THE RELEVANT QUAGMIRE
American soldiers are dying daily, killed by fervent, faceless, loosely organized foes who wear no uniforms and melt into the landscape, or the cityscape, after they attack. American helicopters are being shot out of the sky by shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles. Back home, the American public begins to grow disenchanted with a military enterprise it initially supported. No wonder anti-war commentators are saying that the U.S. occupation of Iraq threatens to turn into a quagmire like Vietnam. But the commentators dont have it quite right. They have the wrong quagmire.
The more appropriate historical analogy for what the U.S. faces in Iraq is a different war: the one the Soviet Union tried to fight in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
The similarities between the current U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Soviet-Afghan war are uncanny. Consider:
A superpower, in defiance of most world opinion, invades an Islamic Middle Eastern nation. The superpower is hoping to effect regime change and, citing an imminent threat, declares the invasion an international duty. Initially, the invasion goes well. Within weeks, all organized military opposition in the invaded nation appears to evaporate, and the invading superpower basks in its success, praised by its domestic media for its military prowess. The superpower imposes its own government on the invaded nation and settles in to oversee a comfortable, presumably temporary occupation.
But almost immediately, resistance forces begin to coalesce, and the guerrilla war begins. The superpowers convoys are attacked. Its soldiers are killed one, two, ten at a time. Galvanized by religious zeal and nationalist pride, the guerrillas begin to attract other fighters sympathetic to their cause, from other lands. (One of these is named Osama bin Laden, who, with the help of Saudi Arabia, and the blessing--and perhaps the arms and money--of the United States, establishes his own anti-superpower fighting force.) The guerrillas represent a variety of causes, some purely religious, some secular and local. Some simply represent regional warlords.
Soon the superpowers casualties begin to grow, and, although the superpower brings the body bags home quietly, out of the spotlight, the people back home begin to notice. The national media begin asking questions. Why are our soldiers still dying? Is this war worth it? Who decided to fight it and why? Commissions are called to look into the justification for the war. The political leadership claims the military and intelligence agencies are responsible. The military and intelligence agencies claim they warned the politicians that the war might be a mistake; the generals, in fact, claim the politicians quashed any intelligence that contradicted their own (the politicians) preset policies. Meanwhile, the superpower is obliged to keep a rotating force of over 120,000 men in the invaded nation, and the resistance forces continue to grow, swelled each day by zealous international fighters called to jihad in order to force out the infidel invader. Quickly the invaded nation becomes a cause for Muslims throughout the world.
In the end, it took ten years and the death of 25,000 of its young men at the hands of the Afghan mujahedin fighters before the Soviet Union decided to give up the fight and leave Afghanistan. By the end, the Soviet people had lost faith in both their politicians and their military. Not long after the Soviets left Afghanistan, the Taliban were in power there, among other things shielding a terrorist Islamic infrastructure that was now ready to take on the only infidel superpower remaining after the Soviet Union was dismantled. There are serious foreign policy analysts who say today that it wasnt capitalisms victory in the Cold War (and it certainly wasnt Ronald Reagan) that brought down the Soviet Union--it was, to a large extent, the economic and political devastation wrought by the war in Afghanistan. (For one such analysis, see The Afghanistan war and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, click here
or go to http://faculty.washington.edu/aseem/afganwar.pdf.)
Have the policy makers in the Bush Administration learned the lessons of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Theres no excuse if they havent. In dozens of articles, some recently declassified, analysts in the U.S. military and in the intelligence community have examined what went wrong for the Soviets in Afghanistan. One such article was written in 1996. It is a United States Army document out of the Foreign Military Studies Office in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It is called The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of a Future War? It is written by General (Ret) Mohammad Yahya Nawroz, Army of Afghanistan, and LTC (Ret) Lester W. Grau, U.S. Army. (The article can be found online by clicking here
, or go to http://www.bdg.minsk.by/cegi/N2/Afg/Waraf.htm.) For declassified documents that do a similar analysis, see The National Security Archive by clicking here
, or go to http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB57/us.html.) Here is some of what the 1996 U.S. Army article says:
Now, the only effective way for a technologically less-advanced country to fight a technologically-advanced country is through guerrilla war. Guerrilla war, a test of national will and the ability to endure, negates many of the advantages of technology.
[T]he potential for U.S. involvement in a guerrilla war grows. . . [I]t is in the best interests of U.S. military professionals to review the lessons of the last guerrilla war in which a super power was involved. Afghanistan is both past and prologue.
A guerrilla war is not a war of technology versus peasantry. Rather, it is a contest of endurance and national will. The side with the greatest moral commitment (ideological, religious or patriotic) will hold the ground at the end of the conflict. Battlefield victory can be almost irrelevant, since victory is often determined by morale, obstinacy and survival.
Tactics for conventional war will not work against guerrillas. Forces need to be reequipped, restructured and retrained for fighting guerrillas or for fighting as guerrillas. The most effective combatants are light infantry.
Journalists and television cameramen are key players in guerrilla warfare. The successful struggle can be effectively aided when championed by a significant portion of the worlds press.
Control of the cities can be a plus, but can also prove a detriment. Support of the population is essential for the winning side.
I write this on a day when 15 American troops were killed when their Chinook helicopter was shot down over a field in Iraq. It is a day when the world press is not on Americas side, when many Iraqis are losing faith in Americas ability to reconstruct their nation, and when the American people--and more and more American soldiers--are growing demoralized with a war whose justification seems flimsier by the week. I hope George W. Bush--or whoever does his reading for him--is studying the analyses of the Soviet -Afghan war. I wonder if he and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz possess a national will and a moral commitment that goes beyond the election of 2004. And I wonder if our soldiers will still be fighting and dying in Baghdad in 2013.
Good article. You are right on the money about the analogy, except for
geography, but there is no perhaps about the US supplying money and arms to the
Afghan resistance units against the Soviet Union from 1979-89. We and the British,
mainly through Pakistani surrogates, supplied and trained these fighters. Our
Special Forces and the British SAS were extensively involved in teaching the
Afghani mujaheedin the art of guerilla warfare. Then, in 1989 we abandoned a
country that had been ravaged by warfare and allowed the roots of our present
situation to germinate.
Gerald A. Lechliter
Colonel, US Army (retired-1999)
Another anaylsis or comparison might be what Israel has been experiencing for
decades. Occupation of peoples that don't want you there and have no fear of
dying doesn't work.
Excellent article. Thoughtful and well-researched. I really appreciate the citations and links.
Brooklyn NY 11231
This is an excellent article, its well researched and one which the Bush neocons should certainly read. As a Muslim living in the West, its heartening for me to read such articles by people like you. It gives me hope that there are people in USA who are sensible and wise to the real dangers facing the world.
Ultimately its in all our interests to isolate these fanatics (both Bush and Bin Ladens) who divide humanity and create chaos. May God Bless America and protect its people.
Mr Z Ali
Great article. I just hope somebody in DC can read something other than their daily dose of Bushaganda. As a Viet Nam vet, I am at heartbreak with what is happening to our "kids" in the desolate hole of Iraq. Yep, I called them "kids", because I was one of those 18 year old suckers that fell for the Big Lie back in 1967, and I WAS a KID, like 85% of my comrades! This administration is the WORST political experience I have lived under, and if the people do not depose it in 2004, I'll seriously consider repatriation! I have no idea what the point of this senseless invasion/occupation is, nor do they, apparently!!