Monday, March 30, 2009

Can Obama Avoid Repeating Soviets' Disastrous Experience in Afghanistan?

As President Shifts America's Emphasis in the 'War on Terror' to Afghanistan, His Greatest Challenge Will Be Crushing al-Qaida and the Taliban Without Igniting Afghans' Longstanding Hatred of Being Subjugated by Foreigners -- Just Ask the Kremlin, Whose Invasion 30 Years Ago Ultimately Proved Fatal to the Soviet Union


President Obama, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday before departing for the G-20 summit in London, said that even as he increases the number of GIs in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, the mission "will not be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources" -- but did not spell out an exit timetable. The president announced Friday that he will send more troops to Afghanistan, more money to Pakistan and push for renewed diplomatic attention to the region to combat terrorism. While this represents a significant departure from the Bush administration's approach to the "war on terror," it nonetheless comes with a very high risk of stoking Afghans' long-held resentment toward foreign troops in their country and triggering an all-out war to drive the GIs out -- which the Soviet Union learned the hard way after its troops invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago. (Photo courtesy CBS News)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, March 30, 2009)


As President Obama enters the final leg of his first 100 days in office, his attention -- which until now has been focused almost exclusively on the U.S. economy and other domestic issues -- is turning dramatically toward foreign affairs for the first time since his inauguration in January.

On Friday, the president announced that he will send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, more financial aid to Pakistan and will push for renewed diplomatic attention to the region to combat terrorism.

At the same time, the U.S. quietly began talks in Moscow with an old adversary aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan -- not with Russia, but with Iran.

On Sunday, the president told a TV interviewer that while his focus was on stopping the growing power of the Taliban and al-Qaida in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, he ruled out sending U.S. troops to Pakistan, declaring that he was not changing his policy with regard to honoring Pakistan's sovereignty.

And tomorrow (Tuesday), Obama will arrive in London in the first major overseas trip of his still-young presidency to attend the summit of the Group of 20 major industrialized and developing nations, which will tackle the global economic crisis -- and to build international support for his new anti-terrorism strategy, which represents a significant departure from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama's shift in emphasis of the "war on terror" from Iraq to Afghanistan -- while consistent with his assertions throughout his campaign for the White House that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein was a major distraction from fighting al-Qaida and its Taliban allies -- is being greeted with surprising support by conservatives and with equally surprising backing -- some silent, some public -- by all but the most die-hard anti-war activists.


The U.S. presence in Afghanistan will not "be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources," Obama said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

The president said security is "tenuous in that nation" in part because of neglect by the Bush administration. "I think [Afghanistan is] America's war. And it's the same war that we initiated after 9/11 as a consequence of those attacks. [But] the focus over the last seven years I think has been lost [because of Iraq] . . . Unless we get a handle on it now, we're going to be in trouble."

Obama said the situation in Afghanistan is not as bad as it was when the Taliban ruled and al-Qaida operated with impunity, but it has deteriorated over the past several years. "This is going to be hard," the president said. "I'm under no illusions. If it was easy, it would have already been completed."

When asked by "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer if he might order U.S. forces across the border into Pakistan to attack or capture insurgents hiding in safe havens there, the president said he is not changing his policy with regard to honoring Pakistan's sovereignty, noting, "If we have a high-value target within our sights, after consulting with Pakistan, we're going after them. But our main thrust has to be to help Pakistan defeat these extremists."


Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were quick to compare Obama's troop increase in Afghanistan to Bush's "surge" in Iraq -- and are even calling it a "surge." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) praised the new strategy as "a surge of forces and a renewed commitment to dismantling al-Qaida and combating the Taliban." McConnell said Republicans "will work with the administration to develop policies to secure greater cooperation from the government of Pakistan to rid the tribal areas of terrorist sanctuaries."

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that it was his hope that "President Obama's surge in Afghanistan achieves results similar to the surge in Iraq, enabling victory and bringing our fighting men and women home as soon as possible."

While most conservatives welcomed the president's new strategy, his defeated 2008 rival for the White House, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), questioned its logic, telling The Washington Times that he found the plan insufficient.

"There's a little bit of incrementalism in that, that could make the decision tougher this fall when the situation is tougher," he said.


Most liberal groups reacted to the president's announcement with either silence or tacit support., the most highly visible critic on the left to the Iraq War, declined to comment, according to Greg Sargent, writing in his "Plum Line" blog at

Americans United for Change, which ran $600,000 worth of TV ads against the Iraq War in the summer of 2007, also declined to comment, Sargent wrote. And Jon Soltz, the head of VoteVets, one of the staunchest critics of the Iraq War, came out in support of Obama’s Afghan strategy in a column on the liberal-leaning Huffington Post Web site.

"For those of us who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was extremely important that the new president get the situation in Afghanistan right. Not just for America's security, but for those troops still in Afghanistan, and those heading to Afghanistan to put their lives on the line in the war," wrote Stoltz, a former U.S. Marine captain who served in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "With [Friday's] announcement, President Obama has shown that he 'gets it.'"

But the plan does not include an exit timeline -- and that drew a sharp denunciation by the hard-line anti-war group United for Peace and Justice. In a statement issued Friday, UFPJ National Coordinator Leslie Cagan branded the buildup as "a danger to the ability of the Obama administration to respond to the intensifying financial crisis."

Cagan, demanding that "our troops should be brought home now," said her group will organize protests across the country next month.


The United States currently has about 38,000 troops in Afghanistan, in addition to the 17,000 additional U.S. forces Obama ordered to be deployed in February and around 42,000 NATO troops.

But Obama also hinted that the U.S. may be willing to talk to some members of the Taliban, saying there would be "no peace without reconciliation among former enemies."

"In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target al-Qaida," he said, referring to Sunni tribal leaders who fought against American troops but later turned against al-Qaida after members of the extremist group began killing other Muslims, mostly civillians.

"We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan, while understanding that it is a very different country," the president said.

However, Taliban hard-liners told the al-Jazeera TV network that Obama "is repeating the mistakes of [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev." In a statement issued in response to Obama's announcement, a Taliban spokesman said that if sending more troops Afghanistan would win the war, "The Russians would already have done so."


Meanwhile, in Moscow, U.S. and Iranian officials quietly held their first talks Friday about ending the war in Afghanistan, The Sunday Times of London reported.

The talks, arranged by Russia, brought together Patrick Moon, the chief U.S. diplomat in charge of south and central Asia, and Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, as well as an unnamed British diplomat who acted as a mediator.

"We’ve turned a page to have Iranians and Americans at the same table all discussing Afghanistan," Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told delegates.

A Western official who attended the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that,"For the first time in two years, I’m optimistic about Afghanistan."

The Iranian-American talks in Moscow followed official contacts with Iran by NATO two weeks ago, when the Iranian ambassador to Belgium visited NATO's assistant secretary-general at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.


The president's new strategy in Afghanistan is fraught with high risk. Seven years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime from power, the new strategy comes at a time when the situation in Afghanistan is, according to a review by the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community ordered by the president, "increasingly perilous."

The U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai -- which quickly praised Obama's new approach -- is widely considered to be weak and corrupt, unable to govern outside the region of Kabul, the Afghan capital, while the Taliban and al-Qaida control vast swaths of the country, particularly the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

With a presidential election in Afghanistan scheduled for August 20, the question that will be uppermost in the minds of most Afghans is will the election -- in which Karzai is expected to seek a second term -- be free and fair? What will the 17,000 extra GIs expected to be in the country by then -- in addition to the U.S. and NATO troops already there -- do once they're on Afghan soil?

And how will Afghans, particularly tribal leaders, regard the increase in foreign troops in their country? Will they resentfully see them as occupiers, as they saw Russian troops -- then the Red Army of the Soviet Union -- when they invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago? No doubt the Taliban and al-Qaida certainly will. Indeed, al-Qaida already is girding for an all-out jihad, or holy war, to drive the Americans out.


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began on December 27, 1979, triggered an all-out war between the Red Army, which invaded to prop up the communist regime of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (which had seized power the previous year with the help of the Afghan Army), and the Mujaheddin resistance, a conflict that lasted for nine years -- and ultimately proved to be the USSR's Vietnam and a contributing factor to its collapse in 1991.

Indeed, today's Taliban are something of a Frankenstein monster created by the United States: The Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan with a reign of terror from 1998, when the Soviets pulled out, to 2003, when they were ousted by the Americans, began as the Mujaheddin resistance against the Soviets.

The Mujaheddin received direct aid from the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran -- and even China, which at the time was locked in a bitter ideological feud with the Soviet Union for supremacy of the communist world and saw the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul as a threat to Beijing's sphere of influence.

According to Wikipedia, an estimated 620,000 Soviet troops fought in the USSR's nine-year occupation of Afghanistan. Of these, nearly 54,000 were wounded, and an incredible number of Soviet troops -- nearly 416,000 -- fell ill from local climate and sanitary conditions. More than 115,000 contracted hepatitis, over 31,000 developed typhoid fever and more than 140,000 contracted other diseases.

After the war ended, the Kremlin acknowledged that more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in action. According to the official figures, the Red Army lost 14,427, the KGB lost 576, with 28 others reported missing.

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Volume IV, Number 25
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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