In a recent ForeignPolicy.com article, Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason argue that Afghanistan is the new Vietnam. They are right, but there is another historical parallel which is both more obvious and less discussed: the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.
U.S. government officials have understandably avoided the comparison. For one, the United States supported the other side: Afghan "freedom fighters" who later became enemies. Further, the Soviets became bogged down in a costly and bloody decade-long quagmire before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately pulled the plug and withdrew. Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan and its attempt to create a working central government in Kabul is broadly (if somewhat inaccurately) deemed a failure.
It's a failure the United States apparently has no intention of repeating -- to the extent that it doesn't even seem to study it. 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.
But the United States has much to learn from the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Of course, there are vitally important differences. The United States has Pakistani support, while the Soviets did not. No superpowers back the Taliban now, but the United States supported the insurgents then. American forces are now fighting a distant war, but Afghanistan was proximate to the Soveit Union. And global networks like al Qaeda now fund insurgency in Afghanistan, but barely existed in the 1980s. Still, the similarities are worth considering.
When the United States helped topple the Taliban in the heady days after the September 11 attacks, the plan was to get Osama bin Laden and establish a democratic, pro-American government. No one planned on an eight-years-and-counting presence that would cost 800 U.S. lives, tens of thousands of Afghan lives, and half a trillion dollars.
Similarly, when Soviet leaders decided to invade Afghanistan in 1979, they did not intend to commit hundreds of thousands of troops over a decade to fight a domestic insurgency. They hoped that while Soviet troops provided training and logistical support to the military of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, economic aid and a massive advising effort would help build up the governing ability of the main political party. The Kabul government would then have the legitimacy and defense capability to stand on its own two legs without Soviet troops. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at that point, seems to have genuinely believed that soldiers would be home within a few months.
In practice, of course, things did not quite work out that way. Much like the efforts of the United States and its allies -- building schools without teachers to man them and promoting farming in desertlike areas where nothing grows -- the Soviet attempt at nation-building suffered from poor coordination, ill-planning, and a misunderstanding of indigenous culture. Moscow informed soldiers they were not in Afghanistan to spread communism, but to help people feel the tangible benefits of a working government. Still, enthusiastic party workers drew on Soviet propaganda and organizing principles, often alienating the local population.
These problems were compounded by rivalries among various Soviet agencies and institutions operating on the ground. Aid sometimes did not reach its destination because military commanders refused to relinquish the necessary transport vehicles or provide security. In other cases, Soviet representatives found that their Afghan "clients" had no intention of playing along with their nation-building plans. On one occasion, the KGB cultivated and promised protection, money, and a house to the leader of an insurgency group. The local governor, in turn, promptly denied the insurgency leader the promised housing and seized the cell's weapons.