So Nato forces are officially out of Afghanistan after ten years. A lot of people ask “was it worth it in the long run?” and though I can’t provide a definitive answer, a comparison to provide some perspective might bring some insight.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and occupied it for 10 years and, like the Bush administration, the same rhetoric was used: to prevent Islamic terrorism, battle ‘international terrorism and rebels’ and prevent Islamic fundementalism from spreading (in the USSR’s predominantly Muslim populated areas). The USSR, like the U.S, had invested the equivalent of billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s infastructure, government and Army. It conducted joint operations with the Afghan army and attempted to secularise it’s society; it also attempted to impose a communist government (as ISAF has attempted to impose a Democratic government).
However, that’s really where the similarity ends. Three huge differences stand out, which suggests the war in Afghanistan has been successful compared to the way we peceive it. 1) Militarily, 2) Treatment of the population and 3) The political process.
In military terms, Afghanistan has been relatively successful for ISAF forces. It had a standing of 41,124 ISAF personnel and 352,000 Afghan security personnel. In terms of casualties, 3,479 military personnel have died (the majority being the United States Army), 23,000 have been wounded (though there is no detail on what sort of incarsertations). With private contractors and the Afghan Army, casualties have ammoutned to 14,859 which is not particularly high compared to previous occupational wars fought in the past. It has also managed to maintain Afghan national forces and delegate complete control to them by early 2014. It also has the backing of the international community.
In contrast, some 620,000 Soviets served in the 10 years of occupation. Out of those, 75,000 were killed, 469,685 became sick or wounded from malnourishment, disintery and combat and 10,751 became invalids. Among the equipment lost were 118 jets, 333 helicopters, 147 tanks, 1,314 APCs, 433 artillery pieces and mortars, 1138 communication vehicles and 11,369 trucks. Comparatively, ISAF losses are minute and unlike the Soviet Army, all of ISAF’s military objectives have been completed. By 1989, the Afghan army was still suffering from mass desertions and constant sabotages from inside by Mujahadeen fighters. At it’s peak, the Afghan army numbered 55,000 but was constantly having to stabalise itself. The Soviet Army also, as well as treating the Afghan population brutally, treated its own personnel with the same level of brutality.
2. Treatment of the population
Treatment of the population has been relatively mixed (due to public perception) but overall things have been successful. Though there have been cases of suspects being terrorized, being sent to quantanamo bay, bombings in civilian areas etc (the ugly and inhumane part of the war), these have been relatively small. According to United Nations reports, 76% of civilian casualties have been from the Taliban and this has been due to using civilians as human shields, deliberately targeting civilians and both IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombings (which has been massivley condemned by Islamic communities in the West as un-Islamic). Civilian casualties are estimated to have been 16,725–19,013 with none displaced. Treatment wise, Nato has adopted a “winning the hearts and mind’s” approach as well as delegating control for Afghanistan to conduct their own operations and be self-sufficient. Treatment by the Taliban has been brutal, esepcially for ISAF soldiers captured. Often soldiers have been tortured or beheaded.
The Soviet Invasion was anything other than a success. The war can be generalised as a war of oppression and terror. Though that was not the intention, it became the outcome from the early years of occupation. Deprivation in the Soviet Army meant soldiers often pillaged and looted from the local population. The Soviet doctrine of ‘imposed control’ meant a show of force was implemented where it was never needed. For example, though Afghans initially welcomed the invasion, the Soviet Army illustrated indescriminate torture and killings. Prisoners of war were often killed or set alight with gasolene or thrown off helicopters as many of the soldiers couldn’t be bothered to take them back to base. These killings were also accidental and through the war, Soviet soldiers and pilots often dismissed caution. In one account, a caravan was shot up which turned out to be a marriage procession. In another, miscommunication meant villages were destroyed by helicopters before pilots realised their mistakes. Thousands of Soviet mines were laid which killed/incarcerated a lot of Afghans and still pose a problem today. Whole villages and town were destroyed by the Soviet Army and airforce indiscriminately because they suspected Mujahadeen fighters were there (rather than any of the attacks being based on intelligence). Brutality was also characterised by the weed and heroine addiction of many of the soldiers which exaggerated actions further. It was a strategy to pummel the Afghan population into submission and was a failure. The Afghan Army were constantly plagued by desertions and soldiers would usually join the Mujahadeen, taking their weapons with them.
Afghanistan’s losses were staggering. Roughly 1.3 million Afghans were killed. A third of the pre-war population of 5.5 million people had fled abroad and another 2 million were internationally displaced. By the end of 1989, the whole of the Afghan population (with the exception of the Army, the government and administration personnel) were either fighting the Soviets or housing fighters. Soviet soldiers were skinned alived, tortured or forced to convert to Islam and fight their own army (beheadings became common when the Taliban rose to power).
3. The Political Process
For ISAF, the political process has been favourable. Many members of the Afghan government make up former Mujahadeen members who fought the Soviets. ISAF has always had the advantage of former Mujahadeen who have fought the Taliban during the Afghan civil war (the Mujahadeen hate the Taliban, it’s leader Massoud was killed a day before 9/11 and the remnants have formed the Northern Alliance which provide the modern political structure for Afghanistan’s government today). That has been tremendous help and it seems the hearts and minds of the majority of Afghanistan’s population have benefitted from it due to political stability after ISAF left in early 2014. Literacy has grown drastically in an otherwise illiterate population and now there is a greater calling for the education of women and equal rights, something that was unimaginable 10 years ago.
The Soviets were never as successful in forming a stable government giving control over to the Afghan government. Before the invasion, the communist leader Amin was in power and was characterised as a brutal and shrewed politician, often purging his own party and indiscriminately killing what he considered were ‘political enemies’. His brutality sparked the formation of mujahadeen resistance and his forcing of secularisation on a largely traditional Islamic society caused conflict. His modernisation policies such as collectivisation also caused farms to be destroyed (something the Soviet war also caused) which meant farmers supplemented their former crops with poppy’s, leading Afghanistan to be the number one supplier of heroine in the world.
From this, I conclude the war in Afghanistan has been an overall success. There’s probably information to say otherwise and I think we like to point the finger the majority of the time and say “the war was immoral, we tortured and killed the population and it’s an illegal war”, but to what extent? (in the most dispassionate way possible) that children get an education, women get equal treatment and don’t have the fear of having acid thrown in their faces? That slowly but surely Afghan society will become stable and able to defend against Islamic extremism? That they will be able to provide their children with a rich and encouraging future and soon we may see more Afghans around the world prospering from the global economy like we do?
Don’t get me wrong, there are a whole list of problems that stretch all the way to the British coast and that’s undeniable but I like to think (compared to previous wars), with the resources and military we have and the results, we have made a positive impact that will have long term effects that can’t be imposed on Afghanistan as many powers as many have attempted to in the past.
I don’t know what the future has but I like to think we did a good job. We’ll just have to see what happens.