Afghanistan’s lessons in superpower humility — both US and Soviet

Local fighters survey piles of projectiles and ammunition at an outdoor military site near the Afghan border, with mountains in the background
A military base on the Afghan border in 1984, during the years of Soviet occupation © Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

When Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov was informed of the Kremlin’s decision to invade Afghanistan just two weeks before his forces were due to launch the offensive, Ogarkov objected. There was no way even a superpower could stabilise a country so large with just 85,000 troops, the chief of the Soviet general staff insisted.

“He was flatly told he had no choice and to accept the directive,” historian Elisabeth Leake recounts in her new study of the Soviet occupation.

It is difficult to read such accounts in Leake’s exhaustive Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan and not think of the parallels with the Kremlin’s more recent invasion — and wonder whether Vladimir Putin considered the decade-long war that ended in Soviet ignominy before launching his own Ukrainian misadventure.

Like Putin, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev consulted only a small circle of Kremlin yes-men before greenlighting the Afghan offensive; Alexei Kosygin, Brezhnev’s prime minister, who opposed the invasion, was intentionally cut out of crucial meetings in late 1979 where plans were agreed.

And much as Putin may have been lulled into a false sense of triumphalism in recent years by relatively successful Russian interventions in Georgia, Belarus and Crimea, Leake notes that Soviet suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring, as well as the successes of Soviet proxies in Angola and Ethiopia — not to mention US withdrawal from Vietnam — convinced Brezhnev and his aides that they were on a winning streak.

“The preceding decade had given Soviet leaders a (perhaps false) sense of strength in their Third World dealings,” she writes. “Sending troops into Afghanistan in December 1979 followed the same rationale, of supporting a local vanguard party that seemed capable of leading the country’s socialist transformation.” 

The most significant difference between Kremlin decision-making circa 1979 and its more recent variant is that the Russians had a pro-Soviet government to work with in Afghanistan, even if it had come to power in a coup a year earlier. Leake goes into exhaustive detail about how ineffectual the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was in implementing its socialist agenda. But at least Moscow had a proxy in Kabul; it has nothing of the sort in Kyiv.

Afghan Crucible was completed well before the war in Ukraine, of course, and unlike previous studies of the Soviet invasion — particularly Steve Coll’s magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars (2004) — it focuses less on the Kremlin’s military failings and more on its inability to execute what foreign policy professionals invariably label “nation-building”.

In that respect, it is a cautionary tale not only for the current occupants of the Kremlin. Gone unstated by Leake is that another superpower tried its own hand at nation-building in Afghanistan far more recently, with not dissimilar results.

Indeed, Leake’s account is replete with vignettes — hundreds of technocrats sent to Kabul to shore up Afghan agencies, the failure of the central government to expand its influence beyond a handful of urban centres, endless desertions from the Afghan armed forces — that read like a Pentagon after-action report in 2022.

Even after spending 20 years in Afghanistan — twice as long as the Soviets — Washington failed to grasp the fragility of the government they were propping up in Kabul until the very end, when it collapsed almost overnight. At least Mohammed Najibullah, installed by Mikhail Gorbachev shortly after he took the Kremlin helm in 1985, managed to cling on to power in Kabul for three years after the Soviets withdrew.

The American failure is the background music to another groundbreaking book on the star-crossed modern history of Afghanistan by Nelly Lahoud, a scholar of Islamism, which draws on 96,000 files captured by US Navy Seals in May 2011 when they killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in northeastern Pakistan.

Lahoud’s tome, The Bin Laden Papers: How the Abbottabad Raid Revealed the Truth about al-Qaeda, its Leader and his Family, is an ostensibly heroic tale of Americans and their work in the region. Given her reliance on a now-declassified trove captured by the US military, it is perhaps not surprising that she opens with fulsome praise for the “courageous efforts” of American special operations forces.

But as she pieces together a remarkable insider account of al-Qaeda’s history, based on the writings of bin Laden and his inner circle, her overarching conclusion is something much less flattering — that American intelligence kept getting it wrong, despite its intense focus on al-Qaeda and its leader during the decade between September 11 2001 and bin Laden’s death.

Almost from the moment that US forces arrived in Afghanistan, Lahoud finds, Washington overestimated al-Qaeda’s ability to reconstitute and organise new attacks on the US or allied targets. The US intelligence community, in essence, convinced itself that it was facing an indomitable giant — whereas in reality, bin Laden and his followers spent their last decade on the run, scrambling to find capable operatives after most of their veteran soldiers were picked off, one by one, by American drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

“The American response to the 9/11 attacks was colossal, way beyond our expectations,” one bin Laden lieutenant wrote in a captured letter, translated by Lahoud. “We also did not imagine that the Taliban Emirate would collapse so rapidly. The reason of course is due to the thrust of the shock, and the ugliness of the bombing and its destruction.”

The captured documents also make clear that the various al-Qaeda offshoots that sprung up after bin Laden’s exit from Afghanistan — particularly al-Qaeda in Iraq, headed by notorious Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but also al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — were not offshoots at all, but rather Islamist freelancers who attempted to bolster their own image by appropriating the al-Qaeda “brand”.

Al-Zarqawi at least had the good manners to seek bin Laden’s approval before changing the name of his increasingly powerful terrorist group, which became the preoccupation of US forces in Iraq until he was killed by an air strike in 2006.

“We don’t know if [al-Zarqawi] knew the extent to which al-Qaeda had been shattered when he sought a merger, but his enthusiasm to be part of the brand is palpable in the voice messages that reached Usama in transcribed format,” Lahoud writes.

Bin Laden soon came to regret the alliance after a series of “indiscriminate” attacks by al-Zarqawi inside Iraq that killed fellow Muslims. Other so-called offshoots adopted the al-Qaeda moniker without even bothering to consult the “father”, causing bin Laden endless headaches.

“By 2009, he was beginning to experience what we might describe as Brothers-fatigue,” Lahoud writes. “Al-Qaeda had become wary of its name being associated with groups that thought they could punch above their weight.”

Lahoud notes that even after 2011, when the US intelligence community had translated and digested the documents captured in the bin Laden raid, Washington continued to oversell al-Qaeda’s capabilities.

In one of the book’s most remarkable revelations, Lahoud details bin Laden’s mounting anger with Tehran after discovering that some of his closest relatives, including his son Hamza, had been held captive by the Iranian regime for six years, after fleeing westwards at the outset of the Afghan war. And yet, months after reviewing the Abbottabad documents, leading US intelligence officials were still telling Congress that al-Qaeda had a “marriage of convenience” with Tehran — either a complete misreading of the intelligence, Lahoud suggests, or a malicious lie.

Although neither Lahoud or Leake say it explicitly, the findings of both books make strong cases for superpower humility. Even the most muscular superpower, deploying highly capable militaries backed by the world’s leading intelligence agencies, has struggled to impose its will abroad. Both Washington and Moscow learnt the lesson the hard way in Afghanistan. Vladimir Putin appears to be learning it yet again in Ukraine.

Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan by Elisabeth Leake, Oxford University Press £25, 365 pages

The Bin Laden Papers: How the Abbottabad Raid Revealed the Truth about al-Qaeda, its Leader and his Family by Nelly Lahoud, Yale University Press £18.99, 368 pages

Peter Spiegel is the FT’s US managing editor

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