History not repeating itself in Afghanistan
February 19th, 2014
05:45 PM ET

History not repeating itself in Afghanistan

By Javid Ahmad and Ahmad K. Majidyar, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Javid Ahmad is a program coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Ahmad K. Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are their own.

Twenty five years ago this month, the last Soviet soldier marched out of Afghanistan, bringing an end to a nine year occupation that cost the lives of 15,000 Soviet troops and more than a million Afghans. With the close of the Cold War, the West lost interest in the region and Afghanistan became a proxy battlefield for subversive regional power play. Infighting between competing Afghan mujahedeen factions brought anarchy, paving the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now, as the drawdown of international forces approaches, there’s growing fear that history might repeat itself.

It doesn’t have to work out the same way.

For a start, while the political system in Afghanistan is far from perfect, it enjoys far greater support and legitimacy among the Afghan people than the communist regime did in the 1980s. While Afghan presidents back then were effectively appointed by the Kremlin, Afghans today have elected their own leader – and will head to the polls in April to pick a successor to Hamid Karzai. And despite growing pessimism in the West about Afghanistan, Afghans generally remain optimistic about their future: an Asia Foundation survey last year found that a majority of Afghans (57 percent) believed their country was moving in the right direction.

The Red Army’s horrendous tactics, including indiscriminate aerial bombardments and the use of chemical weapons and landmines, provoked mass uprisings across the country, forcing five million Afghans to take refuge in neighboring countries. In contrast, civilian casualties resulting from U.S. and NATO air strikes have occurred on a much smaller scale. Indeed, insurgents have been responsible for far more civilian deaths.

Just as important is the fact that the Taliban insurgency is far more limited in scope and strength than the anti-Soviet mujahedeen. Western intelligence estimates put the number of active Taliban fighters in Afghanistan at 20,000 to 25,000 – less than a quarter of the mujahedeen fighting strength at the time of Soviet withdrawal. In addition, while the anti-Soviet mujahedeen effectively represented all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, the Taliban insurgency today is largely confined to pockets in the south and east. In addition, anti-Soviet guerrillas also received political and military support from the West, the Islamic world, and other countries in the region. In contrast, the Taliban-led insurgency is supported by elements in Pakistan, and to a lesser degree Iran.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, the Soviets appeared to view Afghanistan as a potential corridor for expansionist ambitions in South Asia and the Middle East and so treated the country as a client state, allowing Afghan leaders very little freedom of action. This approach stands in stark contrast with that of the United States, which is clearly attempting to establish a stable, sovereign Afghanistan and prevent the return of the Taliban and al Qaeda to the country.

Still, while the differences between the Soviet and U.S.-led engagements in Afghanistan are substantial, there is at least one element that the two conflicts share:  Pakistan. Islamabad’s role as a historic patron of the insurgency remains alarmingly consistent. In the 1980s, Pakistan, with help from the United States and Saudi Arabia, assisted in propping up the Afghan mujahedeen with weaponry, money, and sanctuaries. Fast forward to today, and Pakistan, ostensibly an American ally, appears to be engaged in a proxy conflict with the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, with elements in Pakistan reportedly providing the Afghan Taliban with funding, training and shelter. The failure to act against terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan has been one of the primary reasons for the failure to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Afghanistan doesn’t face real and serious challenges – it does. But success is achievable if the United States and its allies are willing to support the country’s continuing development after their forces depart this year. After all, the international community paid a huge price after abandoning Afghanistan following the Soviet pullout. Let us not make that mistake again.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Asia

soundoff (54 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    We need to bomb terrorist hideouts in Pakistan.

    February 19, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Such is to be expected from someone like you with your obvious limitations, Jeff. You sound like some hillbilly Tea Partier who never got past the 5th grade in school with that stupid statement above.

      February 20, 2014 at 4:53 am | Reply
      • Jeff

        And you sound like a Pakistani with a fake Western name. Go back to your country and clean up your terror infrastructure threatening the whole world.

        February 20, 2014 at 11:28 am |
    • Liaqat Ali

      Considering the authors' paychecks are being written by the right wing propaganda, er, think tanks you may want to take this analysis with a grain of salt.

      February 20, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Reply
      • Karzai

        Liaqat Ali was also the name of Pakistan's founder: Liaqat Ali Khan. I wish you both didn't exist, so we didn't have all this terrorism problem around the globe.

        February 20, 2014 at 3:58 pm |
      • HBK

        The world "Afghan" is a disgrace to the word nation! Now take your fake pride/arrogance and shove it up your little candy a**

        February 24, 2014 at 9:54 am |
    • Niceguy60

      You have very radical and Extremist views
      U.S has 12.000 Gun Murders every year at home
      Why don"t you transform your desire to Blow up Others in their own Homelands and Start Stabilizing , Virginia , Boston or New York by helping U.S local authority's Preventing Constant shooting Rampages at home ?

      February 21, 2014 at 7:28 am | Reply
      • Jeff41

        @Niceguy60, gun violence is a serious problem but that doesn't mean we should forget terrorists abroad who want to kill us. Have you already forgotten 9/11? We pay Pakistan billions of dollars and in exchange it helps groups to murder our soldiers in Afghanistan and harbors terrorist groups, including bin Laden.

        February 21, 2014 at 10:00 am |
    • Asad Khurshid

      There are two headlines in Pakistan one is aerial attacks on Taliban hideouts that is see today is covered extensively by westren media (oooo terrorsit hide outs in Pakistan, terrorists, terrorists). The other is Pakistan protest to Afghanistan about the killings of its 26 FC soliders in Afghanistan as they were abducted, taken to Afghanistan Kunar Province and were executed there now .................. as expected there is not a single coverage from the transparent non biased westren media why because it shows where the real terrorist hideouts are. I hope Pakistan Government should have guts to do following things
      Bomb the hell out of terrorist camps (Taliban+Baloch) in Afghanistan being run by Afgan intellegence and Raw
      Immediately send all Afghan refugees back to AFGHANISTAN as their is peace and no terrorist hide out or activity as claimed by US government, media and smarty pents like u.

      February 22, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  2. peterdow

    Pakistan is secretly at war with us. Pakistan denies it. We are in denial.

    For years, the President and Congress have been spending American taxpayers money to aid Pakistan.

    All this time Pakistan has funded terrorists and built nuclear weapons and perhaps this is why the American taxpayer money spent on Pakistan did not feature in President Obama's State of the Union speech.

    Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan where he and the terrorist group he founded, Al-Qaeda, which attacked the US on 9/11, was hosted and sponsored by the Pakistani military.

    The same Pakistani military given $10 billion in military aid (and $ billions more in civil aid) by the US since 2001 is actually SUPPORTING, RECRUITING, TRAINING, SUPPLYING AND DIRECTING THE TALIBAN against our forces.

    The Taliban and other terrorist groups based in Pakistani territory are secret agents, proxies, irregular forces of the Pakistani military.

    The Taliban don't wear Pakistani military uniform of course, because that would give the game away, even to the fools who run NATO, the Pentagon, the MOD etc.

    The evidence for Pakistan's secret terrorist war against the West can be viewed in the BBC's "SECRET PAKISTAN" videos.

    February 19, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Reply
    • Asad Khurshid

      wow great research u should be given an Honorary PHD degree on your research. If thats the criteria of judging ur low IQ should i paste a few links out of thousands that endorse that 9 11 was an inside job.

      February 22, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Reply
      • Karzai

        Only a Pakistani fool like you would think 9/11 is an inside job.

        February 24, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
  3. peterdow

    Part 1. Double Cross
    Part 2. Backlash

    The AfPak Mission on the internet is about war on terror military and security strategy for NATO and allied countries with ground forces in action in Afghanistan and air and airborne forces including drones and special force raids in action over Pakistan.

    The AfPak Mission helps implementation of the Bush Doctrine versus state sponsors of terror and is inspired by the leadership of Condoleezza Rice.

    The AfPak Mission approach to the Taliban is uncompromising.
    There should be no peace with the Taliban.
    The only "good" Taliban is a dead Taliban.
    Arrest all Taliban political leaders and media spokesmen.
    Capture or kill all Taliban fighters.

    The AfPak Mission identifies useful content across multiple websites.

    On YouTube, the AfPak Mission channel presents playlists of useful videos.

    The AfPak Mission forum offers structured written discussion facilities and the forum is the rallying and reference centre of the AfPak Mission, linking to all other AfPak Mission content on the internet.

    The AfPak Mission has a Twitter, a Flickr and a wordpress Blog too.
    You are invited to subscribe to the channel, register with the forum and follow on twitter, flickr and the blog.

    February 19, 2014 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  4. chrissy

    Spot on @ peterdow! Makes ya wonder just WHO they think their foolin with their supposed "our war on terrorists" dont ya? Oh but of course many people are fooled because they just dont wanta believe it.

    February 19, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Here goes CNN with that right-wing propaganda of theirs again, chrissy. Let's hope that this collaborationist regime in Afghanistan falls as it is no more than an extension of NATO's proxy occupation of that country. In truth, the Russians were never the villains any more than the NATO forces are the heroes that the right-wing media makes them out to be.

      February 20, 2014 at 4:58 am | Reply
      • Franklin

        If you added some substance to your statement instead of cheap talks, it'd have been better.

        February 20, 2014 at 10:21 am |
      • Crow T. Robot

        Hmmm... there is an inveigling and oily quality to your many responses here, Joseph. I think Jeff has you spot on. If you had posted any authoritative sources for your assertions, you might be persuasive. Lacking that, you sound like a guy standing in the dark at the back of a truck saying in a loud whisper, "Pssst... hey buddy! Got a minute? I got a deal for you." Kinda creepy, ya know....

        February 20, 2014 at 3:38 pm |
      • HBK

        Americans are idiots and are easily brainwashed by the Am-Brit corporate media

        February 24, 2014 at 9:50 am |
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The authors write: "success is achievable if the United States and its allies are willing to support the country’s continuing development after their forces depart this year". Yet Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the BSA. It's unclear whether the Taliban would disrupt the election and who will be elected. Most Afghans want the US to remain involved, but without a signature, it can't stay.

    February 20, 2014 at 8:23 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Wrong, j. von hettlingen. Most Afghans do not want us there any more than they did the Russians. In fact, that is why so many of them joined the Taliban in the first place and why the Taliban have not been eliminated. Like I said before, we have no more right to be there than the Russians did!

      February 20, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        Go back to your country and don't pretend to be American.

        February 20, 2014 at 3:53 pm |
  6. Tamim

    Some valid points in the analysis, however, one important point is missing that will change the conclusion to history will repeat itself! Those Afghan mujahedeen factions/warlords that brought chaos to the country after Russian withdrawal are still around ever more blood thirsty and more powerful than before thanks to US. They will turn on each other again, form alliances, break alliances and kill more innocent civilians.

    February 21, 2014 at 2:03 am | Reply
    • Karzai

      Tamim: Those warlords have now become politicians. They're a lot of invested interests in maintaining the current system. The upcoming elections will be important.

      February 21, 2014 at 10:03 am | Reply
  7. ulas khan..

    Taliban are funded by pakistan isi no doubt, If not then why Drone can find taliban and Pakistan army can not. Wazeristan is a Tiny place People are hijacked by Taliban and ISI, I talk to my Class fellows from wazeristan why u people support taliban they tell me we cannot do anything if we say something about army or taliban or about there cooperation they will cut our throat. Pakistan only killed those taliban who are newly join taliban and cannot do anything. ISI support those taliban who can destroy Kashmeer or Afghnistan or can kill american Soldier ... I dont understand why America give free hand to Pakistan ISI....America Should hit every Army base in Paksitan then u will see how Taliban come again....

    February 21, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  8. Towel Heads

    Towel Heads is what Towel Heads do.

    February 23, 2014 at 1:37 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      Hi, Hamsta! (Waves)
      Nice to see you're as disrespectful as ever!

      February 23, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    Hamsta? Where?

    February 23, 2014 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  10. chrissy

    And WHO really CARES what one wears on their head? Seriously! That was just childish. Dont ya know people are getting sick of those infantile remarks! People of ALL races so grow up! Sheesh!

    February 23, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  11. HBK

    Pakistani govt should throw these dirty ugly smelling little Afghan asses more than a million of them livin here for decades out of our country!

    February 24, 2014 at 9:48 am | Reply
  12. Matt

    The real reasons the USSR cut the Afghans off, they would take beds, blankets, pillows one week next week they are gone, sold to the other side, asking for more. It has to stop. That is just in a supporting role, without troops. These guys got whacked because no one was on guard duty, they are all asleep.

    February 25, 2014 at 8:09 am | Reply
  13. krk

    "Western intelligence estimates put the number of active Taliban fighters in Afghanistan at 20,000 to 25,000".....

    Might these be U.S. intelligence estimates, edited by one Susan Rice & her BFF, Barack Obama? Amateurs both, in a game much larger and longer lasting than any NBA or College BB game. I say that only because the latter spends more time watching BB & playing golf than he does leading the American people and this nation. A complete disappointment in every way and we have 3 more years of his false promises, lies and excuses to look forward to. Yippee!

    February 25, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  14. Richard Bentley

    It is very difficult for me not to accept the inevitability of a return by Afghanistan to a society that rejects the outwardly-imposed type of government it now has and reverts to its warlord-taliban schism with Sharia law and a main industry of growing opium poppies. There have been many attempts over generations to change the country, but none have succeeded and I believe none will. We should never have occupied the country with the delusion that it could be changed. We should have punished it for harboring Bin Laden, and let it go at that without placing one boot on the ground. The lunacy of United States foreign policy has only cost us trillions and left many soldiers and support civilians dead or disabled permanently. Thank God Hagel is showing some sense in cutting the armed forces down so we will never again be able to occupy another country.

    February 25, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Reply
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