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The New Republic
November 26, 2001
Peter Beinart on why we'll avoid the USSR's fate in Afghanistan.
PETER BEINART is the Editor of TNR.

With its capture last week of Kabul, the Northern Alliance is no longer, in American eyes, the gang that couldn't shoot straight. But it is worth remembering that, on its own, the Alliance hadn't gained significant ground for five years. And that as recently as early November, despite weeks of American bombing, it was making no progress at all. What changed? Probably the deployment of U.S. ground troops, who plotted the Alliance offensive and guided the American bombing that paved its way.

To be sure, only Special Operations forces saw action last week. But that may change. The Taliban seem to be girding for a protracted guerrilla war. And it is unclear whether the United States has any proxy force in the South willing and able to flush them from their mountain caves. So despite this week's breathtaking good news, the war's hardest part may still be yet to come. And the harder this war gets, the more Americans will have to consider putting troops--including light infantry--on the ground.

And the more we consider it, the more critics will point to the Soviet analogy. The USSR, as we all know, sent close to 100,000 troops to fight a guerrilla war in Afghanistan; the country's fierce warriors and harsh landscape sent them back broken men. Why won't Americans meet the same fate?

For three reasons that haven't received enough attention. First, the Soviets weren't just fighting Afghanistan's mujahedin rebels; they were also fighting the United States and its allies. From 1979 to 1986, the mujahedin received $3 billion in outside assistance, mostly from Washington and Riyadh; the war represented the largest American covert operations effort of the cold war. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI)--the same guys who would later fight alongside the Taliban--fought alongside the mujahedin. Even China sold weapons to the rebels. And when the Soviets stepped up their efforts, so did the Americans. Early in the war, Moscow used Hind-D helicopter gunships--equipped with cannons, machine guns, and grenade launchers, and able to fly low into mountain passes--to attack the mujahedin. The lightly armed rebels were impotent to respond. As Stan Florer, a retired U.S. Army commander, told USA Today, "[The Russians] had completely taken apart the Mujahadin."

The Reagan administration famously responded by selling the Afghans Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which forced the Soviet helicopters to fly much higher, undermining their effectiveness. The United States, working through Pakistan, also gave the mujahedin detailed satellite intelligence--including maps and photos of Soviet installations, and instructions on how best to attack them--which helped the rebels regain the offensive. As Harvard's Mark Kramer wrote in a recent paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Had it not been for the weapons, training and other support provided to the guerrillas by the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan, Soviet troops undoubtedly would have been able to crush the resistance and achieve an outright victory."

The Taliban, needless to say, don't have a superpower on their side. The Russians, who possess a lot of residual knowledge about the network of caves and tunnels in which the Taliban (like the mujahedin before them) hide fighters and supplies, are sharing that knowledge with the United States. The Pakistani military may include rogue elements that support the Taliban but, at worst, it is playing a double game in which it helps both sides at once. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan--like our own experience in Vietnam--has burned into American consciousness the danger of taking on a popular, nationalist movement on its home soil. But neither movement could have humiliated a superpower had not the other superpower been quietly funneling it the money and arms to continue the fight.

Which suggests a second difference between America's nascent ground campaign in Afghanistan and the USSR's failed one: The Taliban are not a popular, nationalist movement in the way the mujahedin and Vietcong were. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to prop up a deeply unpopular regime; indeed, it was a mass uprising, which began in March 1979 in Herat and then spread throughout the country, that helped force Moscow to send in the tanks. The United States, by contrast, is fighting a deeply unpopular regime. It's not just that Afghans resent Taliban oppression. The takeover of the government and the army by Arabs from Al Qaeda turned the Taliban, in the eyes of many Afghans, into a foreign occupier itself. When the Taliban fled Kabul, residents immediately began taking revenge on any Arabs they could find.

And there's a third difference--not between the mujahedin and the Taliban, but between the Soviet Union and us. The USSR's model for how to deal with a popular uprising against a Communist government was Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968: You roll your tanks down the capital city's wide boulevards and cow the people into submission. But Afghanistan doesn't have any wide boulevards; it consists of dirt roads and mountain passes--the kind of terrain that renders tanks useless. Most Afghans don't live in the capital or, for that matter, in any city at all. The lumbering, immobile Soviet army--each of its soldiers weighed down by 35 pounds of body armor--proved exceptionally ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla war.

And the Soviet troops weren't just ill-prepared for a guerrilla war; they were ill-prepared for any war. Most were conscripts with only a couple months of training. They lacked winter clothing and equipment for fighting at night. They faced shortages of food and water. It's not that the mujahedin were so lethal: Only 15,000 Soviet troops were killed. But Jed Babbin, undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, estimates that 420,000 were incapacitated by disease and injury. Hepatitis and typhoid ran rampant. None of this, needless to say, would prove nearly as big a problem for the American military--which has large numbers of highly mobile troops trained and equipped for mountain combat.

And the United States has something else the ussr did not: a just cause. The Soviet troops in Afghanistan, like many U.S. troops in Vietnam, were confused and cynical about the war they had been sent to fight. Drug abuse was common in both armies. Vietnam and Afghanistan were both, in different ways, imperial wars. But this is a war of self-defense--a war that began not with threats to a far-off regime, but with an attack on American soil. There is no counterpart, in America's war in Vietnam or the ussr's war in Afghanistan, to the pictures of firefighters that American commandos left at the Taliban bunker they raided last month near Kandahar. In those earlier wars, an advantage in firepower was negated by a deficiency in spirit. America today suffers no such deficiency. The critics who say America can't win a guerrilla war against the Taliban have grown so enthralled by the past fortitude of Afghanistan that they have overlooked the new fortitude of the United States.

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