Abandoned Soviet tank in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan
What’s Russian for ‘I Told You So’? How American Exceptionalism Suppressed the Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

Many years before it published the Afghan war’s equivalent of the Pentagon Papers — a series of leaked documents proving that American officials had known for years that the war could not be won but deliberately misled the public about its progress — the Washington Post had, in fact served a forewarning of the same truths.

On September 19, 2001, barely over a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Post offered some sage counsel. As a United States military response against al-Qaida’s sanctuaries in Afghanistan loomed inevitable, a thoughtful Post editor assigned a piece garnering the perspectives from the last major foreign intervention there

Boris Gromov, the last Soviet commander to leave Afghanistan told the paper he understood American rage at the terror attacks, and the need to retaliate with “powerful strikes.” But he also warned Americans to avoid an unwinnable war, like the one his own men had been plunged. “For the Americans, introducing land forces would not lead to anything good,” Gromov cautioned. It would be “useless,” retired Gen. Makmut Goryeev concurred, who also took the opportunity to remind his American interviewer that the perpetrator of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, “was created by your special services to fight against our Soviet troops. But he got out of their control.”

Former infantry commander Ruslan Aushev echoed the warnings of his old comrades. “The Americans can launch an attack that will look really dramatic and effective on television, but I don’t think the result will be the expected one. Even with all the power of the American army, it will not reach success.”

The Red Army veterans knew well of which they spoke — as did the U.S. establishment, if it was honest. After all, it had been commonplace in the 1980s in the U.S. news media and policy circles to refer to Afghanistan as “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.”

So, if it was clear to the U.S. national security establishment, media, and political elites, that by invading Afghanistan, the Soviets had committed the same catastrophic self-defeating mistake as had bloodied America (not to mention Vietnam and Cambodia) in Southeast Asia, how was it possible to imagine that yet another expeditionary land war in Asia — in the very same country that had started the collapse of the Soviet Union — could possibly lead to a different outcome? 

Sure, America was angry. Its public needed punishing strikes against the perpetrators and their hosts. And as Aushev, the former Soviet infantry commander, told the Washington Post, those strikes would need to “look really dramatic and effective on television.”

But how did anyone imagine that a country with a track record of confounding foreign occupiers would be a simple conquest giving way to a grateful population rebuilding itself under American tutelage as a model ally? What leaps of faith, hubris, or delusion did it require to imagine that the American exercise of war in Afghanistan would be anything other than a debacle?

The U.S. never destroyed the Taliban. It simply scattered them from the major cities to rural redoubts and Pakistani sanctuary, opening a new chapter in the civil war that had raged since the Soviet withdrawal — and reflected a complex interaction of ethnic and local clan and warlord formations, backed by longtime neighborhood powers Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia. The U.S. invasion tilted the balance in favor of one set of interests, and provided opportunities to advance their agendas, but it didn’t align those interests with some imagined new order in which the U.S. arrival reset the clock to year zero.

For all its military might, the ingenuity of its commanders, and the courage of its fighting men and women, the U.S. had no plan that made any more sense than the Soviets had when they first sent forces to prop up an allied regime in 1979.

The U.S. exit strategy has always been to “Afghanize” the country’s security, which would be achieved by training indigenous security forces to the point of creating stability. But to believe that the U.S. had created a political order in Afghanistan for which ordinary Afghans would give their lives (albeit for a salary) once properly trained in the American way of war was preposterous.

Afghans knew all too well how to fight; the real question was, did they have anything to fight for? The “government in a box,” in the memorable phrase of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, that the U.S. had installed? Afghanistan had no tradition of a strong central government, and to believe that the U.S. arrival in Afghanistan simply erased all of that country’s history and its indigenous and regional dynamics was deluded.

The source of a delusion on this scale — the belief in an immunity from the geopolitical laws of physics that apply to all others — had to have been grounded in another construct with Soviet parallels and origins: American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism, may be hailed as a virtue today by everyone from Newt Gingrich to Barack Obama, but the term itself was coined by Joseph Stalin, in 1929, literally branding it a “heresy” in response to suggestions by CPUSA leaders that conditions in the U.S. defied the Comintern’s cookie-cutter approach to revolutionary strategy.

Stalin may have been wrong about revolutionary instincts of the U.S. proletariat, but his heirs were remarkably prescient in their warnings against the American effort to export its democracy by invading and occupying Afghanistan.

American exceptionalism nurtures a basic faith in the U.S. as a kind of geopolitical Superman, whose innate virtue and extraordinary abilities enable it to transcend the obstacles that had stymied all others. And it would have required tapping into that mystical resource for U.S. decision-makers to ignore the obvious and plunge blood and treasure into reengineering a country they had discussed as an analogue to Vietnam just a decade earlier. Once in Afghanistan, of course, the U.S. national security establishment fixated on a need to maintain its Superman illusion in the eyes of others: A belief that the U.S. can’t be seen to fail in its projection of force abroad, lest it confirm Mao Zedong’s advice to challengers everywhere that the U.S. was, in fact, a “paper tiger.” 

The Afghanistan Papers show that the U.S. lacked a plan — a set of clear, attainable objectives, a clear sense of who was fighting whom, and how their interests might align and differ from those of the U.S. Everything would change, the assumption seemed to be, by the U.S. simply showing up. Shock, awe, quiescence.

If the belief that the U.S. would succeed where all others had failed, simply because it was America, had prompted the Bush administration to put its hand in the hornets’ nest, what has kept it there ever since was an equally specious and utterly self-defeating notion that retreat from an unwinnable war somehow made the U.S. more vulnerable, weakened the deterrent efficacy of its military power, and invited further attacks.

The toxic interaction of these beliefs, coupled with a bureaucratic system that preserves itself by hiding the obvious signs of failure, creates the recipe for permanent war. And, again, the Soviet analogy is irresistible.

In a fascinating and uncomfortably relevant study of the Soviet leadership’s decision-making over its war in Afghanistan, Artemy Kalinovsky reports that even as it became palpably obvious that the war was unwinnable, “senior foreign policy officials as well as the General Secretaries under whom they served shared a concern that a failure in Afghanistan would damage the Soviet Union’s position and authority as leader of the Communist movement and supporter of ‘national liberation’ movements.” In other words, prestige and credibility required doubling down on a lost war. 

If that sounds familiar, try this: “Involvement in Afghanistan was extended by Moscow’s belief in its ability to transform Afghanistan, stabilize the government there, and achieve broad international recognition of the Communist regime in Kabul,” Kalinovsky wrote. “Positive reporting from officials on the ground often bolstered this belief. On numerous occasions the Politburo agreed to extend the presence of Soviet troops to give them a chance to succeed.”

Like President Obama, he continues, “Gorbachev decided either before or soon after taking office that Soviet troops needed to be brought home, but that this had to be done in stages. He faced the same dilemma that Andropov, Ustinov, and Gromyko did once they contemplated withdrawing Soviet troops. A way had to be found that did not undermine Soviet prestige and authority as a world power and leader of the Communist world.”

Kalinovsky continues, “while Gorbachev clearly wanted to move Soviet policy toward a withdrawal, he did not yet have any particular scheme in mind. He operated on the assumption that the Soviet Union needed to leave Afghanistan, but without ‘losing face’.” A precipitous withdrawal would badly damage Soviet prestige in the eyes of allies everywhere, the reformist Soviet leader told the Politburo in 1987.

Two years later, the Red Army withdrew in ignominy. Two years after that, the Soviet Union collapsed. While no such structural implosion looms around the corner for the United States — despite the alarming signals from its troubled polity — there’s no question that the wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq have not only “set the East ablaze” and bled the U.S. treasury, but they’ve also have had profound, negative effects on U.S. global standing and even more so on its domestic political stability.

The Afghanistan Papers are really a reminder of the extent to which the U.S. vindicated the warnings of those former Soviet generals two decades ago. And a warning of the perils of exceptionalist fantasies in deciding how, when, and where to go to war.