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Has the U.S. Really Learned “Nothing” From the Soviet Union’s Afghan Quagmire?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been so baffled by Afghanistan or because I’m allergic to the hyperbolic use of “never” and “always” and “nothing.” Whatever the cause, I cringed when I read this headline in a British newspaper over the weekend: “Same old mistakes in new Afghan war (Soviet military archives show latest international intervention in Afghanistan has learnt nothing from the war two decades ago).”

Because there’s that word: nothing. Not “has learned little from the war two decades ago.” Not “should learn more from the war two decades ago.” No. Just “nothing.”

The writer notes:

“In Washington the talk in recent weeks has been of a ‘Vietnam moment’. Commentators have pored over new studies of that war, looking deep into the heart of one US military debacle in order to think their way out of another. But what if Afghanistan – as Artemy Kalinovsky argued in Foreign Policy magazine last month – is not the new Vietnam but rather ‘the new Afghanistan’?”

It’s curious that the writer should cite Kalinovsky since Kalinovsky began his own piece by using the words “they are right” to describe those who believe Afghanistan is the new Vietnam.

Kalinovsky does go on to argue that Americans should try to learn from the Soviet Union’s Afghan quagmire. He notes:

The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual does not mention the Soviet experience once. One analyst told me that when she suggested including the conflict as a way to inform current policy, Pentagon officials seemed to have little awareness about what Moscow had been trying to do there or for how long.”

All of this behind-the-scenes stuff could be true. But my time as a newspaper reporter left me wary of anonymous sources, especially ones who can speak only to what “seemed” to be in the minds of others.

Steve Coll, meanwhile, has a new 5,000-word piece called “The Case For Humility in Afghanistan.” The Ghost Wars author joins in the call for America to learn from the Soviet Union’s experience, but he also spells out – with greater detail and clarity than I’ve seen elsewhere – the key ways in which the U.S. holds a better hand than the Soviets ever did. For example, he writes that the “presence of international forces in Afghanistan today is recognized as legitimate and even righteous, whereas the Soviets never enjoyed such support and were unable to draw funds and credibility from international institutions.”

Coll’s piece is indispensable.

Meanwhile, I’d recommend “Stanley McChrystal’s Long War” in the October 14, 2009 edition of the New York Times Magazine to anyone who wants to size up whether America’s top commander in Afghanistan needs in any way to be talked out of using Soviet-style tactics.


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