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Just 1,000 shy of breaking the Soviet Union's world record

by Magnifico Sat Sep 5th, 2009 at 02:05:17 AM EST

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the U.S.-led coalition, has now more than 100,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. McClatchy reported there are "101,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan according to Pentagon figures. The New York Times reported the level to be slightly higher at 103,000 troops for the coalition.

The Soviet Union's military force in Afghanistan was kept roughly between 80,000-104,000 troops for duration of its occupation in the 1980s. The Moscow-backed Afghan government fell despite more than nine years of Soviet military assistance and nearly 14,000 Soviet casualties.

The U.S.-led occupation force is even larger when private civilian and military contractors are added to the Western military footprint. For at least the past couple years, contractors have outnumbered U.S. troops in Afghanistan the NY Times reported on Tuesday.

Not only are there more contractors than U.S. soldiers in uniform, but it is "the highest ratio of contractors to military personnel recorded in any war in the history of the United States."

While many of the 68,197 contractors are Afghans that "handle a variety of jobs, including cooking for the troops, serving as interpreters and even providing security", the Soviet Union unlikely used private contractors as extensively as the Americans are doing, if at all.

In addition, the State Department and the CIA also make use of contractors which are not part of this total. An increase in contractors is expected as U.S. officials implement plans to swap out 14,000 American soldiers in a support capacity for 'trigger-pullers'.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been reluctant to deploy troop levels that would match or surpass the level the Soviets had. During an interview with CNN on April 29, Gates was asked "what are the limits to what America can do in Afghanistan? Gates answered:

Well, I have been quoted as accurately as saying I have real reservations about significant further commitments of American military - of the American military to Afghanistan, beyond what the president has already approved. The Soviets were in there with 110,000, 120,000 troops. They didn't care about civilian casualties. And they couldn't win. If there's ever an example that military power alone cannot be successful in Afghanistan, I think it was the Soviet experience. ;And I think there's a lot we can learn from that. And so I worry - it is absolutely critical that the Afghans believe that this is their war. It is their war against people who are trying to overthrow their government that they democratically elected.

For all of its flaws and shortcomings, it is theirs. And they - we must be their partner and their ally. If we get to the point where the Afghan people see us as occupiers, then we will have lost. So the way we treat the Afghans, the importance of keeping the Afghans in the lead in many of these activities, the military as well as the civilian, I think is absolutely critical, so that they know - so that these villagers know that it's their people who are leading this fight. This isn't some foreign army coming in there, like all the previous foreign armies, to just occupy them.

While Gate's recollection of Soviet troop levels is a teensy inflated, as of a little more than four months ago he was concerned that if the U.S. had Soviet-levels of troops deployed in Afghanistan, then the U.S.-backed coalition would be seen as an occupational force.

Many Afghans, it would seem, do see this war as their own. But they are not fighting alongside the U.S.-led coalition, rather they are fighting against it. And after nearly eight years and 100,000 plus troops deployed in their country, some Afghans might even describe this as an occupation. Really, how is the U.S.-led coalition not "just" another occupying army?

When asked by CNN if he was "unlikely to approve a request for additional troops in Afghanistan" in six months to a year, Gates answered:

I would be a hard sell; there's no question about it. And I have not made a secret of that, either publicly or in government meetings. I think we will have - between the American military commitment and our coalition partners, the ISAF partners, we will have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That's only about 10,000 shy of what the Russians had. And I think we need to think about that.

My view is it would be a far better investment to focus on building the strength of the Afghan army and the Afghan police, making sure that of the numbers of people we have there, there are adequate trainers so that we can accelerate the growth of those forces.

It's that combination of a certain level of international support for the Afghan military effort and the growing of the Afghan security forces themselves. It's that partnership that I think eventually will be successful in Afghanistan. As long as - if we try to do it all ourselves, I think it won't work.

Now less than six months later, Gates is open to more troops in Afghanistan according to Reuters. Gates said Afghan concerns that more U.S. troops would signify an occupation could be "mitigated" if the additional forces "interact with the Afghans in a way that give confidence to the Afghans that we're partners and their allies."

The Christian Science Monitor added Gates said the U.S. must stay in Afghanistan. "I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan," he said.

The NY Times reported advisers to Obama are divided on the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan. The administration is debating sending more troops to Afghanistan, but no one advising the president other than possibly the vice president, appears to be advocating a troop reduction for the region or even crafting an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has not asked for a troop increase in a recent report he submitted about the state of the war in Afghanistan, but he is widely expected to request an increase in the coming weeks.

"There is little doubt that McChyrstal will request for additional troops - likely between 25,000 and 30,000. These would be in addition to the troops President Obama authorized this spring, which will bring the US total force in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the fall," according to the Monitor. The NY Times predicts:

The smallest proposed reinforcement, from 10,000 to 15,000 troops, would be described as the high-risk option. A medium-risk option would involve sending about 25,000 more troops, and a low-risk option would call for sending about 45,000 troops.

But by sending more troops to Afghanistan, is the U.S.-led coalition trying to "do it all ourselves"? And what is the purpose of the occupation on the QT? Does the administration really believe that after nearly 8 years, Afghans have not caught on yet?

No doubt if we leave now, "Islamic fundamentalists could in all likelihood come out ahead" or at least that what Soviet Maj. Gen. Kim M. Tsagolov predicted as the Soviets were preparing to pullout of Afghanistan in 1988.

As Gates explained the Soviets could not "win" -- whatever that means -- with 100,000 troops. How big does the U.S.-led occupation-sized force need to be to "win"? Does the Obama administration really think it can "win" with just 25,000 or 30,000 more troops and additional military contractors? The U.S. had a larger force in Iraq, is that war a "win" yet?

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

For me, the Soviet invasion will always be tied to the 1980 winter Olympics and the "Miracle on Ice" game. If memory serves, Carter had just announced the United States would be boycotting the summer Olympics in Moscow and then the American underdogs pull of an amazing upset to defeat the Soviet hockey team.

If you would have told me then that 29 years later the United States would have to 68,000 troops inside Afghanistan, I would have told you that you were crazy.

by Magnifico on Sat Sep 5th, 2009 at 06:01:23 AM EST
... including "armed contractors", aka mercenaries, employed by the US government, the US alone is over 100,000 and including allies well over 150,000.

So we broke that Soviet record long ago.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 11:27:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You've created a great frame for this fine reporting and argument.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Sat Sep 5th, 2009 at 08:48:01 AM EST
I linked to this in the Salon, but it's relevant here:

Jonathan Steele | The Afghan 80s are back | The Guardian

It is deja vu on a huge and bloody scale. General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, is about to advise his president that "the Afghan people are undergoing a crisis of confidence because the war against the Taliban has not made their lives better", according to leaked reports. Change the word "Taliban" to "mujahideen", and you have an exact repetition of what the Russians found a quarter of a century ago.

Like Nato today, the Kremlin realised its forces had little control outside the main cities. The parallels don't end there. The Russians called their Afghan enemies dukhy (ghosts), ever-present but invisible, as hidden in death as they were when alive - which echoes Sean Smith's recent photographic account of the fighting in Helmand and the failure of the British units he was with to find a single Talib body.

by Gag Halfrunt on Sun Sep 6th, 2009 at 05:54:45 AM EST
I doubt the Russians are directly backing the Taliban to get even with the U.S. for the Soviet's failed occupation. Instead, the Russian heroin epidemic is helping fund the insurgency.
by Magnifico on Sun Sep 6th, 2009 at 07:33:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
agree with your thesis that that this war is more and more resembling Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Soviet propaganda never could convincingly explain why so many soldiers were there and had died. For what? Situation for Western alliance was and is a bit better with UN SC resolution authorizing ouster of Taliban and subsequent invasion and occupation. However Western rulers could read at least Chinese military classics like Sun Tzu to comprehend that military solution should be quick and withdrawn early instead of dragging its feet. Even with mounting economic difficulties this war is still affordable for the West. But the big question whether this war makes any sense at all is left unanswered. Mr Obama probably thinks that in view of troubles in attempts to push through his castrated health reform back at home he cannot "lose" this war. That's why we reduced to become witnesses of the ongoing wrangling over the course of war (In fact IHT, quinteessential American newspaper available here in Bangkok publishes these days articles mainly on Afghanistan and nothing else worthwile).

If this planned increase in troops is just bargaining chip in secret negotiations with Taliban only then it makes a little sense. But it seems unlikely. The other outcome is (the last and final) attempt "to secure" Afghanistan, to stabilize this country, to help it's going up the ladder of development. The first step is astonishingly difficult to make. I had not heard any ideas in this regard, how to turn away Afghans from producing drugs, their only commodity. There are no plans to set up "sweatshops" neither. In this enterprise of "state-building" the West needs wholehearted support of whole international community, but it remains largely aloof and mainly thanks to the attitude of Americans who "privatized" this war.

by FarEasterner on Sun Sep 6th, 2009 at 10:02:58 AM EST
Opium is a needed medicinal crop. The world could buy Afghanistan's opium, but instead we're buying opium for medicinal needs from Australia leaving the Afghan opium surplus is being sold for heroin. Buying the poppy harvest would at least help out some Afghans.

While it may be in the international community's best interest to stabilize Afghanistan, what can be done? The country has to be peaceful enough for people to work there and that isn't going to happen as long as the various ethnic factions continue to fight.

Leaving would allow for the Taliban or another faction to win, but is that in the international communities' best interest? Is leaving in the best interest of the Afghans? Continuing to prop up the corrupt Karzai government doesn't seem to be in the Afghans' best interest either.

by Magnifico on Sun Sep 6th, 2009 at 07:31:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Opium is a needed medicinal crop. The world could buy Afghanistan's opium, but instead we're buying opium for medicinal needs from Australia leaving the Afghan opium surplus is being sold for heroin. Buying the poppy harvest would at least help out some Afghans.

really, it's not like australia can't afford it.

give the farmers the dignity and income for doing what they know how to do, plus it will take off a lot of heroin from the market.

(which is exactly the problem, for some interested parties...)

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 11:05:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
when the Soviet Union was invited by the Afghan government to help quell an uprising against it.

People don't know this but, back before, Afghanistan was not some crazy Islamicist backwater where womenwere condemned to a life of misogynistic hell and men were all gun-toting morons like in the US. Back then, in the 1970's, everyone was likely to be sporting a spliff and making tourist movie reels more reminiscent of images of Nepal than Kabul.

Thanks you Jimmy Carter! Thank you Russia-hating Zbigniew Brzinkski (the real guilty party for what Afghanistan has become, a bitter stupid Polock looking for revenge, and the ultimate blow back of a Polock...holy shit! Hat's off!)  

Really, 25 years ago, Afghanistan wasn't that fucked up, but....

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Sun Sep 6th, 2009 at 06:19:50 PM EST
By the time the Soviets pulled-out, Afghanistan was in a mess. Afghanistan was part of the Cold War proxy wars years before the communist revolution in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Would Afghanistan not been a mess if the U.S. did not arm and train the Mujahideen? I think so.  But placing the blame solely on the U.S., I think is too simplistic.

The 16 minute  Journeyman Pictures film, Once Upon a Time - Afghanistan, on YouTube is pretty interesting.

Certainly American involvement made Afghanistan worse off, but an occupation is not conducive to a long, lasting peace either. What would the world be like today if the U.S. did not oppose the Soviet's in 1980s in Afghanistan?

Speculation aside, what is the role of the international community now with the ruins of Afghanistan still being fought over?

by Magnifico on Sun Sep 6th, 2009 at 07:17:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the Soviet Union was invited by the Afghan government to help quell an uprising against it.

You mean the same Afghan government that had taken power in a military coup the year before?  By overthrowing a leader who'd himself taken power in a coup against his own cousin (and brother-in-law) five years earlier?  Yes, obviously a very stable place.

back before, Afghanistan was not some crazy Islamicist backwater where womenwere condemned to a life of misogynistic hell and men were all gun-toting morons

True of some people in the major cities, such as Kabul, but not true of most of the rest of the country.

Overall, this is a serious oversimplification of the history, ignoring the role played by other states (e.g. Pakistan) and the Afghan Communist government itself, which badly overreached in its efforts to "transform" a deeply conservative, deeply religious society into an officially atheist state practically overnight.  They might have been able to pull off mandatory education of girls, but not when it went along with the shuttering of mosques.

OK, I'm going back on holiday now and am not going to think about Afghanistan for the rest of the day.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 03:25:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hmmm...of course it's more complicated.

But, careful that the commentary for the complication is not provided by USIS. And yes, the US involvement in Afghanistan has been almost completely negative for Afghan people. Soviet involvement was also not net positive but the long arc of US and Saudi involvement has proven disastrous for Afghanistan.

And sure, in the rural towns, time stood still. You should come here to France and head to the Haute Loire region and see farming techniques there and see that this is not limited to Afghanistan. (And you know what? Who cares? We are still a secular Republic even when the rural areas would with bare majorities prefer otherwise). But, it is a fact that in the early 1970's, Afghanistan was like Nepal was in the '90's, a sort of beatnik tourist Shangrila, lots of dope, lots of hiking and of course anybody who's been there knows how pretty and handsome people are from there.

All this being said you are disingenuous. Like the rest of that part of the world, there were coups all the time. But, in Afghanistan, the first one was Communist. The second one, also communist. And also the third. I mean, I understand taking issue with the nature of the changes that were going on there, and blaming tings on PK, but in 1972, PK was, well...not particularly able to project.

And anyhow, you're in Afghanistan now. So, assuming you're not talking to a pathan there's not a whole lot positive you should hear from anyone else about Pakistan or ISI. And those Pathans who do speak positively will also do so for political reasons, again unless things have much changed. I have no idea if Pashtoonistan nationalism is still important (I'd be surprised if it weren't but I'm the west for of course I have no idea...no irony here intended) but if it is you probably also know that there's more to the Taliban than just hatred of Americans.

Careful. The music is addictive. You don't know it will be, and then, you understand that you will remember those songs and especially those chords for a long time.

I wish you the best. And, take care of yourself.    

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 06:08:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was going to try to respond in more detail, but honestly I'm not sure what you're trying to argue.

it is a fact that in the early 1970's, Afghanistan was like Nepal was in the '90's, a sort of beatnik tourist Shangrila, lots of dope, lots of hiking and of course anybody who's been there knows how pretty and handsome people are from there.

You do know about the Nepalese civil war, right?

Perhaps I wasn't clear enough.  I certainly wasn't blaming everything on Pakistan, nor was I trying to absolve the USA of its share of the responsibility for how things are now.  All I was saying is that many things contributed, and it's simply impossible to pick one moment in time when it all went wrong, or one party to blame.

I all-to-frequently hear people talking about Afghanistan 30 years ago and contrasting it with now, as if it were impossible to reconcile these two versions of the same country.  But both versions are distortions: partly they are distorted impressions, based on an incomplete picture of Afghanistan at a given point in time; and partly they are accurate reflections of what those in power wanted the country to be, visions that were themselves based on distorted, far-too-narrow notions of what Afghanistan is, or should be.

Sigh.  Now I suspect I'm not making sense.  It's late.

Thanks for your good wishes.  I will try to take care.  You do the same!

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 07:23:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am going to say something weird... I am not with the liberals on this one.. problem is the neo-cons are even crazier.

I would not take the NATO troops out of the country inmediately. I certainly see Afganihstan becomeing a Somalia (check your last national geographic if you want some reporting of SOmalia, otehrwise zilch).

Tehre a few spots on Earth were life is literally hell. First and foremost Somalia, Darfur (most of Sudan) goe right behind.. and COngo close to Uganda is even closer. Zimambwe is getting closer as some areas of Liberia and some outskirts of soem major CentralAmerican (and even some SOuth-American) cities.

I do not want to add any other are of the planet to that list. So the goal is that Afganishtan remains an ugly place to be but not hell on earth.

Now, how do you do that? I have nto seen any convincing plan about how to do it.. that's the problem. You cna nto stay for ever.. but I certainly beleive that this is not Iraq.. here a rapid withdrawal would be a disaster.

So, what to do? Scale back slowly? Increase and scale back? negotiate? What cards the NATO has in front of the taliban, and the opium crooks and the opium non-crook farmers and the local leaders? I do not know what to do... the fact is I like how Obama has approached foreign policy, specially the no-delay but slow withdrawal from Iraq together with good diplomacy.

I just hope Obama gets that right.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 04:54:56 PM EST
If the goal would be to avoid out-right civil war I would say that the way to go would be to gather all fighting fractions for a peace conference. Make it clear that a peaceful solutions is sought and that if one is acheived the foreign troops will pull back as part of the agreement.

It is very hard to mediate peace in a civil war but there are those who have experience and given enough resources they could succeed.

Otherwise I just see a prolonged slide towards Somalia-like situations. (But lets remember that the last stable government in Somalia was over-thrown by US-backed Ethiopia.)

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 05:53:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed, word by word...

One comment though. Etiopia US-backed intervention also prevented the North of Somalia (Somaliland, presently very stable) to turn into a worse place. And the governemnt in Somalia was not at all stable (just slightly better than hell). So it was a difficult decision in front of the Ehiopians willing to invade.
I would say that the US just decided not block the operation( effectively backing it)

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 06:19:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It looks like US involvement went far beyond just not blocking it.
Chris Floyd: Admiral Fallon and His Empire

Thus the Kenyan border area -- where tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing -- was meant to be "a killing zone," Barnett writes:

America's first AC-130 gunship went wheels-up on January 7 from that secret Ethiopian airstrip. After each strike, anybody left alive was to be wiped out by successive waves of Ethiopian commandos and Task Force 88, operating out of Manda Bay. The plan was to rinse and repeat 'until no more bad guys, as one officer put it.

by generic on Mon Sep 7th, 2009 at 08:17:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know why this is so hard to understand.  

You can wage a war for oil.  You can wage a war for opium.  You can wage a war for trade routes or supply routes.  You can wage a war for access to markets.  You can wage a war to overthrow a political regime.  And possibly you can wage such wars with success.  

Whatever the Afghan war is about--opium most likely, access to oil possibly--it is not about "peace" or "stability."  War cannot achieve those things.  

Americans--and Europeans too--forget that a successful war has to be followed by a successful peace, or you have accomplished nothing.  

From the Afghani side, the war will be successful when the invaders have been thrown out.  From the American, or European, or "UN" side?  No one anywhere, not even on this blog, can imagine what a successful peace would look like.  Our criteria are mutually contradictory and self-contradictory--utterly hopeless.  

For the aerospace industry, the war will be successful when it persuades everyone that they absolutely must stock up on drone military aircraft.  

I believe that for some people, the war is successful already.  

But not because peace is likely, or even possible.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Sep 8th, 2009 at 10:39:58 PM EST
All true.

An enlighted withdrawl - as I described upthreads - is also uncommon, though it has happened. It requires the realisation that there is an after war period in which good relations might be sought and acheived. Far more common is to destroy everything lest the enemy gets it.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Wed Sep 9th, 2009 at 02:49:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On the other hand, be careful what you wish for... The implication of a withdrawal from Afghanistan (and presumably Iraq) is that extra American troops will be available for redeployments around the world.

$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$
by martingale on Wed Sep 9th, 2009 at 03:11:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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