Afghanistan’s Lessons for Syria

The bloody history of Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1980s – how the U.S. “victory” over the Soviets morphed into decades of chaos – is a cautionary tale for today’s Syria, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The battle for Raqqa is now being waged, and the diverse forces that have been helping to extinguish the self-proclaimed caliphate of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) soon must face squarely what becomes of the portion of Syria that ISIS had controlled.

U.S. Marines leaving a compound at night in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. (Defense Department photo)

It may be useful to recall an earlier and somewhat similar situation in which the defeat of a common enemy led not to peace and stability but instead to fighting among the victors. This occurred some two decades ago in another land in which, like Syria, the United States struggles to formulate a strategy: Afghanistan.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the pro-Soviet Najibullah regime hung on for another three years before succumbing to the militias, known collectively as mujahedin, that with foreign backing (including from the United States) had fought the Soviets throughout the 1980s. This mujahedin victory was followed by an accord providing for a power-sharing arrangement, but the agreement never fully took hold.

The warlords who had been allies in fighting against the Soviets and Najibullah fell out among themselves. A new phase of the Afghan civil war ensued, which for the next few years saw fighting, especially in the cities, that was at least as intense as the decade-long combat against the Soviets.

This phase of the war concluded as a new movement of religious radicals, known as the Taliban and supported by Pakistan, swept aside the brawling militias in most of the country and imposed their own version of order in south and central Afghanistan. The Taliban are, of course, today widely considered to be a principal adversary in Afghanistan of the United States and its allies.

Lessons for Syria

There are obvious differences between this piece of Afghan history and the current situation in eastern Syria, but there nonetheless are…

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