Osama bin Laden declared that credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union goes to God – and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. NATO's military engagement in Afghanistan is thus welcomed by al-Qaeda and is seen as an opportunity to destabilize Muslim countries that are allied with the West. Recent developments indicate that things are moving in accordance with al-Qaeda's hopes, and with alarming parallels to the Soviet disaster.
Moscow was initially reluctant to move into Afghanistan until the situation seemed to get out of control. However, the presence of Soviet troops did not have the desired effect of pacifying the country. On the contrary, it caused the rebellion to spread even more.
As NATO today, the Soviets occupied the cities and main axes of communication. Periodically, the Soviet army undertook offensives into mujahideen-controlled areas and relieved government outposts that were constantly under siege. But as NATO today, the Soviets were never able to defeat their enemy decisively. The mujahideen simply dispersed, mixing with villagers or escaping to Pakistan, and continued their ambushes and sabotage missions elsewhere.
The Soviets had hoped to control the situation quickly and firmly by using a large invasion force. Yet the fighting became only more brutal. For example, the Soviets and their Afghan allies reduced the rebellious city of Kandahar to rubble, leaving only one-tenth of its pre-war population. Nevertheless, government control did not improve.
The first reason for the Soviet failure was the military occupation: mission impossible. Secondly, Islam, the center of Afghan culture, was pushed aside. Importing Soviet patterns of life and, thus, destroying shared Afghan identity by placing emphasis on a so-called Afghan nationality was a disastrous tactic.
The US policies in Afghanistan repeat Soviet mistakes and harvest similar disastrous consequences. As Pakistan is increasingly destabilized, the risk of a regional escalation rises, while additional western troop deployments to Afghanistan will fuel the resistance.
But leaving is as dangerous as staying. In the Soviet example, the first step of their exit strategy was transferring the burden of fighting to the Afghan forces. The Afghan army was built up to an official strength of 302,000 in 1986. However, these were theoretical figures. In reality the army suffered 32,000 desertions per year.
Nevertheless, the Najibullah government was able to remain in power until 1992. Under his leadership, the Afghan army achieved an unprecedented level of performance. Najibullah also tried to re-unite the country politically. However, this policy neither made the Moscow-backed Kabul regime more popular, nor did it convince the insurgents to negotiate. In the end, Russia's refusal to sell oil products to Afghanistan in 1992 led to the defection of several tribal warlords, which terminated Najibullah's control of the state.
Ruling Afghanistan is a matter of tribal affairs. This also explains the quick success of the US campaign in 2001: a tribal alliance won the fight on the ground, and most tribal leaders switched their loyalty after the fall of Kabul. The current development in Afghanistan is not the result of missing military strength, but of failure to win continued support of the tribes.
When the western powers neglected Afghanistan after 2001, the Taliban were able to re-group. The legitimacy of the elected Afghan government was severely damaged in 2002 when the US refused to accept restrictions on its military operations. Like the Soviet-backed Karmal regime, the corrupt Karzai government is not respected. Operation "Enduring Freedom" undermined Karzai's credibility and is part of the problem in Afghanistan.
The government must find the support of the Afghan tribes. Afghans can, and must, provide security and development themselves. Western powers should mainly mediate and train Afghan tribes to fight the Taliban. Intensifying the occupation means disaster. Negotiations involving regional powers and supporters of the Taliban are the only policy that can succeed.
Dr. Bernhard Lucke is a researcher dealing with environmental and resource management at the Brandenburgische Technische Universität in Cottbus, Germany.
The Financial Times wrote yesterday that NATO forces will implement a new strategy called the "integrated approach" in an effort to woo Afghan tribal power brokers
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- David Neil Lebhar: Afghan Police and Economy: Lynchpins for Success
- Andrew Hammel: What if President Obama Asks for German Combat Troops?
- Abbas Daiyar: Negotiating with Taliban is Admitting Defeat