July 13, 2008

Canada takes notes from failed Soviet war

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — The Canadian military has been studying the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan for clues on how to prevent similar mistakes as NATO tries to beat back a persistent insurgency and ready the country's weak but pro-Western government to assume greater control.

It began a research project in 2006, a year in which fighting intensified for Canada in the war against the Taliban.

“The project was undertaken … for the purpose of determining whether this history offered any lessons to be learned for the Canadian Forces,” an executive summary of some of the research said.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and pulled out combat forces in 1989 after a costly decade of fighting mujahedeen. They left behind a weak, pro-Soviet government that collapsed in 1992.

By the time the Department of National Defence began its research project, Canadian soldiers had been fighting Taliban insurgents for nearly half a decade without subduing them, a 2007 Forces paper notes.

“Despite many successes … the insurgency against the government of Afghanistan, the U.S. troops and [North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces] persisted.”

Many of the research findings are lessons that, by 2008, the Canadian Forces, NATO soldiers and Western governments had already gleaned through experience in Afghanistan and other foreign missions.

Researchers said the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is a major hindrance. The mujahedeen used the porous frontier to smuggle arms and resources into Afghanistan in the 1980s and are offering Taliban supporters the same supply route for insurgents and weapons today.

“The movement of insurgents and materiel across the Afghan-Pakistan border is a paramount strategic problem,” says a 2007 memorandum by Anton Minkov and Gregory Smolynec titled 3-D Soviet Style: A Presentation on Lessons Learned from the Soviet Experience in Afghanistan.

In a separate memo that year, the same authors warn that NATO forces will never be able to stabilize Afghanistan until the country's economy is sufficiently stable and growing to allow the fledging Afghan government to cover a substantial amount of its own security and welfare bills.

“The main reasons behind the fall of the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul were not defeat on the battlefield nor military superiority of the resistance but the regime's failure to achieve economic sustainability and its overreliance on foreign aid,” says a document called Economic Development in Afghanistan during the Soviet Period 1979-1989: Lessons Learned from the Soviet Experience in Afghanistan.

In fact, it says, the Soviets focused too much on security.

“The emphasis on the security situation in Afghanistan compromised sound economic development during the period 1979-1989 … The Afghan economy continued to be overly dependent on foreign aid. The study argues that without breaking this dependency, no long-term solution to stabilize Afghanistan is possible.”

The authors say Afghanistan should redevelop its petroleum wealth as part of the solution. “Revenues from the sale of natural gas were a substantial part of Afghan state income until 1986. The development of oil and natural gas industries has great potential to benefit the Afghan economy.”

Other lessons Defence researchers gleaned from the Soviet period include:

– “Successive battlefield victories do not guarantee strategic success.”

– “Engaging and enfranchising local populations and power centres is of critical importance.”

– “Building Afghan security forces is vital.”

The research was conducted by the Department of National Defence's Centre for Operational Research & Analysis.

The DND said it was unable to make the researchers available for comment yesterday.

Canada has been sending soldiers to Afghanistan continually since 2001, and so far, 880 NATO troops have died in the fight against the Taliban, including 87 Canadians.

The U.S. has recently signalled that it is “deeply troubled” by the Taliban's continued power with a recent Pentagon report saying militias have “coalesced into a resilient insurgency.”

Douglas Bland, chair of Defence Management Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, said a key lesson from the 1980s is not to leave in a hurried manner as the Soviets did.

“One of the big lessons for us is, don't beat a hasty uncontrolled retreat because the place then really goes nuts,” Prof. Bland said. “The exit strategy has to be some very carefully considered process and based on a strong local security situation.”

He said he thinks Canadian soldiers will still be responsible for safeguarding the peace well after 2011, when Canada's troops are supposed to withdraw from combat operations in the country's southern province of Kandahar under a motion passed in Parliament.

“Canadians should be prepared for the fact that Canadian soldiers and policemen and others will be employed in security duties in Afghanistan for a very long time.”

He said he thinks the Forces have done other studies of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, but said these may not be publicly available.

From the comments

The NeoCynic from Cayman Islands writes: '...the Neocynic and a handful of others have convinced yourselves that your feelings and emotions are the same as the rest of the Canadian public.'

ITEM: The survey, conducted between July 12-16 for CTV and The Globe and Mail, suggests the level of intensity for Canadians strongly opposed to the mission is far greater than those who are in firm support: (percentage point change from a July 12-15, 2006 poll in brackets):

Total Support: 36 per cent (-3)
Strongly Support: 7 per cent (-1)
Support: 29 per cent (-2)
Oppose: 31 per cent (same)
Strongly oppose: 27 per cent ( 2)
Total Oppose: 59 per cent ( 3)

...ahem, they are.

Funny how there are no more recnt poll results than from 2007...

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