Foreign Policy Blogs

Afghan-Russia War Compared to Today's NATO-Taliban Conflict

I just finished watching Questar's Modern Warfare ‘Russia in Afghanistan’ documentary and it contained some great and dramatic footage of the ten year war, which ended in yet another defeat of a world power in the Hindu Kush. Many elements of this bygone war are strikingly similar to the current NATO/Afghan government led war against the Taliban and other insurgents.

Though I could not find an excerpt of the film I watched, here is one from CNN that covers some of the same literal and visual material:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/w8Vmx9Pg5Js" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]One of the main themes of the Afghan-Russia war was the Russian use of heavy, large military units and vehicles, which were countered effectively by the mobile and translucent mujahideen. The Russians massive mechanical army and tactics, like the insurgents’ small, but dedicated efforts, were visual symbols of the actors in the conflict. The Soviets were a great power with resources and technology at their side and the Pashtun mujahideen were seemingly weak and backward. We of course all now know what was the side to bet on, as the Russians were forced to leave their Soviet-backed government to be overrun at the end of ten years of fighting in 1989.

Many of the reasons for the Soviet defeat can be seen in today's NATO/US conflict, but there are some ‘hopeful’ differences. The documentary wonderfully shows the beautiful, yet amazingly challenging terrain and weather of the Hindu Kush. The Mujahideen skillfully used the terrain to their advantage forcing the Soviets into bottlenecks and treacherous corridors were they could inflict the most damage. They also used an intricate system of caves to hide and fallback from Soviet offensives. Both of these attributes can be seen today, as the Taliban attack and then retreat into their mountain caves, daring US/NATO troops to come after them.

Another similarity is mujahideen's growing strategic skills and aggressiveness. As the Soviet-Afghan war went on, mujahideen forces became more and more aggressive and started successfully targeting major military and government bases inside of Afghanistan. These attacks greatly reduced morale and the legitimacy of the Soviet-backed Afghan army. Unfortunately, this tactic has been used somewhat successfully by the insurgents in today's conflict, as there has been increasing attacks in Kabul against government institutions, a major attack on French held military base, and of course the tremendously successful assault on a large prison, freeing hundreds of captured insurgents. These type of offensive attacks have led people in the West to question are ability to win the conflict. Lastly, the amount of resources, troops and money, being spent in Afghanistan by an outside power, before Russia, now the US, is another accurate comparison. The Russians spent millions updating their military and sending in ever more troops for the conflict and the US is indeed following a similar path.

As much as the similarities are evident in the two Afghan conflicts, there is also much different, with hopefully in a few years a stable, democratic Afghan society being the greatest example. The first major difference that comes to mind is the difference in Soviet and NATO tactics. The Soviets used a much harsher and blunt military and political strategy in the conflict, displacing millions of Afghans and killing hundreds of thousands. Though the US/NATO led conflict has indeed led to the displacement and deaths of thousands, the degree is to much less an extent, and it is definitely not the professed policy to do so. There is also a major difference in the Western and Soviet-backed governments in place during the conflict, as though both lack(ed) full legitimacy, there is still an important difference in degrees. The Karzai government was partially elected and is up for reelection this coming new year and has the support of almost the entire international community. This brings up another key difference, and that is the international and multilateral backing and participation of the current situation, something missing from the Soviet invasion.

Lastly, in a disturbing trend, the use of suicide attacks during this conflict is a dramatic change from the 1980s Soviet war. Though the Soviet war had many elements involving religious sentiments, including support by Saudi Arabia and from Muslims around the world, this current conflict involves tremendous religious overtones and Islam is a major recruiting tool for the Taliban and other insurgent groups. To me there is a stark difference in a guerilla war involving insurgency tactics and motivations and one involving suicide missions. It is a disturbing trend.

There are many similarities and differences between the two conflicts that I may have missed or did not have time to elaborate, so please fill me and my readers in by commenting. Do any of the similarities portend to what the conclusion of the conflict may be? Any of the differences?

 

Author

Patrick Frost

Patrick Frost recently graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science - International Relations. His MA thesis analyzed the capabilities and objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and beyond and explored how these affected U.S. interests and policy.

Areas of Focus:
Eurasia, American Foreign Policy, Ideology, SCO

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