Anti-war commentators are saying that the U.S. occupation of Iraq threatens to turn into a quagmire like Vietnam. But the commentators have the wrong quagmire. The more appropriate historical analogy for what the U.S. faces in Iraq is a different war: the one the Soviet Union tried to fight in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Consider:
A superpower, in defiance of most world opinion, invades an Islamic Middle Eastern nation. The superpower is hoping to effect regime change and, citing an "imminent threat," declares the invasion "an international duty." Initially, the invasion goes well. Within weeks, all organized military opposition in the invaded nation appears to evaporate, and the invading superpower basks in its success, praised by its domestic media for its military prowess. The superpower imposes its own government on the invaded nation and settles in to oversee a comfortable, presumably temporary occupation.
But almost immediately, resistance forces begin to coalesce and the guerrilla war begins. The superpower's convoys are attacked. Its soldiers are killed one, two, 10 at a time. Galvanized by religious zeal and nationalist pride, the guerrillas begin to attract fighters sympathetic to their cause.
The superpower's casualties grow, and, although the superpower brings the body bags home quietly, out of the spotlight, the people back home begin to notice. The national media begin asking questions. Why are our soldiers still dying? Is this war worth it? Who decided to fight it and why? Commissions are called to look into the justification for the war. The political leadership claims the military and intelligence agencies are responsible. The military and intelligence agencies claim they warned the politicians that the war might be a mistake; the generals, in fact, claim the politicians quashed any intelligence that contradicted their own (the politicians') preset policies. Meanwhile, the superpower is obliged to keep a rotating force of over 120,000 men in the invaded nation, and the resistance forces continue to grow, swelled each day by zealous international fighters called to "jihad" in order to force out the infidel invader. Quickly the invaded nation becomes a cause for Muslims throughout the world. Sound familiar?
In the end, it took 10 years and the death of 25,000 of its young men at the hands of the Afghan mujahedin fighters before the Soviet Union decided to give up the fight and leave Afghanistan.
In dozens of articles, some recently declassified, analysts in the U.S. military and in the intelligence community have examined what went wrong for the Soviets in Afghanistan. One such article is a 1996 U.S. Army document out of the Foreign Military Studies Office. Called "The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of a Future War?," it is by General (Ret) Mohammad Yahya Nawroz, Army of Afghanistan, and LTC (Ret) Lester W. Grau, U.S. Army. It reads in part: "Guerrilla war, a test of national will and the ability to endure, negates many of the advantages of technology. [I]t is in the best interests of U.S. military professionals to review the lessons of the last guerrilla war in which a super-power was involved. Afghanistan is both past and prologue .
"A guerrilla war is not a war of technology versus peasantry. Rather, it is a contest of endurance and national will. The side with the greatest moral commitment will hold the ground at the end of the conflict. Battlefield victory can be almost irrelevant, since victory is often determined by morale, obstinacy, and survival."
I hope George W. Bush -- or whoever does his reading for him -- is studying the analyses of the Soviet-Afghan war. I wonder if he and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz possess a "national will" and a "moral commitment" that goes beyond the election of 2004. And I wonder if our soldiers will still be fighting and dying in Baghdad in 2013.
Ed Weathers writes a weekly column for MemphisFlyer.com.