In the past week, there have been two very interesting articles about the Afghanistan mission and the history behind it. The first is Paul Koring's conversation with a Russian Army officer who served in Afghanistan.
In it, the officer reflects upon the problems that the Soviet army encountered during its attempts to control Afghanistan, and notes some striking similarities between the Soviet experience and the current NATO mission.
“You are just repeating our mistakes,” Mr. Aushev said in an elegant, memento-filled office close to the Russian Duma. While some Russians – perhaps many – take some satisfaction in watching the U.S.-led coalition struggle in Afghanistan, Mr. Aushev knows better than most the dangers of a defeated superpower leaving the wreckage of Afghanistan to violent and radicalized factions.
“Most Afghans still live in a feudal society, in villages far from the cities,” he said. “For them, there is no difference between being bombed by the Soviets and now being bombed by the Americans … and it won't succeed.”
I've thought this for some time as well - even in light of this article which tries to show us that Canada's military is trying to learn from the mistakes of the Soviets, there is a harsh reality that it is difficult, if not impossible, to conquer an enemy like the Taliban (or the Mujahadeen) which exists as part of the local landscape.
“The main reasons behind the fall of the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul were not defeat on the battlefield nor military superiority of the resistance but the regime's failure to achieve economic sustainability and its overreliance on foreign aid,” says a document called Economic Development in Afghanistan during the Soviet Period 1979-1989: Lessons Learned from the Soviet Experience in Afghanistan.
Now, those are all good observations. However, those same observations are "well known" to what is now the Taliban resistance. Anyone who thinks that the Taliban hasn't figured out that the best way to disable the invaders is to tie things up so that economic gains simply don't happen is horribly naive.
“One of the big lessons for us is, don't beat a hasty uncontrolled retreat because the place then really goes nuts,” Prof. Bland said. “The exit strategy has to be some very carefully considered process and based on a strong local security situation.”
He said he thinks Canadian soldiers will still be responsible for safeguarding the peace well after 2011, when Canada's troops are supposed to withdraw from combat operations in the country's southern province of Kandahar under a motion passed in Parliament.
“Canadians should be prepared for the fact that Canadian soldiers and policemen and others will be employed in security duties in Afghanistan for a very long time.”
He said he thinks the Forces have done other studies of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, but said these may not be publicly available.
To some extent, this corroborates my own claims that any meaningful change in Afghanistan is going to be a multiple generations-long endeavor. Unlike the person quoted, I do not share an optimistic view that there is a significant chance of long term success. In that respect, I think the long history of the region makes the point for me:
Invaders of Afghanistan
Many foreign forces have attempted to conquer Afghanistan and its predecessor states. Few have succeeded. Here are some examples of those who tried.
Darius the Great: In the late sixth century BC, much of the country was absorbed into the Persian empire of Darius the Great. However, plagued by constant uprisings, the Persians never established effective control.
Alexander the Great: In the third century BC, Alexander the Great invaded. The harsh, mountainous terrain and brutal weather were only part of the challenge. The Afghans themselves were no less formidable. Constant revolts undermined whatever glory he could claim.
Genghis Khan: In 1220, the Islamic lands of Central Asia were overrun by the armies of this Mongol invader. But even Genghis Khan failed to destroy the strength of Islam there. By the end of the 13th century, his descendants were themselves Muslims.
Britain: There were three major interventions by the British Army between 1838 and 1919. Each one ultimately failed.
Soviet Union: In 1979, the Soviets rolled in about 115,000 troops. The Afghans responded with an extended guerrilla war, and in 1989 the Soviets withdrew.
Not exactly promising, is it?
I think the second point of question with respect to Afghanistan is related to the sincerity of the American (and NATO forces) stated desire to "bring democracy" to the region. This history of American intervention in the affairs of other countries and regions is not a source of confidence building inspiration. The fact is that the US rarely intervenes in another nation's affairs unless it thinks that it can gain something.
Now, what could be gained out of Afghanistan in today's era has been a little opaque for some time, as the days of the "Silk Road" are long gone. But, fairly recently, a major oil pipeline was announced, with backing from the Americans and American oil companies.
This particular venture underscores my long held suspicions around the reasons for our presence in Afghanistan, and further calls into to question the moral and ethical validity of those claims. Canadians have some hard questions to ask themselves before we give any government the mandate to go ahead and further prolong our involvement in this war - questions that are moral, ethical and economic.