The Ghosts of Afghanistan Haunt Ukraine

By Javed Ali

Javed Ali has over twenty years professional experience in Washington, DC on national security issues, to include senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and National Security Council focused on counterterrorism. He is an Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

OPINION – The world is watching with dread, Russia’s multi-pronged campaign against Ukraine that includes major military operations, cyberattacks, propaganda, misinformation screeds, and possible sabotage and subversion efforts.  At first glance, President Putin has unleashed an unsettling capability that is still not fully realized. That said, this does not equate to a straight line path to success or Putin’s notion of victory, and the ghosts of Russia’s failed campaign in Afghanistan nearly 40 years ago, should give him and his military and intelligence commanders pause.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, based on fears that Afghan Communists would lose their grip on power based on internal feuds. Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev then ordered a military assault that involved the full might of the Red Army and a subsequent brutal occupation that killed hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians, tens of thousands of Afghan Mujahedeen and other anti-Soviet fighters, and thousands of Soviet troops. Despite possessing overwhelming firepower and advanced equipment, the Soviet military failed to defeat the resistance — which was enabled by a US-led coalition that provided weapons, supplies, and money.  Because of its brutal tactics, the occupation only engendered deeper local and international resentment (which also included creating the conditions for the global jihadist network to be centered in Afghanistan). The Soviet occupation also became deeply unpopular in Russia and placed a tremendous strain on its economy. Weary of the major costs of the conflict and other pressure applied by the Reagan administration, the Soviet military withdrew in 1989 having achieved none of its initial objectives.

Fast forward to the crisis in Ukraine today. Putin is facing the same dilemma Brezhnev did in 1979. While Russia’s military operation can score tactical wins early, Putin’s ultimate strategic goals and objectives remain unclear. And already, the Biden administration seems to be well underway with its own broad effort that includes punishing economic sanctions, significant diplomatic pressure, increased military and intelligence support to Ukraine and surrounding NATO countries, and possibly even ramped up cyber operations—which according to one report, suggests the Defense Department has already presented options for cyberattacks in Russia if approved by President Biden.

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The Ukrainian military has already showed it will fight despite Russia’s numerical and technological advantages, and like the situation with Afghanistan decades ago, a tenacious Ukrainian resistance movement could also emerge to harass and intimidate Russian troops who will be garrisoned and seen as unwelcome occupiers.

There seems little internal political dissent to Putin’s approach to Ukraine, and already populist anger over the invasion is being suppressed. As a result, Putin seems intent on hurtling Russia on the same path the Soviet Union took in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the United States and the international community can work together to ensure the same strategic outcome and raise the costs on Russia’s campaign that will only result in suffering and hardship in Ukraine and across the region should it proceed.

The United States, NATO, and other coalition partners should be studying the elements of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and implement similar measures with modern twists to halt further aggression and restore security in Europe.

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