Today, shortly after admitting that the war in Afghanistan is being lost, US President Trump is wrapping up a strategy session with his top military and political advisers at Camp David to decide the strategy to turn the situation round.
Present will be the entire foreign policy team which following the recent purges of top officials is slowly shaping up as the definitive foreign policy team of the Trump administration: Generals Kelly, McMaster and Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and the heads of the US intelligence community, DNI director Dan Coats and CIA chief Mike Pompeo.
These people are all without exception conservative establishment figures, and with the sole possible exception of Secretary of State Tillerson – who has shown a certain independence of mind on some issues – their approach to questions of war and peace can be summed up with the words: more of the same.
It is probably not a coincidence that the one senior Trump administration official who is known to have held different views about Afghanistan – former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon – was forced to quit just before the session.
That makes it a virtual certainty that the policy that is going to be announced for Afghanistan within the next few hours will be ‘more of the same’, apparently in the form of 4-5,000 extra US troops to ‘stabilise’ the situation there.
Needless to say any suggestion of talks with the Taliban to end the war – an idea now being actively promoted by the Russians as the only viable one – is being ruled out.
Steve Bannon for his part is known to have advocated a total pullout from Afghanistan, with the country being left to take of itself. Needless to say, that option is being ruled out as well.
At this point a brief discussion of comparisons between the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the US war in Afghanistan, which has been going on continuously since 2001, is useful.
The differences are in fact profound and many, and here they are
(1) the USSR intervened in 1979 to stabilise the existing government of Afghanistan; the US intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow its government;
(2) the Soviet presence in Afghanistan lasted a total of 9 years; the US presence in Afghanistan has now lasted for 16 years and is still continuing;
(3) the Jihadi rebels who fought the USSR and the Afghan government in the 1980s (the so-called “Mujahedeen”) were strongly backed by the US and by a coalition of US allies including Pakistan, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They were provided with secure base areas in Pakistan and were also abundantly supplied with often sophisticated weapons including famously Stinger anti aircraft missiles.
By contrast the Taliban has received no overt support from any foreign government and has fought the US and the US led coalition largely on its own;
(4) The total number of Soviet troops who passed through Afghanistan in the 1980s is put at 620,000, though the actual number present in Afghanistan at any one time was never more than 80-104,000 (the latter is the absolute peak figure).
The total number of US troops who have passed through Afghanistan is surprisingly difficult to come by; however the peak number of US troops in Afghanistan at any one time seems to have been around 30,000. To these of course should be added the various troop contributions made by various US allies, though these have varied widely both in number and effectiveness.
(5) Total irrecoverable losses of Soviet personnel in Afghanistan are put at 14,453. US military deaths in Afghanistan as of 18th October 2016 are put at 2,386 military deaths and 1,173 US civilian contractor deaths.
Note however that these figures may not be exactly comparable. The US figure apparently reports combat related deaths in the area of conflict (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan).
Apparently the Soviet figure includes deaths of wounded personnel outside ‘the area of conflict’ (ie. in hospitals in the interior of Russia) and also the significant number of non-combat caused deaths caused by accidents and above all by sickness of which there were apparently many because of the partial failure of the Soviet logistic system in Afghanistan, especially in the early years of the Soviet intervention there.
To arrive at figures that would be fully comparable losses suffered by US allies in Afghanistan should also be added to the US totals. Britain has for example reported 454 deaths as of 24th July 2015.
The total number of deaths suffered by the US coalition in Afghanistan was put at 3,407 in October 2015 inclusive of the US combat deaths the method of calculation of which is discussed above.
(6) A February 1987 a US intelligence assessment calculated the total financial cost of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan to the USSR as 15 billion roubles, which would have been about the same amount in 1980s US dollars. Note that this includes both military and civilian spending including economic assistance. This is now known to have been an overestimate based on an over-high calculation of Soviet casualties (assumed to be 30,000).
The total financial cost of the US intervention in Afghanistan has been officially estimated at $1 trillion as of October 2015 (unofficial estimates put the cost much higher, though other estimates pitch it lower at $780 billion).
According to official US government estimates the US is spending $4 million an hour on the military side of its war in Afghanistan.
An independent British study has estimated the total financial cost of the British intervention in Afghanistan to Britain as £37 billion.
(7) The USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 after the Soviet backed government there had been stabilised and when it was in secure control of all of Afghanistan’s main towns and cities.
Contrary to widespread predictions the Afghan government survived the Soviet withdrawal and only finally collapsed in the spring of 1992, several months after the USSR had itself collapsed, and only after Soviet aid to Afghanistan was stopped.
Even then the final collapse of the Soviet backed government was not caused by a Mujahedeen military victory but by factional infighting within the government which led to an internal coup.
The current US backed government is said to be losing control of more and more of the territory of Afghanistan despite the continued presence of US troops there, and clearly is not expected by the US to survive a full US withdrawal, as shown by the expected US decision to commit more US troops to fight there.
The war the USSR fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s was shorter and far more intense, with the Soviet army having to fight an enemy strongly supported by outside powers.
The result was that on any calculation the Soviet casualty and death rate was much higher, with the USSR forced to deploy to Afghanistan large numbers of troops who were required to engaged in regular combat operations.
However by 1988-1989 the Soviet backed Afghan government, which in 1979 had appeared to be on the brink of collapse largely because of factional infighting, had been fully stabilised as the Soviets had intended, enabling the USSR to withdraw its troops from the country.
The US since 2001 has been in Afghanistan much longer. It has deployed fewer troops there than the USSR did against an enemy who has lacked overt foreign support. As a result it has suffered far fewer combat losses.
However it has made up for this by spending on its war far more than the USSR ever did. Indeed the financial cost to the US of its war totally dwarfs the financial cost to the USSR of its war.
It seems moreover that most of this cost has been caused by the prodigious use of inordinately expensive weapons and logistics support rather than in providing Afghanistan with economic support, though in purely monetary times (though possibly not effectiveness) the economic support the US has provided Afghanistan has also completely dwarfed what the USSR provided Afghanistan in the 1980s.
However despite this colossal commitment of resources, in the time since the US intervened the government it created and imposed on the country has not stabilised, is said to be riddled with corruption, and apparently lacks legitimacy, whilst the enemy the US is fighting, far from being defeated, is gaining territory and appears to be growing stronger, despite having no overt external support.
What conclusions can be drawn from this?
The Soviet decision to intervene in Afghanistan was a disastrous error of which the USSR repented at leisure. Having however made – and recognised – their mistake, the Soviets nonetheless went on to make the best of a bad job, waging war in Afghanistan effectively in a way that by 1989 meant that the mission – to stabilise and save the Soviet backed government – was successfully done.
It is a fundamental error – though one Western commentators can never resist making – to think that because the Soviet backed government eventually collapsed some months after the USSR had itself collapsed, that the USSR was defeated in Afghanistan and that the collapse of the Soviet backed government of Afghanistan was inevitable once the USSR withdrew.
On the contrary there is every reason to think that if the USSR had survived and continued to support Afghanistan’s Soviet backed government with arms and supplies at the same level that it did up to the moment of its own collapse, that the Soviet backed government which the USSR in 1979 intervened in Afghanistan to save would also have survived, in which case it would probably still be the government of Afghanistan now.
The US decision to intervene in Afghanistan in 2001 was also a disastrous error, though it has never in the US been officially recognised as such.
However the stated objective of the intervention – to achieve the capture of Osama bin Laden – was fully achievable diplomatically, with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elements of the Taliban all committed to helping the US achieve it. It was the US decision to intervene in Afghanistan militarily that made that impossible, facilitating Osama bin Laden’s escape, and ensuring his survival for a further ten years.
Since then the US has failed to hit on a coherent or achievable objective for the war it is continuing to fight in Afghanistan. However it has continued to fight the war in its usual way, by trying to minimise casualties by fighting the war at astronomic financial cost.
The result is that no discernible objective is being achieved because the US has never come up with one. Instead, in the absence of an achievable objective the US can realistically focus on and work towards, the US position in Afghanistan is all too predictably sliding towards defeat and crisis.
I am completely unable to see how ‘more of the same’ is going to change any of that, but judging from what we are hearing coming out of Camp David, that is what we are going to get.