The opinion writers for the New York Times do not seem to have gotten the news that the troop surge is working. (For the latest indication, see this USA Today story reporting that “the number of truck bombs and other large al-Qaeda-style attacks in Iraq have declined nearly 50 percent since the United States started increasing troop levels in Iraq about six months ago.”) Columnist Nicholas Kristof writes today that “staggering on” in Iraq will only delay “the inevitable”—that is, our defeat.
Oddly enough he buttresses this argument with an analogy to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He argues that “the Soviets and the Afghans alike would have been far better off if the USSR had withdrawn earlier.”
We can, of course, quibble with the comparison between a foreign army’s trying to impose an atheist tyranny and a foreign army’s trying to strengthen the authority of a democratically elected government. Much of the Afghan population was mobilized to resist the Soviets, with the mujahideen fielding hundreds of thousands of fighters; in Iraq we face an enemy estimated to number no more than 20,000.
But the more important point here is that, objectively, the Soviet Union wasn’t better off after it withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. In fact, the Soviet Union ceased to exist shortly thereafter. Defeat in Afghanistan was widely seen, in retrospect, to have been one of the events precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also, of course, emboldened Islamist extremists, some of whom (e.g., the Chechen separatists) continue to commit terrorist acts against Russia. Many others continue to wage jihad around the world; al Qaeda, the central coordinating body for such attacks, was formed in Afghanistan immediately after the Soviet withdrawal.
Seen in this light, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, far from serving as an argument for a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, makes the opposite case: of the dangers of giving up the fight.
From the Soviet experience there is another important lesson that Kristof never mentions: the need to send enough troops. The Red Army never had more than 100,000 or so soldiers in Afghanistan, and most of them were tied up in large garrisons. This effectively ceded the countryside to the guerrillas and made it impossible to impose stability. The Soviets could mount offensives to kill some guerrillas, but as soon as they returned to base, the mujahideen would reassert their control. That is a mistake we have too often repeated in Iraq since 2003. It is only now that we have substantially increased our troop strength to 160,000, and have begun to carry out the kind of serious counterinsurgency campaign that the Russians never really attempted in Afghanistan.
Given the gains our troops are now making, it is folly to give up the fight, especially considering the serious consequences of defeat. The repercussions would hardly be ameliorated by Kristof’s suggestions to maintain a battalion (a mere 1,000 troops) in the Kurdish region, or to “push for progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace.” (Is that why Shiites and Sunnis are killing each other in Iraq? Because they’re mad about the lack of “progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace”?)