Filed under: Afghanistan, World | Tags: Afghanistan, John Paul Vann, Kabul, United States armed forces, United States Army, US, Viet Cong, Vietnam War
Michael Crowley has been trying to claim lately that the fact that the USSR was defeated by Afghan insurgents is no indication of how well the US and NATO will do there, because the Soviets employed naked brutality and repression while the US is trying to engage in hearts-and-minds, protect-the-population counterinsurgency. Matthew Yglesias notes that the Mujahedin had US support so the Soviets had a tougher row to hoe. But more important: Look, what do we “know” about Soviet behavior in Afghanistan? How reliable is it, and can we avoid our natural tendency to have unrealistically negative assumptions about their behavior, and unrealistically positive assumptions about “our boys”? Here, for instance, Crowley cites a 1984 New York Times article:
Several hundred civilians have reportedly been killed in Afghanistan in a sweep by Soviet troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships through a valley north of the capital….
One Western source said the Soviet forces appeared to have embarked on a renewed effort to crush popular backing for the guerrillas…
The informants said the Soviet troops concentrated their attacks on the village of Istalif, a rebel stronghold 30 miles north of Kabul, the capital. Soviet soldiers were said to have surrounded the village before dawn last Thursday and to have captured and killed some guerrillas and their families. One diplomat said he had been told that Soviet troops bayoneted large numbers of women and children, shot young Afghan males and burned a number of homes before withdrawing at dawn. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships were then said to have bombarded the village….
An Afghan exile here said the marketplace at Istalif had been destroyed. Istalif was the scene of heavy bombings by Soviet forces last November and December when an estimated 500 people were killed.
This is pure hearsay. We have one “Western source” and one “Afghan exile”. The sources are clearly hostile to the Soviets and their government. The casualty estimates seem almost certain to be random numbers exaggerated for effect. The “bayoneted women and children” thing isn’t impossible, but it’s the folkloric atrocity-tale stuff that gets generated in every invasion or occupation. (Remember how after their invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraqi troops supposedly grabbed babies out of incubators and killed them? Fantasy and propaganda. In the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the “Huns” were alleged in the British press to have raped and killed nuns.) If you were to check the North Vietnamese press for accounts of atrocities committed by US troops in Vietnam, you’d have a similar impression of universal rape, pillage and slaughter. The New York Times isn’t a propaganda organ — it’s a solid journalistic outfit, and it reports what it can and identifies its sources. And when it gives you the name of the town, you can be pretty certain that something actually happened at that town. But the fact that we can see the sources is what allows us to judge just how deep and accurate this information is, i.e. pretty shallow and vague.
I’m not saying Soviet troops didn’t behave abominably in Afghanistan. I would guess that in general, Soviet troops were crueler to civilians in Afghanistan than American troops were to civilians in Vietnam. (They were unlikely to face press criticism or disciplinary sanctions for atrocities — not that many American soldiers who committed atrocities suffered much for it — and the Soviet political consciousness lacked much of a distinction between enemy forces and the civilians who sympathized with them.) But that’s a pretty low bar to set. Americans are still not clearly aware of this, but the evidence is pretty inescapable that US troops deliberately killed well over ten thousand civilians at gunpoint in Vietnam, let alone how many died in bombing and random-interdiction shelling–which in many cases simply targeted villages that supported the Viet Cong. How many did the Soviets kill in Afghanistan? And, though Crowley seems to have forgotten this, we did claim we were trying to “protect the population” and “win hearts and minds” in Vietnam. The problem wasn’t what we said we were doing. The problem was what we actually did, not in the sense that we had some secret violent intention that was different from our public intention, but in the sense that getting your troops to restrain themselves, build links with the local population, refuse to respond to fire if it might endanger civilians, and so on, is incredibly hard. We are trying to do a better job of this in Afghanistan; having Gen. McChrystal in charge is sort of like the counterfactual of what might have happened in Vietnam if Col. John Paul Vann had been allowed to run the war his way. But it’s just chauvinism to imagine that America will do better than the USSR did because our soldiers are nice while theirs were mean.
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