- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2001

The coming war in Afghanistan may be the major conflict or a small sideshow. Whichever it is, it must be vastly different from the long bloody failure of the 1979 to 1989 Soviet war there. That failure provides lessons on which we can build a foundation for success.

In April 1978, a communist regime in Afghanistan was established by a military coup. The Soviets' puppet ruler set about imposing social change, and by March 1979 it resulted in a violent revolt in one of the few large cities, Herat, and spread around the country.

Beginning in mid-March 1979, the Soviet leadership conducted almost daily debates on invading Afghanistan. From previously secret Politburo meeting minutes and other Soviet documents, the fear of an Afghan ground war and the reason for the fear comes through clearly. For many months, Politburo members rejected invasion because they feared the fanatic zeal of the Islamic fighters the Mujahiddeen. The Soviets refused to lose Afghanistan, and when the loss seemed imminent, Soviet forces invaded on Christmas Eve 1979.

The Soviets planned to do in Afghanistan what they had done in 1956 Hungary and 1968 Czechoslovakia. In those campaigns, Soviet tank armies made use of wide roads into European cities, crushed the opposition and soon controlled the nations' capitals. But in Afghanistan, the Soviets didn't adapt those plans to the mountainous country with few paved roads, fewer airports and an enemy that was well-organized and adept at "shoot and scoot" ambushes and hiding in the mountains.

The Soviets' goals in Afghanistan were to overthrow opposition forces, reimpose the puppet government and terrorize the populace into passivity. They pursued these goals with a murderous operational doctrine. The Russians slew local leaders and anyone who was even remotely connected to the Mujahiddeen, the rebel fighters. Their shedding of blood was Hitlerian about 1.5 million dead but it failed to pacify the Mujahiddeen.

There are two principal lessons the Soviets' failure teaches. The first is that killing is not the key to defeating the Taliban. They are people like the World War II Japanese. Driven by religious fanaticism, they cannot be beaten in the same way a Western enemy can. In World War II, the religious fanaticism was centered in Emperor Hirohito. In the Shinto religion, only he could surrender on behalf of the religious fanatics who would otherwise have kept fighting.

A very similar religious fanaticism pervades Afghanistan, as well as nations such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, and others. This may be the biggest challenge facing us in any Afghan campaign. We are at great risk of losing the entire war against terrorism if we fail to get the Islamic leaders throughout the world to do what Hirohito did. Our diplomatic, financial, and military weapons must all be concentrated on this goal.

The second lesson of the Soviets' defeat is in the failure of their military and political leadership. The Soviets suffered about 15,000 killed, out of forces deployed at any one time of 90,000 to 100,000 troops. The relatively light fatalities are dwarfed by the fact that about 420,000 Soviet troops were incapacitated by wounds, injuries or disease. That is more than 70 percent casualties for a modern army matched against relatively untrained guerrillas. After seeing the Soviets suffer those losses, the Taliban will not fear an American invasion.

The Soviets made many of the same mistakes we had made in Vietnam. At the height of the Vietnam War, some 500,000 American troops were in-country. In Afghanistan, which is about five times the size of Vietnam, the Soviets committed one-fifth the troops. Their insufficient commitment, and the rigidity of their doctrine, caused them to fail. We must learn from their mistakes.

The Soviets' strategy was limited by their adherence to their Hungary/Czechoslovakia invasion plans in a place and against an enemy for which they were unsuited. Heavy armies, dependent on tanks and artillery, can't get far in a country that is made up mainly of mountains over 5,000 feet high. Afghanistan is a country that demands the flexibility and speed of the "light fighters" the special forces and light infantry covered by all the close air support fly-guys we can muster.

The Soviets tried to make up for lack of mobility with heavy air strikes. But you can't "bomb 'em back into the Stone Age" when there are few targets worth bombing and the enemy refuses to mass its forces to create a nice big bombable target.

The Soviets' tactics failed to keep roads and airfields open for logistics and maneuver, and their leaders failed to adapt to the tactics of the Afghan guerrillas. The Soviets sent their troops into Afghanistan weighed down like pack mules. Body armor that weighed about 35 pounds and huge loads of ammunition quickly tired out troops. What's worse, doctrine kept soldiers within 200 meters of combat vehicles, many of which weren't capable of chasing the enemy in rough terrain. The effectiveness of Soviet soldiery was fatally limited by things such as these.

Our goals are different, our force structure more varied and flexible. Our strategy and tactics are not hobbled by how we won the Gulf War of 1991. The differences between that war and this one are so vast, strategy and tactics will obviously be different. We also have some big advantages.

Foremost, we have a president who is committed to bringing this matter to a real conclusion. We have military leaders who are willing to change and adapt. We have the light infantry and the air power to back them up and other forces to use should the need arise.

It is best for all of us armchair generals to be patient. As Churchill said, "Any clever person can make plans for winning a war if he has no responsibility for carrying them out." We have some superbly capable and dedicated military professionals who will do what it takes to win. Let's turn them loose, and not second-guess their plans.

Jed Babbin served as under-secretary of defense in the prior Bush administration.

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