Steve Coll on Ink Spots and Gorbachev

by Joshua Foust on 9/29/2009

Steve Coll has a great couple of posts at the New Yorker about the choices facing the Obama administration. First, on the ink spot idea floating around:

The revival of an urban-dominated “ink spot” strategy for the defense of a weak Afghan state may be the best of a series of bad military choices. Certainly the past U.S. military approaches since 2001—a concentration on counterterrorism raids initially, followed by a poorly resourced counterinsurgency approach that also made a dubious priority of rural Helmand Province—have not stanched the Taliban’s revival.

If I were in charge, I wouldn’t so explicitly adopt the Najibullah approach, but that might be quibbling (see here, for example, or here). The thing is, Coll is correct to note that the Soviets had indeed crafted a durable ink spot approach to the country, and it kept the mujahidin relatively marginalized until the USSR collapsed and dried up regime funding.

Next up, Coll makes a fascinating comparison between Obama and Gorbachev:

In Afghanistan, after an initial and failed attempt to use special forces more aggressively to hit Islamist guerrillas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Soviets began to pull back into Afghanistan’s major cities and to “Afghan-ize” their military operations. As they prepared to withdraw, Soviet troops moved away from direct combat, particularly in the countryside, and instead concentrated on training and equipping the Afghan forces. They also provided supplies and expertise the Afghans lacked—air power, for example, and SCUD missiles. As I described in a previous post, this military strategy worked pretty well, and the Soviet city-fortresses withstood heavy assaults from the U.S.-financed mujaheddin even after Soviet troops left the country; they left only a thousand or two military and intelligence advisers behind.

There were two problems: that situation was unsustainable, since it depended upon the whims, or, as it were, existence, of Soviet largess. But equally problematic is this:

The U.N. attempted, with ambivalent U.S. involvement, to pursue this vision of regional diplomacy and stabilization, through negotiations between 1988 and 1992 that included Najibullah and other Afghan leaders. It failed, however, in part because the United States, until the end of 1991, continued to fund and support a “military solution” for the mujaheddin favored by Pakistan’s army and intelligence service. The C.I.A. argued in favor of the military solution. It then concluded, as one assault after another on Najibullah-defended cities failed, that the U.S. had no further interests in the country and should pack up its financing and diplomacy and go home. A few years later, the Taliban took Kabul. One of the American policymakers responsible for this sequence of policy decisions—who was deeply skeptical of Gorbachev during the late nineteen-eighties and who was present at the decision to abandon the difficult work of regional diplomacy in 1991-1992 that Gorbachev favored—was Robert Gates, who is now Secretary of Defense.

Now that is definitely pause-inducing. Both posts are deeply thought provoking; I highly suggest taking the time to read them.


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

Previous post:

Next post: