Echoes of the Soviet Surge

The West's war in Afghanistan increasingly resembles the Soviet Union's.

The war in Afghanistan is not going well. A young president wants to pull out, but is boxed in by his generals. In Kabul, a corrupt, nominally democratic leader is losing his grip on power. A surge of ground troops has begun. The year is 1985.

It was 25 years ago that the Soviet Union experienced the bloodiest year of its occupation of Afghanistan, as the West is today. It was also the moment that Soviet forces there grew to a record 118,000 men -- a number ominously close to the 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today. The strategy then was, as it is now, to produce a "surge" that could establish the conditions for withdrawal. Afghanistan's early spring of 1985 offers a striking parallel with its current season of discontent, and as the U.S. government pushes ahead with its strategy, it would be wise to study how the Soviets failed in fighting and ending their war.

In 1985, Moscow's mission was less an imperial adventure than an attempt to preserve some measure of dignity before exiting Afghanistan for good. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev swept into office in March 1985 as an agent for change, a politician who claimed he could get the Soviet Union back on track after the serious missteps of his predecessors. Minimizing his country's involvement in Afghanistan topped his to-do list. Gorbachev had become increasingly impatient with the counterinsurgency against the stubborn U.S.- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen, which was costing the nearly bankrupt Soviet Union an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion a year. He was prepared to finally and decisively change course.

In front of the 27th congress of the Soviet Union's Communist Party in February 1986, Gorbachev owned up to the dire nature of the struggle, referring to Afghanistan as "our bleeding wound." The delegates authorized him to seek a political solution for the conflict and eventually to end the Soviet presence in the country. But rather than chart an immediate withdrawal, Gorbachev conceived an effort to bolster the pro-Soviet Afghan government by military means.

First, the Soviet leader had to prepare the political ground in Afghanistan. Gorbachev started by breaking the news of an imminent Soviet withdrawal to his Afghan allies. In his initial encounter with Afghan President Babrak Karmal, Gorbachev made clear his determination to end the war: Karmal would have to defend his own country, Gorbachev told him in no uncertain terms, by the summer of 1986.

According to recently disclosed Russian documents, Gorbachev said that Karmal was shocked by this news. "[He] was dumbfounded, in no way expected such a turn, was sure that we needed Afghanistan more than he did, and was clearly expecting that we will be there for a long time, if not forever," Gorbachev told a meeting of the Politburo in October 1985. Gorbachev decided that the Kremlin's faltering Afghan allies stood no chance after a Soviet withdrawal unless there was a new face in Kabul's presidential palace. "The main reason that there has been no national consolidation so far is that Comrade Karmal is hoping to continue sitting in Kabul with our help," Gorbachev reportedly said of Kabul's largely ineffective and unpopular ruler. Finally, the Soviet leader put his money on Mohammad Najibullah, the energetic former head of the secret police. On Nov. 21, 1986, Afghanistan witnessed one of the country's rare peaceful transitions of power when Karmal "voluntarily" left Kabul for Moscow for medical treatment, paving the way for Najibullah's takeover.

Najibullah took Gorbachev's message to heart. In a bid to prepare his government to fend for itself, the president launched an all-encompassing national reconciliation policy in 1987. Every Afghan who accepted the principles of reconciliation would be welcome to return home. The insurgents were even offered seats in the government. Constitutional reforms were put on the table that recognized the pivotal role of Islam and established the country's nonaligned status in the Cold War. The Kabul government's concessions went so far as to relinquish control over the judicial system to the mullahs. The president clearly was determined to cut a deal.

Gorbachev was also now ready to start laying the groundwork for an orderly Soviet troop withdrawal. The Soviet Union began to invest heavily in the new regime and backed Najibullah's reconciliation strategy. At this program's core was a massive buildup of Afghan security forces. In effect, as it prepared for withdrawal, Moscow effectively produced a "surge" of military assistance intended to make the Afghan government more responsible for the battle against insurgents -- a strategy that closely resembles the West's current counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.

As part of this effort, the Red Army provided new military equipment and intensified training of Afghan forces to guarantee the new president's survival. It left behind more than 180 garrisons, which were handed over to the Afghans in full operational condition. Lester Grau, of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, estimates that the Soviets also transferred to the Afghan government an additional 15,000 tons of ammunition, 3,000 tons of food, and 37,500 tons of fuel. The Soviet Union's 40th Army also transferred massive supplies of heavy weaponry to its Afghan allies: approximately 990 armored vehicles, 3,000 trucks, 142 pieces of artillery, 231 air defense systems, 14,443 small arms, and 1,706 rocket launchers, according to Grau's research. In the succeeding years, the Red Army also trained an Afghan army and police force of more than 300,000 people to wield these weapons.

The Soviet Union simultaneously engaged in efforts to create economic opportunities for Afghan civilians. Although some accounts deny that the Russians tried to win Afghan "hearts and minds," recent research proves differently. An article by Paul Robinson of the University of Ottawa shows that Soviet thinking "evolved" in the conflict's later years and that by 1987 "many Soviet commanders had come to realize that winning the support of the people was the key to the successful prosecution of the war." In an office filled with memorabilia from Afghanistan, Victor Yermakov, a former commander of the Soviet 40th Army insisted on reminding me in June 2009 in Moscow that "you can defeat Afghans only with kindness, never by force."

To the surprise of the CIA (which in 1988 had predicted that the Afghan government "may fall even before the Soviet withdrawal is complete"), Najibullah's regime remained in power for another three years afterward.

Najibullah's national reconciliation strategy and his willingness to cede political power to regional power brokers proved crucial for his survival, at least in the short term. The prospect of a fundamentalist takeover motivated Najibullah's soldiers, and early military victories, such as the defeat of a mujahideen offensive against the eastern city of Jalalabad, further boosted their morale. (Of course, without the Soviet Union's continuous supply of funds and military equipment, Najibullah's regime would have collapsed much earlier. On a daily basis, the Soviets were flying between 25 and 40 flights to Kabul with supplies for the Afghan army.)

But even generous funding was not able to substitute for a core of motivated officers and soldiers. Najibullah's military collapsed precipitously and definitively in 1991 as Gorbachev, who was preoccupied with managing the dissolution of the Soviet Union and fighting off coup attempts from Communist Party hard-liners, finally cut off its funding and withdrew Soviet military advisors from the country. As the mujahideen converged on Kabul in April 1992, Najibullah was forced to seek refuge in a U.N. compound. The Taliban, when they captured the city in 1996, dragged the former president from his makeshift home and executed him.

The Kremlin had no illusions about the long-term prospects for the regime it left behind. Afghanistan was still in the midst of a civil war, and the president, who had a history of human rights abuses as former head of the secret police, was acting ruthlessly in Kabul. The main problem, indeed, was the government's lack of popular support. Although the regime still enjoyed some backing from the secular elite in Kabul and among Afghanistan's Tajik and Uzbek minorities in the north, it never earned broader legitimacy.

Still, the gruesome end of Najibullah's government conceals some of the notable successes of Gorbachev's late "Afghanization" surge. Although the Red Army was unable to achieve a military victory over the insurgents, it was able to ensure, after its February 1989 withdrawal, that the Afghan government survived for another three years -- outliving, ultimately, the Soviet Union itself, which dissolved in 1991.

The main take-away from the Soviet endgame for today's NATO forces is less than rosy -- namely, that an effective and able Afghan army is not sufficient to stabilize Afghanistan's political system. An insurgency can survive and thrive if Kabul is in disarray. That said, the Soviet experience also casts some aspects of today's effort in less-despairing light. The Red Army was largely successful in its effort to achieve one of the main goals the West has set out for itself: building an effective Afghan army. And even if the daily news from Afghanistan might suggest differently, conditions today are much more favorable than during the end of the Cold War. Indeed, while the mujahideen profited tremendously from U.S. and Pakistani aid, the Taliban today have no comparable international patron.

Finally, today's Afghan government possesses a crucial advantage that Najibullah's government lacked -- a nascent, if flawed, democratic process that can be used to bolster its support among the Afghan population. Despite inefficient institutions and widespread corruption, Afghan citizens still turn out during elections to cast their vote. If their voices and desires are attended to, they could provide the political capital needed to ensure that the U.S. experience in Afghanistan has a different ending than that of the Soviet Union.


Missing Before Action

Following a call for peaceful protests in China, Beijing is arresting and disappearing activists in perhaps the most exhaustive crackdown in recent memory. Here are their stories.


Shortly after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, an anonymous call began to circulate through Chinese microblogs for citizens to participate in "Jasmine Revolution" protests. The demonstrations, which took place on Feb. 20 and Feb. 27 in several large Chinese cities, attracted a small but determined cohort of Chinese people "taking a walk" and "gathering to watch" as a peaceful show of support for pro-democracy movements in the Middle East -- and for expanding employment opportunities, protecting housing rights, and opposing official corruption in China. President Hu Jintao labeled the call for protests "socially destabilizing," and Chinese authorities responded with a sweeping pre-emptive strike against anyone they identified as likely to take part. That included hundreds of human rights activists, lawyers, and pro-democracy dissidents from across the country. Police used violence, arbitrary detention, "disappearances," and other forms of harassment and intimidation to silence their voices. Although the full scope of police action is difficult to trace, signs are emerging that the ongoing crackdown may be one of the severest in the past few years.

In the last two weeks, in several cities, police have criminally detained at least six activists for "endangering state security" and at least five others without formal charges. Police have raided the residences of at least ten individuals, confiscating laptops, computers, cell phones, and books. More than 100 individuals told my organization, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), that they had been questioned, threatened, put under house arrest, or forced to go on police-escorted "tourism" outings in recent days. Additionally, one activist was detained in a mental hospital in Anhui, and one lawyer was severely beaten by unidentified men on his way to a demonstration in Guangzhou.

What follows is a partial list of Chinese activists swept up in the ongoing crackdown.

The Missing

The whereabouts of several Chinese activists -- last seen being hauled off by police -- remain unknown. None have been formally charged. Past experiences indicate that the longer activists are held by police without charges, the greater the likelihood that they may be subjected to torture to extract "confessions."

1) Tang Jitian, a human rights lawyer, was taken away by police on the evening of Feb. 16. He had just eaten lunch with a dozen other activists who were discussing how to provide assistance to the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, now under house arrest in Shandong province. Tang's residence was searched.

2) Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer, was taken from his brother's home on Feb. 19 and driven away by men identified by his family as Beijing police officers. That evening, police searched his apartment and confiscated his computer.

3) Teng Biao, another human rights lawyer, went missing after leaving his home to meet with friends on the afternoon of Feb. 19. Police from Beijing Public Security Bureau's National Security Unit searched Teng's home the next day, confiscating two computers, a printer, books, and several DVDs.

4) On Feb. 19, two dozen policemen searched the home of Gu Chuan, a Beijing writer and activist, and then took Gu away to an unknown location. The police confiscated two computers, two cell phones, and some books. His wife, Li Xinai, also an activist, has been placed under house arrest.

5) On the morning of Feb. 25, democracy and human rights activist Li Hai was taken from his home in the Beijing suburbs by local police. He returned home late that evening, but was warned not to leave his home again, go online, or attempt to contact anyone. On Feb. 26, Li sent a text message to friends alerting them that he was being guarded by three men; if he turned his cell phone off, he warned, it meant that there was trouble. Shortly after 3 p.m., his phone went dead. He has not been heard from since.

The Accused

Within the past several days, several activists across China have been detained for "endangering state security." Those convicted on similar charges in recent years have faced prison sentences of a decade or longer.

1) Ran Yunfei, 46, a writer, blogger, and activist, was detained for "subversion of state power" on Feb. 24. Ran is a member of the ethnic Tu minority who lives in the city of Chengdu in western Sichuan province; he writes for the magazine Sichuan Literature and tweets frequently. His Twitter account has more than 44,000 followers. Police also searched his home and confiscated his computer.

2) Hua Chunhui, 47, is a cyberactivist and midlevel manager at an insurance company in eastern Jiangsu province. He was seized by police on Feb. 21 and detained on suspicion of "endangering state security." Hua, using the Twitter account @wxhch64, has tweeted messages about the "Jasmine Revolution." Hua and his fiancée Wang Yi have been active in civil society initiatives in recent years.

3) Liang Haiyi was taken in for questioning on Feb. 19 by police in Harbin City, Heilongjiang province. According to Liang Xiaojun, a lawyer retained by her family, Liang was detained on suspicion of "subversion of state power." Police accused her of "posting information from foreign websites regarding 'Jasmine Revolution' actions on domestic websites" such as QQ, the popular Chinese social networking site.

4) Ding Mao, 45, was seized on Feb. 19 and detained in Sichuan province on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power." As a philosophy student at Lanzhou University, Ding became a student leader during the 1989 pro-democracy protests. He was twice imprisoned for his activism, first in 1989 and again in 1992. He has spent a total of 10 years in prison, and is currently the general manager of an investment company.

5) Chen Wei, a 42-year-old human rights activist based in Sichuan, was criminally detained for "inciting subversion of state power" on Feb. 21. Police later searched his home, confiscating a computer, two hard drives, and a USB drive. He is currently being held at the Suining City Detention Center. 

6) Zheng Chuangtian, a human rights activist, was detained for "inciting subversion of state power" by police in Huilai County, Guangdong province on Feb. 26. Police also searched Zheng's home.


These are just some examples among the many more reports of similar incidents that have recently circulated online. (I have only included examples that CHRD was able to independently verify.)

In recent days, there have been other instances of prominent lawyers and activists subjected to prolonged disappearances, criminal charges that may carry lengthy prison sentences, more and home raids. There appears to be a heavier reliance on extralegal measures than we have seen around other recent high-anxiety moments -- such as the release of the reformist manifesto Charter 08 or the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. That is an ominous sign.

The fact that China has not yet seen mass popular uprisings like those in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya is no sure sign of contentedness among the Chinese people. Rather, the government's swift reaction to nip the "Jasmine Revolution" protests in the bud reveals the extent to which it fears its own people. One thing is clear: Compared with its counterparts in the Middle East, China's authoritarian government holds a much tighter and more sophisticated grip on political dissent.