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The Soviet Victory That Never Was

December 28, 2009

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev
from Foreign Affairs

Could the Soviet Union have won its war in Afghanistan? Today, the victory of the anti-Soviet mujahideen seems preordained as part of the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. To suggest that an alternative outcome was possible — and that the United States has something to learn from the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan — may be controversial. But to avoid being similarly frustrated by the infamous “graveyard of empires,” U.S. military planners would be wise to study how the Soviet Union nearly emerged triumphant from its decade-long war.

There are, of course, some fundamental differences between the Soviets’ war in the 1980s and the U.S.-led mission today. First, the Soviet Union intervened to save a communist regime which was in danger of collapsing due to resistance to its comprehensive and often traumatic social-engineering programs. Unlike the Soviets and their client regime, the United States is not interested in forcibly removing the burkas from Afghan women, shooting large numbers of mullahs for resisting secularization, or reprogramming the political and social mores of Afghans. Instead, Washington has a far more limited objective: namely, ensuring that Afghanistan remains an inhospitable base for extremist groups hoping to attack the West. more

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