An Afghanistan Echo from 1986

In all the hubbub over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disastrous Rolling Stone profile which sparked an international furor today, I notice there hasn’t been time yet for most Beltway armchair analysts to focus on the article’s actual depiction of the state of American policy in Afghanistan.

To sum up: grim.  The quotes from McChrystal’s team reinforce the assessment – there’s little confidence on display. (Here’s the full article in pdf, it’s worth the read.)  As the RS article’s last lines put it: “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.”

Is that an unfair assessment, too bleak? I’ve been a fairly consistent supporter of the Afghanistan war since the inception, but even I was struck that a “senior military official in Kabul” is quoted in the article saying: “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here.”  So even hypothesized success of McChrystal’s current surge would result in more troops, not less, heading for the fight – a decade in. 

Agree or not with the article’s relentless depiction of an emerging Afghan quagmire for Gen. McChrystal and his COIN strategy, there’s one undeniable fact. If Gen. McChrystal is kept in place — with a damaged reputation and strained ties across Washington — or if he’s relieved of command, either way the Administration’s row to hoe in Afghanistan has just become substantially harder. Replacing him is as difficult as keeping him wounded in place.

Click to see cover-page in Russian of 11/13/1986 Politburo transcript

Coincidentally yesterday evening, before any news of the Rolling Stone story, a colleague who like me used to study the USSR for a living handed me a photocopy of an interesting transcript: a Soviet Politburo meeting from 1986, capturing verbatim a fascinating discussion over that empire’s quagmire in Afghanistan.

(The transcript is contained in a remarkable Wilson Center dossier, Documents on the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, e-Dossier No. 4, which compiles internal docs obtained or released after the fall of the Soviet Union, by the Cold War International History Project. This particular transcript, one of several Politburo sessions contained in the collection, begins at page 73.)

It’s difficult to avoid some parallels between then and now. At the date of the meeting (13 November 1986), Mikhail Gorbachev had been in office as Soviet leader (CPSU General Secretary) just about the same amount of time as Barack Obama has been President.  A quick reminder on timelines: The Soviets had been in Afghanistan since Brezhnev’s 1979 invasion, with little success along the way.  Brezhnev died and was replaced by Yuri Andropov, former head of the KGB. He made no headway in the Afghan war. Ditto for his aged and short-lived successor Chernenko. Gorbachev took office as the war was going badly.

To set the stage, a quick earlier excerpt, from a 1983 Politburo transcript when Andropov was still in charge. In this rich little exchange, the General Secretary tries to overcome skepticism and war-weariness by harkening back to the Soviets’ own civil war long before:

GROMYKO (USSR Foreign Minister): On the whole, the situation is Afghanistan is, as you know, difficult…. The process of consolidation is moving slowly. The number of gangs (rebel groups) is not decreasing. The enemy is not laying down its weapons… One-third of the districts is not under the control of the central authority, and one can feel the fragility of the state government.

ANDROPOV: You remember how arduously and cautiously we decided the question of deploying troops in Afghanistan. L.I. Brezhnev insisted on a roll call vote by the members of the Politburo. The question was examined in the CC Plenum. In deciding the Afghan problem we must proceed from existing realities. What do you want? This is a feudal country where tribes have always been in charge of their territories, and the central authority was far from always able to reach each Kishlak [an Afghan district]. The problem is not in Pakistan’s position. We are fighting against American imperialism which well understands that in this part of international politics it has lost its positions. That is why we cannot back off.  Miracles don’t happen. Sometimes we are angry at the Afghans because they act illogically and work slowly. But let us remember our fight with basmatchism [banditry]. Why, back then, almost the entire Red Army was concentrated in Central Asia, yet the fight with basmatchi continued up until the mid-1930’s.   [Emphasis added.]

By 1985, two years later, Andropov was dead, so too Chernenko, and a new fresh face was atop the USSR. It has been said that President Obama likens himself in some ways to the Mikhail Gorbachev of Perestroika.

But in 1986, Gorby appeared to be just as captive of the situation as his predecessors, and I’m struck on reading the 1986 transcript at the echoes in what will likely be the post-McChrystal discussions for U.S. policy.  Many of the dilemmas faced then are being debated yet again in the West Wing and on Capitol Hill.

Below, some choice 1986 excerpts (with my own bolded emphasis added in spots). Reflect upon them in the ongoing American debate.

GORBACHEV: We have been fighting in Afghanistan for already six years. If the approach is not changed, we will continue to fight for another 20-30 years…. Our military should be told that they are learning badly from this war. What, can it be that there is no room for our General Staff to maneuver? In general, we have not selected the keys to resolving his problem. What, are we going to fight endlessly, as a testimony that our troops are not able to deal with the situation? We need to finish this process as soon as possible…. It is necessary to include in the resolution the importance of ending the war in the course of one year – at maximum two years….

SHEVARDNADZE (then Georgian party leader, later USSR Foreign Minister): Right now we are reaping the fruit of un-thought-out decisions of the past. Recently, much has been done to settle the situation in Afghanistan and around it. Najib has taken up leadership. he needs practical support, otherwise we will bear the political costs. It is necessary to state precisely the period of withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. You, Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev], said it correctly – two years. But neither we, nor our Afghan comrades, have mastered the question of the functioning of the government without our troops….

AKHROMEYEV (USSR Dep. Minister of Defense): Military actions in Afghanistan will soon be seven years old. There is no single piece of land in this country which has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels. The government of Afghanistan has at its disposal a significant military force: 160,000 people in the army…and 20,000 in state security organs. There is no single military problem that has arisen and that ha not been solved, and yet there is no result. The whole problem is in the fact that military results are not followed up by political actions. At the center there is authority; in the provinces there is not. We control Kabul and the provincial centers, but on occupied territory we cannot establish authority. We have lost the battle for the Afghan people. The government is supported by a minority of the population….under such conditions the war will continue for a long time.

GORBACHEV: In October of last year [1985] in a Politburo meeting  we determined upon a course of settling the Afghan question. The goal which we raised was to expedite the withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan and simultaneously ensure a friendly Afghanistan for us. It was projected that this should be realized through a combination of military and political measures. But there is no movement in either of these directions…. We must operate more actively. First of all, in the course of two years, effect the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. In 1987 withdraw 50 percent of our troops, and in the following [year] – another 50 percent.

Ironically, then came this at the end of the meeting, a reflection of the Cold War paradigm still in effect:

GORBACHEV: Most importantly [we must make sure] that the Americans don’t get into Afghanistan. But I think that Americans will not go into Afghanistan militarily.

AKHROMEYEV: They are not going to go into Afghanistan with armed forces.

DOBRYNIN (head of the International Department of the CPSU Central Committee, former Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. and foremost expert on American thinking): One can agree with the USA on this question.


Postscript: In 1986 the U.S. began supplying Stinger missiles to Afghan mujahedeen, though I notice that American aid was barely mentioned and wasn’t cited as all as a factor in the detailed discussion at the Politburo level that year.  The following year, Gorbachev initiated a four-way peace process with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States; peace accords were signed in 1988, Soviet troops began pulling out that year, and by 1989 were gone. The Soviet-backed Najibullah regime fell in 1992, not long after the Soviet collapse itself.

Within a decade, American forces actually were in Afghanistan – hunting Al Qaeda terrorists and their state sponsor.

A final note: This week President Obama welcomes Russian President Medvedev to the United States.  Back in 1986, both men were young and barely politically active when Gorbachev and his cabinet were struggling with their Afghan war. Obama was 26, hadn’t gone to law school yet, and was living in New York and working for a community public-interest group.  Medvedev was a 22-year-old law student listening to underground Black Sabbath and Deep Purple albums.  Afghanistan must have seemed many worlds away to them at the time. This week, though, their conversation may bear faint echoes of that Moscow Politburo session so long ago.

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One Response

  1. A more thoughtful and well-researched column on the current quagmire than anything else I’ve seen.


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