The end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan began one improbably sunny November day, when many in Moscow had spilled out on to the city’s parks and embankments to enjoy the freakish 13ºC warmth. Inside the Kremlin, Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of the general staff of the Soviet armed forces, was speaking. “There is no single piece of land in this country which has not been occupied by the Soviet soldier,” the minutes of the November 13, 1986, meeting record him telling the Politburo. “And yet, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of rebels. There is no single military problem that has arisen that has not been solved, and yet there is no result.”
Every problem, Akhromeyev went on, except one: “Fifty thousand Soviet soldiers are stationed to close off the border (with Pakistan), but they are not in a position to close off all passages.”
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His leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had long seen the war in Afghanistan as a distraction from the big prize — a nuclear arms-reduction deal with the United States. He had no interest in cracking Akhromeyev’s Pakistan problem: “In the course of two years, effect the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan.” No one voted against.
Thirty years on, the world is learning this grim lesson: the war in Afghanistan will not, and cannot, be won until the “problem” is solved. The United States military estimates insurgents control or influence 33 of the country’s 407 districts, to the government’s 208, the rest being contested. Independent estimates by The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio are bleaker, giving the Taliban 97 districts, up from 70 a year ago. Fatalities are reported to have crossed over 1,700 in the first six months of this year, an uptick of 15% from 2015 — levels no military can endlessly sustain.
Last week, after Taliban assaults that almost claimed the town of Lashkar Gah and succeeded in briefly taking Kunduz, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lashed out at his own commanders for failures in delivering ammunition, fuel and food to frontline troops. That isn’t the problem, though: as long as the Taliban can resupply their units from safe havens in Pakistan, even a well-oiled Afghan military can at best ensure stalemate — not victory.
The numbers show why. The Afghan National Army is authorised 195,000 personnel, and the Afghan National Police another 157,000 — a total of 352,000 — to guard a 652,864 sq km nation, much of it rugged mountains with extremely poor road connectivity.
India, by contrast, uses an estimated 325,000 troops, backed up by some 85,000 police and 7,000 central police, to protect the 42,241 sq km Kashmir and Jammu divisions. All but some 64,000 Army troops — 64 battalions — are deployed to guard the 740 km Line of Control.
From early on, military scholar Thomas Bruscino pointed out in a 2006 monograph, Soviet forces in Afghanistan understood that the source of their problems lay across the border, where mujahideen groups were being supplied by the US and Saudi Arabia, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. In 1982, Afghan officials announced plans to block off the entire border, with guard towers, barbed wire and minefields.
Low-level attacks on mujahideen logistics bases across the border were carried out through the 1980s, using artillery and air strikes. Little came of such operations: in March 1986, Soviet special forces overran a mujahideen logistics base at Krer in Pakistan, north of Bajaur, in defiance of explicit orders against cross-border strikes. Inside weeks, it was operational again.
In truth, the Soviets never had the troop strength needed to secure the border. Former Soviet intelligence officer Vladimir Kuzichkin records in his book, Inside the KGB, that the effort would have needed over 300,000 troops; the Soviet 40th Army committed a maximum of 120,000.
The popular version of history, which has the mujahideen wearing down the Soviets, is at some distance from the truth. In 1986, the Pentagon noted in a report to Congress that the Soviet Army “demonstrated a considerably improved ability to concentrate and employ forces quickly against suspected insurgent positions”, and Central Intelligence Agency operatives on ground reported “sharply focused helicopter-borne special operations against resistance infiltration routes and strongholds had paid off for the Soviets”.
But as long as the routes from Pakistan remained open, the insurgency could continue to revive itself — just as it did after 2006, when the Taliban, aided by the ISI, renewed its assault on the Afghan government and its Western backers.
Fed up of the war-without-end, Gorbachov committed a series of errors. In February 1988 — against, according to the account of scholar Selig Harrison, the advice of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze — he committed to a formal withdrawal timetable at a conference in Geneva. Pakistan was prohibited from interfering.
A year later, in January 1989, the Politburo was complaining that “violations of the Geneva accord by Islamabad have acquired not just an open, but a flagrant character. Pakistani border guards are directly participating in military operations on Afghan territory. Bombardments of bordering regions of Afghanistan are taking place, arms flow continuously, and armed bands are crossing over.” However, with the timetable announced, the Soviets had no cards to play to stop Pakistan.
President Ronald Reagan had earlier asked Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military ruler, how he would counter Soviet accusations of supplying to the mujahideen. The General replied: “We will deny that there is any aid going through our territory. After all, that’s what we have been doing for eight years.”
The military lessons from this history are clear. “With some notable exceptions”, Bruscino wrote, “most of the contemporary discussions on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan miss the importance of transnational sanctuary. This is a mistake’.
Though aware, after 2006, that Pakistan was backing the Taliban, the US shied away from the consequences of coercion or confrontation. Instead, it attempted, without success, to bribe the Pakistan Army into cutting off its Taliban clients, and then into negotiating a peace deal with them. Those efforts still continue — though with ever less optimism.
The failure meant President Barack Obama was unable deliver on his promises to have all US troops home from Afghanistan before his term in office ended. The numbers that remain committed are meagre — no more than 10,000 — just enough to bail Afghan troops out of crisis, but not enough to win.
No one knows what the next President will do, but this much is clear: allowing Afghanistan to lose this war will set the stage for the next Islamic State-like crisis, an outcome the world is unwilling to countenance. But the conditions that now exist make victory impossible. The solution is also clear: a strategy that compels Pakistan to radically change course.