This piece by journalist and author Edward Girardet was published by The Essential Edge 19 March, 2009.
The recent US-led Coalition-Afghan offensive in Marjah, Helmand Province, has been heralded as a success by some. The reality, however, may be far different. As Edward Girardet shows, the Soviets faced very similar problems during the 1980s and ultimately failed.
Many reporters ’embedded’ with the US and other western military often fail to have any genuine or unencumbered contact with local populations and in effect become part of the NATO PR effort, signalling a success for the military but a failure for critical and independent journalism. Essential Edge editor Edward Girardet, who is also co-editor of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan, wrote the following piece (see direct link – Lessons from the Soviet War – ) for the weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor, ranked as one of America’s best news publications. He draws parallels to a similar operation conducted by Soviet-Afghan foces in the summer of 1982 against the forces of the renowned guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud in the the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul.
One of the problems facing the international community, Girardet warns, is that they continue to throw billions of dollars at the Afghan problem every year but fail to take into account the true nature of the conflict. They also often adopt a short-term and totally unrealistic approach which is already dooming the current security and recovery involvement in Afghanistan to failure. Here The Essential Edge is running Girardet’s unabridged version of the Monitor story, which had to be cut for space reasons. At the same time, the editors urge readers to check the Monitor website www.csmonitor.com for its excellent coverage of Afghanistan and other global issues.
Lashkargar, Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan — It was early summer, 1982. The nearly decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan was gathering momentum against the mujahideen, the country’s disparate but increasingly widespread resistance movement. I had just trekked for ten days across rugged mountains from neighboring Pakistan to the beleaguered Panjshir Valley, an assertive thorn against the Red Army’s might barely 40 miles north of Kabul. I was traveling with a French medical team accompanied by a half dozen guerrillas being sent to replace a group of volunteer doctors, who had been working clandestinely among the civilian population for the past year.
My own purpose was to report on what was expected to be the largest government offensive against the mujahideen so far. The deployment consisted of an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Soviet-Afghan troops, roughly the same size as last month’s NATO-Afghan operation at Marjah in Helmand Province. The 1982 operation represented the latest of several attempts by the Soviets to crush the 3,000 fighters led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, the renowned “Lion of Panjshir” and perhaps one of the 20th century’s most effective guerrilla commanders alongside Tito, Giap, and others.
In those days, Western journalists reported primarily from the guerrilla side. But in contrast to those now embedded with the 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. You cannot talk with people on equal terms if you have body armour or are 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.
Similar to the February, 2010 Helmand offensive, the Soviets warned the population of the impending attack by dropping propaganda leaflets and making radio broadcasts. They appealed to the Panjshiris to support the government in return for cash and other incentives, such as subsidized wheat, a key Soviet component aimed at garnering loyalty. Their tactic was to force the guerrillas out but allow the civilians to remain. To make their point, the communists lambasted the guerrillas as criminals supported by foreign interests in the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, a tactic similar to the one used by the Americans with regard to the Taliban. They also slandered the mainly female French doctors as whores who had come to subvert good Muslims, a charged accusation designed to attract the more conservative elements of Afghan society.
Approaching the Panjshir that summer of 1982, we skirted the massive Bagram airbase, today run by the Americans but then a hugely fortified Soviet bastion blistering with helicopter gunships and MiG fighter jets. On reaching the outer edges of the mighty snow-capped Hindu Kush mountain range, we encountered groups of refugees hiding among the deep gorges of the narrow side valleys. Only days earlier, Massoud had evacuated the area’s 50,000 or more people, somewhat less than the population affected by the Helmand campaign. He did this to minimize civilian casualties and to give his fighters free reign. We arrived in the Panjshir by late afternoon.
The next morning, well before dawn, we could hear the ominous drone of helicopters. As the throbbing grew louder, tiny specks appeared on the horizon sweeping across the jagged snow-capped peaks. Like hordes of wasps, the gunships roared over the towering ridges that ring the Panjshir. Soon the hollow thuds of rockets and bombs resounded as they pounded the guerrilla positions entrenched among the mountain slopes. Intermittently, pairs of MiG-23 jets and the new highly maneuverable SU-24 fighter bombers shrieked across the skies dislodging their loads. Together with two journalist colleagues, I climbed a 7,000 foot-high vantage point overlooking the valley.
Dozens of frontline guerrillas looking like Cuban revolutionaries with their long hair and beards lounged among the rocks in the bright sunlight watching the spectacle. Grinning, they handed us glasses of tea, oblivious of the helicopters roaring barely 500 meters overhead. Massoud’s strategy had been to empty the valley and let the Soviets in. His fighters would hit the occupation forces in their own time. It was a bizarre scene reminiscent of a 19th century painting with picnickers casually watching a distant battle. We counted no fewer than 200 helicopter sorties in the space of a morning, while scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers ground their way up the riverbed. The guerillas had laced the road with Chinese anti-tank mines so this was the only way for the Soviets to penetrate the valley.
Unlike the current anti-NATO insurgency, however, the use of IEDs was never widespread among the mujahideen, while the use of suicide bombers was introduced by Al Qaeda and other foreign Islamic leginnaires. If anything, it was the Soviets who usually left behind the deadly boobytraps. There seemed to be at least half a dozen operations at the same time. Across the valley, M-24 gunships circled like sharks to attack suspected guerrilla positions. Further down, trucks mounted with rockets fired salvo after salvo into the mountainsides. Just below, a Soviet special forces machine gun position at the mouth of a side valley leveled off repeated bursts against guerrillas hiding among the boulders above. Nearby, shirtless Red Army soldiers took breaks sunning themselves on looted carpets spread out on the flat roofs of houses, while others redeployed by jogging single file through shrapnel-torn mulberry trees.
The Soviet-Afghan force quickly took the valley proclaiming victory. The reality was far different. Despite sometimes hand-to-hand combat, Massoud’s experienced guerrillas suffered few casualties. They soon began launching assaults against the entrenched Red Army troops. Afghan government soldiers, too, many of them poorly paid and disheartened, slipped out at night with their weapons to join the resistance.
Massoud, (who was assassinated in September 2001 by two Al Qaeda suicide bombers), eventually made a highly controversial truce with the Soviets, an action much criticized by other guerrilla groups. This enabled the Red Army to adopt a “take and hold” policy with several garrisons in the Panjshir, but which could only be supplied by air. Some of the civilians returned, while the guerrillas established their own concealed bases in the side valleys and mountains beyond.
The truce was much criticized by rival mujahed groups, but for Massoud this was part of a long-term strategy. The northern commander made it clear that he had no intention of collaborating with the regime. The foreign occupation troops first had to leave before any unity government could be formed. This same refrain is being echoed by much of the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, and other opposition groups in Afghanistan today.
Over the next several years, Massoud kept the Soviets tied down while focusing on other parts of Afghanistan, including the critical Salang Highway, the main supply route from the north. Sometimes he allowed the Soviet convoys to pass with his men even wandering with their guns along the road warily watched by Red Army troops in their armoured vehicles or sitting at chaikhane (tea houses) situated along the road. Other times, however, his forces attacked in order to replenish their supplies. Massoud used this arrangement to build up and train a highly proficient regional force capable of denying whole swathes of countryside to the communists. Similar to the Taliban, the mujahideen always felt that 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 with further divisions operating out of Central Asia. NATO, on the other hand, expects to deploy up to 150,000 when the current US surge of an additional 30,000 US soldiers is complete. When the Soviets, who suffered at least 15,000 deaths, plus thousands more injured, finally pulled out in February 1989, they had little to show other than the widespread destruction of much of the country. Three years later, the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul crumbled with the mujahideen taking the Afghan capital in April 1992. Today, it is as if the Soviets had never been there. Unlike NATO forces, who now make pointed efforts to protect civilians coupled with humanitarian or development outreach programmes, the Soviets and their Afghan cohorts often deliberately targeted local populations.
Over five million Afghans were forced to flee the country, while millions more displaced within Afghanistan itself. Over one million Afghans are believed to have been killed or have died from war-related circumstances during the Soviet occupation. Throughout their war, however, the Red Army held little more than the main towns. The countryside remained largely in the hands of the mujahideen. The same thing is happening in Afghanistan today. Up to 70 percent of the country is ranked as “insecure” by the United Nations.
Looking back to the Panjshir, there are clear lessons for the international community. The insurgents, who should not all be conveniently lablled ‘Taliban,’ today fight much like the mujahideen, and in fact many are now calling themselves mujahideen. Numerous commanders earned their battle spurs during the Soviet war. Their fighters hide among the local population and, in many cases, are the local population. And if things get tough, they simply deploy elsewhere. Like the Helmand offensive, which was being deliberately carried out by joint NATO and Afghan forces, the Soviets made the point of involving their Afghan partners. They wanted to create a semblance of Kabul being in control. They constantly extolled the effectiveness of the regime in the hopes that the Afghan security forces would one day assume the brunt of the war. In reality, the Soviets were the ones running the show just as US, British, and other forces are the ones running the military intervention in Afghanistan today. Ironically, the Soviets did eventually succeed in creating an effective Afghan fighting force.
Following the Red Army withdrawal, the communists fought hard and well against fundamentalist mujahideen supported by Pakistani military in eastern Afghanistan. The communist regime finally fell because of political rather than military reasons. There is little doubt that Afghan security capabilities can be improved over the next five years to hold their own, but this will depend on whether the current discredited Kabul regime can achieve acceptance. During the Soviet war, the Red Army high command was very much aware that they could not trust “their” Afghans.
Throughout the war, Massoud’s mujahideen enjoyed full details of planned operations well before they were launched. Many government, military, and police officials, including senior commanders, were secretly collaborating with the resistance just as pro-Talib and other insurgent collaborators have infiltrated most ministries of the current administration. The Soviets also succeeded in building up a highly effective network of informers and often thwarted resistance operations based on this intelligence, but they never gained the upper hand. The more effective guerrilla commanders, such as Massoud or eastern Afghanistan’s Abdul Haq (later killed by the Taliban), always seemed to keep two steps ahead of the game. Twice while reporting for the Monitor during the 1980s, I was nearly captured by Soviet heliborne troops after being informed upon by local Afghans. In one incident, we footed it out of a village at two in the morning and into the mountains, while Red Army helicopters landed several hundred meters away.
Moscow’s attempts to establish hard-core militia fronts by purchasing their allegiance also faltered in many parts. The old adage of “you can only rent an Afghan, you can never buy him” remained the rule of thumb. Many militia maintained “just in case” arrangements with the mujahideen just as today numerous police and military units collaborating with NATO forces have their own deals with the insurgents. One of Afghanistan’s best known and most ruthless Northern Alliance warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostom, was a former communist militia commander.
While the February/March 2010 Helmand offensive may claim to rout the Taliban, it will only prove a garnish victory. It will probably have little impact on the long-term fighting capabilities of the opposition, even if NATO holds the terrain they have captured. To claim success shows a poor understanding of Afghanistan. Only a small proportion of the insurgents are actually fighting. The majority of sympathizers will have buried their weapons or simply blended in among the civilians. Others are in the process of deploying elsewhere just as Massoud used the interim to organize fighting fronts throughout the north. There is no way that all these areas can be controlled militarily.
Many of the Western governments operating in Afghanistan tend to focus on their own particular zones, such as the Dutch in Uzurugan and the Germans in Kunduz. Most officers only come for six-month deployments, a period in which no one can even begin to understand this country. And to assume otherwise only undermines the recovery effort even more. It is this lack of understanding about Afghan culture and ways of thinking that is the biggest problem today. What policymakers fail to grasp is that while every part of Afghanistan is different, you cannot operate effectively without taking into consideration the country as a whole. Crucial, too, is the need for a long-term approach spreading over the next 30 years. Talk of exit strategies only plays into the insurgents biding their time.
The Western missions, barricaded in their heavily armed compounds in Kabul, are sorely out of touch with what is happening on the ground. So are their intelligence operations. They are spending billions of dollars on recovery or security initiatives, yet seem reluctant to invest in credible information efforts that will enable them to better see the broader picture. The Dutch, who are expected to pull out their forces, will probably abandon their hold on Uzurugan leaving it open to the insurgents even if replacement NATO forces come in. Their investment is more than likely to puff into dust much the same way the Soviet occupation has left little tangible impact on Afghanistan today.
As the Helmand operation demonstrates only too well, there is still the belief that by clearing out the insurgents militarily, and then holding the territory while putting new top-down structures into place, “a government in a box,” you can resolve the problem. afghan_women.jpgFor most Afghans I have talked to on recent trips to Kabul and eastern, central and southern Afghanistan, justice, not security, is their principal concern. Even in areas controlled by the military, people slip into Taliban-controlled areas to seek fair dealing. They have far more confidence in the Talib sharia courts than they do in the judges appointed by the Karzai regime, and whose main gauge for making decisions is based on who can pay the most. As admitted by one western government rule of law expert: “The Sharia courts are our biggest competition because they are trusted more by the locals than the Kabul judges, who, as everyone knows, are corrupt.”
There is also a severe lack of confidence among ordinary Afghans in those running the country. What they see is overvaulting corruption, both within the government and among American and other foreign consultancies making fortunes on the backs of Afghans. They see a lack of rule of law and an utter failure by the international community to help develop a functioning economy, particularly in the countryside where nearly 80 percent of Afghans live. Even worse, they increasingly perceive the Coalition armies as a foreign occupation force, much like the Soviets, representing their own interests rather than those of Afghanistan.
The Soviets thought they could subdue Afghanistan through brute force, political indoctrination, and bribes. They wanted to put across the notion that their form of government had far more to offer than the jihad embraced by the mujahideen. They lost. The West, following dangerously close to the path of its Soviet predecessor in Afghanistan, must show that it isn’t there to impose its own views but to help ordinary people feel that they have a future. This will mean to be seen to be acting in the interests of Afghans and not in the service of western agendas, whether the so-called war on terrorism, counter-narcotics operations or a playing field for private US and other corporate interests – fronted by mercenaries and private contractors – to make money on the backs of the Afghan security and recovery effort.
Edward Girardet, who was in Helmand last December, is a journalist and author of The Soviet War (1985, St Martins’ Press). He has covered Afghanistan since 1979, prior to the Red Army invasion. He is editor of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan (Crosslines, 1998, 2004 and 2006) and is currently writing another personal book about Afghanistan, looking back with a 30-year perspective.