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How Not to Wage a Counterinsurgency, USSR Edition

The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan is often cited as evidence that major powers simply can't tame that miserable country. But Gregory Feifer's The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan actually offers some cause for hope about America's prospects there. We are now conducting a military operation  completely different from the Red Army's stupidly brutal approach. Athough U.S. forces have at times incurred too-high levels of civilian casualities, the current commander in Kabul, Stanley McChrystal, is obsessed with avoiding them.

In contrast, consider this episode from the early Soviet occupation as described by Feifer:

Unable to neutralize the mujadhideen, the troops unleashed their firepower against civilians. Polyakov's men and other war Soviet soldiers were now beginning their searchs of mud-walled kishlaks, or villages, by throwing grenades. One paratroop’s testimony about fighting in the Kunar valley described a platoon’s reaction to shots from the direction of a village building in which civilians were hiding. The Soviets blew up the structure’s door with grenades, after which the Afghans began fleeing in different directions. The crowd included elderly, women, and children, as well as rebel fighters. The soldiers began slaughtering the Afghans. “Among those running out the door was an old man who tried to escape,” the soldier recalled. “My friend shot at his feet. The old man jumped in fear and sat behind a bush to hide. My friend aimed directly at the bush and fired a round, after which just the legs slid into view under the bush. He was supposed to be hiding, my friend told me, laughing.” Another time the soldiers captured a small boy who shot at them with an old musket, then brought the prisoner to a company commander. “He split the boy’s skull with his rifle butt, killed the boy with one blow, without even getting up from his place.”

Now consider this August 13, 2009, AP report:

DAHANEH, Afghanistan - The British jet called in by the U.S. Marines had the Taliban position in sight, but the pilot refused to fire, a decision that frustrated Marines on the ground but one in line with new orders by the top U.S. commander to protect civilians.

The Marines themselves didn't attack militants shooting at them Wednesday because women and children were in the compound, an approach meant to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.

"They did that on purpose," sniper platoon leader 1st Lt. Joseph Cull, 28, of Delafield, Wisconsin, said of the Taliban. "They are trying to bait us."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has made protecting Afghan civilians his top priority. The approach is a shift away from a military mindset whose traditional first response has been to kill as many militants as possible. By holding fire McChrystal hopes to avoid the massive civilian casualty cases of past months and years and help win over Afghan villagers.

If America succeeds where the Soviets failed, our determination to protect, not persecute, Afghan civilians will be a main reason why.