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Then a Tragedy, Now a Farce: Lessons in Afghanistan and Libya

On the lessons of the failed Soviet invasion.

After the humiliation of losing the Cold War and an empire, perhaps Russia deserves a little schadenfreude. It comes in the unlikely form of 150,000 Afghans living and thriving in Moscow, who have rushed to swap continued danger under their current occupier for peace under a former one. “We are witnessing first-hand what the Americans are doing there, how they act without a heart” said a Russian-based Afghan refugee quoted by Reuters. A whole decade of American war has done what no amount of propaganda could achieve: making the Soviet quagmire look shorter and relatively less disastrous by comparison. The US and its allies could learn a lot from Soviet failures in the region. Instead, through a combination of aggressive expansionism and stubborn conviction that military victory is war's ultimate justification,NATO risks becoming a caricature of the old USSR.

In sharp contrast to the view of insatiable Soviet expansionism presented in George Kennan’s (in)famous Long Telegram of 1946, Russia’s foreign policy from the dismantling of the Comintern in the 30s on has been almost entirely defensive. While the fact naturally does not imply justice or justification, even in those cases where it was clearly the aggressor – Finland, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 – Russia used force to retain territories that were already under its influence, rather than annex new areas. For example, Afghanistan already enjoyed very close relations with the USSR before 1979; Finland used to be part of the Russian empire, and both Hungary and the Czech Republic had been formally integrated into the Soviet sphere after the Second World War, with the consent of the Western powers. Russia has gone to war to preserve the status quo, whereas America generally conducts war to change it.

In Afghantsi, a new book about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, former British ambassador to the USSR Rodric Braithwaite argues: “the principal aim of Soviet foreign policy in the region had always been to preserve Afghanistan as a neutral state”. By contrast, the major American military interventions in the 20th century involved using force to wrench countries that were either neutral or under the influence of other powers into the US sphere of influence. The Korean War, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya: all involved pulling countries either away from European colonial rule (Vietnam), Communism (Korea), rival powers (Yugoslavia) or hostile neutrality (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya).

The differences between the Soviet and American approaches can tell us a lot about the long-term outcomes of contemporary struggles, and not just in Afghanistan. Braithwaite writes that “Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, and Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, were contemptuous of the notion that what had taken place in Kabul was a revolution” and for a long time refused calls by the Afghan revolutionaries for assistance.

This stands in marked contrast to NATO’s present policy in Libya, where anti-Gaddafi rebels received military assistance very early on in a conflict with many strong similarities to Afghanistan on the eve of the Soviet invasion. In 1979 Kabul, a small group of Marxist army officers made a coup and, proclaiming a socialist revolution, asked the Soviet Union to provide military assistance to secure and expand their position. Although they were militarily able to depose the president, the new leadership had little unified grassroots support and popular strength and pleaded for Soviet assistance. The situation is even worse for the Libyan rebels, who could not even manage to overthrow Gaddhafi without US and NATO military backing.

The West’s speedy decision to support unproven rebels in an otherwise stable country outside of NATO’s sphere of influence offers a stark contrast to the Soviet Union’s reluctance to intervene in Afghanistan, an already friendly state, and even on behalf of a group of ideologically aligned officers who had already seized power. It was only when the new Afghan leader, Hafizullah Amin, threatened to bring Afghanistan into the Western orbit that the Soviets decided, reluctantly, to act.

With such risky and expansionistic policies in Afghanistan and Libya, have US planners learned any lessons from the Soviet past? Yes, but the wrong ones: chief among them – the intriguing correlation between a war’s outcome and whether it is considered just.

According to 2009 research by the Levada Centre, an independent polling institute, two decades on, as many Russians consider the Soviet war in Afghanistan unjust (74%) as those who believe the Second World Warto have been just (75%). The wars thought of as the least just by respondents- Afghanistan, Finland and Japan, as well as the first Chechen campaign – all ended in defeat for Russia. World War II, the only just war, was also Russia’s only unambiguous military victory. (Other poll data suggests that Russia’s brief war 2008 against Georgia was also considered both successful and just). From this, US planners may reasonably conclude that what doomed the Soviets in Afghanistan was not overextension, poor planning, human rights abuses or the inherent injustice of military force; rather, what had made the war infamous and unjust was that Moscow withdrew without achieving a military victory.

Concluding his telegram, Kennan warns that “the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet Communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping”. Whether future Americans will see the Afghan and Libyan engagements as just, these episodes find NATO guilty of precisely the sort of ideologically driven over-stretch that it had long (and incorrectly) accused the Soviet Union of practicing.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.