The Great Gamble

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Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan is the kind of book you read to feel worse about the idea of escalating the US troop deployment to Afghanistan. But it mostly made me feel better. You read something like this and you really are struck by all the parallels to our current predicament. But at the same time you’re also really struck by the extent to which the situations tend to be parallel, but not at all the same in terms of their quantity.

The Soviets, like the Americans, had some trouble understanding Afghan situations on their own terms in part because the Soviet government (like the American government) understood its role in the world in grandiose, highly ideological, propagandistic terms. But while the shape of the problem was comparable, the extent of it really isn’t. The US isn’t even close to being as ideological or propagandistic as the Soviet one. And it’s like this down the list. The Pakistan border situation is a problem for us, but was a disaster for them. The mujahedeen ideological coalition was broader than the one we’re facing, they were better-funded than the people we’re facing. We’re much richer than the Soviets were, have much better techology (consider how much richer and more technologically adept we are in 2009 than we were in 1979), have way more international legitimacy, more allies, more of everything. The only advantages the Soviets had relative to us are more straightforward supply lines and the mixed blessing of being able to play cute games with all-Muslim units from the Soviet ‘stans.

This is important because if you read the book you’ll a point Steve Coll has been pressing—for all their errors, what the Soviets were doing really kinda sorta worked in the end. Najibullah‘s government survived Soviet withdrawal and even slightly outlasted the Soviet Union itself. If we push the parallel but assume the United States of America continues to exist, things could look very different.

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The one doubts-raising parallel is that the Soviets put almost laughably little thought into why this was important before they invaded. They never asked pro-Soviet forces in Afghanistan to mount a coup, and there was no real reason to think that the coup failing would damage their interests in any way. The invasion became a disaster not so much because the Soviets weren’t able to succeed in a satisfactory way, but because keeping the war up was so costly in times of money, personnel, attention, prestige, etc. while the US countermeasures were very cheap. Which is to say that something can be doable and also not necessarily be worth doing. But a lot of the debate has focused on whether or not the kind of mission General McChrystal has proposed is even possible, and I think the Soviet experience should increase, rather than decrease, our confidence that it is.

In particular, it’s hard to capture the full scope of this in the blog post, but the Soviet war in the early phases was dominated by really nutty operational conduct. For example, they opened their intervention on behalf of the pro-Soviet Afghan government by shooting the leader of the pro-Soviet Afghan government and replacing him and everyone in his regime by leaders of a rival Communist faction. Obviously, that set a bad tone for the whole thing, but somehow they convinced themselves that this move would be welcomed by the local population. I could go on.