As I’ve noted before in these columns, academic predictions about the activities of the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s were more often wrong than right. Partly this reflected the fact that as a highly secretive nation, the Soviets didn’t release their economic and political statistics for the Americans to study at their leisure. Lacking this data made it incredibly difficult to form any accurate predictions about the future of the USSR (not that it stopped people from trying). It’s a bit like asking a structural engineer to tell you whether a house is likely to fall down or not just by looking at the outside. If the engineer isn’t allowed inside the house, or to see the blueprints, any opinion they give you is obviously going to be subject to errors.
Edward Luttwak is a highly successful academic, author and military consultant, still active today. Over the years he’s made a huge number of predictions and some of them have been wrong. For instance, in 1970 he speculated in an issue of Esquire magazine that the USA could suffer a military coup d’etat later in the decade.
Today I’m focussing on his work relating to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In his 1983 book “The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union”, he argued that the invasion had been a huge success, and that the communists would have no trouble in future expanding their borders by conquering small countries in a similar fashion. He continued this theme in his 1984 book “The Pentagon and the Art of War”, where he again made the prediction that the Soviet Union was succeeding in Afghanistan. To quote:
“The powerful urge to see a Vietnam in Afghanistan remains frustrated…fewer than 5 per cent of all Soviet troops, no more than five divisions, are in Afghanistan…What we see in Afghanistan is…a leisurley imperial pacification…there will be no hurried evacuation, no abandonment” (see pages 111-112)
Luttwak later advised both the CIA and Congressman Charlie Wilson (of Charlie Wilson’s War fame), not to supply the Afghan resistance fighters with weapons because they were fighting a lost cause. It’s interesting to speculate how history could have been different if they’d followed what he said. An almost classic example of the right advice being given for the wrong reasons.
As the British discovered in the 19th century and the Americans found in the 21st, Afghanistan is a trap. You can hold the towns and the roads at great military cost but then your stuck there, pinned down and an easy target for insurgents. By 1985 Afghanistan had begun to become a huge drain on Soviet resources and men and by 1987 they were desperately looking for an exit strategy. By 1988 even Colonel Trautman was comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam in Rambo 3. Many scholars now see the military failure of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as one of the direct factors leading to its collapse. Luttwak as late as the late 1980s was still predicting that the Soviet invasion was a success.
In his classic novel “The Moon is Down” John Steinbeck writes about a small town conquered by invaders, obviously meant to be Nazis. The invaders discover that while they can conquer the town militarily, they can not hold it and that “the flies have conquered the flypaper”. Afghanistan was the Russian’s flypaper and now it’s ours.