“Last month’s NATO-led operation in Marjah in Helmand Province â€“ the largest offensive of the current war â€“ put me in mind of the Panjshir. There are clear lessons from the nearly decade-long Soviet occupation that the international community might heed in its ninth year of war in Afghanistan, with the biggest battle campaign now under way.
The Panjshir push was roughly the same size as the Marjah offensive â€“ called Operation Moshtarak â€“ and involved 10,000 to 12,000 coalition and Afghan troops. In the Soviet war, Western journalists reported primarily from the guerrilla side. But in contrast to most of today’s media, embedded with NATO troops, we had constant access to ordinary Afghans. We walked through the countryside sleeping in villages, with long evenings spent drinking tea and talking with the locals. Frank conversation doesn’t happen when one party wears body armor or is flanked by heavily armed soldiers: Afghans will only tell you what they think you want to hear. Or, even more crucial, what suits their own interests. Hence the highly questionable veracity of opinion polls in Afghanistan today.
…The Soviet/Afghan force quickly took the valley, proclaiming victory. The reality was far different. Massoud’s experienced guerrillas suffered few casualties and, within days, launched assaults against the entrenched Red Army troops. Afghan government soldiers, too, poorly paid and disheartened, slipped out at night with their weapons to join the resistance.
Massoud eventually made a truce with the Soviets. This enabled the Red Army a “take and hold” policy with several garrisons in the Panjshir. Some civilians returned, while the guerrillas established their own concealed bases in mountains beyond. The truce was much criticized by rival groups of mujahideen, but it was part of a long-term strategy: Massoud had no intention of collaborating with the regime. Occupation troops first had to leave before any unity government could be formed. It’s the same refrain today by the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and other opposition groups.
For years, Massoud kept the Soviets tied down while focusing on other areas and building a highly proficient regional force denying the communists swaths of countryside. The mujahideen â€“ like the Taliban now â€“ always felt they had time on their side. All they needed to do was wear down the Red Army. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets commanded 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with the 150,000 coalition high expected by next fall with completion of the US troop surge. When the Soviets, who suffered at least 15,000 deaths and thousands of injured, pulled out in February 1989, they had little to show but widespread destruction of much of the country. Three years later, the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul crumbled. Today, it’s as if the Soviets had never been there.
Unlike NATO forces, who now make pointed efforts to protect civilians, the Soviets and their Afghan cohorts often deliberately targeted local populations. Throughout its war, however, the Red Army held little more than the main towns. The countryside remained largely in the hands of the mujahideen. Similarly, today, 70 percent of the country is ranked as “insecure” by the United Nations.
The parallels of the panjshir with today just keep rolling. Today’s insurgents fight much like the mujahideen; and, in fact, many now call themselves mujahideen. Many commanders earned their battle spurs during the Soviet war. Their fighters hide among the locals and, often, are the locals. If things get tough, they deploy elsewhere.
Like Marjah, a deliberate joint NATO-Afghan operation, the Soviets made a point of involving Afghan partners and constantly extolled the effectiveness of the Kabul regime in the hope that Afghan security forces would assume the brunt of the war. In reality, the Soviets were running the show just as US, British, and other forces are today….
…Crucial, too, is the need for a long-term approach for the next 30 years. Talk of exit strategy only plays into the hands of insurgents biding their time.
The Western missions, barricaded in Kabul compounds, are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. So are their intelligence operations. They spend billions on recovery or security initiatives, yet are reluctant to invest in credible information efforts.
As the Marjah operation demonstrates, there is still the belief that the problem can be resolved by clearing out the insurgents militarily, and holding the territory while installing new top-down structures â€“ “a government in a box.”
For most Afghans I’ve talked to on recent trips to Kabul and eastern, central, and southern Afghanistan, justice, not security, is the principal concern. Even where the military is in control, Afghans slip out to Taliban-controlled areas to seek fair dealing, having more confidence in Taliban sharia courts than in Karzai-regime judges. They see lack of rule of law and international community failure to develop a functioning economy, particularly in the countryside where 80 percent of Afghans live. And they increasingly perceive the coalition as a foreign occupation force, much like the Soviets."
â€¢Edward Girardet, author of “The Soviet War” and a forthcoming 30-year retrospective on Afghanistan, has reported for the Monitor since 1979.
2010-03-21 15:17:11 UTC