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Afghanistan: Analysts Compare U.S. War With Soviet Fiasco

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Nobody predicted the U.S.-led war would dislodge the Taliban so fast -- least of all the veterans of the Soviet Union's bloody 10-year Afghan war. So why has the U.S. encountered surprising success where the Soviets met failure?

Washington, 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When the United States prepared to open fire on the Taliban in early October, veterans of the disastrous, decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan warned that America would be opening a Pandora's box certain to destroy thousands of its soldiers.

But after less than seven weeks of U.S.-led air strikes, the Taliban has virtually collapsed across Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is on the run, and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network is under siege. And, so far at least, not one American soldier has been killed in battle.

That's hardly what former Colonel-General Boris Gromov, who led Moscow's 1989 withdrawal from Afghanistan, and other Soviet veterans had predicted. Gromov -- arguing that the U.S. would get bogged down in a bloody guerrilla war it could not win -- told the Russian news agency Interfax late last September: "We lost 15,000 servicemen in Afghanistan. I do not think the Americans can avoid that."

Yet, by all appearances, the U.S. has avoided just that. How? Military analysts, as well as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say that apart from a more effective use of air power, several differences between the two wars have helped Washington achieve a surprisingly swift success where Moscow met a humiliating withdrawal.

Speaking to reporters at a Navy training base in the Midwestern state of Illinois on 16 November, Rumsfeld said a key difference is that America, unlike the Soviet Union, is not invading Afghanistan: "The Soviet Union was an expansionist power that took over other countries and wanted Afghanistan. The United States is not. We covet no one's land. We want no real estate. Everyone in the world knows that. Indeed, we would prefer not to be there. We are there not because we sought out this activity, but because we were attacked and we had no choice. It's self-defense."

Moreover, Rumsfeld added that the Taliban are highly unpopular among most Afghans -- a fact that helped hasten the militia's fall to the opposition Northern Alliance and other tribal forces: "What has happened is that the opposition forces have found a hospitable environment to move forward. The people there want the Taliban out, and they want other people in, which is a good thing."

Anthony Cordesman, a former high-ranking official at the U.S. departments of state and defense, is a senior military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. Cordesman takes Rumsfeld's analysis further, saying today's war rests on a key paradox -- that the Taliban actually resembles the occupying Red Army more than an indigenous Afghan government: "In about 60 percent of the country, the Taliban garrisons were essentially enemy garrisons occupying conquered ethnic groups. And that made it possible for this collapse, catalytically, with little or no warning."

Ted Galen Carpenter agrees. Carpenter is vice president of foreign and defense policy at the Cato Institute, another Washington think-tank. Recalling the Soviet bid to prop up a communist government in Kabul, Carpenter made this observation: "The Soviets initially were quite successful. They occupied the country in a matter of days. It was when they tried to transform Afghanistan into a socialist society and prop up a puppet government -- really engaging in their own version of nation-building -- that they ran into all sorts of trouble."

But what about military factors? Cordesman said that while no one predicted the Taliban would unravel so fast, analysts were aware of its weakness. The Taliban has only 25,000 core troops dispersed across a vast territory populated by often hostile people, Cordesman said. All told, the Taliban may have had 100,000 troops, but most were ill-trained and unable to recover once defensive lines were penetrated. Cordesman also emphasized the Taliban's lack of support among all ethnic groups, including the southern Pashtun from which the militia drew its backing: "Even before this began, there were problems even with the Pashtuns in the south. Pashtun commanders had to be purged and executed in 1999, 2000, and early this year because they resented the Taliban's ties to the Pakistanis and use of Arab and Uzbek and Chechen and Pakistani troops, which were seen as arrogant and alien."

But both analysts, as well as Rumsfeld, said the Taliban had one major problem that the anti-Soviet mujahedin did not -- a complete cut-off of supplies. During the Soviet war, the mujahedin had free-flowing sources of military and food supplies from Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia -- and the United States.

Rumsfeld -- who said the U.S.-led effort has also been bolstered by backing from a large international coalition -- highlighted the U.S. contribution to resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan: "The Soviet Union, when it was trying to take over Afghanistan, was opposed by a superpower -- the United States -- that did not want them in there. There is no superpower opposing us."

However, Rumsfeld warned that victory cannot be declared yet. With the Taliban still able to potentially wage a guerrilla war -- and with bin Laden still at large after allegedly masterminding September's terrorist attacks on the U.S. -- Rumsfeld said the war is still far from over.