- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 1999

Twenty years ago this month, the Soviet Union invaded the neighboring state of Afghanistan, opening what became a decisive struggle in the last years of the Cold War. Moscow sought first to shore up a sycophant regime and then integrate the country within its system of socialist states. At the time, its aspirations seemed assured, for the Soviets were on a roll, having incorporated 10 countries into their orbit from 1974 to 1979. Eleven years before, Moscow's invasion of Czechoslovakia nipped an independent "socialism with a human face" movement in the bud, giving rise to a false sense of Soviet optimism about crushing restive elements.

Washington initially moved feebly to counter the Red Army's advance until President Reagan came to office. He increasingly supported the Afghan resistance, ultimately supplying it with Stinger missiles, which denied Moscow aerial dominance of the battlefield. American prospects looked bleak for stopping, let alone reversing, Moscow's incursion. But less than 10 years later, Mr. Reagan's bet paid off when Russian forces withdrew.

Moscow's setback in Afghanistan was not the only pulled thread that unraveled the "evil empire," to use Mr. Reagan's characterization. But it symbolized Washington's newfound counter-strategy, which also found expression in aiding Poland's Solidarity trade union, bolstering the Contras in Nicaragua, and in unveiling the Strategic Defense Initiative, a program to research and then deploy a missile defense. But Afghanistan became a key and final front-line battleground in the Cold War.

America's success during the 1980s stood in sharp relief to the dismal record of the preceding decade. While the United States sank into a post-Vietnam angst, its superpower rival utilized proxies to engineer into its sphere Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Grenada, and Nicaragua. That Soviet armored and infantry units (eventually including 120,000 troops) could brazenly storm across an international border into Afghanistan spoke volumes about Moscow's confidence and power as well as America's apparent disarray.

Its bitter loss at the hands of the Islamic-inspired Mujahidin still rankles Moscow, as does its 1996 defeat in the first Chechen conflict, and provides a backdrop to current-day Russian brutality against civilians and separatists alike in its northern Caucasus provinces of Chechnya and Dagestan. Moscow's poor martial performance in Afghanistan paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power. His reforms led to the Soviet Union's undoing.

Critics have attributed Afghanistan's current troubles to a "blow back" phenomenon in which forward policies backfire, leading to turmoil for the practitioners. They point to a radicalized Afghanistan harboring Osama bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist, and the Taliban regime exporting its brand of Islamic fundamentalism to Central Asian states.

In reality, Afghanistan, a severely fragmented society, has been in the grip of deep ethnic and clan divisions for centuries. The Soviet occupation relied on local puppets in a classic "divide and rule" strategy, which intensified societal cleavages. America's assistance did not ignite the religious and ethnic segmentation among the isolated mountainous Afghan tribes. The Afghan Mujahidin, moreover, was one part of the Islamic revival that has characterized the Muslim world since the 1960s.

What if the United States had stood by while Soviet forces and their Afghan allies had brutally pacified the country? The critics offer no realistic alternative. Besides, many Muslim states also aided the Afghan resistance. What lessons have we learned by the Afghanistan case?

Popular forces can prevail against ruthless regimes. Seemingly impossible causes against rogue regimes, say Iraq or Serbia, can succeed without direct U.S. military involvement. No American ground troops went to fight on Afghan soil. We provided training, equipment, and arms. When, as in Afghanistan, there exist determined foes of a government, then Washington faces the realistic option of supporting them. If done early enough, such operations can spare us an air war, such as we fought against Serbia or our continuing feckless bombing of Iraq.

Victory should not mean abandonment. When the Soviet puppet regime was defeated in May 1992, the region stood bereft of American constructive interest. No regional strategic framework was forged to bring peace and development to a factious, war-torn state despite its geopolitical significance and proximity to oil resources in the Middle East and Central Asia. Unlike Washington's efforts in Eastern Europe with the Partnership for Peace, NATO expansion, and other diplomatic initiatives, there was no blueprint advanced for Afghanistan and the region to secure our gains. One war ended against a pro-Russian government and another began, fueled by neighbors bent on furthering their parochial causes. Herculean efforts will now be required to address a zealous Taliban regime exporting heroin and religious revolution beyond its borders.

Mr. Reagan's Afghanistan effort enjoyed bipartisan support. Both major political parties can share in the sense of victory and the knowledge of what can be accomplished. Rekindling similar sentiments, the next administration must confront with more sustained attention and meaningful policies the threats around the world, every bit as dangerous as presented by the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow and associate director at the Hoover Institution.

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