20 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Will Another Superpower Meet Its End in Afghanistan?

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US is losing the war in Afghanistan, a country that indirectly contributed to the break-up of the USSR. Where coalition forces today battle the Taliban and al Qaeda, in the 1980s, the Soviets fought the Mujahedeen -- a Muslim army of volunteers that Moscow called terrorists. Fighting the anti-Soviet Jihad, a brutal war funded by the CIA and the Saudis, became too costly for bankrupt Moscow. In a painful and humiliating withdrawal, the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in February 1989, just a few months before the implosion of the Soviet System. Without that defeat we might not be celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Cold War or a unified Europe today. Remarkably, the central Asian country of Afghanistan seems once again to be shaping our future. It is paradoxical that the graveyard of one superpower should become a battlefield for the other. It is even more ironic that the US, the very nation that used the Mujahedeen and this deeply hostile country to defeat the Soviet Union, should now have fallen victim to this current ordeal.

The similarities between the two Afghan wars are countless. The Soviet generals kept requesting more men in order to gain control of this vast land, because its high-tech war machinery did not work against such evasive enemies. The US and coalition armies face the same problem: mainstream war tactics do not deliver the expected results. All victories turn out to be illusions. As the Soviet generals found out, winning a village is pointless because, the day after, the terrorists are back in control of its streets. The Taliban are as intangible as the Mujahedeen; they vanish into the hills at night and are back fighting in the morning. Both groups littered the main roads with hidden explosives, the Mujahedeen used anti-tank mines while the Taliban employ improvised explosive devices (homemade bombs) to blow up soldiers on patrol as well as civilians.

Even the geography of the wars is remarkably similar, with much of the fighting during the anti-Soviet Jihad taking place in the south, near the Pakistani border. The Mujahedeen took refuge from the Soviet army in Waziristan, where today the Taliban and al Qaeda have their headquarters. Most Soviet soldiers lost their lives in Kandahar and Helmand province: the troubled areas of this new Afghan war.

Perhaps the most remarkable similarity between the two wars rests on their final objective: to transform Afghanistan into a friendly country by turning into a replica of the political status of the invading superpower. Twenty years ago Moscow wanted it to become a satellite state of the Soviet bloc; today the US wants to turn it into a Western-style democracy. This strategy is a dangerous exercise in nation building.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US had been cautious in playing this game, which seemed to be more of a Moscow pastime. Two of Washington's prior attempts, turning defeated World War II enemies, Germany and Japan, into democratic countries, had been successful--even if it was only with the reunification of Germany 50 years later that the US finally completed its job. The fall of the Berlin Wall showed that democracy was transferable and that it was a remarkable force for bringing nations in line with the American vision of the world. Perhaps watching Europeans tear apart the Wall with their bare hands in order to reach friends and relatives across that Cold War divide had convinced the US that democracy was the most powerful weapon it possessed. That might explain why, after the end of the Cold War, nation-building became Washington's preferred pastime.

A 2003 Rand Corporation study shows that of the 55 peace operations mounted by the US since 1945, 41 came after 1989. Police intervention has always been followed by nation-building. And the record seems very poor. In 1993 Washington pulled out of Somalia at the first sign of resistance. In 1994 it opted to let an international force restore order in Rwanda. It hesitated before joining European troops in Bosnia and before committing itself to a military intervention in Kosovo. But each time it did go in, the "US-led intervention has been wider in scope and more ambitious than its predecessor," concludes the report.

George W. Bush criticized Clinton's attempts to spread Western democracy, but after 9/11 he ordered a massively ambitious nation building plan for Afghanistan and Iraq. None of the post-Cold War presidents, including Barak Obama today, has understood that nation-building is not primarily about economic reconstruction but rather about political transformation. Americans are making the same mistakes the Soviets did. The US has failed to install viable democracies in Somalia, Haiti, and Afghanistan because all three countries are divided ethnically, socio-economically or tribally. In Afghanistan, Western-style democracy may well be the wrong model to apply.

The Soviet Union crumbled when the economic and political model upon which it rested became obsolete; the Kremlin failed to modernize and the ill-fated war in Afghanistan exposed this failure. Moscow should never have gotten involved. Now Washington risks doing the same if it limits its modernization merely to the election of Barack Obama, the first black President, who campaigned on the promise of change. What is needed is a fresh, new approach to bringing peace and prosperity to countries fundamentally different from our own.