History not repeating itself in Afghanistan
Twenty five years ago this month, the last Soviet soldier marched out of Afghanistan, bringing an end to a nine year occupation that cost the lives of 15,000 Soviet troops and more than a million Afghans. With the close of the Cold War, the West lost interest in the region and Afghanistan became a proxy battlefield for subversive regional power play. Infighting between competing Afghan mujahedeen factions brought anarchy, paving the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now, as the drawdown of international forces approaches, there’s growing fear that history might repeat itself.
It doesn’t have to work out the same way.
For a start, while the political system in Afghanistan is far from perfect, it enjoys far greater support and legitimacy among the Afghan people than the communist regime did in the 1980s. While Afghan presidents back then were effectively appointed by the Kremlin, Afghans today have elected their own leader – and will head to the polls in April to pick a successor to Hamid Karzai. And despite growing pessimism in the West about Afghanistan, Afghans generally remain optimistic about their future: an Asia Foundation survey last year found that a majority of Afghans (57 percent) believed their country was moving in the right direction.
The Red Army’s horrendous tactics, including indiscriminate aerial bombardments and the use of chemical weapons and landmines, provoked mass uprisings across the country, forcing five million Afghans to take refuge in neighboring countries. In contrast, civilian casualties resulting from U.S. and NATO air strikes have occurred on a much smaller scale. Indeed, insurgents have been responsible for far more civilian deaths.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator with GMF's Asia program where he works on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He also instructs senior U.S. military and civilian officials about the region.