Is There a Lesson To Be Learned From the Soviet Experience In Afghanistan?

This weekend, current U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, will appear on numerous Sunday shows: NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox News Sunday, and CNN Late Edition.

In February 1989, Khalilzad penned an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining “How the Good Guys Won In Afghanistan.” His argument was simple: the Soviets underestimated the level of insurgent resistance they would face. Through persistence, the insurgency ultimately drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

Here’s what he wrote:

The key to the victory was that we came to believe — Afghans and Americans — that the Soviets could be stopped. Once we gained that confidence, everything else was possible. But it didn’t start out that way. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, they felt confident that they would prevail. And conventional wisdom in the West, too, assumed that Afghanistan could not withstand Soviet power.

The Soviets had expected a quick victory. When it eluded them, they changed tactics. Initially, they employed large formations in the countryside against the mujaheddin. The Afghans refused to fight a conventional war and instead adopted hit-and-run tactics — using to the maximum their familiarity with the local terrain.

When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985, he inherited an Afghanistan that had become a Soviet quagmire.

Increasingly after 1986, Gorbachev seemed to recognize that the Soviets did not have a war-winning strategy. The war was also becoming unpopular at home and even within the Soviet armed forces By the end of 1986, Gorbachev began to seek terms for a Soviet withdrawal. The war was a drain on the Soviet economy. [“How the Good Guys Won In Aghanistan,” Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington Post, 2/12/89]

The question for Khalilzad: are there any lessons for our current struggle in Iraq that we can glean from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan?