What the Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan Tells Us about Syria

September 19, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: AfghanistanSoviet UnionHistorySyriaForeign Policy

What the Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan Tells Us about Syria

Echoes of the Afghan-Soviet struggle have begun to re-emerge in Syria, challenging the Putin-Assad alliance and the future of Syrian governance. 

“If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many more years. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.” These words, spoken on March 10, 1992, through an overwhelmed translator, stand in time as the final plea of a man at the helm of a dying regime.

The speaker was Dr. Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, the former head of the state intelligence service, leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), and President of Afghanistan. He was also the last client of the Soviet Union, which provided direct military and monetary support to the PDPA government until the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 (and indirect support after).

Najibullah was widely considered a Soviet stooge. He had some initial successes in restoring his reputation among some Afghan civilians and won several military victories against the mujahedeen resistance as they struggled to convert their approach from guerrilla to conventional. By March 1992, none of that mattered. A loosely knit collection of mujahedeen factions surrounded Kabul, poised to crush the remains of the PDPA government.

On April 17, 1992, a palace coup preempted a formal transition of power, and Najibullah absconded to a UN compound in the city. Four years later, abandoned by a now-defunct superpower, he would be tortured, castrated, dragged through the streets, and hung from a traffic light by invading Taliban forces.

Today, echoes of the Afghan-Soviet struggle have begun to re-emerge in Syria, challenging the Putin-Assad alliance and the future of Syrian governance. The story of how hundreds of competing mujahedeen commanders united to defeat the Soviet-backed PDPA holds many lessons for those competing in the “New Great Game.” It may also hold the key for how the United States can gain back strategic leverage against its geopolitical foes, end the civil war, and avoid the chaos of post-Cold War Afghanistan. The lessons are simple:

• For the resistance: Leave politics at the door.

• For the United States: Be a broker, not a kingmaker.

• For the world: Stick around to deal with the spoilers and ensure the peace.

A Failed Attempt at Unity

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979, neighboring Pakistan became a major geopolitical player overnight. Its sudden popularity, while much needed due to a deteriorating economic and domestic political situation, was wrought with dangers. As with the lesser Sicilian cities in the Peloponnesian War, Pakistan had to choose between a near threat (the Soviet Union) and the long-term benefit of allying with a far power (the United States) on this new Cold War battleground. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan, would choose a path that supported the Afghan mujahedeen, and thus American political objectives, but to achieve its own ends. Zia was determined to gain influence over Kabul, in order to gain strategic depth and change the regional power balance against India. The fragmentation in Afghanistan along tribal, ethnic, and sectarian lines, however, prevented a unified military force from effectively confronting the Soviet-PDPA alliance.

To accomplish this, Pakistan used its intelligence service (the ISI) as puppet master in an unconventional war next door, using funds and materiel support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China. Much like the United States Congress uses the lever of appropriations to influence foreign policy, Pakistan and the ISI used distribution of funds to exert a measure of control over the direction of the war.

Through this funding and distribution network, the ISI created the “Alliance of Seven”—the seven recognized mujahedeen factions that maintained a political presence in either Peshawar or Quetta, and a military presence inside Afghanistan. Peshawar became a lighthouse, attracting all kinds of ideologies and motivations from across the Islamic world to the cause of the Afghans.

While the “Alliance of Seven” provided a mechanism to grow the war against the Soviets and the PDPA, it failed as a mechanism to bring about political change for three major reasons.

First, the alliance represented only a small portion of the Afghan people.

Second, the relationship between the ISI and the political parties were arrangements of convenience and created little military cooperation. Competing political agendas further hindered cooperation between and within parties.

Third, the Alliance of Seven were Sunni-dominated, and did not include eight other Shia resistance groups operating in Afghanistan.

In short, money, weapons, supplies, co-location, and even a common cause failed to bind these disparate groups into a cohesive force. Fighting between mujahedeen factions increased rapidly as resources were routed to competing leaders vying for position in a post-Soviet Afghanistan. Among the Afghan civilian population, resentment grew with the violence and destruction. The alliance disintegrated amid the power struggle.

Separating the Political and Military Conflict

While the Alliance of Seven floundered in Pakistan, military commanders and their mujahedeen continued the hard work of insurgency inside Afghanistan. By 1989, legendary Pashtun warrior (and long-time contact of the CIA) Abdul Haq began to search for a way to unify the most influential military leaders in the country. He recruited a number of commanders from disparate regions of Afghanistan including Amin Wardak (Pashtun, Wardak), Mullah Malang (Pashtun, Badghis), Taj Mohammad (Pashtun, Ghazni), Mullah Sayed Hasan Jaglan (Hazara, Ghazni) and, later, Ahmed Shah Massoud (Tajik, Panjshir). He also earned the support and counsel of the State Department in Special Envoy Peter Tomsen, who saw the movement as a way to marginalize the most extreme Islamist factions and dampen ISI influence of the anti-PDPA campaign. Tomsen advised Haq to leave politics and the issue of post-victory governance out of his talks. The focus of Haq’s efforts should be on defeating government forces militarily. As such, Haq focused on bringing together only those groups that could bring significant firepower and manpower to the fight. The collection of military commanders would become known as the National Commanders’ Shura (NCS).

The first meeting of the NCS took place in May 1990 with forty commanders. By the second meeting in late June, Haq and Tomsen had gathered over three hundred commanders, including 15 percent that were Shia. With a focus on military victory, the third meeting of the NCS broke the deadlock between the various mujahedeen factions.

The plan called for the division of Afghanistan into nine administrative zones. The field commanders in each zone would coordinate, plan, and execute strikes on key PDPA targets with the goal of controlling their areas. The attacks would occur simultaneously in order to spread PDPA air support thin and detract from the government’s ability to resupply forces. Once the resistance gained military momentum, leaders of the Shura would meet and decide how to depose Najibullah in Kabul.

Early Departure

The NCS initiated operations on June 20, 1991. In just over a month, the united mujahedeen won major victories at eight government strongholds. At the same time, the United States Congress decided to formalize a “hands-off” policy in Afghanistan, signifying a stoppage of covert aid to the mujahedeen. With no more funding, the CIA lost much of its ability to influence Pakistan and ISI decision-making regarding aid to mujahedeen factions. In turn, ISI officers placed the vast majority of their support in Gulbidden Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami, a group that espoused the most extreme, fundamentalist, anti-American ideology of the Afghan factions.

By March 1992, NCS commanders were poised to strike outside of Kabul. Without picking winners and losers, the United States managed to wield significant influence through its soft power. Through the efforts of Tomsen and others at the State Department and CIA, the United States earned the role of respected advisor to the NCS and broker of unity.

Commanders within the NCS began making contact with administrators inside the PDPA government to plot a peaceful transition. With the conflict seemingly ending, the United States pulled almost all of its personnel out of Afghanistan. U.S. agencies handed over responsibility to the United Nations and abdicated their role in the conflict. The link between Hezb-e Islami, the ISI, NCS, and PDPA disappeared with the last Americans.

A series of deadlocked negotiations and ultimatums ended with the NCS taking Kabul and installing an interim government in April 1992, with a mix of thirty field commanders, ten clergy members, and ten party representatives. Hezb-e Islami refused to take part in the new peace and began indiscriminately shelling the city less than a week after the power transition. Rule of law quickly broke down amidst the destruction and chaos.

The battle for Kabul continued, spiraling into a civil war between the interim government authority and the ISI-backed Hezb-e Islami. The stalemate ended when Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban swept through the war-torn country in 1996, pushing the interim government out of power and forcing it to retreat north.

A Rebranding in Syria

On July 28, 2016, Abu Muhammad al Julani announced the rebranding of Jabhat al-Nusra, complete with a new identify: Jabhat Fath Al Sham (JFS). Al-Julani envisioned a new organization that would fight for the Syrian people, casting off its overt affiliations with global jihadist organizations (“no affiliation to any external entity”). His announcement was a unity play long in the making.

Al-Julani is an opportunist. He saw the potential for Russian-U.S. cooperation on Jabhat al-Nusra as a serious problem for the future of his organization. Many analysts have already pointed out that this move likely accelerated the rebranding campaign. Others have declared the move a trap set by Al Qaeda. All of this is probably true.

But there is something very interesting going on here. In written correspondence with Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept, Abu Sulayman al-Muhair (an Australian citizen, director of foreign media relations for Jabhat Fath al-Sham, and a U.S.-designated global terrorist) outlined a strategic narrative that almost exactly mirrors that of Abdul Haq’s National Commanders’ Shura.

• Work towards a pragmatic option

• Cut ties with external entities

• Focus on the military solution first

• Support post-regime government, in whatever form

• Create distance from the most extreme factions

• Unite the rebellion, protect the minorities

This, I offer, is no coincidence.

It is difficult to judge if Al-Julani’s move is purely cosmetic or represents a serious change in direction. “Change is established through deeds and actions, not words.” However, it now appears that some “well-established Al-Qaeda operatives” have begun to defect from JFS. Hassan Hassan posits that this move may signify the revival of a Black September –type front group that “absorbs defections and attracts jihadists.” The separation of JFS nationalist and jihadist forces may further increase its appeal to more moderate rebel groups. Further still, this change in narrative could allow an injection of vital foreign power support to their military campaign.

One thing is certain: a united opposition should frighten both Putin and Assad (especially Assad). Al-Julani and Jabhat Fath Al Sham are now best positioned to create this unity.

Gaining Leverage

It is clear that JFS is just getting started. They do not intend to abide by international cease-fire agreements nor are they interested in a short-term peace in Syria. As a military entity, the group continues to gain popularity and momentum. Some see international action against the group as inevitable. But should it be? The world continues to underestimate the brutality and resolve of the Syrian regime. Moreover, Assad will not step down unless his foreign sponsors force him out. The conflict is at an impasse.

Unequivocally, the United States cannot support Jabhat Fath Al Sham. That does not mean, however, that it should automatically support the Syrian/Russian campaign against them. The prospects for such action in the near-term have grown exponentially with the Russian-US negotiated cease-fire.

It increasingly appears, however, that JFS is now a key alliance shaper among opposition groups, one with ties to even the most moderate of factions. As such, the United States must understand that supporting a campaign against JFS amounts to direct backing of the Assad regime. It also amounts to a ‘mission-accomplished’ for Putin’s intervention in Syria, who seeks to keep Assad in power while projecting itself as the power broker in the Middle East.

Since the cease-fire agreement, a defiant Assad has made clear he seeks to remain in power and take back “every inch” of the country. Even amidst the agreement, the regime continues its siege on Aleppo, withholding aid from the city. Prospects for a true political transition look very dim. Can the United States, in good conscious, back such an agenda?

There is an alternative.

While keeping the focus on defeating ISIS and protecting U.S. forces on the ground, the United States would be wise to quietly position itself for the next stage of the Syrian conflict.

Here’s what Washington can do:

1. Stay connected with its rebel partners, even if they align militarily with Jabhat Fath Al Sham. Keep the focus on military operations and pressuring the regime. Stop picking winners and losers. Work to dilute fundamentalist voices in the developing united opposition.

2. Expand intelligence operations against Jabhat Fath Al Sham. When the time comes, the negotiating position of the United States and its allies will depend on its ability to flex leverage on both sides of the conflict. See #6.

3. Control the narrative. If the focus on the ground in Syria shifts towards achieving military result, use it. Marginalize the influence of foreign jihadists while promoting the combat effectiveness of a united opposition.

4. Sever the links between Jabhat Fath Al Sham and Al Qaeda. By selectively targeting known Al Qaeda operatives, the United States could force the change Al-Julani espoused via combat Darwinism.

5. Use international partners and become the de facto mediator between the regime, Russia, and the opposition on the ground. Be prepared to use increased pressure on the regime to force a political settlement.

6. Stand ready to deal with spoilers, especially if the spoilers turn out to be Jabhat Fath Al Sham.

This first part of this article is adapted from the essay “Snake Oil: U.S. Foreign Policy, Afghanistan, and the Cold War,” written to fulfill a Master’s requirement and later published in its entirety on E-IR.

Vince Tumminello is a former U.S. Marine and OEF advisor. He holds a Master’s in International Relations from the Strategic Studies Program of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The views presented here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Government.

Image: Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Wikimedia Commons / RIA Novosti archive, image #642790 / V. Kiselev / CC-BY-SA 3.0