121. Memorandum From Stephen Larrabee of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Soviet Policy in Afghanistan (U)

There is an increasing tendency in the news media and around town generally to make an analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam. In my view, this is simplistic and dangerous. While the situations do share some similar characteristics—the danger of a protracted involvement, for instance—there are important differences:

logistics and transport: The US had to transport troops and materiel over 5000 miles; the Soviets can move troops and materiel quickly over short distances and across open borders.

organization: The North Vietnamese had been fighting the war for 25 years before the US became heavily involved. They had a well organized, well disciplined army and underground; the Afghan tribes have a history of insurgency, but they are not well organized and many of their actions are uncoordinated—or at least have been until now.

leadership: The North Vietnamese were led by a leader who was generally regarded as a national hero, even in the South; at present no such national leader has emerged in Afghanistan who can rally the disparate tribes and provide cohesive, inspirational leadership.

weapons and supplies: The North Vietnamese could count on outside aid and weapons in large quantities; this is not (yet) the case in Afghanistan.

political constraints: US was constrained by (1) disunity over its goals; (2) its unwillingness to commit the forces needed to “win” the war militarily; (3) a desire to accommodate its South Vietnamese ally. The Soviet Union is under no such constraints. Having overthrown Amin and installed their own puppet, who is completely beholden to them, the Soviets are likely to commit the resources needed to neutralize, if not defeat the insurgents, rapidly and in large number.

role of the media: Vietnam was a “media event” and this had a major impact on US domestic and international opinion, turning much of it against the war and US involvement. This will not be the case in [Page 337] Afghanistan. The Soviets will restrict access to the war by the press, and there will be few film clips of Soviet soldiers setting fire to Afghan huts or mopping up Moslem villages being flashed across TV screens into Soviet living rooms—or for that matter across TV screens anywhere. This will minimize Soviet domestic and international criticism, after the initial furor dies down. (C)

Nonetheless, the Soviets will not have an easy time in Afghanistan. While Moscow will probably attempt to broaden the support for the new government, Karmal is not likely to prove to be any more popular than Amin was; indeed in the eyes of many Afghans he may be regarded as worse, since he is clearly a creature of the Soviets. Moreover, the Soviets

—will face a hostile climate and terrain, which will make wiping out the insurgents difficult;

—have difficulty transporting supplies once inside the country; this too will hamper their efforts;

—lack experience in guerrilla warfare;

—will probably need to “Sovietize” the war because the regular Afghan army is in no shape to defeat the guerrillas. (C)

The basic point is that, while the Soviets confront significant problems in Afghanistan and the prospect of deepening involvement, they are not likely to face many of the constraints that the US faced in Vietnam. They can be expected to move rapidly and in force to carry out their goals, with little of the vacillation characterized by US efforts in Southeast Asia. This will be a critical advantage. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen and will depend to a large extent on

—the ability of the Afghan insurgents to coordinate their activities;

—our ability to work effectively with Pakistan and other countries to aid the insurgents;

—our ability to keep up public awareness of Soviet actions and to mobilize pressure against them within the Nonaligned and Moslem world. (C)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, General Odom File, Box 1, Afghanistan: 8–12/79. Confidential. Sent for information. Copies were sent to Brement, Thornton, Odom, Ermarth, Griffith, and Henze.