Haunted by the Soviet Afghan Legacy

The US-led occupation of Afghanistan now outlasts the Soviet presence in the country, with recent tactical changes providing worrying parallels

The revelations of Wikileaks diplomatic cables will absorb headlines and historians for some time; however there is a danger in our attention being too focused on US views of the past rather than the worrying direction of the Afghan conflict in the present.

The narrative of Obama's Afghan strategy is being increasingly muddled by a gap between its rhetoric and its reality. The rhetoric was that a surge of troops combined with the effective use of the new counterinsurgency tactics would win hearts and minds and connect the Afghan state to its violent hinterland. The reality is that General McChrystal always struggled to turn the US military into an army of solider monks. Indeed this week a US Army medic pleaded guilty to being a member of a 12 man 'kill team' that killed Afghan civilians at random and collected their fingers as trophies. An inability to change the character of the occupying force has combined with the massive levels of corruption and an absence of real legitimacy within the government in Kabul, making it impossible to gain effective sovereignty over the country.

The 2014 deadline for leaving the country is likely to slip with Obama warning that "it is hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary to keep the American people safe as of 2014". Despite NATO's senior civilian representative Mark Sedwill claiming that Kabul was safer than London, in November the Pentagon announced that violence in the country was at an all time high, with the numbers of clashes having increased fourfold since 2007.

Greater rates of violence are the consequence of continued failure, and US adjustments to such violence are increasingly showing parallels to Soviet tactics. Interestingly a year ago NATO approached Russia for assistance in Afghanistan, an approach which has now developed into Russian support training the Afghan army and the possible provision of attack helicopters. The US originally avoided the use of tanks in Afghanistan precisely to avoid comparisons to the Soviet occupation, however last month it was announced that main battle tanks were being deployed to Helmand, although according to a US Colonel they won't be used to 'oppress' the Afghans.

As the US passes the milestone of outlasting the Soviet occupation of the country their counterinsurgency strategy is at great peril of ignoring the failures of the Soviet experience. The return of the Russian helicopters and the introduction of US tanks is simply the latest reminder of the slippage in policy as Obama's rhetoric has crashed against the immovable shores of the Afghan reality.