Failure of Soviets can teach America: Q&A with David Lesch

Sunday, September 23, 2001
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Failure of Soviets can teach America
Q&A with David Lesch

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

When historian David Lesch’s new book was published in July, he had no idea the events he described would echo so quickly in the halls of American government. The book, 1979: The Year That Shaped the Modern Middle East, details the last time a superpower threatened Afghanistan: that year’s Soviet invasion.

In a telephone interview Wednesday with Dallas Morning News staff writer Joshua Benton, Dr. Lesch, a professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio and a consultant to the State Department, discussed what lessons the failed Soviet invasion can have for those planning a potential American attack.

Here are excerpts:

Question: Why did the Soviets invade in 1979?

Answer: There had been instability in Afghanistan since 1973, when there was a coup that may have been supported by the Soviet Union. That regime turned out to be a bit more independently minded than the Soviets had hoped, so they supported another coup in 1978 that brought a triumvirate of Afghani Marxist leaders to power.

But trying to impose Communist reform on the country was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. This was a pre-industrial, traditional, feudal-type society, and they were trying to make it into a Marxist country. That transition just doesn’t happen without a country going through a capitalist phase first, and even then it doesn’t work.

So, when there were uprisings against that government, the Soviets invaded, with 80,000 to 100,000 troops.

Question: What makes warfare in Afghanistan so difficult?

Answer: The country is almost immune to centralization. Geographically, it’s very mountainous, and it’s really a tribal-based society.

The transportation system isn’t very good. To get places, you have to use dirt roads, pack mules, animal transportation. And the mountains provide cover for rebels, as they have going back centuries. There are no real major navigable rivers to unite the country.

They say that no one has controlled the Afghan countryside since Alexander the Great, and the Soviets didn’t do any better.

Question: If Afghanistan was so difficult to control, why did the Soviets feel threatened by it?

Answer: The Soviet Union had always had a defensive paranoia about countries on its borders. That’s why they created the buffer of friendly states, the Warsaw Pact, in Eastern Europe.

In 1979, you had Afghanistan being unstable, you had the Iranian revolution, you had the U.S. taking a greater interest in the region because of the Iranian hostage situation, and you had the U.S. and China opening up formal diplomatic relations for the first time.

So the Soviet Union was seeing the noose tighten around its neck. And they worried that an Islamist takeover in Afghanistan could inspire similar movements in the neighboring Soviet republics. In the Kremlin’s view, Afghanistan could not be lost.

They also saw the relative passivity and weakness the Carter administration showed in responding to the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis. They saw we didn’t react in a strong way, so they figured they didn’t really have much to lose from invading.

Question: The Soviets were stuck in Afghanistan for a decade before withdrawing without victory in 1989. Had they not expected such a difficult war?

Answer: They basically had the same experience we had in Vietnam. They thought they would have more support from the Afghan army than they did. They underestimated the fighting capabilities of the Afghan public.

It also was a major turning point in 1986, when the U.S. started giving the Mujahadeen Stinger missiles. In a four-month period, 512 Soviet aircraft were shot down with Stingers. That was a drastic, drastic change.

Question: How direct of a line can be drawn between the loss in Afghanistan and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union?

Answer: It’s absolutely directly related. You could say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It put a tremendous strain on the Soviet economy, which was already in bad shape. It really led to the decision of Gorbachev to retreat in foreign affairs, to say, “I can’t maintain the level of defense spending and global
engagement to keep up the Cold War, so I’m just going to end the Cold War.”

Question: What kind of country did the Soviets leave behind?

Answer: They left behind a puppet regime, like we did in South Vietnam, that fell quickly to the opposition. A coalition of Islamist groups took control, and there were a couple of regime changes within that coalition, then coups and countercoups. And arising out of that frenetic mix was the Taliban, which took control of Kabul in 1996.

The Taliban was basically made up of students in the madrasas, the religious schools along the border with Pakistan. They had been influenced by a radical Sunni Muslim set of beliefs called Deobandism, which grew out of India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in opposition to the British presence there. The Taliban made it much more extreme in terms of strictly applying Islamic

It’s virulently anti-West, which seemed to take root among these students. They’ve actually had more success than previous rulers in controlling the country. There certainly are plenty of Afghans who are not 100 percent in support of the Taliban, but conditions had reached a point that things were so chaotic that people were willing to accept any group that could restore some sort of stability.

Question: What role has Pakistan historically played in our relations with Afghanistan?

Answer: The U.S. was downgrading relations in Pakistan in 1979, because we didn’t like General Zia al-Haq, who had come to power in a coup, and because they refused to state categorically that they were not interested in building a nuclear capability. But when the Soviets invaded, we were made strange bedfellows by our common interest in opposing the Soviets.

Zia al-Haq was interested in bringing Islamist parties into the regime, and that’s a presence that’s continued since. These very radical Islamist groups have a big say in Pakistani military policy. Deobandism is very popular in the military and the intelligence system there.

When the Taliban came to power, Pakistan recognized them. From Pakistan’s viewpoint, Afghanistan can be a valuable ally against India. They see the Taliban as supportive of their position in Kashmir. And as the Taliban attempts to export its views to other Central Asian countries, the “Talibanization” of the region, Pakistan sees an opportunity to have greater influence over other neighboring countries.

It’s an extremely complicated situation. If Pervez Musharraf is overthrown or pressured to take a particular position, they could threaten India – and then you’ve got two nuclear powers facing off. And China is a big supporter of Pakistan, so you could be talking about a domino effect.

Question: What lessons can the U.S. take from the Soviets’ failed invasion?

Answer: Well, the American objectives are going to be much more limited than the Soviets’ were. The Soviets wanted to control a regime and control a country. That’s something the U.S. doesn’t seem to be interested in; we’re not interested in controlling the country. So a lot of the difficulties the Soviets had won’t be as significant to the United States.

But I say that with great qualification: I don’t think anything we do is going to be easy.

Question: Do you think the Taliban can be persuaded to turn over Osama bin Laden?

Answer: There is some division in the Taliban between the more ideological and the more moderate – maybe “practical” is a better word than “moderate.” There are probably some people who would be willing to turn bin Laden over, perhaps to a third country. But remember that Osama bin Laden contributes $50 million to $100 million a year to the Taliban. And from their viewpoint, they’ve defeated a superpower before.

They don’t have much to lose. Their country is in tatters. They feel they can ride this out somehow and come out of it more popular than ever in the end.

But even if we do get Osama, there are other groups out there. I’m sure he’s made plans for the continuance of his organization after he leaves the scene. If the U.S. is to be successful, there needs to be an initiative over a long period of time.