U.S. strategy in Afghanistan likened to disastrous Soviet invasion

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The American-led war in Afghanistan is heading toward an outcome similar to the disastrous Soviet invasion three decades ago, a new academic analysis concludes.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The American-led war in Afghanistan is heading toward an outcome similar to the disastrous Soviet invasion three decades ago, a new academic analysis concludes.

In a paper to be published in the Foreign Policy Review Institute, the authors argue the NATO coalition is repeating the same mistakes that led to heavy bloodshed and the ultimate withdrawal of the Soviet military.

“The Soviet experience shows us the painful mistakes of the past, and we ignore those mistakes at our peril,” the authors say.

Among other things, the Soviets gave up trying to combat a rural insurgency in favour of controlling the main population centres and connecting roads.

They also tried to change the unpopular puppet government they had installed, push a reconciliation program, and focus on building up Afghanistan’s own security forces.

“The United States is trying to do all of these things again today, as if the Soviet experience never happened,” the paper states.

The authors, Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., and Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey Calif., have long studied Afghanistan.

Johnson, who has previously compared Afghanistan to the American failure in the Vietnam War, was an architect of Canada’s “model village” approach in Kandahar’s Dand District, which has had some success.

Concentrating on population centres, as the Soviets did and Americans are trying to do, makes little sense given that most Afghans live in rural areas, Goodson and Johnson say.

“Like the mujahedeen a generation earlier, (population centres are ) not where the Taliban primarily operate,” according to the analysis.

“When they do, they are extremely difficult to identify or separate from the population.”

Last year, four U.S. military officers argued in an analysis called “Follow the Bear” that the Soviets actually learned from their initial mistakes, and were able to leave in 1989 on their own terms.

Among the positive strategies, they cited a national reconciliation effort to increase government legitimacy and strengthened Afghan security forces.

The Karzai government has recently bragged about insurgents setting down their weapons as part of a reintegration program.

Yet insurgent attacks show few signs of abating.

The Soviets finally began withdrawing their forces, leaving the Afghan government to pursue the anti-insurgent war. But without Moscow’s support, the government eventually collapsed.

In a statement on its website Wednesday, the Taliban warned the coalition is doomed to the same kind of fate as the Soviets.

“We can conclude that the colonialist plan of the Soviet Union was stronger that that of America,” it said.

“The present invaders and their surrogates (should) take a lesson as their roots are comparably weaker, and the situation is tenser for them.”

Currently, both the American and Canadian militaries are set to draw down their troops and hand over security tasks to the Afghan army and police.

The transition appears to be meeting with little overall success.

This week, for example, hundreds of Taliban inmates escaped Kandahar’s Sarposa prison through a 300-metre tunnel that somehow went undetected for months.

On Wednesday, an Afghan Air Force officer opened fire, killing eight American soldiers and a contractor at Kabul airport.

Insurgents in Afghan army or police uniforms, or rogue members of the forces, have frequently attacked Afghan and coalition troops.

The escapes and attacks come despite years of coalition money and intensive training efforts.

The authors argue that it is highly unlikely the Afghan forces will ever be able to put down the insurgency.

The basic problem, say Goodson and Johnson, is that most Afghans will never view the Karzai government — widely accused of corruption and ineptitude — as legitimate.

“In numerous areas, especially in the rural southern Pashtun hinterlands, the Taliban are not only doing a better job of governance and providing justice than Kabul, they are also seen as more legitimate,” the paper states.

Without legitimacy, the Kabul government is destined to collapse, they say.

The analysis concludes the U.S. and its allies have three choices: Declare victory and leave, settle in for a long-protracted attempt at nation-building that will likely fail, or focus narrowly on counter-terrorism.

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