly. They never lost a
battle, yet the war wouldn't end.
If this sounds like a description of the challenge facing
U.S. forces in postwar Iraq, you're right. But it could just as well
describe another war in the same region -- the Soviet invasion and
occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
As the American death count rises in Iraq and efforts to
improve life for Iraqis remain limited by the lack of security, the
Bush administration is working hard to convince us that we are
merely witnessing the untidy death throes of Saddam Hussein's
regime. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and others have
held up post-World War II Germany and Japan as models for the U.S.
occupation in Iraq. The administration's detractors respond by
raising the specter of Vietnam or the aborted U.S. military missions
in Lebanon and Somalia.
And yet the Soviet experience in Afghanistan -- where a
superpower moved in a bold and aggressive way outside its clear
sphere of influence into a fractured Muslim nation -- is a more
useful model, however different the occupiers' motivations and
however different the outcome ultimately may be. And because the
Soviets' Afghan occupation ended in disaster for both the occupier
and the occupied, it offers lessons that U.S. officials would do
well to remember.
I was in Afghanistan as the last Russians left in 1988,
departing from their heavily guarded garrisons and quite fearful of
being attacked on the way out. By then, the Soviets had managed to
do just about everything wrong, having killed more than a million
Afghans and turned millions more into refugees. The Soviets had
become the enemies of Islam. That they spent billions to modernize
Afghanistan and win over Afghans -- soldiers were still tossing
candy to kids as they pulled out of Kabul -- meant nothing in the
The United States starts its occupation in a much stronger
position. The Soviets, after all, were supporting a widely disliked
communist Afghan government, while the Americans are offering
democracy and reconstruction, which many Iraqis say they want. But
both began their occupations convinced that the local population
broadly supported them or, in the case of the Soviets, that the
locals would be cowed into submission. The Soviets were proven
wrong, and the Americans have learned they can't count on the
support they thought they had. Top Army officials in Iraq have
conceded that they have a "guerrilla war" on their hands -- and the
dynamics on the ground for the two occupations begin to look
Guerrilla wars are fought militarily and, probably more
importantly, as a battle for "hearts and minds." So now that the
United States is working to both pacify and develop Iraq, its
enemies are working equally hard to create havoc and keep Iraq
without electric power, without medical supplies and without hope
for a peaceful, American-dominated future. To accomplish these
goals, Iraqi guerrillas are taking a page from the playbook of the
Afghan mujaheddin, who forced the Soviets out of their country.
Strategically, it's a war of a thousand small cuts -- some
injuries here, deaths there, and car-bomb blasts to sow fear and
terror. Like the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets, the Iraqi
fighters are blowing up utility lines, attacking locals who help the
occupying forces and making life difficult. In a well-known 1983
action against the Soviet occupation, mujaheddin fighters attacked
the central bus depot in Kabul, and destroyed 124 Soviet-supplied
buses. "Kabul was without bus transportation for a good while," the
mujaheddin commander later told the military historian Ali Jalali,
who is now Afghan interior minister. Sound familiar?
The parallels stretch into the area of terrorism against
civilians. Americans tend to see terrorism now as an unmitigated
evil, but the United States also supported (and generously financed)
mujaheddin attacks against Afghan and Soviet civilians in
Afghanistan during that war. In a postmortem of the Afghan war by
the Russian army general staff, which was later published, analysts
counted more than 1,800 terrorist acts against non-military targets
in Afghanistan between 1985 and 1987 alone. The commander of a
mujaheddin squad that strapped bombs to pushcarts in Kabul and blew
up Soviet and Afghan citizens told Jalali years later, "The only
difference [between his bombs and those dropped from military
aircraft] is the size of the bomb and the means of delivery."
In both Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and American-occupied
Iraq, efforts at rebuilding and development became favorite targets
of militants. The attacks hurt the Soviets, and are hurting the
Americans. Many aid workers are refusing to stay in Iraq, or even to
go there in the first place. Oxfam, for instance, is pulling out its
people because, said its Iraq program manager, Simon Springett, "the
risk level was becoming unacceptable for us." Even the International
Committee for the Red Cross is cutting back.
Another unsettling similarity is the way in which Americans
are increasingly being cast in the role of enemy in Iraq. Now that
U.S. troops are under frequent attack, reports from Baghdad suggest
that jittery soldiers are shooting back more quickly, and innocent
Iraqis are sometimes paying the price -- not a situation likely to
endear the American forces to Iraqis. "You know you're beginning to
lose a guerrilla war when 'force protection' becomes the main
concern of your military," said Milt Bearden, who helped organize
the massive CIA effort to support the Afghans in their war against
the Soviets. "And we're starting to hear that an awful lot now from
top military in Baghdad."
Last month's attack on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad can be
seen in the same light.
You can make the argument that the attack was a conscious
effort to both slow down the aid and redevelopment process and to
isolate the United States as the enemy. If the U.N. reduces its
operations in Iraq, it becomes easier for the "guerrillas," whoever
they may be, to portray their battle as one against a singular enemy
-- America. This is precisely what happened to the Soviets in
Afghanistan: The Soviet presence, rather than the Afghan government
it was supporting, became the central issue of the war, and the
Soviets' departure became the unifying goal of the otherwise
fractured opposition. Along the way, the Soviets became the original
magnet for traveling, modern-day "holy warriors" out to defend
Muslim lands. The U.S. commander in Baghdad, Gen. John Abizaid,
recently said that at least 1,000 foreign Muslim fighters have now
made their way to Iraq, site of their new jihad.
While not much discussed in public, these parallels between
the American and Soviet occupations have clearly been on the minds
of some policymakers.
Several weeks ago, a reporter asked Deputy Secretary of
State Richard L. Armitage how the United States would convince the
Iraqis that we are not like the Soviets in Afghanistan. Armitage
didn't dismiss the question as ridiculous, but rather gave a
considered answer that suggests he had thought about the issue
before. Armitage's reply was that the United States will make sure
that Iraqis are soon governing and policing their country, and that
American forces are behaving well toward the people. "There is no
hunger in [Iraq], right?" he said. "There are very few [displaced
persons] and refugees. All universities in Iraq have opened. . . .
There is a hell of a lot going on, not the least of which is nobody
in Iraq goes to bed frightened that they are going to hear the
midnight knock of the Mukhabarat [secret police]."
A reasonable answer, as far as it goes. But Armitage didn't
deal with the central question: How will the United States keep its
enemies from killing American soldiers and others, and disrupting
efforts to create a civil society?
At some point, the number of American soldiers being maimed
and killed will become unacceptable, and military leaders will have
to respond more aggressively. The logic of guerrilla war pushes the
occupying power to do things it wouldn't ordinarily do, like when
the Russians bombed sections of Herat into rubble after dozens of
Soviet civilians were killed there.
How can American forces make sure they don't become like
the Soviets in Afghanistan? The best answer can be found,
ironically, in Afghanistan today.
While it's easy to feel that events are spinning out of
control in Iraq, that hasn't really happened in Afghanistan.
Granted, there is a guerrilla insurrection underway -- against the
American forces and the Karzai government -- but it is having less
success in disrupting development and inflicting military
casualties. Afghanistan is one and a half times larger than Iraq and
has several million more people, but it is more stable with 15,000
American and international troops than Iraq is with more than
140,000 American and 12,000 British soldiers. I think this is
because the former Taliban militants have little support among the
general population, and can't move easily outside of some eastern
border areas and other remote places. A key reason for this is that
the American presence there is not seen as a single-country
occupation, but rather as part of an international effort with NATO
troops, scores of international organizations at work and a central
U.N. role in rebuilding the nation. A guerrilla war against the
United Nations, the recent Baghdad bombing notwithstanding, simply
has inherently less logic and steam than one against the United
States or the Soviet Union.
There are of course some major differences between what the
Americans face in Iraq and what the Soviet Union faced in
Afghanistan. The mujaheddin were politically and militarily
supported by the United States, China, Pakistan and others, while
the Iraqi guerrillas have no known state support. The Soviet Union
was far weaker economically than the United States is now, and had a
less sophisticated, less motivated military. And the mountainous
terrain in Afghanistan made it easier for rebels to hide and set
ambushes. But when you begin to imagine possible worst-case
scenarios in Iraq, what a protracted guerrilla war might look like,
the possibilities are familiar and chilling.
Retired U.S. Brig. Gen. Theodore Mataxis, an expert in
guerrilla war, described how bad things can get for occupying powers
in a forward he wrote to the English translation of the Russian
army's review of its Afghan war. "What guerrillas do not need is
military victory. Guerrillas need to survive and endure over the
years or decades of the conflict," he wrote. The winning side in
such a war prevails "because of higher morale, greater obstinacy,
stronger national will, and the determination to survive."
The administration would do well to broadly
internationalize its Iraqi occupation before it descends into the
brutal logic of a dirty war. Because if and when that happens, it
will be nearly impossible for the United States to maintain the
higher morale and stronger national will needed to prevail -- just
as it was for the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Marc Kaufman is a reporter on The Post's national staff
who has been taking reporting trips to Afghanistan since 1987, most
recently for three months this year.
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