Americantsy: How We’re Just Like the Russians

For those of you who long for the days when we were bombarded by the Kagans and Max Boot constantly sounding the horn of King David’s greatness and wish we could always be treated to that kind of nuanced thinking, your unspoken prayers have been answered. Thom Shanker’s painfully thin connection between the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and that of the Americans is here to grind your hopes for a subtler editorial approach from the New York Times into a fine powder. Kind of like Katie Holmes’ career. This short film is probably the highlight of her 2012 acting campaign.

I blame Tom for that. Since her body of work before then was pretty much Oscar-worthy. And before you get sucked in here, this is a bit of a long one. It started out as a listicle, morphed into a bit of a rant, then stumbled into being a 3,000 word whatever. My apologies: I thought it could be shorter, but there’s a lot that’s wrong here. So, naturally, I must retort.

Based on what the New York Times usually puts out, I can’t blame Shanker, not really: if we’re not comparing our experience to the Russians, we’re drawing Crayola-happy lines between what’s happening here and what happened in Vietnam. It’s easy to make such comparisons when one is faced with a readership that’s largely forgotten about Afghanistan and is likely more concerned with KK & K’s baby and what that’s doing to tear the Kardashians apart. If we really cared, we’d be aware of the fact that Khloe’s just a mess over this, and Kim’s learning that the whole thing isn’t easy. If that’s your audience, then the weak sauce that is this sort of editorializing works, generating readership and “buzz.”

If you squint, looks just like Kabul. It's not Kabul.

If you squint, looks just like Kabul. It’s not Kabul.

But smart folks also thought this piece was a bit of journalistic gold, based on a non-scientific polling of Twitter yesterday. Since I respect these people and their opinions, I figured I’d give the article a closer read. I was hoping for a “must read.” I was hoping for the kind of excellent reporting I’ve come to expect from the Times staff here in Afghanistan. (No snark, they do good work).

I was hoping for the sort of brilliance one normally associates with Hobbit films and funnel cake (yes, I’ve lowered my expectations over the years here). What I got was the freakishly facile construction reserved for middle school persuasive essays on the various merits of angst-ridden “teams” in those vampire movies.

It’s a funnel cake. And they are awesome.

Here’s what Shanker and those he interviewed for the article got right: the Americans and the Russians have both been involved in Afghanistan. And Leo Panetta is the Secretary of Defense.

Nope, I didn’t forget to finish the paragraph. That’s pretty much it.

Experts, experts…a pox on the experts

In fairness to Mr. Shanker, he does acknowledge how some of the parallels aren’t terribly concise. And some of the more egregious failings of the article are the fault of the “experts” he’s interviewed for the article. So I don’t blame him fully for this…maybe we can still blame his editors, who haven’t exactly endeared themselves in recent months.

Full disclosure: my first read was that this makes some sense: you’ve got the tough choices, the wasted money…it’s all here. But then it started to fall apart faster than Lindsay Lohan’s career. Maybe not that fast, but let’s face it: somewhere in the universe the decision was made that the world needed a throaty-voiced comedic red haired actress, the 21st century version of Lucille Ball. And, since the Linz has dropped that ball, the universe gave us Emma Stone. Who’s hysterical, and so far seems disinclined to turn herself into a human Hindenburg. Unlike that other redhead comedienne, Kathy Griffin.

Then. And now. The years have not been kind.

Remember Parent Trap?Yeah, Lohan was adorable. Long way from there to Celebrity Big Brother and bumming cash off of Charlie Sheen.

If Shanker covered how the initial heavy-handed approach by US forces could not be sustained and necessitated a shift toward the current efforts at reconstruction and improved governance, and how that mirrored the Soviet experience, I’d be writing a different post. Or how the installation of a Communist regime supported by external forces is an (albeit murky) parallel to how we’ve supported Karzai, hugs and kisses all around. Or how an overwhelming gap between the firepower of both the Americans/Russians and their opponents still did not equate to military victory, I’m a happy, happy camper. Instead, we get things like this:

What mostly is remembered about the withdrawal is the Soviet Union’s humiliation, and the ensuing factional bloodletting across Afghanistan that threw the country into a vicious civil war. It ended with Taliban control and the establishment of a safe haven for Al Qaeda before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

What this ignores is the fact that the “ensuing factional bloodletting” wasn’t entirely the fault of the collapse of the Soviet regime. Given that the Americans had a fairly significant hand in the toppling of said regime, the power vacuum that was created by the Soviet departure wasn’t filled by any efforts on the part of the American government. This was, indeed, a future problem we created. Yes, the Soviet absence generated the problem, but we aided in that toppling, and in so doing must bear some of the blame. That, coupled with the fact that Al Qaeda was first and foremost a Saudi problem fomented in Pakistan by American dollars, and not an Afghan problem at the start, and things are not looking up for the rest of the article.

When is an op-ed not an op-ed? When it’s in the Times, apparently

Shanker continues:

To be sure, there are significant contrasts between the two interventions in Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion and occupation were condemned as illegal aggression, while the American one was embraced by the international community, including Russia, as a “just war,” one with limited goals of routing the Taliban and eliminating Al Qaeda. That war of necessity has since evolved into a war of choice, one the Obama administration is working to end as quickly as is feasible.

I didn’t realize this was an op-ed, since it’s not on the op-ed page, but that last sentence sounds suspiciously like an op-ed, and ignores completely the previous sentence in the paragraph. If the goals here were the routing of the Taliban and the elimination of Al Qaeda, then we’re not done. We are nowhere closer to “Mission Accomplished” on that front than we were when Bush made Kinko’s proud on the Lincoln. Granted, I have no idea if Kinko’s printed the banner or not, but how has this evolved into a war of choice? If ISAF and the Department of Defense are to be believed, the Taliban is far from routed, and Al Qaeda is resurgent, if anything. So how are we involved in a war of choice? And how should we define “feasible”?


I’m not saying I’m disagreeing with Shanker’s assertion: what I am saying is that his statement conflicts with the previous one. If he’d gone on to detail the idea that the international community as a whole has seen this war differently, that might be the case. I’m not sure that there was ever truly an embrace: yes, it’s a multi-national force here, but the majority of the fighting is being done by the US and the UK. So we’re not getting too much in the way of hugs.

Despite the differences going in, both the Soviet Union and the United States soon learned that Afghanistan is a land where foreigners aspiring to create nations in their image must combat not just the Taliban but tribalism, orthodoxy, corruption and a medieval view of women. As well, Pakistan has had interests at odds with those of the neighboring government in Afghanistan, whether Kabul was an ally of Moscow or of Washington.

“The Soviet Union did not understand religious and ethnic factors sufficiently, and overestimated the capacity of Afghan society to move very fast toward a modern era, in this case socialism,” said Svetlana Savranskaya, director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive, an independent research center at George Washington University.

“Here I see similarities with the approach of the United States, especially with all the discussion about trying to leave behind an Afghanistan that is democratic and respects the rights of women, ideas that simply are not accepted across the broad society there,” said Ms. Savranskaya, who has written extensively on the Soviet archives.

So the “big 4″ here are: tribalism, orthodoxy, corruption, and a “medieval view of women.” Let’s discuss.


Gant. Being tribal. (stevenpressfield.com)

The West is obsessed with the idea of tribal groups, because blaming failures on tribalism is a lot easier than coming right out and saying, “Yeah, we don’t really know why we screwed up.” Further, the notion that one must “combat” tribalism vs. trying to leverage tribal relationships into a cohesive effort for change speaks to the heart of why much of the analysis in the West about Afghanistan (and indeed anywhere with any aspirations to a tribal culture) is just plain wrong.

Leveraging the tribes vs. combating them, however, takes time. More time than the Americans, with their 9 month PRT rotations and their 12 month combat troop rotations, and their 6-12 month civilian worker rotations (with a few notable and admirable exceptions…looking at you, Dr. Malkasian) are willing or able to spend. So it’s not a matter of combating that issue, it’s a matter of engaging effectively.


This is what I think orthodoxy and Afghanistan probably looks like. (Jeremy Nicholl)

Again the Western obsession with something they don’t understand, but really really want to wrap their brain around. Too often the Americans try to engage barely literate Pashtuns in discussions of how we’re all “people of the book,” which plays well over chai in the governor’s compound or in the palace in the Emerald City, but not so much in Garmsir.

“I have no doubt that what happened today will reach insurgents,” said Carroll. “At least the message that ISAF came down here, the ISAF commander stood up and said he was a man of faith and had respect for the religion and culture.”

If you’re going to find common ground, this isn’t the place to do it. Period. Again, too, this is something you need to be aware of, leverage (if possible) or ignore (better option), but trying to combat it will win you no friends.


Hard to spell corruption without a “K.” (marxist.com)

Not just an Afghan problem, and one we exacerbated through lax oversight of the billions of aid dollars we poured into this country. If the Americans make a habit (and they used to) of giving away money to start projects before projects were even started or supported by the local community, corruption will result. If our oversight systems are so shoddy that the Afghans are able to ship billions of dollars out on airplanes, that’s not just an Afghan problem. Once again, it’s a situation we helped create, and now we’re blaming it all on them.

Medieval View of Women

Kabul. In the 1970s. Pre-Russian medievalism. (foreignpolicy.com)

The idea that the idea of the “rights of women” are “not accepted across the broad society there” takes a typically narrow view of the rights of women in Afghanistan. Let me be clear: it’s an issue that must be dealt with, and there is very reason to be concerned that post-2014, the issue of women’s rights will fade to black. But to imply that the broader society is “medieval” in its view of women ignores the number of women in parliament, the number of girls in schools, the number of women getting jobs in government and technical positions today. It’s insulting: to those women, and to those parts of the country that’s working toward opening even more doors for women in Afghanistan.

Yes, there are areas (many of them) in this country where women are viewed as property. But that predates the Taliban, and those kinds of activities were likely taking place during the halcyon days of women wearing skirts in Kabul. Let’s not forget: it’s only in the 20th century that American women could vote, or that blacks were considered people. But those areas were, are, and will be disconnected from a central government no matter who’s in charge in Kabul.

But that’s fine, because we just need to be leaving…faster.

If the Soviet experience offers any guidance to the current American withdrawal, she said, it would be to accelerate the departure of foreign combat forces — but to leave in their place a “sustained, multiyear international involvement in military training, education and civilian infrastructure projects, and maybe not focusing on building democracy as much as improving the lives of the common people.”

Not sure how much more we can accelerate this without literally shutting off the lights and getting the hell out of Dodge tomorrow. 2014 is setting us up for an “Operation Ready or Not” that’s going to have Afghans at the forefront, hell or high water, and consequences be damned. The current pace is already too fast, and to accelerate it further will only lead to disaster.

The second part of that sentence makes we wonder if Ms. Savranskaya could find Afghanistan on a map, since the US military, USAID, and other donors have spent billions (with a “b”) on just those kinds of projects. Yes, building democracy and governance are part of that package, but much of those billions have been directed at “improving the lives of the common people.” Whether that’s been done successfully remains to be seen.

Hey everybody! 2014’s almost here!

This next bit seems a little obvious.

And she noted that the United States should already be seeking partnership with Afghan leaders beyond Mr. Karzai, who is viewed across large parts of the population as tainted by his association with the Americans.

This is a good idea. Why? Because Karzai’s officially out of office in 2014. So, yes, since he won’t be here, maybe we should do that. Unless the Mayan predicted the end of Afghanistan in mid-2014, I’m pretty sure folks are already on that. As to whether Karzai is tainted by his association with Americans? There is some of that, but the Afghans I speak to on this are more concerned with Karzai’s own corruption. Yes, the Americans put him where he is, but he’s created a great many problems for himself all on his own.

Pentagon officials have signaled that they are hoping for an enduring military presence of 10,000 or more troops, but may have to accept fewer, to cement the progress of the years of fighting. Those troops would focus on training and supporting Afghan forces along with a counterterrorism contingent to hunt Qaeda and insurgent leaders.

In a parallel, one of Mr. Gorbachev’s closest early confidants, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, advocated a slow withdrawal pace — and pressed for 10,000 to 15,000 Soviet troops to remain to support the Communist government. The Soviets left only 300 advisers.

My wife will be the first to tell any of you that I’m not good at math. Which is why she carries our checkbook. But the lowest numbers put out by the DoD for troops remaining behind is still in the thousands. Just not sure how one gets from 6,000 to 10,000 (the lowest, and scariest, numbers) to…300. Unless they’re 300 Spartans? That might be pretty badass.

Remember when Gerard Butler made decent movies? (wildaboutmovies.com)

But Shanker’s saved the best for last, and the express train to Nonsensetown goes right off the rails here:

Around the time of the Soviet withdrawal, an article by Pravda, the Communist Party mouthpiece, clutched for a positive view as the Soviet Army pulled out. Read today, it bears a resemblance to the news releases churned out by the Pentagon detailing statistics on reconstruction assistance.

“Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over 30 hospitals and a similar number of nursery schools, some 400 apartment buildings and 35 mosques,” the article said. “They sank dozens of wells and dug nearly 150 kilometers of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also engaged in guarding military and civilian installations in trouble.”

Where this has a passing parallel is in the numbers/definition game that the Pentagon likes to play. And that we too have helped in the rebuilding of a great deal of the infrastructure here. Where it sounds nothing like the American verbiage is in that Soviet soldiers are doing the reconstruction. Yes, there is some of that the in PAO releases, but the major difference (at least conceptually) is that the Americans are helping the Afghans do it for themselves. We do puff our chests, but the idea that Mother Homeland is getting the win here isn’t taking place. The message is that we’re helping them do it for themselves.

Ready or not.

Then the final paragraphs:

At each stop, Mr. Panetta acknowledged that significant challenges remain to an orderly withdrawal and a stable postwar Afghanistan, and not just the resilient insurgency.

He cited unreliable Afghan governance, continuing corruption and the existence of insurgent safe havens in Pakistan. None of those are likely to be fixed with American firepower.

Here’s where Shanker really wants to make a point, but comes up short.

The governance: we own much of that, since we helped write that 2004 constitution that’s giving the country a collective headache.

The corruption: we own much of that.

Safe havens in Pakistan: not sure how that echoes the Russians. Those are there because we put them there during our proxy war with the Russkies in the 80s.

Articles like this one are part of the problem with much of the analysis here and and pretty much any other country where the United States finds itself involved: it’s just too easy to find an expert who’s ready to draw the picture you think will be most easily digested by your readers. We don’t want nuance, we want the big picture in crayons. We want Kinkade, the Kardashians, Kanye…and the Kagans. Until that changes, we’ll always have to read stuff like this.

Until next time, you stay sunny, Kabul!

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  • That’s an ORTHODOX PRIEST!! (And a highly decorated one too.) Okay, there is a LOT here, granted, so I’ll try to be succinct and clear. (And there is a lot here that could invite deeper analysis, but don’t worry, not my job.) I think I would ask; what about all the failed, incomplete, shoddy or innapropriate rebuilding projects? The schools w/o plumbing, or clinics with no available doctors, or MASSIVE fraud involved in construction generally? What about a chronic absence of oversight?
    Now, for the “Women’s Issue.” Changes in civil society usually proceed incrementally. You can’t have “civil-society-in-a-box” much as we think we can create that very thing. There is also a complete lack of recognition for the fact that women’s social status is often tied to significant economic change. If there is development, women’s lives will improve. Are they going to improve in rural areas? That depends what you mean by “improvement.”
    As to the “Afghans doing it themselves,” okay, where will the money come from after 2014? Yeah, I’m sure Afghanistan has carpenters, and even engineers and architects (!), but without funding for projects, those who have skills will just leave anyway.
    Some would say, and I’m not sayng that I would say it, but there is an opinion that by not pouring money into Afghanistan led to the whole disaster that followed. (I’ve always thought that some promise of development aid would have been a much better tool of leverage w/ the Taliban, rather than the UN getting their liberal senabilities all scandalized and Western “outrage.” Your take on the civil war and AQ as a Saudi and PK problem are of course, spot on. Or, you can’t make size 6 Cold War shoes (with four inch heels) fit a size 7.5. I think that’s just about everything. In the end, I would like to see more thoughtful analysis of comparisons of the US/Soviet experience, both commonaliities and differences. And finally,”SPASIBO Batiushka, defender of Mother Russia!!”

    • I think my response to some of your questions would be this: I think there are some parallels between the Soviet and American experience here, particularly as it comes to the fairly clumsy attempts at the spin. But like I said in the article, they missed the point. You’re right, thought — much of the progress that needs to be made needs to come after a lot more years of effort. Bit by bit.

  • One thing that is NOT a paralell is the ANSF readiness issue, which the Soviets did not have to deal with. Clearly, it’s of more critical importance than some of the (perhaps articficial) similiarities that the NYT article focused on. I do see your point about spin though, there’s a sense of “I’ll make this fit!.” Definitely. But I gotta say; I did like Savanskaya’s comment. Also, and this is a serious question; “as far as “barely literate” Pashtuns, do you think they havs say, accumulatd knowlege through…okay, there it comes, “oral tradition”?