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Why We Will Not Make the Soviets’ Mistakes in Afghanistan

The Financial Times has interviewed veterans of the Red Army’s war in Afghanistan who argue that the American war effort will be a replay of their woes. Actually, their comments suggest the opposite. Here is how the FT describes Soviet tactics:

The Soviet 40th Army comprised 120,000 troops at the height of the war, and operations focused on manoeuvring helicopter-borne paratroopers on to mountains, to control high ground, and then moving tanks through the valleys. …

“The war, all 10 years of it, went in circles. We would come and they [the insurgents] would leave. Then we leave, and they would return,” Gen [Igor] Rodionov [commander of the 40th Army] said. …

“The 40th army was a highly armed and trained force. It answered every shot directed at them with 10 shots. They created many casualties among civilians.

“We would bomb a village because there were one or two Mujahideen there. Women and children would die and this created the insurgent movement. It was a classic partisan war.”

If these Red Army veterans think that NATO forces are repeating their mistakes, they haven’t been paying attention. The methods they describe are completely different from those being employed by General McChrystal. The reason he has requested more troops is so his forces don’t get into a pattern of entering areas and then leaving them. He wants to stay and provide population security. He has also imposed tight clamps on the use of firepower so our troops don’t cause the kind of collateral damage that can turn the population against them.

The whole mindset of the Red Army veterans is highly conventional — employing helicopter assault forces and tanks. That works against a conventional army; it doesn’t work against guerrillas. McChrystal realizes that, which is why he’s trying a different strategy — the same one that has been vindicated in counterinsurgencies from Malaya to, more recently, Colombia and Iraq. Anyone who offers a mindless Soviet analogy to suggest that we are doomed to failure in the supposed “graveyard of empires” — and I have heard many such arguments in the past few days — should ponder the profound differences between the Soviets’ tactics and those of NATO. There is no comparison.


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