Skip to comments.Why the West is winning in Afghanistan
Posted on 12/05/2001 8:48:09 AM PST by dirtboy
Why are Americans succeeding so brilliantly in Afghanistan where the Soviets failed so miserably? Why are the dire predictions about the notorious Afghan "quagmire" not coming true? Why are the relatively restrained Western forces and their Afghan allies achieving in a few weeks what unrestrained Soviet forces and their Afghan allies couldn't achieve in 10 years?
For the sake of prudence, one should start by saying that the war isn't over yet. The Taliban is on the run, but its forces aren't completely dispersed and its leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, haven't been captured or killed. The terrorists of al-Qaeda still have to be smoked out of their caves, as does Osama bin Laden. It's not unreasonable to assume, though, that current trends will continue and the West will sail to victory where the Soviets have foundered. If so, here are some of the reasons:
1.) For a start, during the Soviet Union's existence, the West often underestimated the malignant nature of the Soviet system, but overestimated its military capabilities. The Red Army was not as mighty as advertised. Behind the legend there was a reality of mouldy kasha, rusty rifles, and no spare parts. The Kremlin's military was a study in low-tech stagnation. The Soviets did have brave and hardy soldiers and some elite units, but the main story was outdated equipment, bureaucratic bungling, haphazard supplies, antediluvian military doctrines, discipline by intimidation, and low morale.
2.) When the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989, some wags quipped that in Afghanistan the 11th century defeated the 20th. This was amusing, but not quite accurate. The Soviet military was more like a 19th-century force in several respects, while the Afghan mujahedeen with their Man Portable Air Defence (MANPADS) Stinger missiles, complete with passive infrared seeker and navigation systems, were not far from the 21st century. In many essential ways, the Kremlin ended up fighting the Pentagon in Afghanistan.
MANPADS enabled stone-age warriors to take out about one Soviet helicopter a day after 1987. The Soviets were undoubtedly defeated by the mujahedeen, but while the Afghans spilled their own blood, they were using U.S. funds, training and weapons. In contrast, the West today has to fight only al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The difference is immense. Formidable as bin Laden may be as a rich sponsor, he's no match for the CIA. He's in no position to train and equip his fighters against the United States the way the United States could train and equip him and his mujahedeen against the Soviet Union.
3.) Several commentators are unimpressed by the fall of Kabul and other cities. They note that the Soviets, too, occupied the major population centres, but came to grief in the countryside. Pundits predict that the same thing will happen to the Americans. I think not, because of an essential variance. Most Afghans viewed the Soviets as occupiers, while they see the Americans as liberators. The Soviet forces entered Afghanistan to install and prop up a hated system, the Communist regime of Babrak Karmal and later of Mohammad Najibullah. The Americans are there to get rid of a hated system, the Taliban.
The mujahedeen fighting the Soviets could meld into the landscape. They could hit and run, hide and raid, act as francs-tireur, conduct classic guerrilla warfare, because they had the support of the Afghan population. The foreign warriors of al-Quaeda -- the Arabs, the Chechens, the Pakistanis -- do not. Even the Afghan Taliban doesn't. Mullah Omar's fighters can't even count on the support of their own Pashtun tribesmen, let alone the tribes of the Northern Alliance.
Afghans have often made temporary accommodations with foreigners, but they don't like to be occupied or ruled by them. Most Afghans assumed the Soviets wanted to stay in Afghanistan, at least in terms of a dominating influence. Soviet aid, if any, would have come with major strings attached. So did the Saudi foreigner bin Laden's support for the Taliban -- in fact, al-Qaeda's strings created nothing but misery and refugees in Afghanistan even before the events of Sept. 11. They just about ruined the country.
In contrast, Americans are perceived -- rightly -- as wanting to get the hell out as soon as they accomplish their mission, which is to get rid of terrorists who crash planes into Manhattan skyscrapers. This doesn't strike most Afghans as unreasonable. Americans are also perceived as offering far more aid (and bribes) than the Soviets, with far fewer strings.
4.) Finally, hard as it is to conceive of bin Laden as a good guy, such are the vagaries of history that at one point he was. The Afghan conflict of 1979-1989 was still part of the war between Communism and the free world. In the last spasm of its expansionary phase (as it turned out), the evil empire was reaching for the Persian Gulf, and bin Laden was among those who resisted it. In that conflict bin Laden and his resistance fighters had major allies: the United States and most of Afghanistan were on his side. In the current conflict it's bin Laden against everybody, or just about. The old Kremlin is gone; Valdimir Putin's Russia is not bin Laden's ally, and neither are the Afghan people. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have almost as many enemies in Kabul as in Washington or Moscow. This is why the crunching sound we hear these days is pundits eating their words.
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It may be. Saddam has the allegiance of only a handful, the rest are controlled by fear. Once people are away from Sadam's immediate control, with some hope of forever being, they will turn on him with a vengence.