Walking like a pretzel

The National Security Archives at George Washington University recently published translations of Soviet Politburo meetings on Afghanistan. They are more illuminating than the combined words of America’s punditocracy that litter the nation’s editorial pages. For one, they probably reflect the administration’s deliberations with uncanny accuracy. For two, they are free of the domestic political maneuvering that editorial writers in the US seem incapable of putting aside. Reading them for their content and applying the words to the US situation requires letting go of the American exceptionalism that plagues our thoughts, but it is important to remember that such exceptionalism will be our downfall…so it’s best to dispense with that in any case.

Mikhail Sergeyevich applies the idiomatic phrase “…… vydelyvnet Krendelya” to Karmal. We could use it do describe Karzai, Obama, Clinton, McChrystal, et. al.. It translates literally as “….. is walking like a pretzel.” The figurative meaning is that someone is staggering and weaving like a drunk; that is, not being straight-forward.

The Soviets had the exact same problem with Afghan government legitimacy that the US is having now. They had the same problem with the Pakistan-Afghan border land that we have now. They had a better Afghan Army to work with and still had the problems we’re having. History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes and in this case we’re merely looking at history translated from Russian to English.

Early in the proceedings on 13 November 1986, Gorbachev says to the Politburo:

“We have been fighting in Afghanistan for already six years. If the approach is not changed, we will continue to fight for another 20-30 years. This would cast a shadow on our abilities to affect the evolution of the situation. Our military should be told that they are learning badly from this war. … In general we have not selected the keys to resolving this problem. What, are we going to fight endlessly, as a testimony that our troops are not able to deal with the situation? We need to finish this as soon as possible.”

President Obama is, of course, dealing with the most insubordinate cadre of generals since MacArthur went and lost the Korean War. They are hoping for another 20-30 years to continue learning badly–and attempting to wash out the stain of Vietnam by repeating the same mistakes. Obama could fire the lot of them, but he won’t. The question remains to what extent they will influence the decision making process towards their own, institutional ends. That is the operative process for the DoD here; fighting terrorism or stabilizing Afghanistan is of no concern to Petraeus, McChrystal, etc., they’re concerned with their budgets and their glory. The fate of the nation comes in somewhere well below personal and institutional ambition.

A.A. Gromyko points out, “Too long ago we spoke on the fact that it is necessary to close off the border of Afghanistan with Pakistan and Iran. Experience has shown that we are unable to do this in view of the difficult terrain of the area and the existence of hundreds of passes in the mountains.” My goodness does that sound familiar. The Soviets, of course, could not pressure Pakistan to apply military force to its side of the Durand Line, but it makes little difference. The last eight years have shown the situation to be like applying pressure to a water balloon: press the Afghan side and the insurgents squirt to Pakistan, press the Pakistan side and the insurgents move back to Afghanistan. It is, in effect, the same problem with different uniforms involved.

Gorbachev is clearly thinking about ending the war by this politburo session (in a maximum of two years), much like the D.C. leak-fest is suggesting that Obama wants exit strategies. But the Soviets spend a fair amount of time discussing the problems they have with domestic politics in Afghanistan. Gromyko says, “In the Afghan Army the number of conscripts equals the number of deserters.” And the politburo must contend with distancing itself from Karmal without completely undermining the relationship. “It is also necessary to keep him [Karmal] on the general track; to cut him off would not be the best scenario. It is more expedient to preserve [his relations] with us.”

Domestic politics in Afghanistan are clearly bleeding into wider political questions. “Concerning the Americans, they are not interested in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it is to their advantage for the war to drag out.” If the reader would like to question American motives, he should refer to the statement of Ishmael Khan [a familiar name in current events], “The Americans want us to continue fighting but not to win, just to bleed the Russians.” Today there is no clear cut support for the Afghan insurgency against the US, but that doesn’t mean that regional players are not happy to see the insurgency bleed the United States as the mujaheddin bled the Soviets.

At this point, the politburo discusses involving regional players like India and puts a political settlement to the Afghan conflict at the top of its list. “In one word, it is necessary to more actively pursue a political settlement. Our people will breathe a deep sigh if we undertake steps in that direction.” My best guess is that there was hope in the administration that the Afghan elections would open the door for such a political settlement; to the same end we hear rumors of talks with the Taliban.

Shevardnadze, “Right now we are reaping the fruit of our un-thought-out decisions of the past.” And indeed, history does sometimes repeat itself with alarming precision. The Soviets were in a damned if we do/damned if we don’t situation by the middle of November 1986. We find ourselves in the same situation. Shevardnadze continues, “It is necessary to state precisely the period of withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. You, Mikhail Serge’evich, said it correctly – two years. But neither our, nor Afghan comrades have mastered the questions of the functioning of the government without our troops.”

Akhromeyev (deputy minister of defense):

Military action in Afghanistan will soon be seven years old. There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of rebels. … There is no single military problem that has arisen and that has not been solved, and yet there is still no result. The whole problem is the fact that military results are not followed up by political [actions]. At the center is authority; in the provinces there is not. We control Kabul and the provincial centers, but on occupied territory we cannot establish authority. The government is supported by a minority of the population. Our army has fought for five years. It is now in a position to maintain the situation on the level that it exists now. But under such conditions the war will continue for a long time.

If the similarities between then and now, the USSR and the USA, weren’t frightening enough already, they get worse. The Politburo continues its discussion and moves into the situation of the Afghans as a population. Vorontsov, “Afghanistan is a peasant country (80 percent of the population are peasants). But it is exactly they who have least benefited from the revolution. Over eight years of the revolution agricultural production has increased by only 7 percent, and the standard of living peasants remains at pre-revolutionary levels.” He then quotes comrade Zeray, “because of various reasons, the status of the peasants in the government zone is in certain ways worse than in regions of counter-revolutionary activity.”

That’s how a large power loses a counter-insurgency in an undeveloped nation, and that’s how the US is losing the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Being under the control of the occupier has little or no benefit to the population. Being under the control of the established central government is often worse than being under the control of the insurgency.

Gorbachev sums up the meeting:

“In October of last year [1985] in a Politburo meeting we determined upon a course of settling the Afghan question. The goal which we raised was to expedite the withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan and simultaneously ensure a friendly Afghanistan for us. It was projected that this should be realized through a combination of military and political measures. But there is no movement in either of these directions. The strengthening of the military position of the Afghan government has not taken place. National consolidation has not been ensured mainly because comrade Karmal continued to hope to sit in Kabul under our assistance. It has also been said that we fettered the actions of the Afghan government.”

It seems that Obama’s first strategic review of Afghanistan took a similar shape to the Politburo’s 1985 decision, and roughly one year later the Obama administration finds itself in the same position as the Politburo’s 13 November 1986 meeting details. If there is any hope for the nation and the Obama administration, someone is brandishing the sheets of paper quoted above. The American experience in Afghanistan will be as fruitless and, ultimately, the same sort of failure as the Soviets experienced…for exactly the same reasons.

Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and it is not hyperbole to suggest that the long-term fate of the United States will mirror that of the Soviet Union if our leadership does not head the lessons available. The USSR expended money and energy badly needed at home in Afghanistan; Afghanistan alone did not destroy that nation, but it was certainly one straw too many. The United States is not unbreakable, and the time for basing decisions on national myths is long passed.

Choose well, Mr. President. The fate of your nation may well rest with the decisions made today.

PDF of the Politburo meeting minutes

Further archival material here and here

6 comments on “Walking like a pretzel

  1. Being under the control of the occupier has little or no benefit to the population. Being under the control of the established central government is often worse than being under the control of the insurgency.

    I hate to say it, but I’ve almost reached the point where I’d like to see the Taliban in power.

  2. Pingback: BlogBites. Like sound bites. But without the sound. » Blog Archive » The Soviets had the exact same problem with Afghan government legitimacy that the US is having now. They had the same problem with the Pakistan-Afghan border land that we hav

  3. I think I figured out why soldiers who come home from Afghanistan are so fucked up. They spend so much time trying to figure out the enemy there and yet after all this money and effort they are stymied. They are no further off than at day 1 of the invasion. And it finally dawns on them, a brief moment before they fade off into insanity, that the enemy is smarter than they are. How could it be that a bunch of simple mud hut dwellers outsmarted the most powerful army in the world? And so faced with this paradox, their minds instantly warp, like a kernel that has popped from too much internal pressure and becomes something else entirely.

    Now, apply this to the entire organization that is the US government and its military, and you understand the insanity behind the entire enterprise.

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