Sunday, March 21, 2010

How do you say 'deja vu' in Russian?

In the Christian Science Monitor, veteran correspondent Edward Girardet has some fascinating reflections on the Red Army campaign in the Panjshir valley during the summer of 1982. The Russians were of course fighting a losing battle against the US-supported mujahideen warriors, and Girardet points out some uncanny similarities between the that war and the present one.

The Panjshir, just north of Kabul, is a famous bastion of Tajik forces and which in 2001-02 served as a regional headquarters of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance in their US-led war against the Taliban regime.

Afghanistan war: lessons from the Soviet war

... My purpose was to report on the largest Soviet-led offensive against the mujahideen to that date. More than 12,000 Soviet and Afghan troops would attempt to crush 3,000 fighters led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the "Lion of Panjshir" and one of the 20th century's most effective guerrilla commanders.

Last month's NATO-led operation in Marjah in Helmand Province – the largest offensive of the current war – put me in mind of the Panjshir...

The Panjshir push was roughly the same size as the Marjah offensive – called Operation Moshtarak – and involved 10,000 to 12,000 coalition and Afghan troops. In the Soviet war, Western journalists reported primarily from the guerrilla side. But in contrast to most of today's media, embedded with NATO troops, we had constant access to ordinary Afghans. We walked through the countryside sleeping in villages, with long evenings spent drinking tea and talking with the locals. Frank conversation doesn't happen when one party wears body armor or is flanked by heavily armed soldiers: Afghans will only tell you what they think you want to hear. Or, even more crucial, what suits their own interests. Hence the highly questionable veracity of opinion polls in Afghanistan today.

Similar to the Marjah offensive, the Soviets warned the population of the impending attack with propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts. They appealed to the Panjshiris to support the government in return for cash and other incentives, such as subsidized wheat. Their tactic was to force the guerrillas out, but allow the civilians to remain. To make their point, the communists lambasted the guerrillas as criminals supported by foreign interests in the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, a tactic similar to those used by the Americans against the Taliban today...

Days earlier, Massoud had evacuated the area's 50,000 or more people, somewhat less than the population affected by the Marjah campaign. He did this to minimize civilian casualties and to give his fighters free rein.

Before dawn the morning after we arrived, we could hear the ominous drone of helicopters. As the throbbing grew louder, tiny specks appeared on the horizon, gunships sweeping over the jagged snowcapped peaks like hordes of wasps. Soon the hollow thud of rockets and bombs were pounding guerrilla positions...

Massoud's strategy was to empty the valley, let the Soviets in, and have fighters hit the occupation forces in their own time.

It was reminiscent of a 19th-century painting of picnickers casually watching a distant battle. We counted no fewer than 200 helicopter sorties that morning, while scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers ground their way up the riverbed, the only way to penetrate the valley because guerrillas had mined the road...

The Soviet/Afghan force quickly took the valley, proclaiming victory. The reality was far different. Massoud's experienced guerrillas suffered few casualties and, within days, launched assaults against the entrenched Red Army troops. Afghan government soldiers, too, poorly paid and disheartened, slipped out at night with their weapons to join the resistance.

Massoud eventually made a truce with the Soviets. This enabled the Red Army a "take and hold" policy with several garrisons in the Panjshir. Some civilians returned, while the guerrillas established their own concealed bases in mountains beyond. The truce was much criticized by rival groups of mujahideen, but it was part of a long-term strategy: Massoud had no intention of collaborating with the regime. Occupation troops first had to leave before any unity government could be formed...

For years, Massoud kept the Soviets tied down while focusing on other areas and building a highly proficient regional force denying the communists swaths of countryside. The mujahideen – like the Taliban now – always felt they had time on their side. All they needed to do was wear down the Red Army. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets commanded 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with the 150,000 coalition high expected by next fall with completion of the US troop surge...

Throughout its war, however, the Red Army held little more than the main towns. The countryside remained largely in the hands of the mujahideen. Similarly, today, 70 percent of the country is ranked as "insecure" by the United Nations...

Red Army commanders were very aware that they couldn't trust "their" Afghans. Massoud's mujahideen enjoyed full details of planned operations before launch. Many government, military, and police officials, including senior commanders, secretly collaborated with the resistance, just as pro-Taliban and other insurgent collaborators have infiltrated most ministries of the current administration...

While the coalition may claim the Marjah offensive routed the Taliban, it will probably have little impact on the long-term fighting capability of the opposition, even if NATO holds terrain captured.

To claim success shows a poor understanding of Afghanistan. Only a small proportion of the insurgents are actually fighting. The majority of sympathizers will have buried their weapons or simply blended in among the civilians. Others are in the process of deploying elsewhere...

For most Afghans I've talked to on recent trips to Kabul and eastern, central, and southern Afghanistan, justice, not security, is the principal concern. Even where the military is in control, Afghans slip out to Taliban-controlled areas to seek fair dealing, having more confidence in Taliban sharia courts than in Karzai-regime judges. They see lack of rule of law and international community failure to develop a functioning economy, particularly in the countryside where 80 percent of Afghans live. And they increasingly perceive the coalition as a foreign occupation force, much like the Soviets... (link)
In a similar piece a few months back Robert Fisk related how Russian forces were able to take virtually any piece of territory, but could not hold that territory. Revealing an earlier form of rendition, he also heard from locals that Afghan prisoners were being taken back to Russia for torture and interrogation. Then there was the destroyed school, torched by mujahideen for educating girls - a common crime at the time, conducted by the allies of the USA, thus only rarely mentioned in current accounts of that war, and of course never reflected upon.

And in an outstanding article a couple of years back, former Russian soldier Nicolai Lanine outlined how the Soviet government claimed their invasion was undertaken to uphold international law and prevent future attacks against Russia itself from being organized in Afghanistan.

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