President Trump: Afghanistan is your easiest task — GET OUT

In recent days, there have been a number of straws in the wind claiming that the Trump administration is pondering whether to reinforce America’s utter defeat in Afghanistan by sending more U.S. troops there. The media report, for example, that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has asked for more ground troops, almost certainly for use in the now out-of-control southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. This kind of media report is generally the prelude to an official announcement that more troops will be sent. If sent, the reason for more troops will be something akin to “the general in charge on the ground in Afghanistan knows best, and we must support him to finish the job after all the war has cost America in blood and treasure.”

This justification neatly ignores the fact that each U.S. commander in Afghanistan has asked for more troops and got them; that each has been followed by a successor who has asked for more troops and got them; and that all U.S. commanders there have been whipped, largely because of their personal arrogance and near-complete ignorance of Afghanistan, its people, and their history. The answer to this most recent request, 16 years into a war that should have been a 2-year punitive expedition, should be (a) no more troops, and (b) pack up all U.S. troops and equipment and come home.

Winning in Afghanistan takes only three steps. The first is an invasion that occupies the country. The second is the annihilation of any one who opposes the occupation, as well as all of those who remotely support that resistance. The third is to permanently occupy Afghanistan because the children of those you have killed will grow up and fight to kill you. In short, there is now way to win in Afghanistan unless you are ready to take on a bloody, dictatorial, and bankrupting permanent stay. The Afghans’ definition of freedom — which they ardently desire — is a simple one: Islam and no foreigners. Those two points also encapsulate Afghan war aims.

This is not one man’s opinion. It is irrefutable historical fact, which is easily available to anyone who can buy a few books from Amazon or borrow them from the library. Indeed, contemporary Afghanistan is the most important example of two facts that elude the U.S. governing elite: (a) human nature never changes and, because of that fact, (b) history always repeats itself. Had Afghanistan’s history been read by all the bright boys who command our military and run our government, we would not be in Afghanistan today and, apparently, ready to blithely worsen the long-ago-determined U.S. military defeat and national humiliation there.

I have appended below a talk I prepared and delivered in 2009. At that time, I had been giving talks, interviews, and briefings to the media, U.S. officials, and public groups which were based on the books mentioned above, and on my own experience of having worked at CIA on Afghanistan, in one way or another, from 1986 to late 2004. I had little luck convincing those to whom I spoke that the U.S. approach in Afghanistan was a loser from the start, and so I thought I would give a talk in which I would let others who had fought wars in Afghanistan speak for themselves. That is the paper that follows. It is a lengthy piece, but even a cursory review of it will give readers a sense that the only possible answer to the U.S. problem in Afghanistan is an immediate and complete evacuation.

Campaigning in Kandahar: The experiences of occupying armies in the 1880s and 1980s

NATO is not, of course, the first uninvited foreign military force to occupy and then fight in Kandahar and the provinces adjacent to it. Since Alexander the Great, Persians, Mongols, Moghuls, British, and Soviet armies have conducted campaigns and occupied the Kandahar region. Thus, the area has a rich history of foreign interventions, and those interventions have, almost without exception, ended poorly for the interventionists.

Given this reality, I was surprised to read the following paragraph in a book review published in the July, 2009, issue of the Journal of Military History. The book being reviewed dealt with British general Lord Robert’s march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880, and the reviewer was a British officer attending the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College. The paragraph that caught my eye reads as follows:

“The sleeve notes to this overview of General Frederick Roberts’ role during the 2nd Afghan War of 1878-1880 rather ill-advisedly state that readers might seek to draw parallels between the British Army in Afghanistan then and now. To anyone familiar with events in late nineteenth century Afghanistan, that period … serves little purpose in any serious analysis of current operations and as such any crude comparisons are probably best left to one side.”

On reading this paragraph, my first thought was that the nearly always fatal “history has-nothing-to-teach-us virus” had jumped the Atlantic from Washington and infected the British Isles. On reflection, though, I decided to use this talk to look at two previous campaigns in the Kandahar region — that of Great Britain in the 2nd Afghan War (1878-1880) and that of the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. I will leave it up to the audience to decide if history can helpful in understanding the campaign NATO is now waging in southern Afghanistan, or if, as our colleague at Britain’s Joint Services Command and Staff College contends, history should be “best left to one side” when doing “serious analysis” of the southern Afghan theater.

The Second Afghan War, 1878-1980

Britain’s goals in starting the Afghan War were two-fold. First, to exact retribution for the Afghan regime’s breaking of the Treaty of Gandamak. The Afghan Amir broke the treaty by standing to one side and allowing the British diplomatic mission in Kabul — which had been sanctioned by the treaty — to be killed to a man. Its second goal was to create in Afghanistan a viable buffer state between British India and what London saw as the expansionist empire of the Czars.

London sent an army of 45,000 British and Indian troops into Afghanistan; the great bulk of the force going to the eastern provinces en route to capturing Kabul, while the remainder — a division of two infantry brigades, a cavalry brigade, and three artillery batteries that had been based around Bombay — was sent to occupy Kandahar and from there control the south.

There is an exceedingly useful library of memoirs, diaries, and contemporary histories written by various officers and men of the British occupation force in Kandahar, and what follows is a review of what those writers encountered on ten issues that would be of concern to any occupying military force. I have posed these issues in the forms of questions.

1.) How easy is it for a foreign occupation force to move around the region?

From the Quetta region all the way to Qandahar, British generals found the countryside virtually without roads and had to use their engineers and pioneer battalions to build tracks for the army. Our wagons can be run from Quetta to Chaman to Kandahar, a British officer wrote, “[but] it must not be supposed that the road is of the appearance or quality that the people at home would call a road, as all that has been aimed at is to make a track clear from stones or serious inequalities along which carts can go.”

And once in garrison in Kandahar city, the British found that movement and transportation became even more difficult. “In this country,” a senior officer wrote, “from one end of it to another, there is no such thing as we would call a road.” And yet, the British found that their Afghan enemies seemed to have no problem moving. “Only those who have fought against them,” a British officer wrote home, “can really understand how swift they are in their movements.”

The British also found that the mere fact of their presence made “the country between Quetta and Kandahar more or less disturbed, and the tribes along the route are not friendly,” and so no travel could be undertaken alone or unarmed. Indeed, so hostile was the surrounding territory that British units “were very often fired upon … from fortified villages,” and so a force of “cavalry, artillery, and infantry” was regularly marched “through all the disaffected districts” to impress them with British power. At times, one horse artillery gunner wrote, we were fired upon by “the native women … on the flat roofs of their houses.” All told, an officer wrote, “Afghanistan is not a country for nervous travelers.”

Inside the city of Kandahar and other cities in the south, the British also found that they could not travel alone or unarmed. “We cannot here wander about and go into the shops and ransack them for curiosities,” a senior British officer reported, “as the people have a nasty trick of watching until a person is busy looking at things in a shop, and then coming up quietly and stabbing one in the back.” “All officers,” he concluded, “carry loaded revolvers…. The soldiers have to carry their rifles and when they go into town they have to fix their bayonets … [and even for Sunday services] the men come with their rifles, and everyone is fully armed, ready for business at a moment’s notice … altogether we live in a regular state of siege.”

2.) What does the country have or make in the way of military and subsistence supplies?

The answer the British quickly found out was virtually nothing. Clothing, horses, livestock for food, ammunition, fodder ordnance, grain, wagons, horses, wood for burning or building, and a host of other essentials had to be brought in from India or even further away. Just before entering the Bolan Pass for transit to Afghanistan, one officer wrote, “there are enormous depots of commissariat stores, provision, and clothing both for native and English troops, all of which had to be transported great distances, especially the grain and clothing. As most of the former comes from Bombay, and nearly all of the latter from England … Thousands of pounds of grain are used daily to feed the transport animals who are in the thousands … and as there is little or no [excess] cultivation in Afghanistan, some idea may be formed of the arrangements, the labor, and the expense which are required to keep this one matter of the forage supply in working order.” These depots also required detachments from the main body’s combat units to guard the indispensable supplies.

Another officer, reflecting on his previous deployments in European wars, got to the heart of the matter. “Armies fighting in Europe,” he wrote, “can expect to draw a good portion of their supplies from the country in which they are operating, but the fact that virtually nothing required by European troops, and very few of the articles requited by native soldiers are to be got in Afghanistan, renders a war such as that we are now engaged in, a fearfully difficult and expensive matter.”

The most important exception to this general rule of scarcity and non-productivity, according to a journalist accompanying the British army, was “the imitative skill of native artificers … [who are] skillful enough to turn out in large numbers very fair rifled-small arms, which they copied from British models … and [millions of] admirable cartridges.”

3.) Can lines of communication be secured?

Once across the Indian border into Afghanistan and settled in Kandahar, British officers found that it was a full-time and manpower-intensive operation to keep open the division’s line of communication to Chaman and Quetta. Villages, hills, dry river beds, and fields of boulders, a cavalryman wrote, “offer extraordinary facilities for the enemy to resist our advance.” A leading journalist accompanying the army in Kandahar maintained that lines of communication could not be made reliably secure. “When a column marched out,” he wrote in a history of the campaign, “British power was dominant only within the area of its fire zone. The stretch of road it vacated as it moved on ceased to be territory over which the British held dominion. … Our power now extends just as far as our rifles can shoot.”

4.) Can reliable human intelligence be collected?

The British field force found that they could not rely to any significant degree on the Afghans they recruited to spy for them. “Our intelligence department has such bad tools to work with, that scarcely any information proves correct,” a British infantry officer explained, “for an Afghan is more adept at fabrication than any other Asiatic. We cannot trust them….” The British could also seldom find an Afghan who would tell them anything about anti-British fighters who had just passed through their village. After a cavalry patrol had been fired on from a village outside Qandahar, one trooper wrote in his diary that, “all [the people in that and] surrounding villages absolutely denied any complicity in [or knowledge] of the affair.” Overall the British found that they could not compete with their enemy’s intelligence collection. “There are so many channels by which information may leak out” of British-held Kandahar, a British cavalrymen wrote, “that the army’s operations were constantly endangered by information passed to the enemy by Afghans who were profiting from and well-treated by the occupying force.”

As result, the British garrison in Kandahar had to maintain a program of constant reconnaissance patrolling so as to have any idea of developments in the region. They paid particular attention to the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar, which emerged as a site that the Afghans used for meeting, planning, staging operations, and storing weaponry. This patrolling tied up and exhausted the garrison’s limited cavalry assets, and obviously provided no information about what hostile Afghan leaders were thinking and planning. As an infantry officer recalled in his memoirs, all we had about the enemy’s intentions was “conjecture”; “defective information”; and “all sorts of rumors.”

5.) Does the weather impact military operations?

The British found that the weather in the Kandahar region was debilitating and often impacted the start and duration of military operations. A transport officer wrote that he and his men often had to retire to tents well before noon because the temperature often “stood at 120 degrees … a heat which is required to be felt to be understood, as the entire absence of air, except now and then a hot blast, as if out of a furnace, made it most oppressive.”

After patrolling around Kandahar, a cavalrymen wrote in his diary that “everything is gritty with clouds of dust that are flying about; the flies, which are in [the] millions, I should say, are gifted with a pertinacity which is quite marvelous, and insist on settling on your nose, or in your eyes or ears … the air is unpleasantly harsh, and our lips and skin are suffering accordingly. [B]ut even the wind and dust are preferable to the suffocation of no wind at all.” Added to this normal condition, another cavalryman wrote, are frequent dust-storms that blow up unexpectedly and delay the start of operations or force them to be curtailed. The storms, he wrote, “are, of all things, the most horrid and the greatest trial to one’s temper. Imagine the delight of an immense cloud of dust a mile square, or more, driven by a red hot wind, and forcing its way into every hole and corner. While it is passing it is quite dark, even in mid day, … breathing and keeping one’s eyes open is almost impossible … and when it is gone, one’s hair and beard [have] turned into a whitey brown color, and stiff with dirt.”

The weather’s negative impact was multiplied by the fact that the British found the Kandahar region a “dry and thirsty” land of “bad and scanty water”; one officer, stationed at an outpost near the city whose name in Pashtu meant “bitter waters,” wrote in his diary that “most richly [did] the place earn its name, as more disgusting water I never tasted.” The British also found that large combined arms operations moving westward from Qandahar toward Herat were likewise handicapped because “very little water [was] to be found along the way [from Gereshk to Herat] once the Valley of the Helmand [river] is left.” Thereafter, he wrote, the force would be moving “through dry uncultivated country, and there would not have been sufficient water at all halting places for the combined infantry and cavalry brigades.”

6.) What are the true attitudes of local citizens toward the occupying force?

There was a stark division of opinion between British political and military officers on the ability of foreigners to discern the true attitudes of the local Afghans toward them. The political operatives told their military colleagues that the locals welcomed a civilized form of governmental administration. Most soldiers did not buy the assertion. “The [British] civil authorities of course say that the [Afghan] people like our administration,” a senior infantry officer wrote in his diary, “but I confess I doubt it, as they are a very independent lot, and prefer, I think, injustice and oppression from their own people than justice and order after an English pattern.”

British soldiers also quickly learned not to mistake the cordial hospitality with which they were often greeted by Afghans for genuine friendship or tolerance for the foreign presence. “Several of the other chiefs came in to make their salaam to me, and to promise all sorts of things for the future,” a brigade commander wrote in his diary. “An Afghan is, however, so natural a liar that no one thinks of believing them, and among themselves they are never weak enough to put any trust in the other, and in this they are quite wise, as a more treacherous lying set of beings do not, I suppose, exist on the face of the earth.” The British came to believe that any sign of weakness on their part — even if made for humanitarian reasons — would be treated with contempt by the Afghans. “I would never take a retrograde step, except under the strongest compulsion,” wrote a senior officer who was later killed in battle, “as Afghans know nothing, and care less, about the laws of strategy, and see defeat in any but forward movements.”

7.) Can local civilians be won over by mild treatment and money?

The British found that most civilians bent in the direction the wind was blowing, but were always looking for signs of weakness among the foreigners and were always ready to believe as “quite true” any negative rumors about British actions. Most officers concluded that an attack on themselves or their soldiers should be punished immediate and severely, but they were often prevented from doing so by British political officers who worried about offending the locals, arguing that the risk soldiers’ saw was “imaginary,” and they too often “prevailed [with] a hundred good reasons … for doing nothing.” Very often a British failure to punish attackers pushed local civilians into the camp of anti-British Afghans, leading one officer to write that “we throw away our only chance” to deter the locals “by deferring till today what we should have done yesterday.” The British also quickly concluded that they would get no help from the Afghans who were willing to work with them. From the governor on down, a brigade commander wrote, Afghans working with the British are “quite without power or influence, and quite unable to maintain their own authority for a day without our assistance.”

Once established in their cantonment at Kandahar city, the British general commanding and his political advisers again decided to appease the feelings of the civilian population at the expense of their force’s security. A brigade commander argued strenuously that the civilian houses and commercial buildings bordering the cantonment had to be torn down to “make the citadel safer and [to be] more in accordance with the rules of war.” This officer wrote in his diary that he had told the commanding general that, as it stood, the cantonment “is radically bad in a military point of view, and surrounded by houses on three sides. Strictly speaking these houses should have been knocked down for at least 300 yards all round the wall of the citadel, but [the commanding general] appears to have set his face against any military precautions, insisting they were quite unnecessary ‘as the people are all friendly toward us.’” The brigade commander, incidentally, was killed with dozens of his men shortly after writing this diary entry while leading a charge meant to clear houses 200 yards from the cantonment which were then full of those “friendly toward us” who were firing rifles and cannon into the cantonment. The commander’s adjutant later wrote that the deaths resulted from the commanding general’s desire “to conciliate the [local] people … and because he wanted to save the expense of pulling the buildings down.”

British attempts to limit civilian casualties also seemed to win little loyalty. A deputy garrison commander remembered that he established rules whereby soldiers were not allowed to carry loaded weapons or immediately fire at their attackers. “In such cases,” he wrote, “[the men were] to use their bayonets first, and then if pressed the might open ammunition and use it.” The officer found that there was no net gain in improving public attitudes toward the British as a result of risking soldiers’ lives to protect civilians.

The wealth British forces brought to Kandahar likewise bought no loyalty from the locals. “The people here must be making fortunes, and certainly ought to like us,” recorded one officer exasperated by the stand-offish and uncooperative civilians, “as we pay anything they ask for everything, and the prices, although not very exorbitant, are at least double what they use to be.” The bottom line, a British war correspondent wrote in 1879, is that “they will pocket our rupees and thrive on us as long as we remain; and the instant we take our departure, their arms now hidden” will be used against us.

For Britain’s Kandahar garrison, in the summer of 1880, no measure taken conciliated the populace, let alone won their affection, and so the senior officers looked for “an opportunity of administering a lesson to someone.” At day’s end, a senior officer wrote, the city’s “inhabitants had to be kept overawed” by soldiers authorized to preempt any threat they perceived. In addition, senior military officers overcame the objections of the commanding general’s political advisers and began “to disarm every Afghan approaching Kandahar,” and they also expelled 12,000 Pashtuns from inside the walls of Kandahar city. “The Pathans were our enemies, to a man, and their presence in the city our deadliest danger,” a brigade commander noted, “and it seemed to me quite useless to fortify our position or take measures against the enemy without, if we willfully permitted a base and treacherous foe to remain within our walls.”

8.) Are our Afghan allies dependable?

When the British, in July, 1880, advanced westward from Kandahar toward the Helmand valley to confront advancing anti-British Afghans, the force included 2,500 British and Indian army soldiers and about 3,000 Afghan troops loyal to the Wali, or governor, of Kandahar. Shortly after force stopped on the Kandahar side of the Helmand river, “the whole of the Wali’s army was mutinous” and joined the enemy, taking with them and using, a senior officer commented, “the battery of guns our government had been so idiotic to give them … and the first time it was used was to fire on us.” The combined force of anti-British Afghans and Britain’s former Afghan allies attacked the British expedition and killed more than one thousand of the 2,500-man force.

9.) How many people are armed?

Across the Kandahar region the British found a warrior-like people. “[I]n this country,” one of the brigade commanders wrote his wife, “every man’s hand is against his neighbor’s, and everyone goes armed and prepared for treachery and violence. The people are a distinctly war like race, and fight bitterly amongst themselves.” One officer recorded that during his time in Kandahar an armed man was the most “usual sight in this country,” and another quite simply concluded that Afghanistan was the world’s best example of “a nation in arms.”

10.) How much does Islam play a role in local attitudes toward foreigners?

The British expected to and did find that Islam was a pervasive presence in the Kandahar region. They found, however, that most of population was not open or aggressive in expressing their religious contempt for the foreigners’ presence in their country. “Unlike most Mahomedan cities,” an infantry officer wrote, “no domes or minarets of mosques were visible [in Kandahar], and I believe there was only one mosque of any importance, and it would hardly be noticed in any Mahomedan town in India.” There was, however, a certain number of fanatical Muslims called “Ghazis” who were readily willing to sacrifice their life in exchange for trying to kill a foreigner, and were quietly regarded as heroes by much of the population. “I am bound to say,” an officer wrote after taking a wounded Ghazi away from his men who were about to kill him, “[that] he was not a bit grateful but regularly spit at us and defied us.” The officer noted that when the captive was later executed for the attack “he accepted his fate with the most perfect coolness and indifference.”

The British also discovered that their lack of reliable intelligence blinded them to the fact that religious leaders were perfectly capable of working patiently and clandestinely to spur a jihad against them. The clerics, a historian of the Kandahar campaign has written, “went to and fro among the tribes proclaiming the sacred duty of jihad … against unbelieving invaders, stimulating the pious passions of the followers of the Prophet … [and] enjoining chiefs to merge their intestine strifes in the common universal effort to crush the foreign invaders of the Afghan soil.”

Overall, the British believed that while Kandahar’s Pashtuns may occasionally think it useful “to make nominal submission [to foreigners] with tongue in cheek” — especially at moments when they confront overwhelming military power — that they will break out into violence again “whenever an opportunity of temptation presents itself.” The bottom line, a British general officer concluded, was that whether or not they were open and warlike in their defense of Islam, Pashtuns “have an intuitive aptitude for irregular fighting,” that they are both Muslims and nationalists, and that all are “very bitter against foreigners or infidels, and are our irreconcilable enemies.”

The Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-1989

Like the British invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion and occupation was intended as retribution and to improve the USSR’s strategic defensive position. Moscow intended to militarily remove an Afghan regime that had overthrown and murdered its protégé in Kabul, and to reestablish a reliable Afghan regime that would provide a buffer between the southern Soviet border and the growing Islamism of the Muslim world. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has so far produced nothing like the corpus of literature produced by the British military officers and men who served in Kandahar. This may change over time, but for now a cursory review of a wide range of writing — including the Red Army’s after-action report, Western analyses, books and recollections by a few Soviet soldiers and the Afghan mujahideen, and journalism — suggest that the answers the British provided to the questions asked above are not unlike those that the Soviets would provide. For the sake of brevity, I have combined several of the questions that were posed above as individual queries.

1.) How easy is it to move around and can lines of communication be secured?

Compared to the British, it was much easier for the Soviets to conduct military operations in both Kandahar and the provinces to the west because they had no restrictions on the amount of force they could use to achieve their goals. When the Red Army moved, artillery, tanks, and air power were used to whatever extent was necessary to complete the mission. Still, what was said above by a British officer — that Britain’s control over any route in southern Afghanistan lasted only as long as its military physically controlled the area — is equally true regarding the Red Army, even though it had air power, reconnaissance aircraft, and overhead satellites at its disposal. The road from Kushka, inside the USSR, to Herat, eastward through, Shindand, Farah, Delaram, Lahkar Gah, and Gereshk, to Kandahar was never reliably secure even once in the decade-long Soviet occupation. The same is true for the stretch of road from Kandahar eastward to Moqur and then to Ghazni. As a result, the Red Army in southern Afghanistan often lived hand-to-mouth and at times faced shortages of food, fuel and lubricants, and ammunition. Indeed, it can be credibly argued that the whole story of the Soviet occupation of Kandahar and the Afghan south is one of trying to keep Soviet and Afghan forces supplied and functional; keeping those forces supplied was the USSR’s only success in the region. Even though the USSR abutted Afghanistan and therefore provided adjacent safe haven, and the Red Army devoted far more manpower to logistical operations than it had fighting on the ground in Afghanistan, reliable re-supply was never a sure thing.

In terms of movements by small groups or individuals, the Soviets were stymied. Given their status as invaders, atheists, and indiscriminate killers of Afghan civilians, single Soviets or small groups of them were more often than not either killed or captured, and if the latter usually hacked to pieces. Unless involved in military operations, the only safety for Soviet military or civilian personnel was to be found in their well-fortified bases and airfields. A recently published study, based on the reminiscences of Soviet officers who served in Afghanistan, concluded that because of the area’s insecurity “most Soviet officers tried to avoid duty in Kandahar.”

An appropriate coda to this review of the Red Army’s inability to keep lines of communication open can be found in the story of the Red Army’s Kandahar-based 70th Motorized Rifle Brigade’s attempt to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1988. With a full application of Soviet military power to ensure that the Red Army’s withdrawal would come off without further humiliation or disaster, the 70th Motorized Rifle Brigade’s withdrawal was twice halted by the mujahideen south of Heart and the brigade was forced to return to Kandahar. Only on the third attempt — after five weeks of effort — did the brigade reach and cross the Soviet border.

2.) What does the country have and make in the way of military and subsistence, supplies, and how many people are armed?

A century after the British occupation, the Soviets encountered a country that produced agricultural products at mainly subsistence levels and manufactured virtually nothing. The Red Army also encountered a mujahideen force that was well served by native artificers, but the role of those men was less important than in the 1880s because of the flood of arms and ammunition being delivered to the insurgents via Pakistan by the United States and Saudi Arabia. And if the British found Afghanistan to be a nation in arms in 1880, the Soviets found an even better armed populace in 1980.

3.) Can reliable human intelligence be collected?

There is no indication that the Soviets ever succeeded where the British had failed in acquiring reliable and timely intelligence from local Afghan sources. Indeed, the fact that the supply route from the USSR-to-Kandahar — which traverses fairly flat and open terrain — could never be kept reliably open despite the Soviets’ complete air superiority and their nearly complete preponderance in armor and artillery, strongly suggests that accurate human intelligence on the insurgents plans, intentions, and movements was largely lacking.

4.) Does the weather impact military operations?

The weather probably impacted the Red Army more than the British, given Soviet dependence on overhead imagery, air power, and sophisticated tools of war that were hampered or rendered inoperable by extreme temperatures and an arid, sandy, and windy environment.

5.) What are the true attitudes of the local citizens, and can local civilians be won over by mild treatment and money?

This is a hard question to answer as the Soviets never seemed to care about “hearts and minds.” They consistently demonstrated a deeply racist attitude toward non-communist Afghans during their occupation. They had no qualms, for example, about trying to cow the population by the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, and children; the intentional destruction of intricate irrigation systems build over centuries; or about the deliberate 1987 leveling of large sections of the cities of Heart and Kandahar to provide free-fire zones for Red Army gunners. Overall, the Red Army’s modus operandi toward civilians made the 1880s British occupation appear to have been conducted at the hands of a direct, and just as saintly, predecessor of Mother Theresa.

6.) Are our Afghan allies dependable?

More than in any other region of Afghanistan, the Red Army attempted to shift the bulk of offensive operations and road-clearing in Kandahar and southern Afghanistan to local Afghan army and police units. These organizations had been ideologically indoctrinated and militarily trained by Soviet advisers since at least the early 1970s. They had also been thoroughly infiltrated by agents of the KGB and GRU in an effort to limit opportunities for desertion en masse. All of this did little good. A Red Army-trained and Kandahar-based Afghan army division, for example, mutinied just after the Soviet invasion in 1980, and it mutinied again in 1987 — along with new units that had been expensively armed and trained by the Soviets since 1980 — while conducting an offensive to clear mujahideen from the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar.

7.) How much does Islam play a role in local attitudes toward foreigners?

This answer to this question is that Islam played a huge role in response to the Soviet invasion for at least three reasons. First, even before the 1979 Soviet invasion, Moscow’s surrogate communist regime in Kabul was trying to eradicate Islam and impose socialism by force in much of rural Afghanistan. As a result, there was an incipient Islamic insurgency underway in the pre-invasion years. Second, Kabul and the Red Army continued murderous efforts to install socialism after the Soviets arrival and — as noted above — indiscriminately killed 1.5 million Muslims and displaced 3 million more. These actions drove Afghans ever closer to their faith for solace, hope, unity, and survival. Third, the Afghan insurgency inspired Muslims around the world to support and applaud the Afghan resistance, making the Afghan jihad a Muslim cause celebre and also making Afghans much more aware than ever before of being part of a worldwide Islamic community. Over all, the Soviets found themselves, as had the British, in a religious war.

Conclusion: Are their commonalities in the British and Soviet experiences?

Although the two occupations are separated by a century and by far more in the development of technology, there are commonalities between the British and Soviet experiences of campaigning in Kandahar. At least eight come to mind:

  1. The terrain, weather, water scarcity, and lack of local infrastructure that both militaries encountered made movement for military operations difficult, and at times extremely so. Because of the relatively flat and open nature of the terrain, British and Soviet preparations for military operations were readily visible to the enemy and therefore surprise could seldom be achieved.
  2. Huge British and Soviet advantages in terms of modern military and communications technology made very little difference; in the end, insurgents armed with inferior arms and technology forced Great Britain and the USSR to withdraw.
  3. The style and conduct of occupation seemed to matter very little. The rather light-hand and civilian-casualty-averse British occupation did not win the British occupiers many more friends than the very few the Soviets won with an utterly barbaric approach to occupation.
  4. Neither the British nor the Soviets ever established a clandestine human reporting network that produced reliable and timely intelligence. Intelligence collection for both depended largely on reconnaissance by their own forces, and therefore the British and Soviets very seldom acquired accurate information about the enemies’ plans and intentions.
  5. Both the Soviets and the British seemed to be defined by all Afghans as infidels and occupiers whose presence profaned the land of Muslim Afghanistan. The British seem to have had a better handle on this common Afghan perception than the Soviets, but neither seems to have fully understood that their physical presence in the country was the single most important factor that provided a glue of unity to the normally fractious Afghan tribes and clans. Both British and the Soviet Afghan veterans probably would concur with an assessment written by a British officer in 1880. We are seen, this infantry officer wrote, “[as] an infidel army in occupation of the country, and under the outward cloak of sullen submission is hidden deep hatred of the intruders on account of their race and religion. In every village and hamlet men listen eagerly to the preaching of the mullahs, who stir up their passions with lying stories of the coming time when Islam and their women will be violated by the infidels. The appeal is made to the two objects most precious in the eyes of an Afghan or any other Muhammaden — his faith and his women.”
  6. Britain and the USSR both found that those Afghans they considered allies were ultimately unreliable no matter how well paid and trained they were. The Soviets, in particular, invested great amounts of time, manpower, weapons, and money in training “popular Afghan tribal militias” only to find that once trained, many of the militiamen deserted to their brothers and cousins among the mujahideen, and then fought their trainers.
  7. British and Soviet forces operating in Kandahar quickly learned that their Afghan enemies could not be intimidated by repeated and overwhelming applications of fire power. A British officer probably echoed Soviet sentiments as well when he wrote during the 1880 withdrawal from Kandahar that the Afghans “are a proud people and a savage soldiery and they are smarting under recent chastisements but they are far from considering themselves a conquered race. Heaven knows how many defeats would be necessary to extort any admission of inferiority” from the Afghans. Both also found that their Afghan enemies would not stand and fight to the death, but would flee and hide until they could create an opportunity to attack, or until British or Soviet forces created such an opportunity by making a mistake.
  8. The British and Soviet occupiers never really came to grips with the absolutely un-Western sense of time and degree of patience that were exhibited by their Afghan enemies. Both militaries often mistakenly interpreted long periods of enemy quiescence as solid evidence of the enemies’ deteriorating capabilities and morale, and as proof of their own progress. The extraordinarily patient Afghans, wrote a British officer in 1880, “will take our rupees today, and be all subserviency or sullen independence … and will cut our throats and hack our bodies to pieces tomorrow as part of the beautiful program” they believe was ordained by Allah.

Having thus briefly reviewed the experiences of the two foreign occupying armies that preceded NATO in Afghanistan, I will leave it up to the audience to determine whether the history of those occupations provide any useful lessons for today’s occupiers, or whether the book reviewer mentioned at the start of this talk was correct in saying that “crude comparisons” to earlier foreign occupations of Afghanistan “are probably best left to one side.”

And no matter how you decide to answer that question, I will leave you to mull over three quotations. The first is from Lord Roberts, who wrote after he had temporarily awed Britain’s Afghan enemies and safely evacuated British forces from Afghanistan in 1880, that “we have nothing to fear from Afghanistan,” Roberts wrote,” and the best thing to do is to leave it as much as possible to itself. It may not be flattering to our self-perception, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us.”

The second quotation comes from a young British lieutenant named Charles Grey Robinson. After exiting Afghanistan with Roberts’ rearguard, Lt. Robertson wrote about his last look at the Kandahar plain. From that view, and his own experiences, Robertson told his diary that “the very best thing in Afghanistan is the road out of it.”

The final quotation, and one that quite clearly shows the continuity of experience over more than a century of history, comes for a Canadian officer who served in Kandahar. Canada’s forces, this officer wrote, have been practicing a “finger in the dyke strategy,” as most of Kandahar’s population is opposed to NATO’s presence. Operational conditions are extremely difficult, we have had “soldiers walk a few hundred yards and collapse in 130 degree temperatures before a shot is fired,” and resupply is difficult and at times interrupted. In addition, “it is too chaotic on the ground, and there are too many people, so we cannot tell who is the enemy.” Moreover, “it is a mistake to count too much on technology because the Taliban doesn’t have any technology.” Overall, we hold an area only when we are physically present, and the best we can do is “to keep the insurgency at bay.”

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.