In December 1979, the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan with 80,000 soldiers supported by 1,800 tanks. The government of Afghan President Hafizullah Amin was overthrown in less than a week at a minimal cost of only 86 fatalities. However, Marshal Sokolov was unable to establish control outside the major population centers, and despite reinforcements that increased its total occupation force to 100,000 troops, 80 percent of the country remained outside the control of its military or its puppet government. Over the 10 years of the failed occupation, Soviet forces lost an average of 1,445 dead annually (63 percent of which were combat-related), until they finally retreated in a two-stage, largely peaceful withdrawal that was completed in February 1989.
The United States attacked Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, with a combination of Special Forces and air strikes in partnership with indigenous allies. Two months later, Kandahar fell, marking the end of the Taliban rule. Having left most of the fighting on the ground to the Northern Alliance, the U.S. suffered only 12 fatalities in taking over the country. However, as was the case with the Soviets, the U.S.-led coalition forces and their puppet government have been unable to control the countryside, which is increasingly dominated by the deposed Taliban. And as the occupation has continued, coalition fatalities have steadily risen to the current average of 203 per year. There were 521 deaths in 2009, and with 257 deaths already this year prior to the beginning of the announced summer offensive, there will almost certainly be more in 2010.
While the U.S.-led coalition’s performance in Afghanistan looks much better than that of their Soviet predecessors on a statistical basis, this is probably more the result of better medical care and the use of body armor than superior strategy or tactics. The Soviet casualty-to-fatality ratio throughout the course of the Soviet occupation was only 2/1, whereas the Coalition average is 11/1. This suggests that were it not for superior American technology, Coalition fatalities would be around 1,117 per year. While it is great that American soldiers are surviving their wounds, their unusually high survival rate has tended to paint a markedly false view of the war when viewed from a historical perspective.
As I predicted before his election, Obama has not ended the occupation of Afghanistan, but expanded it instead. I was wrong, however, in that he did not expand it into Pakistan as I expected. What is interesting is that as his popularity has declined, his liberal supporters are becoming increasingly vocal in their demands that he stop fighting George Bush’s wars. While I am seldom in agreement with Bob Herbert of The New York Times, it is difficult to take exception to anything in his recent column, titled “The courage to leave.”
There is no “clearly defined mission” to be found in Afghanistan. America has no national interest in continuing the occupation, and it cannot afford to continue to buy money to finance a strategically pointless decade-long military exercise. Even the lead puppet in the puppet regime, President Hamid Karzai, is showing signs of distancing himself from the United States despite the fact that his government is unlikely to survive three years post-occupation as the Najibullah regime did following the Soviet withdrawal.
The occupation of Afghanistan was never going to last forever, and the coalition that has maintained it is now fragmenting. The United Kingdom and other countries are actively discussing the withdrawal of their troops later this year, and it would be exceedingly foolish to insist on continuing the occupation following the coalition’s end. It is time for Obama to stop listening to the lobbyists of the war party and start listening to the great silence that is the American people’s indifference toward the fate of Afghanistan. The troops have served long, honorably and well; this is not their failure but rather a strategic failure of their civilian commanders. As the historical Soviet and British examples always suggested, it was a strategy destined for a failure that has now become abundantly clear. Therefore, it is time to end the occupation of Afghanistan and bring America’s soldiers home.