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PAPERS ON WAR

By Daniel Ellsberg

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Haunted by Gorbachev’s Ghost

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Posted on Nov 15, 2009
AP / Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama speaks to reporters after his meeting last May with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, left, and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in the White House.

By James Fergusson

Editor’s note: This article was originally printed in The Independent.

It has become a pub bore’s cliché to argue that we will never prevail in Afghanistan because no foreign power ever has: not even the Russians, whose nine-year occupation cost the lives of 14,000 of their soldiers and 35,500 wounded, and which ended in humiliating retreat in 1989. Those Cassandras irritate Western leaders, whose response is to insist that it is different this time. “We are not an occupying army,” Gordon Brown told the BBC on Friday. “It’s not like previous interventions. ... We are actually creating the conditions by which the Afghans themselves, and not an occupying army, can run their own affairs.”

[True], history does not repeat itself in every detail. Nato, for instance, would never adopt the scorched earth tactics of the Soviet Union, which led to the deaths of more than a million civilians and the creation of 7 million refugees. In 1987 the Soviets carpet-bombed and bulldozed Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, reducing its pre-war population from 200,000 to 25,000. The underlying motive of the Western mission, furthermore—the destruction of al-Qa’ida—has the justification of self-defence and is legitimised by the UN.

Nevertheless, the spectre of Soviet-style failure hangs over the coalition as never before. President Obama, as he dithers over a troop surge, is in the same shoes as Mikhail Gorbachev when he came to power in March 1985. He, too, inherited a counter-insurgency that had stagnated—and opted for a surge to force the result. Troop levels rose to 108,800: almost precisely the number that the US will have in the field if Obama agrees to General McChrystal’s request for another 40,000. It did neither Gorbachev nor the Afghans any good: 1985 turned out to be the bloodiest year of the whole war. “The more troops you bring the more trouble you will have here,” Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov said recently. “If this trend is the rule, if you bring here 200,000 soldiers, all of Afghanistan will be under the Taliban.” Kabulov, who served in Kabul as a junior diplomat in the 1980s, understands better than most that nothing unites the fractious Afghans more effectively than the presence of infidel soldiers on their holy soil.

The experience of resistance has so shaped Afghan identity over the centuries that it has been blended into their religion. “We are against war,” a Taliban commander called Abdullah told me in 2007. “It creates nothing but widows and destruction. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners. We will never stop fighting. At judgement day, Allah will not ask, ‘What did you do for your country?’ He will ask, ‘Did you fight for your religion?’”

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I interviewed Abdullah in the mountainous Chak district of Wardak province, a scant 30 miles south-west of Kabul, and the scene of fierce fighting with US forces this year. The Talibs still control it. As elsewhere, they are helped enormously by the local topography. Afghanistan is not Mesopotamia: the steep-sided valley from which Abdullah continues to operate is a cul-de-sac with only one road in and out. As the many decaying wrecks of tanks prove, the Russians also failed to clear and hold Chak. Here, as in Helmand, the insurgents’ tactics and ambush points are not just similar but in many cases identical to the ones used against the Soviets, and even the 19th-century British.

Advances in western military technology do not faze the Taliban. The Soviets’ best weapon was the fearsome Hind helicopter gunship, which the mujahedin nicknamed Shaitan-Arba, or “Satan’s Chariot.” They were practically invincible until the US supplied the Afghans with shoulder-held Stinger missiles in 1987. The Soviets went on to lose over 300 helicopters; 2009 saw the first loss of a coalition Chinook to enemy fire.

The Soviets, of course, did not see themselves as an occupying army any more than we do. They arrived in 1979 at the specific and repeated request of the Kabul government. They too had a policy, and based their exit strategy on it, as we have done. By 1986, under Soviet guidance, the local armed forces had been built up to an official strength of over 300,000. But there were serious doubts about the reliability of these allies, just as we have found (and as the recent murder of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman under their charge amply illustrates). In the 1980s, new recruits deserted the Afghan Army almost as fast as the Russians could train them: 32,000 of them per year, at one stage.

The difference between Nato and Soviet interventions is not always apparent to ordinary Afghans. For many years the shopkeepers along Chicken Street, the main tourist bazaar in Kabul, sold carpets patterned with Hind gunships and BTRs, the distinctive eight-wheeled armoured vehicles whose carcasses still litter the countryside, testimony to the mujahedin’s Pyrrhic victory. These days such souvenirs are decorated with Chinooks and armoured personnel carriers that look dispiritingly like British Vikings. Another decade, another invasion: it’s all the same to the carpet-sellers.

It’s all the same to the Taliban, too. The oral tradition is strong in Afghanistan, and one of its effects is a strange telescoping of time; for them, it is almost as if the Soviet invasion was yesterday, and the British were here last week. “My grandfather died fighting you people,” Abdullah told me. “Fighting the British feels like unfinished business for many of us.”

It sometimes feels like unfinished business for us as well. In 1929, the RAF’s 39 Squadron was stationed at Risalpur in the border areas of Pakistan, from where it flew bombing missions over Waziristan against the elusive insurgent leader, the Fakir of Ipi. Today, 39 Squadron operates a dozen MQ-7 Reaper drones over the same area—albeit from computer screens on an airbase in Nevada—in a bid to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Some analysts think that drones could turn the tide of this war, and even be part of the West’s exit strategy by eventually allowing machines instead of men to police the border. But as the Russians and the British before them found to their cost, it is a mistake to put too much faith in weapons technology when fighting in a country like Afghanistan.

James Fergusson is the author of “A Million Bullets—The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan.”


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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, November 18, 2009 at 8:33 am Link to this comment

It must have been an accident that the photo that accompanies
this article shows Obama with a halo around his head (yes, of
course, it is the seal of the US which is religiously symbolic in two
ways), but it has a hilarity of its own.

It was over 20 years ago that the Soviets (old communist) invaded
Afghanistan, a scant generation.  People tend to forget past pain
and embrace life as it comes.  Women are the famous example of
forgetting the pain of giving birth, which is about as fierce as any
suffering can get.  But once it is over it is over and in the main, we
forge onward with the duties of motherhood. Well, most of us. 
Wars are sort of like that too.  What does Gorbachev have to do
with us, the Afghanistanis, or even the Russians of today?  History
may not repeat itself in every detail, but even those differences
are soon lost on the society that changes with time due to the
actions of the past receding as if in a dream.  Mankind does not
learn from its history to not repeat its mistakes.  It only records
them.  Every new situation has its own dynamic and resolution and
it may not be to any one group’s contentment. 

The Taliban cry that they are against war is odd in view of the
violence that permeates their doctrines and actions.  We have to
speculate why the brutality and carnage they lay on their own
people if it is in fact an adherence to their religious beliefs. 
Allying themselves with the war lords, it is plain they are not in it
just for entrance into Allah’s House but it is for the wealth and
power that comes from the profitable cultivation not of Islam, but
of the products of poppies…in a couple of words, the drug trade.

Using politics and religion as a cover for this dreadful business
ought to be a sin in Allah’s mind.  Calling for jihad is a
camouflage for this lucrative business.  Can you imagine how
much wealth is being perpetrated in the heroin industry?  If you
made a check, you would find it is staggering.  Unfathomable.

Asking the question that they put into the mouth of their god,
Allah, “Did you fight for your religion?” is such a deceitful trick
that it is almost inconceivable except we see it on a daily basis. 
Surely Allah is smarter than that?  Wouldn’t Allah be all-seeing,
all-knowing, and all potent past present and future and would
know who “fought” for Allah?  It is a stupid trick question invented
by deceitful humans. 

Oral tradition is strong in Afghanistan because they are illiterate! 
By the reason of this article one has to think the Afghanistanis
have nothing to do but sit around on their porches (if they have
them) somnambulistic on the fruit of poppies and talk about the
Russian past?  While many do just that, there are just as many who
are thankful the troops of the West are there.

Report this

By abdo, November 18, 2009 at 6:18 am Link to this comment

ardee, November 17 at 9:59 am # When the Taliban came, all of the schools were closed for women. Nobody could leave their homes to work. This was really sadening. When the Americans came all the schools were destroyed. Nobody could leave their homes in fear of some guy in the States blowing them up by remote control. This was really saddening.??


*  comment in truthdigg on the article ” in our name.”

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By abdo, November 18, 2009 at 6:02 am Link to this comment

” Gordon Brown told the BBC on Friday. “It’s not like previous interventions. ... We are actually creating the conditions by which the Afghans themselves, and not an occupying army, can run their own affairs.”
I am disappointed Mr.Brown, I thought you do not a good liar like Tony . Probably you just delusional.

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By BlueEagle, November 17, 2009 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment

What do you notice about this picture and the one from the article: “Catholic Bishops Put Sex Obsession Ahead of the Sick and the Poor”

Yeah, it makes me sick too.

Report this

By BlueEagle, November 17, 2009 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment

What do you notice about this picture and the one from the article: “Catholic Bishops Put Sex Obsession Ahead of the Sick and the Poor”

Yeah, It make me sick too.

Report this
Go Right Young Man's avatar

By Go Right Young Man, November 17, 2009 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

jackpine,

I have read the very brief excerpts you reference and much more. That’s why I am able to disagree with your take on the matter.

So you believe Soviet intentions were admirable while NATO’s intentions are ominous. I disagree.

Why do most progressives lean toward framing global events with the U.S. as the villain?

The United States is one of the most generous on earth. The United States is the one nation everyone looks toward for leadership when it suites them. The United States is always the first to aid and feed and medicate all who are in need after a disaster. Regardless of their politics or which nation is in need of that aid.

According to the United Nations it’s the works of the United States that saved the lives of a million people in Africa in the last decade. According to the Palestinian Authority if it weren’t for the United States -not Arab nations- children would not be fed or have textbooks in their schools.

Why do both the Palestinians and the Israelis openly state that peace cannot happen without the involvement of the United States as an arbiter? Why do all parties in Sudan beg for United States involvement?

The United States is the only nation in all of human history which has completely defeated and destroyed an enemy only to build them back up again and leave them to their own autonomy. 

The United States is one of the most open and transparent on the globe. It did not invent greed nor the notion of self preservation and interests. In fact it’s impossible for a foreign businessman to ply his or her trade-craft without paying “homage” to dozens of political officials in China, Russia or France.

You blame America first and foremost. I do not. Therein lies our differences on global issues.

The U.S. is not always honorable. That is a fact. But most progressives tend to make the U.S. the global villain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

-

I think if you look deeper, and with more breadth, you see that the leadership in the Soviet Union told the politburo many things about it’s involvement in Afghanistan. Much of it contradictory year by year.

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By Mary Ann McNeely, November 17, 2009 at 1:57 pm Link to this comment

There was The Brezhnev Doctrine which stated that wherever the Soviet flag flew, it would never be hauled down. 

There is The Obama Doctrine, formerly The George Worthless Bush Doctrine, formerly The Clinton Doctrine, ad nauseum.  Where the Gringo flag flies, it will never be hauled down.  Go out in the street and ask anyone if they remember who Leonid Brezhnev was.  Obama is headed toward the same nonentity.

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By melpol, November 17, 2009 at 6:32 am Link to this comment

The war in Afghanistan is not against mythical Al-Qada, it is against millions of
dissidents that refuse to respect the Karzai government. Thousands of
disconnected groups led by fierce tribal chieftains demand autonomy. Each group
has to be weeded out. It is a delicate process that might take decades. Karzai as
commander in chief must lead the charge. A quieter and friendlier Afghanistan
and the withdrawal of most American troops will come after the final battle is
won.

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By jackpine savage, November 17, 2009 at 6:29 am Link to this comment

Go Right Young Man,

Did you, by chance, read the actual minutes of the Politburo meeting from 13 Nov 1986? The feelings of the Soviet leadership as stated in them runs exactly counter to your claim; they were, in fact, hoping for a relatively neutral Afghanistan with Afghans in control of the nation. They say so explicitly.

Furthermore, your claim about what NATO/the US want is belied by our actions. We tell them how to establish and run the country. We threaten them that we’ll “leave” if they don’t do things the way we think that they should be done. And if we weren’t interested in dominating Afghanistan we probably wouldn’t still be there eight years later.

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Go Right Young Man's avatar

By Go Right Young Man, November 16, 2009 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment

Jackpine,

Lex, who posted on electricworry, reached all the wrong conclusions regarding the Soviet/Afghan situation. I believe his reading of the Soviet translations say a great deal more about Lex and his thinking than the thinking of the Soviet leadership of the day.

Truly a great many parallels can be found between the Soviet experience and the NATO experience to date. Such is the nature of military actions in that particular region. But it’s a mistake to simultaneously ignore the glaring dichotomies.

While the Soviets felt an identical defensive need to enter Afghanistan the most notable difference, I think, is the lack of desire on the part of NATO to dominate the Afghan people (and all that this implies).

All in all I have never felt as though we’re looking upon identical situations.

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Hulk2008's avatar

By Hulk2008, November 16, 2009 at 3:48 pm Link to this comment

If the GIs estimate that it only takes about $10 of materials to set up an IED, then how much more would it cost to just leave Afghanistan and deposit thousands of them in the wake of US troops as they depart ?
  A few thousand remote controlled IEDs triggered by the drone “pilots” in Nevada could lie in wait for Al Qaeda to filter back in .... so we can “return the favor”.  If nothing else, properly positioned, they could encourage Abdullah and his ilk to remain bottled up in those mountainous cul de sacs.

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By jackpine savage, November 16, 2009 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

“Nato, for instance, would never adopt the scorched earth tactics of the Soviet Union, which led to the deaths of more than a million civilians and the creation of 7 million refugees.”

I can’t help but agree with FRTothus’s assessment of that statement.

More to the point, even with the unleashing the full onslaught of the Red Army, the Soviets could not defeat a (mostly) native insurgency in Afghanistan. The US unleashed its full onslaught in Vietnam; same end result.

The problem is, of course, that such behavior is entirely counterproductive to waging a counter insurgency in the first place. Every civilian killed or made a refugee makes several insurgents.

Had the US/NATO/the UN done good counter-insurgency work in 2002, it might have been successful. There was a lot of hope in Afghanistan then. Even the 2004 elections following the loya jirga were impressive. But whatever possibility existed was squandered long ago, and the Obama administration is comprised of nothing but fools if it thinks that it can erase seven years of bad history with rhetoric.

The gig’s up. Get out now before we’re forced out.

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By NC-Tom, November 16, 2009 at 7:39 am Link to this comment

Don’t worry we will get out of Afghanistan… at some point in the very distant
future after we:

Escalate the amount of troops in the country, cut the troops in the country, install
a new government, put the old government back in place, try to destroy the
Taliban, try to work with the Taliban, try to destroy the drug trade, embrace the
drug trade…

After trying all of the above and more we will at some point leave Afghanistan.
This is because like Churchill said. “You can always trust the Americans to do the
right thing after they have tried everything else first.”

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By Xntrk, November 15, 2009 at 11:15 pm Link to this comment

FRTothus, Thank you for the quotes, they were nicely pointed in the right direction.

My question is probably off topic, but what is with the Halo on the Prez? After all the right-wing slams about his role as ‘Savior’ I would assume his PR people would avoid things like this. Or, is it a deliberate satirical commentary by his media opponents?

Report this

By FRTothus, November 15, 2009 at 7:04 pm Link to this comment

“Nato, for instance, would never adopt the scorched earth tactics of the Soviet Union, which led to the deaths of more than a million civilians and the creation of 7 million refugees.”
Maybe NATO wouldn’t but the US has done exactly that in Vietnam, and in Iraq.  And wasn’t it NATO that participated in the slaughter in Yugoslavia?
“The underlying motive of the Western mission, furthermore—the destruction of al-Qa’ida—has the justification of self-defence and is legitimised by the UN.”
Mr Fergusson makes the fatal error of taking a war-like empire at its word.  The fact is, both AQ and bin Laden are CIA assets, and the evidence, straight from US official documents, and confirmed by many other sources, is overwhelming. Self-defence?  What aggressor in history has not attempted to justify their aggression by calling it self-defence?  The Nazis were defending themselves from the Slaves and the Poles, from encirclement.  The Romans, the French, the Dutch, the British…  every empire sees itself as the victim.  This imparts nothing useful or provides any justification whatsoever.  Legitimised by the UN?  You mean after Powell gave his disgusting dog and pony show, where he was the willing, lying whore of the MIC?
““We are not an occupying army,” Gordon Brown told the BBC on Friday.”  Just saying it don’t make it so, Gordie.
“Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear - kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor - with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it ...”
(US General Douglas MacArthur)
“The loud little handful will shout for war. The pulpit will warily and cautiously protest at first…. The great mass of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes, and will try to make out why there should be a war, and they will say earnestly and indignantly: “It is unjust and dishonorable and there is no need for war.”
Then the few will shout even louder…. Before long you will see a curious thing: anti-war speakers will be stoned from the platform, and free speech will be strangled by hordes of furious men who still agree with the speakers but dare not admit it…
Next, the statesmen will invent cheap lies…and each man will be glad of these lies and will study them because they soothe his conscience; and thus he will bye and bye convince himself that the war is just and he will thank God for a better sleep he enjoys by his self-deception.”
(Mark Twain)
“Arms manufacturers need war like umbrella makers need rain.”
(Eduardo Galeano)
“To keep information from the public is the function of the corporate media.”
(Gore Vidal)
“[Genocide] certainly is a valid word in my view, when you have a situation where we see thousands of deaths per month, a possible total of 1 million to 1.5 million over the last nine years. If that is not genocide, then I don’t know quite what is.”
(Denis Halliday)
“America is today the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in the defense of vested interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for. Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor, so far, have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome’s policy made for inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness of the greatest number.”
(Arnold Toynbee, historian)

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By ChaoticGood, November 15, 2009 at 4:44 pm Link to this comment

We think “instinctively” that our system is superior to the “primitive” tribal cultures that the Afgan people have lived within for thousands of years.
The Afgan people are free to leave their country if they wish.  They can move to France or America if they wish to “enjoy” socialism or capitalism.  Nobody is stopping them.
They should be allowed the dignity of choosing their social system.  We can help them but we cannot interfere in their social development as they see fit.
Should we stop them from becoming a base of operations for an enemy. Of course we should do that, but that is all we should do.  Al Queda is an enemy and should be persued to its home base in Pakistan.  The Afgans are mostly innocent bystanders in our military-industrial complex marketing.
We should learn from the USSR’s mistakes.

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lOst_sOuls_rembrd's avatar

By lOst_sOuls_rembrd, November 15, 2009 at 3:30 pm Link to this comment

Incredible.  How shameful we are as a nation.  I am so ashamed of my country.

lost_souls_rembrd

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By gerard, November 15, 2009 at 2:51 pm Link to this comment

“Today, 39 Squadron operates a dozen MQ-7 Reaper drones over the same area—albeit from computer screens on an airbase in Nevada—in a bid to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Some analysts think that drones could turn the tide of this war, and even be part of the West’s exit strategy by eventually allowing machines instead of men to police the border.”       
Now that’s real courage!  Firing on people thousands of miles away who have no comparable weapons!  Not that wars are ever “fair”, but this tactic seems blatantly venal—like phosphorous and radiation and germ warfare and a-bombs and shooting people in the back and all that sort of thing.
  By doing this kind of thing the “West” is (unconsciously?) exiting from human decency, whether it admits the fact or not.

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By jackpine savage, November 15, 2009 at 1:12 pm Link to this comment

Excellent piece.

Keep in mind that the Soviets saw their own position in Afghanistan almost exactly the way that we see our position. Gorbachev’s initial escalation was intended to pave the way for Afghans to take over, and by late ‘86 the discussions by the Politburo sound like a simple mad-lib of the conversation happening in the US 13 years later.

Gorden Brown’s comments could have come directly from statements made by Soviet leadership.

Again: http://electricworry.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/walking-like-a-pretzel/

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