As President Obama grapples with sending additional forces to Afghanistan he would do well to ponder the last time a superpower confronted the decision and how U.S. intelligence evaluated the odds of success. That country, of course, was the Soviet Union that found itself in a decade-long quagmire following its 1979 invasion. Halfway through the conflict Moscow placed over 100,000 troops to beat back resistance. At the time, 1985, the Central Intelligence Agency conducted an evaluation of the Kremlin's prospects. The Agency concluded the Soviet military would have to send up to an additional 400,000 soldiers to prevail. How CIA arrived at this conclusion and why the Soviets resisted such a commitment provides a cautionary tale that Washington may not be able to overcome even in the different circumstances it confronts today.
Fearful that the United States, Pakistan and China would take advantage of an emerging vacuum created by the failing Marxist Afghan regime that had plunged the country into civil strife, Moscow inserted an initial occupying force of some 80,000 troops to intimidate the opposition and to support the new government it installed. The intimidation failed. Rather, hundreds of fighting bands took up arms to oppose the feared communization of the country, traditions, values and religion.
By 1985 when the CIA released its assessment of Moscow's performance, "The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Five Years After," the Red Army had suffered 8,000 fatalities in a sea of 25,000 casualties. Efforts to transform the country into a reliable client state met a stone wall. At best, occasional truces and bribery bought temporary loyalties. Things looked grim. "More than five years after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they are bogged down in a guerrilla war of increasing intensity...The Soviets control less territory than they did in 1980, and their airfields, garrisons, and lines of communication are increasingly subject to insurgent attack."
Still, CIA analysts anticipated that Moscow would soldier on and augment what had become a 110,000 force with an additional 10,000 specialized combat and support units. The Agency speculated that frustration and the deteriorating situation could drive the Kremlin to add an additional 50,000 men. But the US analysts remained dubious. "Even then, however, they would not have enough troops to maintain control in much of the countryside as long as the insurgents have access to strong external support and open borders."
The analysts added that Kremlin "leadership miscalculated, and they acknowledge that they have paid a higher price than they anticipated. They are still searching for an effective way of pacifying Afghanistan short of a massive infusion of military forces." The objective, "to create a situation where the Afghan Communists can rule own their own country without a large Soviet military presence--and do so at the lowest possible costs in terms of Soviet lives and resources." The conundrum, "The insurgents are stronger than at any time since the invasion."
Despite repeated changes in Soviet tactics, an aggressive effort to restrict infiltration from Pakistan and Iran and to bolster the "illiterate, ill trained, unready for combat" Afghan army, Moscow found itself unable to generate an effective strategy. The divided and incompetent Afghan government complicated matters.
What the CIA did not foresee was the possibility that Moscow would retreat from Afghanistan. Rather its analysts concluded, "If the Soviet hold on Afghanistan were seriously threatened, we do not rule out a much more sizable reinforcement...." And what would that force require? "An increase of perhaps 100,000 to 150,000 [troops] might allow the Soviets to clear and hold major cities and large parts of the countryside to block infiltration from Pakistan and Iran, although it probably could not do both." To achieve both objectives, the Kremlin would require more troops, many more. "An even larger reinforcement of 200,000 to 400,000 men probably would allow Moscow to make serious inroads against the insurgency."
At a November 13, 1986 Politburo meeting, Mikhail Gorbachev, laid out his objection: "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....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 process as soon as possible."
Some no doubt will argue that the Soviet experience has little relevance for the United States. After all Washington came to Afghanistan not to impose a communist state antithetical to the country's traditions. And, unlike the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets, the Afghan Taliban do not have the material support of a superpower. But these objections simply prove the point. Even with the advantages the United States has, it has failed to reverse what commanding general Stanley McChrystal concedes is a "deteriorating" situation with no certain fix. History suggests that when internal political dysfunction overwhelms external attempts at stabilization, getting out sooner rather than later is in the best interest of an occupying power. Mikhail Gorbachev belatedly recognized this fact. It is time for the United States to do the same.