Obama Using Gorbachev's Afghan Plan

Middle East Times, 3 April 2009

With U.S. President Barack Obama personally unveiling the revamped strategy for Afghanistan this past Friday, and with three international conferences on the issue scheduled (one of which, in The Hague, took place Tuesday), the war in Afghanistan is making a decided comeback on the international stage.

Long considered an afterthought due to Iraq, the Obama administration is now apparently intent on increasing the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. The only question is for what purpose. A recent Newsweek article comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam put it thus: “In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, when in doubt, escalate.”

One would be much better served, though, looking at a more recent historical example that has the added benefit of actually being located in Afghanistan – namely, how then-general secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhael Gorbachev, conducted his own country’s doomed Afghan campaign in the mid- to-late 1980s.

Escalation in this case was a result, not of ‘doubt’, but of a concerted effort to end the Soviet-Afghan war.

At first blush, the comparisons between Obama and Gorbachev are jarring. Taking power in 1985, Gorbachev was viewed as a foreign policy novice whose overriding priority was to enact a far-reaching domestic reform agenda. (Glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiia – ‘candour’, ‘reconstruction’, and ‘democratization’ – would not have been out of place as Obama campaign slogans.)

Like Obama, Gorbachev inherited a war in Afghanistan amidst a severe economic crisis and after a period of distinct ideological purity in Soviet foreign policy under the sclerotic Brezhnev.  Much of the Soviets’ failure in Afghanistan lay in an under appreciation of its enemy’s military resolve and in an unrealistic political model for governing Afghanistan via a narrow and centralized communist regime based in Kabul.


Between the Soviet invasion in 1979 and 1985, after a period marked by inconclusive guerrilla warfare between the Red Army and the Afghan mujahedin, Gorbachev, too, appeared to re-double his efforts in Afghanistan immediately after acceding to power.


On the military side, a new counterinsurgency strategy led by the ruthlessly effective General Zaitsev, a Soviet legend, was implemented. This more agile approach included the use of spetsnaz special forces and helicopter gunships to target the Afghan resistance.


On the political side, Moscow pushed the Kabul government to embark upon a ‘national reconciliation’ program in an effort to defuse the widespread opposition arrayed against it. These efforts culminated in the forced removal, by the Soviets, in May 1986 of Afghan President Karmal, in favor of the seemingly more pliant Najibullah. However, the ‘compromises’ touted by Najibullah the following year didn’t go far enough in placating the resistance or increasing governmental legitimacy, as real power was still guarded closely by the communist party in Kabul.


For Obama, the parallels to Gorbachev’s experience could not be clearer. After seven years of strategic drift, Washington has now put together an integrated political and military strategy, committed thousands of additional troops and, in general, is set to expend that much more money and international political capital on the mission.


Similar to the failures of the Soviets, the United States in political terms has been too beholden to a centralized system of government which has turned out to be not just ineffective, but corrupt. Militarily, America’s decided unwillingness to take the Taliban insurgency seriously – with quips comparing their incompetence to that of the Barbary pirates in the 19th century – proved to be a costly mistake as well.


However, if David Brooks is to be believed, the United States is “already well through the screwing-up phase of [its] operation.” Like the Soviets in the mid-1980s, there is a new commitment to waging a true counterinsurgency – albeit much less bloodily than the Red Army – and to political and civil reform inside Afghanistan. This has included discussions about outreach to elements of the Taliban deemed ‘reconcilable’ and, even more disconcertingly similar to the Soviets, the possibility of marginalizing Afghan President Karzai, formerly the darling of the West.

Ultimately, historical analogies, while helpful in providing caution and context, need not be self-fulfilling. The failed Soviet war of the 1980s did not enjoy many of the advantages the United States should currently exploit.


These include much greater international legitimacy for its presence in Afghanistan than the Soviet Union could ever have reasonably hoped to attain, in addition to a much closer relationship with its (ostensible) ally Pakistan. The new U.S. strategy rightly stresses a regional paradigm to the conflict, specifically the Islamist sanctuaries in western Pakistan which bedeviled even the Soviets. (Indeed, the Soviets also launched sporadic cross-border raids against mujahedin camps in Pakistan.)


Most importantly, though, the United States today doesn’t have to cope with a rival superpower bankrolling and arming the Afghan insurgency. Gorbachev’s need to end the Afghan war stemmed in large part from the necessity to prove to the United States that his ‘new thinking’ on the Cold War was genuine.


This is perhaps the crucial point with regard to the Gorbachev experience: from his first days in power, his objective vis-à-vis the Afghan war was not so much victory, as it was termination. All of the political and military machinations between 1986 and the eventual Soviet withdrawal in 1989 were aimed at devising a feasible ‘exit strategy.’ In this, escalation was crucial.


It is both ironic and tragically logical that the bloodiest years of the Soviet-Afghan war were 1986 and 1987, under the aegis of a leader seeking to lower international tensions, who inherited the conflict from his predecessors, and who in fact was seeking to extricate his country from the foreign entanglement.

A coherent ‘exit strategy’ which delivers a great power’s minimum strategic objectives usually consists of some form of escalation. This was true for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger during their vicious bombings campaigns over Vietnam, and also true for George W. Bush with the recent surge in Iraq.


Obama is now apparently trying the same thing in Afghanistan. An increase in hostilities is a given. Only time will tell whether this is a true ‘victory’ strategy, or whether, like Gorbachev, it is merely designed to prepare the ground for an exit which has already been decided upon.