Steve Coll on Afghanistan

by Reihan Salam

Steve Coll, my boss at New America, has written two excellent posts on what we can learn from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. In “Ink Spots,” he describes the state of Afghanistan between 1986 and 1992 and how it might prefigure a successful U.S.-led counterinsurgency strategy: realistically, the best we can achieve short of occupying Afghanistan with a 500,000 man army is an archipelago of secure cities linked by air or by heavily-defended roads cutting through Taliban-controlled territory. He ends on a sobering note.

The uncertainties point, like so many other factors in this conflict, to the central importance of politics in Kabul and Islamabad. The Soviets failed in Afghanistan for many reasons, beginning with the brutality of their military campaigns and the implausibility of their political strategy. Nonetheless, by the end of the 1980s, they had constructed a durable ink spot strategy, albeit one based on a more defensive and internally ruthless political-military strategy from the one McChrystal is proposing. The Soviets were unable, however, to convert that partial territorial achievement into a broader and more durable strategic success. Partly they just ran out of time, as often happens in expeditionary wars. Their other problems included their inability to control the insurgents’ sanctuary in Pakistan; their inability to stop infiltration across the Pakistan-Afghan border; their inability to build Afghan political unity, even at the local level; their inability to develop a successful reconciliation strategy to divide the Islamist insurgents they faced; and their inability to create successful international diplomacy to reinforce a stable Afghanistan and region. Does that list of headaches sound familiar?

In “Gorbachev Was Right,” Coll suggests that the United States should have cooperated with the Soviets in the late 1980s, after the U.S-backed insurgency had successfully sapped the strength of the Soviet-backed Afghan state. Rather than just prop up President Najibullah, Gorbachev sought a UN-sponsored process that would isolate Islamist extremists, who were both anti-Soviet and anti-American, and create a broad-based government. Note that Ahmad Shah Massoud, who went on to become the greatest thorn in the Taliban’s side, was on the verge of casting his lot with the Soviets before Afghanistan’s complete collapse.    

The U.N. attempted, with ambivalent U.S. involvement, to pursue this vision of regional diplomacy and stabilization, through negotiations between 1988 and 1992 that included Najibullah and other Afghan leaders. It failed, however, in part because the United States, until the end of 1991, continued to fund and support a “military solution” for the mujaheddin favored by Pakistan’s army and intelligence service. The C.I.A. argued in favor of the military solution. It then concluded, as one assault after another on Najibullah-defended cities failed, that the U.S. had no further interests in the country and should pack up its financing and diplomacy and go home. A few years later, the Taliban took Kabul. One of the American policymakers responsible for this sequence of policy decisions—who was deeply skeptical of Gorbachev during the late nineteen-eighties and who was present at the decision to abandon the difficult work of regional diplomacy in 1991-1992 that Gorbachev favored—was Robert Gates, who is now Secretary of Defense.

One hopes that Gates is not on the verge of making a similarly serious mistake by short-changing the counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.