Was the Soviet Union “defeated” in Afghanistan?

Gen. Mohammad Yousaf, who as an ISI officer coordinated the Afghan resistance campaign from 1983 to 1987, concludes his lively [and utterly parochial] memoir with the following comment:

Although I am reluctant to admit it, I feel the only winners in the war in Afghanistan are the Americans. They have their revenge for Vietnam, they have seen the Soviets beaten on the battlefield by a guerrilla force that they helped to finance, and they have prevented an Islamic government replacing a Communist one in Kabul. For the Soviet Union even their military retreat has been turned into a huge political success, with Gorbachev becoming a hero in the West, and still his hand-picked puppet, Najibullah, remains unseated, dependent on Soviet aid for his survival.

The losers are most certainly the people of Afghanistan. It is their homes that are heaps of rubble, their land and fields that have been burnt and sown with millions of mines, it is their husbands, fathers and sons who have died in a war that was almost, and should have been, won.

Yousaf defined “victory” in terms of establishing an Islamist regime in Kabul, which was the best case scenario for both Pakistan’s national interests and Yousaf’s own fundamentalist ideology, which was shared by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan. By this measure, the hazy conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan war was an obvious disappointment, though only a few years later they did get their victory when the Taliban seized power.

Yousaf’s comment reflected the dominant narrative of events in the U.S. at the time of the Soviet withdrawal. For obvious reasons, the intervening decades have cast serious doubt on the notion of an American “victory” in Afghanistan. Instead of rehashing that ongoing debate, a more interesting question is to what extent the Soviets were truly “defeated.”

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Good Reading: “Grand Strategies” by Charles Hill

Is the “modern statesman” an oxymoran? Has the quality and skill of foreign policy deteriorated as the classical education has been displaced by the social and behavioral sciences? In his new book  Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, former diplomat and Yale professor Charles Hill seeks to reconnect the practice of statecraft with its ultimate literary origins. As Hill argues, an understanding of literature is essential for the conduct of international affairs because it informs the values by which strategy is developed, and only literature can grasp – however tenuously – the fundamentally intangible factors that drive history.

Of all the arts and sciences, only literature is substantially and methodologically unbounded. Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of “how the world really works.” This dimension of fiction is indispensible to the strategist who cannot, by the nature of the craft, know all of the facts, considerations, and potential consequences of a situation at the time a decision must be made, ready or not. Literature lives in the realm strategy requires, beyond rational calculations, in acts of the imagination. (p. 6)

To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought. Such matters as how a people begins to identify itself as a nation, the nature of trust between political actors or between a government and its people, how a nation commits itself to a more humane course of governance – all these and many more topics dealt with in this book – can’t be understood without some “grasp of the ungraspable” emotional and moral weight they bear. A purely rational or technocratic approach is likely to lead one astray. (p. 7)

What follows in the rest of the book is literary commentary on works ranging from the Iliad to The Satanic Verses, with an emphasis on key points in the evolution of the state. Accordingly, the book is also a rare defense of the Westphalian state system, which has been under siege for the past century, and for which Hill sees no viable alternative. The focus on the concept of the state provides a stable reference point when reading the more vague and nuanced language that is the vein of all literary commentary. Hill covers a lot of ground, and it would greatly help if the reader is familiar with the many works that he examines.

The book is slightly mistitled. As the quotes above indicate, the focus is not on strategy per se, but on the underlying questions that determine world order and drive strategy – questions of national identity, legitimacy, religion, and the role of the individual in the state. But it is certainly worthwhile reading, especially for the many Americans who have unfortunately – but not entirely without justification – dismissed modern literature as nothing more than a medium through which to lie, libel, and incite without consequence.

Revisionism versus Realpolitik: The Strategic Culture of Syria

The concept of strategic culture – which argues that culture can influence strategic behavior just as it can social behavior – remains somewhat controversial. On the one hand, idealists reject the notion that not all cultures share in the supposedly universal aspirations of humanity, while on the other hand, neorealists are often hostile to an alternative system of explanation that does not depend on rational calculations of the balance of power. (It is, however, very compatible with the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau)

In my opinion, neorealism is a much more flexible and inclusive paradigm than many of its critics (and proponents) give it credit for. Kenneth Waltz’s “third image” of international relations describes how the structure of the international system can itself be a cause of war and also permits wars that derive from non-systemic factors, such as megalomaniacal leaders or warlike governments; it is at these levels – the first and second “images” – that strategic culture can be a useful supplement to neorealism.

This post is based on a paper I wrote a couple years ago, which used the concept of strategic culture to identify the sources of Syrian foreign policy. I think it is a good – if amateurish – example of how the national security community tries to employ the concept, conducting extensive cultural analyses to identify key factors that influence the subject’s strategic thinking.

Syria is a difficult case study for students of strategic culture. Ever since the Assad regime rose to power in 1970, Syria’s international behavior has been largely consistent with that of a realist rational actor. However, strategic culture can help explain the origins of that behavior.

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Tales from the Beltway: Going Nuclear

The behavior of North Korean diplomats is always an amusing topic. One of my classes hosted as guest lecturer a senior Treasury official who was involved in the effort to freeze North Korean assets to pressure them into returning to the Six Party Talks (a mostly unappreciated example of the US leveraging what the Chinese call “financial warfare”). After getting an agreement from North Korea (which they immediately broke) the official was involved in negotiations concerning the release of the frozen assets. As one of the meetings was about to adjourn, the North Korean representative held out his pen in front of him, keeping it horizontal with ground. “Some people are very bad,” he intoned solemnly. He then flipped the pen 180 degrees so the ballpoint faced in the opposite direction: “Some people are very good.” He returned the pen to its original orientation: “You started out here.” Then he raised the pen a fraction of an inch, as if it were the needle on the speedometer of a vehicle moving very slowly: “Now you’re here.” The American replied with “Thank you, sir. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

A different  meeting concluded with the North Korean turning to the American and saying, “You are like the pockmark on someone’s face; at first it looks grotesque and you hate it, but eventually you learn to like it.”


One of my professors was a retired State Department official, well-known for his unapologetic candor (this man’s candor made him several enemies in Washington). During an informal visit to Moscow shortly after the brief war in Georgia in August 2008, he let his Russian colleagues know that he thought their public rationales for the invasion were bogus, and that Russia was blatantly trying to reestablish their historic sphere of influence.  A certain Russian approached him afterward and blustered about how they were so serious about the war in Georgia that they were developing nuclear contingencies in the event that the U.S. intervened. As the professor recounted to his students, “I found that to be incredibly bizarre, but knowing Russia, I wasn’t surprised.”

Tales from the Beltway: Frenemies

The same diplomat that told us of Carter’s lovable antics in Japan later spoke on the nature of diplomacy itself, and the critical importance of personal relationships between diplomatic representatives as the foundation upon which effective negotiation can occur, even during periods of tension between their respective governments.

One of the examples he used to illustrate this occurred during his time with the US mission to the United Nations. In 1998, following the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and on a factory in Sudan that was suspected of manufacturing precursors for chemical weapons. Authorities in Sudan denied the allegations about the factory and claimed that it was simply a pharmaceutical plant, which immediately became the media narrative. The issue soon came before the Security Council. As a permanent member of the Council, the U.S. could obviously exercise its veto and shut down the debate, but acting in such a unilateral fashion would look bad politically. Thus, the US diplomat approached the representative from Brazil – a personal friend of his – and asked for some back-up.

When the matter came before the Council, the Brazilian gave a short but eloquent speech and asked the Council to defer action until after the US had some time to explain itself; after all, bombing pharmaceutical factories was not something the US did on a regular basis, and Washington deserved the benefit of the doubt. The Council agreed with him. Mission accomplished.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Council was discussing some issue concerning Angola. The same Brazilian who had been so accommodating to the US a few days earlier immediately launched into a vicious condemnation of US policy toward Angola, portraying it as exploitative and incompetent, until the woman representing US policy was practically in tears. Shocked by this outburst, the senior US diplomat approached the Brazilian, who greeted him as affably as ever,  and asked something along the lines of “What the hell was that about? I thought we were friends.” Confused, the Brazilian replied, “What are you talking about? I just did you another favor. Of course I was going to bash you today; had I not done so, I would have looked like your lackey, and that would be bad for both of us.”

Tales from the Beltway: Adventures with Carter, Part II

A “prequel” to the last post. This anecdote was relayed to me during a personal conversation I had with someone who worked at the Department of Commerce during the 1970s and 80s.

In 1979 the United States concluded a grain agreement with the Soviet Union; the US was contractually obligated to supply the USSR with eight million tons of grain (or bushels…I can’t remember which) and another 20 million tons were to be sold on a discretionary basis. Not long after the agreement, however, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Carter was understandably incensed by this so he summoned his cabinet and relevant officials of the Department of Commerce – which was responsible for supervising the transaction – to the White House. There was nothing Carter could do about the eight million tons that were under contract, so he canceled the sale of the discretionary grain. But at that point in the process it was seemingly impossible to interrupt the transaction; the grain was already scattered across the country, preparing to ship from dozens of different ports. There was simply no way that the sale could be called off in the time that was available. Carter was told as much at the meeting; he replied that he was aware of that fact, but he didn’t care. He expected the Department of Commerce to try and fail, whereupon he would terminate the relevant persons.

One of the Commerce people asked to speak: “Excuse me, sir, but do I understand you correctly? You are deliberately setting us up to fail?”
“Not only that, but I’m going to assign someone to each of your offices, so I’ll know the exact moment when to fire you.”

This story was told to me as an example of how, despite the mild-mannered public persona that he cultivated, Carter ruled the Executive as a domineering egomaniac. But I do not think this incident in particular can be held against him; my conversation partner proudly recalled that they managed to account for all the discretionary grain save for a single bushel, and, as far as I know, none of them were fired. President Carter managed to effectively motivate his subordinates to accomplish a very difficult task within a short time frame.

But who would have thought that President Carter, of all people, was so willing to use food as a foreign policy weapon?

Tales from the Beltway: Adventures with Carter, Part I

The graduate program I attended often receives current and former government officials as guest speakers. Nearly all of them had some very amusing off-the-record stories to tell. This post is the first of a short series that will recount some of the memorable ones. For obvious reasons I will not be mentioning any names.

Our first story deals with the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, a man who is regarded in defense and national security circles to be the actual physical embodiment of naive stupidity itself. It was shared by a retired Foreign Service Officer who is often consulted by the media as an expert in diplomacy and international relations.

In 1994 the U.S. almost went to war with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. But lo, just as the curtain was about to fall and the world Fade to Black, stepped forth Jimmy Carter, Savior of Humanity, who valiantly offered to go to Pyongyang and negotiate personally with the Great Leader. The Clinton administration assigned a State Department official to accompany him. When Carter learned of this he was infuriated, and upon meeting his companion angrily demanded something to the effect of “Who do you work for? Me or the State Department?” The official very carefully replied that he was a serving FSO and was thus oath-bound to obey orders, etc. etc. In other words, he still worked for the State Department. Carter’s reply? “Wrong answer. This is my mission. You work for me.

The result of Carter’s visit was the Agreed Framework, a policy which – from the very beginning – failed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the real story occurred at Carter’s debriefing in Japan. As soon as the meeting began, the former President began complaining about the CIA. “The CIA told me that North Korea is desperately poor; they’re not poor at all. In fact, they took me to a store that was full of fine goods and there were all sorts of people shopping there. [so-and-so, his handler] thought it was a set-up, but I don’t think so.”

He also emphasized that, during the course of their negotiations, Kim Il-sung mentioned that he intended to remain alive – and in power – for another ten years or so. Carter considered this to be a very significant revelation, and he demanded that his debriefers make note of this. In fact, Kim Il-sung was being embalmed at that very moment.

And so originated the policy that governed U.S. relations with North Korea for eight years.