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 several observations about the former that apply as well to the latter.

Smoke billows skyward as homes and buildings are shelled in the city of Homs, Syria. June 9, 2012. (Photo from the United Nations)

There was too little advance planning or effort at accommodation that looked beyond whatever was the immediate military objective. This deficiency was at least as true of the United States as of any of the other external or internal participants in either war.

There was no military solution to the differences and disagreements that ensued after the earlier enemy was defeated. No single Afghan militia was strong enough to overpower the rest. Even the Taliban never gained control of all of Afghanistan; a coalition in the northern portion of the country continued to resist.

In Syria, the Assad regime, especially with its Russian and Iranian backing, is not going away. But neither does it have the strength (and its foreign backers do not have the will) to gain control over all Syrian territory and to wipe out the sources of resistance to the regime.

The new phase of civil war (in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal) reflected bloated ambitions and mission creep stimulated by earlier victories, not well-considered objectives that would justify a prolongation of the war. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the most destructive of the power-hungry chieftains in Afghanistan, but hardly the only one.

In the Syrian war, echoes of Afghanistan are heard in talk, including in debates on U.S. policy, about moving against the interests of Russia, Iran or the Assad regime as part of a military expedition that was supposed to have been all about defeating ISIS.

The problems, threats and adversaries that emerge from prolongation of the civil war into a new phase may take new forms that are difficult to foresee. In Afghanistan in 1992, as Najibullah’s regime fell and the militia leaders were just beginning their new round of conflict among themselves, it would have been hard to anticipate the Taliban emerging and sweeping to power as it soon would. In Syria, violent extremism bred by chaos and conflict after the fall of Raqqa may take non-ISIS forms for which we do not yet have a label.

Prolonged War

Most important, later problems and security threats have resulted from prolongation of the armed conflict itself, not from specific participants in that conflict winning or losing, or seeing their influence expand or contract. In Afghanistan in the early 1990s, it was not the fortunes of any one warlord or militia that defined the country’s political and security future. It was the violent quarrel among them that gave the Taliban their opening.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (left) in a scene from an al-Qaeda video, released by the U.S. Defense Department.

The Taliban would not have had their opportunity if power-sharing had been fully and faithfully implemented. In Syria, we already have seen a similar dynamic, in which it was the civil war itself, not the existence of a specific regime or its longstanding foreign alliances, that gave ISIS the opening to score its dramatic gains. The same can be expected with any post-ISIS radical movements.

Despite the differences between the two cases, a major conclusion applying to both is that minimizing future security problems requires de-escalation and accommodation, not prolongation of warfare and mission creep. This specifically means not using the occasion of victory over one enemy to get in some whacks against someone else one considers an adversary.

From the mid-1990s, the subsequent few years of Afghan history saw Al Qaeda’s alliance with the Taliban, 9/11, and a direct U.S. military intervention beginning in late 2001 and continuing, seemingly without end, today. One endless war, with a changing cast of adversaries, is too much; the United States does not need another one in Syria.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

37 comments for “Afghanistan’s Lessons for Syria

  1. Herman
    June 28, 2017 at 09:38

    Pillar: “In Syria, the Assad regime, especially with its Russian and Iranian backing, is not going away. But neither does it have the strength (and its foreign backers do not have the will) to gain control over all Syrian territory and to wipe out the sources of resistance to the regime.”

    This fits nicely with one of the goals for the Assad must go forces, to fragment Syria. The Golan Heights have been gone for sometime although it is part of Syria. Assad must know any settlement other than restoring all Syrian territory would be temporary, his enemies waiting to cut off another piece from what is left.

    Assad has one choice, a worthy one, to fight to make Syria whole again, and hope the United States will come to its senses and support the only right solution.

    No one should want the continuation of the struggle. Assad has offered amnesty to Syrians fighting the government and is open to fair elections. That should be enough.

    • mike k
      June 28, 2017 at 10:51

      It won’t be near enough for our Neocon Rulers. These evil termites have eaten away the foundations of our government. We are left with a hollowed out shell.

  2. backwardsevolution
    June 27, 2017 at 16:54

    Here’s a good interview with Father Daniel Maes (from Belgium) who has lived in Syria since 2010. I hesitate to provide the link because sometimes they’re put “in moderation”. The article is entitled, “Without Putin, Syria Would Have Ceased to Exist’: Interview with Flemish Priest Living in Syria”.

    “Q You think there are no war crimes committed by the Syrian authorities at all? In February, Amnesty International released a report on mass executions in a prison near Damascus.

    A If you, as a journalist, want to know what is really going on in Syria, you must come to Syria and find out for yourself instead of reading Amnesty-reports. And I ask you: How can a president who commits so many war crimes against his own people keep himself from being killed for such a long time stay in a country crowded with terrorists who want to finish him off? And why is it you see so many people in Syria with Assad’s picture on their car’s rear window?

    Q The Christians, Shiites, Druzes and Alawites perhaps. But also the Sunnis?

    A Absolutely. The vast majority of the Sunnis are behind Assad. And if you come to Tartus, where many Sunnis live, you will see not only pictures of Assad, but also of Putin.”

    He also said:

    “It is partly thanks to Hezbollah that so many Christians and other Syrians are still alive. They came to our rescue in our darkest hours. And the same goes for the Syrian army and the Russians. If Putin hadn’t come in 2015, Syria certainly would have ceased to exist.” A good read.

  3. Bill
    June 27, 2017 at 11:44

    Many US citizens are convinced that US is in Syria to save the civilians from being killed by the Assad regime. This is why Democrats support the war. If you tell them that the US has been funding terrorists in Syria, they become angry.

    It is a collective groupthink illness, quite similar to the Russia hacking thing.

    • June 27, 2017 at 15:04

      USA was the first nation declared a state sponser of terrorism by the World/International Court for sponsoring the Contras.

      • mike k
        June 27, 2017 at 15:23

        The US juggernaut sheds moral, legal and ethical sanctions like a duck sheds water – just a little shake of the MSM pundits, and voila! the water of truth flies off like magic.

  4. June 27, 2017 at 11:15

    Seems as though the Pentagon is getting ready to ramp up something in Syria, what with Israel IDF attack on Syrian army at Golan Heights, all the talk about Iran from Mattis and Israel. Another phase being planned on Syria front?

  5. exiled off mainstreet
    June 27, 2017 at 10:40

    Pillar reveals a pro-US regime bias by underestimating the present power of the Syrian state with its foreign supporters. It will take a world war to stop them from restoring stability, since only foreign arms can now save the barbaric elements the yankee imperium has supported from destruction, but unfortunately, this world war scenario appears to be too real a threat. The latest pronunicamento from Trump’s press secretary about a threatened “new chemical attack” appears, if it was fully authorized by Trump, to be an effort to counter the inference from the recent Seymour Hersh piece that Trump revealed himself to be a “moron” for believing media propaganda rather than the real evidence on the April 4 Idlib province bombing.

    • Nancy
      June 27, 2017 at 11:23

      These former CIA analysts (with the possible exception of Ray McGovern) always start with the premise that the US has good intentions, but just makes policy errors in its “meddling” when the truth is just the opposite.

      • backwardsevolution
        June 27, 2017 at 12:20

        Nancy – yes, over and over again I read the same stuff: “We had good intentions; what happened was just a “mistake”; this revolution just seemed to come out of nowhere, as if by magic.” Nothing below these levels are ever examined. We’re supposed to believe that events just spontaneously occur, never to look at what made them occur.

      • June 27, 2017 at 15:16

        Many former CIA agents do not seem terribly former.

      • jo6pac
        June 27, 2017 at 17:09


    • Gregory Herr
      June 27, 2017 at 21:27

      So they double-down on their stupidity! Great.

  6. mike k
    June 27, 2017 at 10:31

    How does one become a member of the deep state? There is no formal membership procedure; just acquire a lot of money. Once you are really very rich, your informal initiation will automatically begin. You will meet other very rich people, and they will begin to share tips and insider info with you about good lawyers, tax dodges, helpful exclusive clubs and organizations to join, correct political thinking and language, manners, etc. As your wealth and power increase you will find your way into more and more inner circles, and learn more and more your role in the deep state, which has many players with many roles, and is in constant flux and competitive turmoil as well. By getting rich you have become one of the Rulers of society.

  7. June 27, 2017 at 09:58

    Very interesting, Mild-ly Facetious, even a Nixon connection from 1987? More evidence that the two parties’ candidates are just a show to make voters believe there is a choice when it’s completely staged.

  8. Mild-ly Facetious
    June 27, 2017 at 08:51

    Trump’s Deep Connections to the Deep State
    By T.J. Coles, Axis of Logic
    Thursday, Jun 22, 2017

    The mainstream media and even the so-called alternative media have painted Donald Trump as a victim of the Deep State. They infer that Trump is a rebel—like him or loathe him—who is up against the machinations of the CIA, FBI, NSA and other so-called Deep State organizations.

    The firing of FBI director James Comey only adds to this narrative: that Trump is an enemy of the Deep State. But there are circles within circles and as this article, adapted from my new book President Trump, Inc., documents, Trump has long-standing, Deep State connections.

    Trump is connected to America’s political police force, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and very likely to America’s foreign spy and subversion unit, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


    In 2015, ex-CIA director and Democrat-voter Leon Panetta joked that a Trump administration “scares the hell out of me.” But the “biggest national security threat in this country [is] the dysfunction in [Obama’s] Washington … They can’t even come up with War Authority for the President of the United States”—referring to giving Obama a blank cheque to bomb Syria and Libya—“and I worry about that.”

    The hope was that a hard-line Trump would give the CIA a free pass to kill more foreigners on behalf of its big business backers. After Trump compared the CIA to Nazis because of their ludicrous allegations that Russia had hacked the US election campaign in favour of Trump, outgoing head John Brennan said it is “outrageous … equating the intelligence community with Nazi Germany.”

    Trump seemed nervous a week later during his address to the CIA at its headquarters in Langley Virginia. He fawned over the CIA: “I am so behind you. And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted, and you’re going to get so much backing. Maybe you’re going to say, please don’t give us so much backing … Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.”

    Trump’s advisor, the billionaire Peter Thiel, has connections with the CIA and other agencies. Palantir is a big data analysis company chaired by Thiel. It has won $1.2bn in federal contracts “from the Marine Corps, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Justice, FBI, State Department, CIA, Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” says Politico. Its offshoots specialize in counterterrorism and are allegedly hired by hedge funds to help them bet on world events. Thiel convinced the CIA to invest $2m in the company through its In-Q-Tel venture capital firm.

    By 2016, 40% of Palantir’s profits came from the federal sector. Palantir lobbied congressmen, including John McCain and Tom Cotton, to help it compete against established contractors, including Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. Former senators John Breaux and Trent Lott lobbied for Palantir military-intelligence contracts via the Patton-Boggs firm, as did Alexander Silbey (of ATS Communications) and Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Terry Paul (of Cassidy & Associates).

    T.J. Coles is a columnist with Axis of Logic. His books include Britain’s Secret Wars, The Great Brexit Swindle and the recently published President Trump, Inc..

    read full article >>

    • mike k
      June 27, 2017 at 09:58

      That Trump has connections with the deep state is not surprising; nevertheless he has fallen out with the “Family” and has become a black sheep within the great US Gov Mafia. Otherwise they would have felt no need to turn all their guns on him. That the deep state mafia is one big happy family is in no way a true picture.of that ugly reality.

    • Gregory Herr
      June 27, 2017 at 22:58

      Thanks M-F. A very interesting website. I read the About Us section and mission statement. Glad to find this.

  9. Jessica K
    June 27, 2017 at 08:12

    Same old story of the USA inability to stop meddling in nations they know nothing about, have no knowledge of the people, no concern for them, only desire for their resources. Aid to Israel to keep the Sunni-Shia conflict plays a large role. The CIA coup to topple the Mossadegh government in 1953 started as the description from Deraa you cite, backevol. CIA starting stirrings in Tehran, paying insurgents to fan flames of insurrection. Today we are hearing reports from the Trump administration through the mouthpiece Sean Spicer that Assad is planning “another gas attack” in Syria, obviously the Pentagon taking charge again, no evidence cited. And Nikki Haley is running her mouth again, continuing the Samantha Power routine. Eisenhower warned about the military industrial complex when he left office because he was part of it and could not stop it. We are at a far worse point in history and we must organize to stop these madmen. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy keeps coming on to CN to say that, and I believe he’s right. I have read on Black Agenda Report that Ajamu Baraka and others are organizing antiwar activities, and I am convinced we have got to get moving in opposition to this madness. We need to join forces with others for this, this cannot continue if there is even going to be a habitable planet.

  10. backwardsevolution
    June 27, 2017 at 04:37

    More from the article. If this is all true, then it is absolutely disgusting the lies we have been told.

    “Rula Amin and others of the Al Jazeera staff, and including the American CNN, the British BBC and the French France24 all began deliberate political propaganda campaign against the Syrian government and the Syrian people who were suffering from the death and destruction brought on by the terrorists who were pretending to be players in a local uprising. Some days, the scripts were so similar that you would have guessed they were all written in the same hotel room in Beirut. Onto the stage stepped the online media personalities of Robert Fisk, from his vantage point in Beirut and Joshua Landis from his perch in Oklahoma. These 2 men, sitting so far removed from the actual events, pretended to know everything going on in Syria. British and American readers were swayed by their deliberate one-sided explanations, while the actual Syrians living inside Syria, who read in English online, were baffled.

    Syrians were wondering how Western writers could take the side of the terrorists who were foreigners, following Radical Islam and attacking any unarmed civilian who tried to defend their home and family. The media was portraying the terrorists as freedom fighters and heroes of democracy, while they were raping, looting, maiming, kidnapping for ransom and murdering unarmed civilians who had not read the script before the shooting began in Deraa.”

    • Mild-ly Facetious
      June 27, 2017 at 08:58

      It’s great to see your eyes have been opened, backwardsevolution.

    • mike k
      June 27, 2017 at 09:43

      BE – I read the article, and it tells a believable story, but is it true? There is no evidence presented. I think the story is likely to be true, but in the absence of evidence, I am unable to completely endorse it, or pass it on (as if what I say means anything!). It is of course consistent with the things the CIA has been proven to do, but it needs some corroborating facts to make certain.

      • backwardsevolution
        June 27, 2017 at 12:29

        mike k – you’re right, there is no “Yats is the guy” telephone recording (like Victoria Nuland’s) to point to. Will be interesting to see what some good investigative reporters come up with after the war is all over.

      • backwardsevolution
        June 27, 2017 at 14:43

        mike k – here’s another Global Research article that gives a lot more detail:

        “Several reports, including video reports, observed rooftop snipers firing at crowds and police during funerals of those already killed. It was said to be ‘unclear who was firing at whom’ (Al Jazeera 2011a), as ‘an unknown armed group on rooftops shot at protesters and security forces’ (Maktabi 2011). […] However the Al Jazeera suggestion that secret pro-government snipers were killing ‘soldiers and protestors alike’ was illogical and out of sequence. The armed forces came to Daraa precisely because police had been shot and killed.

        While its headline blamed security forces for killing ‘protesters’, the British Daily Mail (2011) showed pictures of guns, AK47 rifles and hand grenades that security forces had recovered after storming the al-Omari mosque. The paper noted reports that ‘an armed gang’ had opened fire on an ambulance, killing ‘a doctor, a paramedic and a policeman’. Media channels in neighbouring countries did report on the killing of Syrian police, on 17-18 March. On 21 March a Lebanese news report observed that ‘Seven policemen were killed during clashes between the security forces and protesters in Syria’ (YaLibnan 2011), while an Israel National News report said ‘Seven police officers and at least four demonstrators in Syria have been killed … and the Baath party headquarters and courthouse were torched’ (Queenan 2011). These police had been targeted by rooftop snipers.”

        The rooftop snipers and torching of government buildings is similar to what happened in Ukraine.

      • June 27, 2017 at 15:13

        Considering the USA has created this same scenario for at least 100 years and all the admitted arming of Salafist terrorists by the USA and it’s allies and its bombing of anti ISIS forces at crucial moments and Syria as a stepping stone to neutralizing Iran and Russia and Quatars desire for a pipeline; how could one conclude otherwise?

      • Gregory Herr
        June 27, 2017 at 19:10

        A good deal of reading…lots of researchable notes:

  11. backwardsevolution
    June 27, 2017 at 04:20

    This is an interesting article that disagrees Syria’s problems stemmed from a home-grown civil war. It’s entitled “The Day Before Deraa: How the War Broke Out in Syria”.

    “The day before September 11, 2001 was like any normal day in New York City. September 10, 2001 was unaware of the earthshaking events which would happen the next day.

    Similarly, one might think the day before the violence broke out in Deraa, Syria in March 2011 would have been an uneventful day, unaware of the uprising about to begin.

    But, that was not the case. Deraa was teaming with activity and foreign visitors to Syria well before the staged uprising began its opening act.

    The Omari Mosque was the scene of backstage preparations, costume changes and rehearsals. The Libyan terrorists, fresh from the battlefield of the US-NATO regime change attack on Libya, were in Deraa well ahead of the March 2011 uprising violence.

    Enlisting the aid and cooperation of local followers of Salafism allowed the Libyans to move in Deraa without attracting any suspicion. The local men were the ‘front’ for the operation.

    The CIA agents running the Deraa operation from their office in Jordan had already provided the weapons and cash needed to fuel the flames of revolution in Syria. With enough money and weapons, you can start a revolution anywhere in the world.

    The weapons came into Deraa from the CIA office in Jordan. […] Deraa’s location directly on the Jordanian border is the sole reason it was picked for the location-shoot of the opening act of the Syrian uprising.”

    This sounds distinctly familiar, doesn’t it, like Ukraine?

    • backwardsevolution
      June 27, 2017 at 04:21
    • Gregory Herr
      June 27, 2017 at 19:14

      Glad you caught the similarities. They like to use snipers. I like Tony Cartalucci for a source on Syria.

    • Joe Tedesky
      June 27, 2017 at 23:24

      Read this….

      This Flemish priest tells a remarkable story, about what is really going on in Syria. I thought this priest story would compliment your Deraa story. Although the article is long, it is written in sections, so you may stop and return to your reading of it, but it’s worth the read,

      Also have you noticed that every time Assad gets the better hand of it in Syria suddenly chemical weapon attacks occur under his watch? Mighty apparent to see, how this works, Assad winning = Chemical Attack. Pretty simple math if you ask me, and yet almost too complex to comprehend it’s methodology. Pay special attention to how the accusations against Assad don’t match a winners attitude, and by no means do these chemical attacks resemble a winners successful strategy being won.

      The next question now is, how soon before we attack Iran?

  12. Realist
    June 27, 2017 at 02:57

    The United States does not need another endless war in Syria? What about the Syrians. Shouldn’t their needs come first? How does every issue on the planet seem to devolve into what the United States needs or wants?

    • mike k
      June 27, 2017 at 09:49

      Actually the MIC seems quite happy to engage in endless wars – the more endless the better. If a given war ends, then it has to take the trouble to start another one, and so on ad infinitum….

    • J. D.
      June 27, 2017 at 10:27

      The defining purpose of both wars is the same. To use Salafiist jihadis to create a hostile regimes no matter how repulsive, on the perimeter of Russia, then the USSR (Brzezinskis Arc of Crisis). The trashing of the region, especially by the Bush/Obama administrations is a disgraceful chapter of American history, which needs be left behind.. Remember, the original rationale for the Afghan invasion was “to get Bin-Laden,” as if it were forgotten that he himself was a creation of the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Pakistan, the Saudis and Israel, et. al. We are guilty of destroying a stable and progressive government in Afghanistan, and in Syria for what was a beautiful modern country less than ten years ago, while killing hundreds of thousands and leaving millions homeless. We should implement a Marshall Plan for the region, rebuilding it with the help of Russia and China’s New Silk Road mega infrastructure projects If that is done, then the allure of the jihadism for so many young men will be replaced with a sense of purpose and true nation-building Maybe then we will obtain the forgiveness of the people, especially those of Syria, Libya and Iraq, which clearly had nothing to do with 911..

      • Herman
        June 28, 2017 at 15:09


        Well said. I’m glad you mentioned what we did in Afghanistan, sold to Carter and Reagan by Brezhinski whose blind hatred of the USSR clouded his judgement. I agree with you about a regional Marshall Plan; that is the way to tackle the refugee problem.

    • June 27, 2017 at 14:53

      Empathy in a scarce resource in the mind controlled USA.

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