WASHINGTON — Over the years, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have paid close attention to the failed Soviet Union experience in that country as they developed their own campaign plans.
The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 in order to prop up a friendly government. They withdrew in 1989 as the Soviet Union disintegrated, leaving the Afghan forces to take the lead in fighting an American-funded insurgency.
John Allen, the Marine general who retired last year after serving as the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said a study of the Soviet war in Afghanistan produced key lessons.
"I sought to apply those in the recommendations I made ultimately to my senior leadership and the president," Allen said in a talk at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington.
The key lesson: Without long term foreign support and funding, the Afghan military and government will struggle to survive.
When the last Soviet troops departed for home they left behind a fairly competent Afghan army that was holding the American-funded mujahideen, or holy warriors, at bay, Allen said. The Soviets kept advisers with the Afghans and continued financing the military.
It wasn't long, however, before the Soviets withdrew their advisers and then cut off funding for the Afghan forces. That spelled the end of the Afghan government. The Afghan military ran low on ammunition, food and all the supplies needed to keep a large military in the field and fighting.
By 1992 the Soviet-backed government was overthrown and the country was plunged into a bloody civil war, setting the stage for the Taliban to assume power four years later.
Flash forward. The United States has said it would like to keep a presence in Afghanistan beyond this year when the current combat mission ends. But Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign an agreement that would allow such a force to remain.
Karzai's term as president ends after elections planned for April, but the future remains murky.
And without a U.S. and coalition military presence, the international community may balk at financial commitments to support the Afghan armed forces, which will require between $4 billion and $4.5 billion in annual subsidies.
Allen said the stability or "phase 4" part of the mission to build Afghan government capabilities and economic opportunity will take time and cost money. "We shouldn't be alarmed at it and I don't think we should be surprised at it," he said.
"In Afghanistan the Phase 4 piece is going to go on for at least a decade," Allen said. "The question will be, will the international community remain engaged?"
"You just don't break things and leave," he said.