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Afghanistan: Lessons from the Soviet Invasion


At Bloomberg, Albert R. Hunt draws parallels between America’s current predicament in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion 30 years ago. I agree that the Soviet experience should be treated as a cautionary tale, but we must also remember that the war the Soviets fought in Afghanistan is not the war being fought by the U.S. today.

In the first place, the Soviets were fighting the entire nation. They entered the country to support an Afghan Communist government that had seized power. The Afghan Communists, however, were few in number, totally alienated from the traditional culture, and completely reliant on internal terror — carried out by the Khad (their secret police) — and foreign support.

At the same time, the Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan did not believe in their cause. They were told that they were intervening to protect the country from a foreign invasion when, as they quickly found out, they were the foreign invasion. The result was that the fighters in Afghanistan were principally dedicated to saving their own lives. Stealing was universal, nearly everyone smoked hashish, and, according to some reports, 20 per cent of the soldiers were using heroin.

Finally, and most important, the Soviets waged a war of annihilation. If shots were fired from an Afghan village, the village was razed. The issue of civilian casualties was of no interest to anyone in Moscow or the Soviet army. If Soviet soldiers arrived in a village from which shots had been fired and found that all men of military age had disappeared, it was common practice to force the women and children into a single room and throw in hand grenades. Practices like these led nearly three million Afghans to seek refuge in Pakistan.

As we face a critical decision over Afghanistan, we need to keep the Soviet experience in mind. But the lesson is not that we cannot win. The lesson is that we can win — but we need the people on our side.

— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.


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