President Medvedev has offered to help the west's faltering Afghan campaign—but both parties must heed the lessons from the Soviet army’s disastrous withdrawal in the 1980sby Victor Sebestyen / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Crushed ambitions: Gorbachev failed to find a dignified exit from Afghanistan, to his cost
At his desk, the leader sat reading letters from mothers whose sons had been killed fighting in Afghanistan. They put him in a determined mood as he walked to the cabinet room. “We’ve been fighting for years now and if we don’t change our approach we’ll be there another 20 or 30,” he told his generals and colleagues. “We have not learned how to wage war there. We had a clearly defined goal: to get a friendly regime in Afghanistan. But now… we must end this process as quickly as we can.”
These could have been the words of President Barack Obama in recent days and weeks—or those of his closest ally, David Cameron. In fact, they were spoken by Mikhail Gorbachev at the Soviet Union’s politburo meeting on 13th November 1986. The Soviets were then in the seventh year of their Afghan campaign, and some 110,000 well-supplied troops from one of the world’s superpowers were still “failing to beat a band of terrorists.” Around 8,000 Red Army troops had been killed and 50,000 seriously wounded, along with three quarters of a million Afghan dead.
Historical comparisons can be glib, but by any measure the similarities between the west’s position now and the Soviet Union’s then are striking. Obama and Cameron will have bulging briefing notes on the campaigns in Helmand and around Kandahar. As they contemplate their next steps, they would be wise to look at a raft of highly revealing Kremlin papers from the late Soviet era, recently unearthed by US and Russian scholars. At the very least, they offer some warnings on how not to end a war.
White House and Downing Street aides can reason, justifiably in many ways, that things are entirely different now: that it is wrong to equate loathed communists looking to expand an empire with US and British war aims today; that the mujahedin in the 1980s were waging a just struggle for freedom that cannot be compared with the Taliban’s campaign; and that Nato is using far more sophisticated weaponry than the Soviets, who adopted brutal bombing campaigns, careless of civilian lives. All arguably true, up to a point. Yet a great deal is eerily reminiscent. Much of the fighting then was in places that have become hauntingly familiar to us now when we read British casualty…