Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Ghosts of Najibullah

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

With President Obama’s release of the new Afghanistan strategy ahead on Tuesday and first details coming out, parts of the puzzle fall into place. As it looks it will be less than the US 40,000 troops desired by Gen Mc Chrystal that will be sent to Afghanistan – probably some 30,000.

The gap is to be made up by other NATO and non-NATO allies. There was already subtle pressure over the last few months in this direction.

Yesterday, NATO announced it will provide between 4000 and 6000 additional troops. But it is not clear where the soldiers will come from. The figures known up to now do not come anyway near this target: UK plus 500, Slovakia plus 250… Italy says it will consider but no figures are given. Poland is expected to increase numbers, too. France said it won’t send ‘a single soldier more’.

Maybe, it will be Germany that adds a four-digit number of soldiers next year. For the forthcoming extension of the Bundeswehr mandate in the parliament in December, the ceiling will remain the same, at 4500. But a backdoor has been left open. The motion that will be submitted to the Bundestag contains the following sentence: “It is the intention of the federal government, to review the German civilian and military contribution in the frame work of the overall international engagement in Afghanistan again in the light of the [planned international] conference and, if required, to submit an accordingly adjusted mandate to the parliament.” A likely increase by 2000 is already discussed.

Up to now, more soldiers have been committed by non-NATO countries. Georgia wants to boost its chances for NATO membership by adding 700 to 1000 soldiers. South Korea will send up to 400 soldiers. That’s rather bold: Last time the country had soldiers here, they had to be withdrawn after the Taleban abducted a busload full of Christian missionaries in Ghazni and killed some of them.

With this increase, the total number of international troops will rise to a level which the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan had as the absolute maximum. Most of the time, there were 100,000 to 120,000 troops.

But the main question is not about numbers. The main question remains as follows: What are these additional soldiers going to do? If they are going to protect the civilian population, as spelled out in Gen McChrystal’s new COIN strategy, fine – as long as the civilian population wants to be protected by them. But that is far from clear.

And what’s happening posht-e purda (‘behind the curtain’), as the Afghans would say?
Look at the British memo on reintegration and reconciliation that has been referred to by German magazine Stern and the Kabul daily 8 Sobh and ‘seen’ by the BBC as well as by a number of other people. A central sentence there goes as follows: ‘We must weaken and divide the Taleban if we are to reduce the insurgency to a level that can be managed and contained by the Afghan Security Forces’ through a combination of ‘military pressure’ and ‘clear signals’ that ‘an honourable exit from the fight exists’.

Well, we do not know whether this paper reflects official policy already or is still a think-piece. But we have Gen Sir Graeme Lamb on record ‘who was appointed in August to mastermind a programme of reconciliation with members of the Taliban’ saying ‘he would use the knowledge of village leaders to help identify militants who could be persuaded to lay down their arms: “The leaders of the communities know who is acting badly, and who is acting very badly, and who is a young fellow who has taken an opportunity for money”.’ These young fellows ‘are local people who need to have a dialogue to understand why, and then they have the choice to have a better life’. This is the part on ‘an honourable exit from the fight’.

The ‘military pressure’ part has not been described in the media yet.

Maybe, it has to do with what a recent New York Times article describes as ‘helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms’ in various parts of the country, ‘prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban’, and ‘Special Forces soldiers […] descending from helicopters[, …] offering their help[ …] planning to train the fighters and provide communication equipment’ and even ‘to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland in the southern and eastern parts of the country […]. The plan [is] called the Community Defense Initiative’. See also our 20 November blog.

A few days ago, I spoke to one of the five or six Afghans who had been invited to Moscow one day in 1986, brought to a reclusive villa in the Lomonossov hills in Moscow and received by Gorbachov, Shewardnadse and the rest of the inner circle of the Soviet leadership. Amongst them were two who are already dead: the then head of party and state Babrak Karmal and his successor-to-be Dr Najibullah.

Gorbachov confronted the Afghan leaders with their decision to move out the troops. ‘How long do you need to defend your country independently?’ he asked Karmal. No answer. ‘Six months?’ ‘Impossible!’ ‘One year?’ ‘Impossible!’ ’18 months?’ The same answer. ‘2 years’ – and before Karmal could say anything – ‘This is the maximum!’

And so it happened.

Parallels with the Soviet occupation period and Dr Najibullah’s reign are popular these days (see Yaroslav Trofimov’s recent Wall Street Journalarticle ‘Soviets’ Afghan Ordeal Vexed Gates on Troop-Surge Plan’ here).

Apart from former Soviet generals flown for consultations to the US, current Defence Secretary Robert Gates who ‘a quarter-century ago, […] was a top Central Intelligence Agency officer aiding the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan’ turned to ‘a 1989 secret “lessons learned” study of the Soviets’ campaign’.

Trofimov points to ‘major differences between the two conflicts’:

‘For one, unlike the isolated Soviet Union, America operates in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, part of a coalition of 42 allies.’

For two: ‘Allied dead, currently 1,528, are barely one-ninth the Soviet toll. Afghan civilian deaths are a small fraction of the estimated one million killed in the 1980s.’

For three, citing Gates: ‘Soviets […] didn’t care about civilian casualties’.

For four, and that’s my addition, Gorbachov gave Karmal two years. Karzai gets seven from Obama, till 2017.

But, as warlord and current Karzai ally Mohammed Mohaqqeq is quoted as saying in Trofimov’s article: ‘Najibullah had the support of a strong and well-equipped Afghan army, air force and intelligence, and of a strong party. I don’t think we can even compare these two governments to each other.’

But despite all this, Najibullah’s regime survived only 26 months after the Soviet troops left. He fell after his foreign allies terminated their financial and military aid. And then the militias brought him down.


And here the figure of the day:

US$ 750,000: That’s how much every single of the 30,000 or so additional US soldiers will cost at least, per year.

(Source: Christi Parsons/Julian E. Barnes, Pricing an Afghanistan troop buildup is no simple calculation, Los Angeles Times, 23 November 2009, based on information from a memo by the Pentagon’s controller, including construction and equipment)


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