From The Republic:
The best comparison to make for the American adventure in Iraq is not Vietnam, but Afghanistan. And America's future could be most like Russia's in the 1990s
by Kevin Potvin
March 3, 2005
Prior to invading Iraq, senior US government officials frequently compared their mission to the US mission in Europe in the early 1940s. Critics then compared the war-mongering Bush Jr White House to Hitler's regime in 1939. Once the war in Iraq was well engaged and the Iraqi insurgency took shape as a strong and resilient fighting force, the comparison to the American ill-fated adventure forty years earlier in Vietnam was irresistible. In response, US regime supporters drew comparisons instead to successful US military actions in Somalia, Kosovo and even Panama.Making comparisons between present wars and past wars is a whole side industry of the media. But for good reason: no plans go awry as predictably as war plans. If generals are forever guilty of fighting their previous war, it's because they are desperate in war's fog to discover some pattern that can tell them which way the present war is going.
Everyone knows that history repeats itself for those who don't study and learn from it. In wartime, an unintended repeat can be devastating. Vietnam figures as a poignant comparison for critics and proponents alike of the present US war in Iraq because the consequences for the US in that war were so severe.
Comparisons between past and present wars are therefore a useful and necessary exercise. But the US experience in Vietnam may not be the best comparison available to help understand where the US war in Iraq is going. For one thing, the US rate of death in Iraq, though growing, remains far below the average rate of death for Americans in Vietnam over the course of their major engagement there from 1961 to 1973. Over the course of those 12 years, the US lost an average of about 12 soldiers per day. They have lost so far in Iraq an average of about two per day.
The number of US soldiers stationed in Vietnam in the later 60s was around 500,000 at any one time. The number in the nearly two years so far of the US action in Iraq has usually remained around 130,000.
And the American economy and contemporary society bears no comparison at all. Still flush with cash as the sole big economic power in the world, the US then enjoyed a constant trade surplus and was even a net exporter of oil. And the American people were buoyant and hopeful, driven to fix in one generation, racism, poverty, and illness.Today, America runs catastrophic trade deficits approaching a staggering US $600 billion annually. It must import huge quantities of nearly every resource, most notably oil. And the American people are not interested in The Great Society any longer.
Only the cost to the US treasury compares. The Vietnam War cost in total US $133 billion over the course of its 12 years, or an average of US $11 billion per year. Expressed in 2005 dollars, it is the equivalent of US $76 billion per year-remarkably close to the US $80 billion per year the Iraq war has cost the US so far, after almost two years.
The remaining comparisons-lack of an exit strategy, difficulty in rooting out insurgents, problems maintaining popular support at home and in the target country, and shifting overall purposes draining morale-are common features in most wars, and though they compare well between Vietnam and Iraq, the comparison is no better than between Iraq and any other war.
Instead of the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s, a more apt comparison might be the Russian experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Here, the numbers come out looking strikingly similar. In the ten years between the Russian invasion in 1979 and their hasty pullout in 1989, the Russians committed about 115,000 troops to Afghanistan at any one time-a figure very close to the US numbers in Iraq. The Russians lost about 15,000 soldiers in that conflict, or about 125 per month. The US and its coalition partners over the last six months have lost a comparable average of 100 per month.
The average Russian military budget during the decade they were engaged in Afghanistan amounted to about US $250 billion annually, or about US $655 billion in today's dollars. The current total US military outlay, including items not counted in the official Pentagon budget-like the costs of the Iraq war-is estimated to be about US $600 billion per year, a number within 8% of the Russian figure. For the Russians in the mid-1980s, their Afghanistan-trapped military soaked up about 12% of their GNP. For the Americans in the mid-2000s, their Iraq-trapped military is soaking up almost 6% of their GNP-a smaller part for sure, but of a much larger and more diversified economy.
However, consider that the Afghan adventure cost the Russian government about 4.9% of its overall annual budget; the Iraq adventure is costing the American government about 3.6% of its overall annual budget. It was the cost to the Russian government budget, not necessarily the cost to the Russian GNP that caused the Russians to give up in Afghanistan. The financial impact of Iraq on the finances of the American government at this early stage is already almost 75% of what the impact of Afghanistan was on the finances of the Russian government by the time they were finished.
This number is surely the most important one to consider when looking for comparisons to the American war in Iraq at least in terms of learning where America may be headed in this conflict, and as a nation. All experts agree that the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan primarily because they could not keep up to the level of spending required to maintain or win the conflict.
More dramatically, it is widely believed that the financial costs of the Afghan war was the primary cause of the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union itself, and its very disappearance from the world stage. The demise was rapid: in the same year Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan, the chief symbol of its empire, the Berlin Wall, was toppled. Nation after nation once under Soviet control declared independence in the following 12 months.
By the end of the following year, the Soviet Union itself was terminated. Within three years, its economy was completely ruined, its currency had collapsed to nearly no value, and its capital and infrastructure was nearly completely looted. Fifteen years later, the Russian population continues to decline rapidly and the life expectancy of Russians, as well as their level of literacy, health, and savings, approaches those of the terminally under-developed third-world nations.In one generation, Russia had gone from a world-straddling economic and military empire second in almost every respect only to America itself, and busy making a bold foray into Middle Eastern politics, down to a desperate and shrinking third-world nation dependent on foreign aid and loans draining what remains of its natural resources.
Compare this description of Russia from a 1981 issue of Foreign Affairs , to the Russia we know today: " Russia today is a mighty world power, with the largest territory of any state, a population of 260 million, great mineral resources in a resource-hungry world, and a geopolitical position that gives it a large role in both European and Asian affairs. It is a military superpower with intercontinental and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in large numbers, supersonic airplanes, a huge standing army based on universal military service, and fleets in all oceans. It controls an East and Central European empire extending deep into Germany and the Balkans. Its power and influence radiate into Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Africa and Latin America."
Many long-term and complex reasons account for this dramatic reversal of fortune, many lying at the core of a rotted-out economy and society. But what triggered the collapse were the problems the Soviet military encountered in Afghanistan.Similarly, the US today experiences many long-term and complex problems lying at the core of its economy and society. The huge corporate collapses in the last couple of years, most notably at Enron and Worldcom, are indicative of a rot at the core of the American economy. Though those examples have receded from the popular imagination, they will yet re-emerge in it for the dramatic and larger collapse they will come to be seen to have portended.
Similarly, the exposure of torture and extreme abuse of prisoners in US military custody at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and the short-lived public response to them, are indicative of a sharp turn in American social attitudes. The collapse of the Soviet Union has been attributed by some observers to the dispirited Russian polity as much as it has been accounted for by the hollowed-out Russian economy. In recent books by, for example, Thomas Frank ( What's the Matter With Kansas? ) and by Barbara Ehrenreich ( Nickel and Dimed ), we glimpse an American society every bit as tired and unhappy as any described by writers in the Russia of the 1970s. The war in Afghanistan in 1979, it has been argued, was waged in part to distract the restless Russian population from their gloomy lives and dwindling prospects. The same has been suggested of America's war in Iraq.
The Russians would surely have fared better in Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union may well have survived, had it not been for foreign interference in the conflict emanating mostly from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and orchestrated and financed chiefly by the US. It was the introduction of US-made Stinger ground-to-air missiles into the conflict in 1986 that made air transport too dangerous and expensive for the Russians, and ultimately doomed their far-flung bases dotted around the country, and ended their invasion. The US funneled US $2 billion through various channels into the conflict to tie down, and ultimately defeat, the Soviet Red Army.
It is unclear if any foreign powers have so far intervened in the Iraq conflict. But then, it took the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan about five years to realize that the Afghan resistance was a formidable force willing and able to stand up to the mighty Russian army-and to begin to see the larger geopolitical possibilities available by financing the mujahadin fighters there.
As the Iraqi resistance continues to surprise the world with its obvious willingness and apparent ability to stand up to the even mightier US army, how long will it be before other players in the geopolitical arena begin to make the calculations and see the possibilities available by covertly intervening in the conflict there?
Any number of well-financed players on the world stage could benefit directly from seeing the US military tied down indefinitely, and possibly even eradicated, in Iraq.
China has already been publicly tagged by American political strategists as the next great challenger to US hegemony. Russia under strongman Vladimir Putin seeks a triumphal return from its exile from the world stage. Iran sees a possible return to regional dominance. Saudi Arabia has ever only been to America a partner of convenience and the family running the huge oilfields has at best a tenuous grip on power. Egypt and Syria, erstwhile brothers and progenitors of pan-Arabism, may see in America's problems air to breathe again the dream of one large Arab state.
Once the Iraqi resistance shows its staying power, who's to say which countries wouldn't find benefit in helping them along with weapons here, cash there, not necessarily to defeat the Americans, but not to let them get out, either-at least not until its too late for the whole American enterprise.
This was America's, Pakistan's, and Saudi Arabia's strategy in pumping carefully calibrated quantities of arms and cash into the mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan then confronting the Russian army. And here is where the comparison between Russia's experience in Afghanistan and America's experience in Iraq come closest to a direct match: it was a total surprise for the world when American financing and arming of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network not only chased the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but triggered the collapse of the whole empire.
It was a surprise because no one then knew how weak were the economic, social and military pillars of Russian society, and no one expected a defeat of the one, much less a collapse of the other two. But a sober consideration of the state of America's economic and social pillars today, plus an appreciation for the dreadfully overstretched state of its military around the world, reveal conditions not too unlike those reminiscent of 1980s Russia." Brezhnev's goal was to make the USSR into one of the strongest political superpowers in the world," reads a popular history of the country. "The military was richly funded and the authoritative influence of Brezhnev could be felt in the asperity of the population. When Brezhnev died in 1982, he left behind an empire with one of the world's strongest military sectors, but weakest population morale. The Soviet Union was an empty superpower with crumbling financial, social and political sectors." Can this not be said of America today?
With economic, social and military conditions looking largely the same, and with the war costing in treasure and blood about the same, and with the same kind of confluence of international interests not averse to its failure abroad and utter collapse at home, the Russian experience in Afghanistan may be the best comparison to the American experience in Iraq. And if that is true, then the consequences for Russia and the Russians over the course of the following generation probably best portends the consequences for America and the Americans over the next twenty years or so.
That is to say, the world may sometime very soon be as surprised as it was in 1990 when the Soviet empire disappeared. It is certainly a possibility that ought to be planned for in capitals closely tied to America-most especially Ottawa.
Kevin PotvinPublisher, EditorThe RepublicPO Box 56072Vancouver BC V5L