Why Russia Succeeded in Syria When U.S. Failed in Afghanistan

The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was launched in October 2001 to be nearly two decades long. Russia’s military operation in Syria was launched in September 2015, and it has been going on for six years. Both powers justified their interventions by the need to combat international terrorism: while the U.S. was fighting against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (terrorist organizations banned in Russia), Russia has fought against ISIS (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) and associated radical groups of the Syrian opposition.

It is difficult to compare Moscow and Washington’s campaigns as they are very different in scale, in their objectives and, particularly, in the specifics of their warfare. The U.S. operation in Afghanistan involved large numbers of American marines as well as military units of different sizes from several dozen U.S. allies and partners. Russia’s presence in Syria mostly involved its Aerospace Forces (the VKS) and a relatively small contingent of military police units.

The irrecoverable losses of the international coalition in Afghanistan have totaled over 3,000 people, with Americans accounting for about 80% of these; in the meantime, Russia’s losses in Syria have been smaller by an order of magnitude.

Money down the drain…

The U.S.-waged 20-year Afghanistan campaign is estimated to have cost an astronomical sum, something in between USD 1 and 2 tn. Various estimates put the cost of Russia’s six-year Syrian operation at USD 10 to 15 bn, which is significantly less than the American outlays as well as less than those of many of the U.S. junior partners in coalition (for instance, Germany alone spent some USD 50 bn in Afghanistan over the two decades).

These whopping outlays did not help the U.S. Although Al-Qaeda’s strongpoints in Afghanistan were largely eliminated in the course of the first three months of the military intervention as the surviving Taliban fighters were pushed out into the neighboring Pakistan within approximately the same time, the U.S. and its allies ultimately came to suffer a crushing defeat. Set by the U.S. leadership 20 years ago, the objectives have not been achieved, and the international coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan had essentially degenerated into a rather rushed and ill-designed evacuation.

At the same time, even Moscow’s most intransigent opponents admit that Russia was victorious in Syria. At the moment, at least, it is certainly a winner.

Russia did not have any fundamental military-technical or geographical advantages as compared to the U.S. On the contrary, the U.S. had a major advantage over Russia in transport accessibility and related logistics. Moscow only had two full-fledged bases in Syria—the naval base in Tartus and the airbase at Khmeimim. The Americans, though, not only used the military infrastructure of Afghanistan (including the infrastructure built by the USSR during its ten-year presence in the country) but also established bases in Central Asia, as well as many transport corridors via Pakistan, the South Caucasus, Central Asian states and Russia.

Two Military Operation Model

Why did Washington ultimately lose when Moscow succeeded?

First, although both the U.S. and Russia proclaimed the aim of combating international terrorism, the two operations had, in fact, quite different objectives.

In 2015, by saving President Assad and his inner circle, Moscow was saving Syria’s statehood; Russia was, therefore, defending Syria’s status quo.

Back in 2001, the U.S. intended to radically change the status quo in Afghanistan by installing a new political regime and implementing an ambitious plan for building a modern secular state. Clearly, the latter objective proved far more difficult than the former, especially since the country lacked the objective premises for successful state-building.

Second, Russia’s partners in Syria were Iran and Turkey, the region’s two leading actors. Each had—and still has—its own vital interests in Syria. Although these interests do not always coincide with those of Russia, the trilateral Astana format has demonstrated its effectiveness and stability. It was not destroyed even by such acute crises as the escalation in Idlib in early 2020.

Some fifty U.S. partners in Afghanistan mostly included current and potential members of NATO, ranging from the UK and Turkey to Georgia and Ukraine. Most of these nations had no vital interests to pursue in Afghanistan, and their involvement largely stemmed from their desire to demonstrate loyalty to the U.S. and support America’s well-meaning undertaking. Especially since America’s plans for Afghanistan, unlike its subsequent intervention in Iraq in 2003, were fully approved by the UN Security Council. It turned out, however, that values- rather than interests-based solidarity is not a particularly reliable foundation for an operation lasting many years.

Third, Russia was mostly opposed by international terrorist groups in Syria that ultimately viewed the country’s territory as merely one of the possible springboards for their operations. Today, they are fighting in Syria—tomorrow, they could move to the neighboring Iraq, or to Libya, or the countries of the Sahel, or any other place in the world with a situation most favorable for them.

The Taliban is a purely Afghan movement. Its fighters have nowhere else to go; they fought for their country and continue to do so. Even when, in the early 2000s, the international coalition pushed Taliban militants into Pakistan, they tried to get back home, sooner or later and at any cost. Islamic “globalists” and Islamic “nationalists” are motivated somewhat differently; figuratively speaking, the former have legs, the latter have roots.

Fourth, to all appearances, Russia’s operation in Syria was simply prepared much better than the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Russian Arabists, diplomats, military personnel and intelligence deserve credit for their understanding of the situation in Syria and the surrounding states.

The U.S. operation in Afghanistan had the appearance of a not-entirely-successful improvisation; the U.S. vision of this country was formed throughout the confrontation with the Soviet Union back in the 1980s, and they proved far removed from reality.

The Kremlin succeeded in making its limited presence in Syria stable, financially affordable and generally acceptable to the Russian public. The White House failed to do the same in Afghanistan.

Russia’s success in Syria is particularly impressive as—unlike the out-of-power Afghan leadership—Assad was (and still is) under U.S. and EU sanctions, and the West has not recognized the outcome of the recent presidential elections in Syria (although there were quite a few problems with the latest Afghan elections as well). Additionally, Syria has so far failed to regain full membership in the community of Arab states. Even so, Assad can be certain that he will wake up in his palace on January 1, 2022, as Syria’s president. At the same time, the political biography of Ashraf Ghani, who had spent the greater part of his life in the U.S. and had long held U.S. citizenship, has already come to an inglorious end…

Appropriate and inappropriate debates

Of course, Russia’s victory in Syria can only be claimed with significant qualifications. The country’s territorial integrity has not been fully restored as Turkey still controls the Idlib province in the West, the North is controlled by Kurdish units beyond the control of Damascus, while the Golan Heights in the South have been annexed by Israel. The danger of a new escalation remains in Syria while the ventures of post-conflict restoration are pushed further into the future. It is not entirely clear when and under what circumstances Russia’s military operation in Syria will end or whether Moscow has a detailed withdrawal strategy.

Nonetheless, whereas the long-term outcome of Russia’s operation in Syria can still be debated, the outcome of the Afghan campaign is in no doubt: the U.S. and its allies have suffered an obvious and extremely painful defeat. Today, it is a matter of downplaying the humiliation of this defeat as much as possible and preventing the American public from developing an “Afghanistan syndrome” as was the case with the “Vietnam syndrome” half a century ago. If the Republicans succeed in transforming the subject of “the Democrats stealing our victory in Afghanistan” into an item on America’s domestic agenda, debates on this matter might even affect the outcome of the 2024 presidential elections.

Russia’s operation in Syria has significantly bolstered Moscow’s standing in the Arab world and increased Russia’s prestige throughout the Middle East, where high reliability as well as consistent and predictable policies have always been in value.

Washington’s reliability as a strategic partner and security guarantor has once again been cast into doubt. NATO’s ability to conduct successful operations far from their traditional area of operation is in even greater doubt. Certainly, the defeat in Afghanistan will have a rather detrimental effect on the morale of the U.S. military.

It should be mentioned that Afghanistan merely is the most graphic illustration of the American military presence shrinking throughout the world. The Pentagon will now have to more actively prepare to conduct autonomous operations, without relying on the existing military infrastructure of its allies and partners.

Post-battle Landscape

What lessons can we learn for the future from this brief comparison of the two interventions of the early 21st century?

First: victory cannot be guaranteed by an overwhelming military superiority over the adversary or virtually unlimited financial resources or broad international support or even readiness to maintain an occupation for decades. Attempts to impose a specific socioeconomic and political system on a nation that, for whatever reason, is not ready for it will inevitably end in failure.

No matter what we think of Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad, we can but recognize that he enjoys the support of, at least, a part of the Syrian society. No matter what we think of the Taliban, this movement clearly reflects, in some manner, the interests of large groups of the Afghan population.

Political settlement in Syria is inconceivable without the participation of the present leadership in Damascus. On the contrary, over the 20 years of international occupation, Afghanistan failed to develop an efficient central authority, strong political and state institutions as well as resolve the problems of corruption, nepotism and clan loyalty. In 2021, just as back in 2001, significant portions of the Afghan population, especially in the provinces, have no access to many basic social and economic services.

Syria certainly has many pressing socioeconomic problems similar to those of Afghanistan. Certainly, the efficiency of its state governance is also somewhat dubious. Yet, the stability of the state in Syria has proved to be far greater than that of the Afghan state.

Besides, both in Syria and in Afghanistan, victory in state-building is impossible without active collaboration with regional actors. No international coalition founded on shared democratic values and loyalty to the leader will be substitute for cooperation with the neighboring states. In the case of Syria, Iran and Turkey turned out to be just such irreplaceable neighbors. In the case of Afghanistan, these are primarily Pakistan, China, Iran, Central Asian states, Russia and, possibly, India. The rich Persian Gulf nations may also take part in Afghanistan’s economic restoration, as may the European Union under certain circumstances.

Nonetheless, Beijing and Islamabad will be the main external actors taking part in determining Afghanistan’s future. Beijing is on the list because China will inevitably become the country’s principal foreign investor and trade partner. The Taliban’s official representatives have already hastened to say that they welcome China’s economic presence in Afghanistan. Islamabad is on the list as well because Pakistan has the broadest range of means to influence the Taliban. To some degree, it is fair to say that the Taliban’s military victory is also a victory for Pakistan. At the same time, it would be a major mistake to consider the Taliban a mere puppet in Islamabad’s skillful hands: the Afghan movement, for instance, actively keeps in touch with separatists among the radical Pashtun movements in Pakistan.

Iran will most likely be the third member of the leaders’ trio as it holds long-standing and solid positions in the West of Afghanistan. Iran’s relations with the Taliban have always been complicated, with frequent conflicts—but given Tehran’s pragmatic foreign policy, there is no doubt they will reach some kind of compromise with the victorious Taliban.

Russia and Afghanistan

Unlike Syria, where Moscow plays a largely central role as a guarantor of the country’s stability and territorial integrity, Russia is not a major league player in Afghanistan so far. Moscow has neither Beijing’s economic capabilities nor Islamabad’s political tools; unlike Iran, it does not share a long border with Afghanistan.

There, however, remains a lingering “Afghanistan syndrome,” and the Russian public is strongly opposed to any form of military involvement by Russia in Afghanistan.

In the late 1990s, Moscow did actively collaborate with Uzbek and Tajik groups united in the so-called Northern Alliance in the North of Afghanistan. Following the international occupation of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance was disbanded to see some of its leaders join the team of then-president Hamid Karzai. Even though there is talk today of the Northern Alliance being revived, this has not yet had any effect on the battlefield balance of power and has not provided Moscow with any additional capabilities.

The tasks Moscow is setting itself today in Afghanistan are fairly modest, more so than those set for the Russian military in Syria in 2015.

First, it is important to prevent the military and political instability in Afghanistan from spilling across the borders of Russia’s allies in Central Asia and to prevent flows of refugees and forced migrants. Over 2.5 million Afghan refugees, or maybe even double this figure, are already dispersed throughout the world.

Second, Moscow needs to prevent international terrorist groups, like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, from transforming Afghanistan into a springboard for their operations in Central Asia or, for that matter, in Russia. In this respect, Afghanistan is potentially an even greater threat than was Syria prior to Russia’s operation. The estimates of international terrorist group presence in Afghanistan vary widely; some sources claim there are at least 3,000 ISIS militants in Afghanistan with no fewer than nine military bases.

There are also claims that ISIS and the Taliban are engaged in secret talks, which presupposes the Taliban’s consent to ISIS being present in Afghanistan—provided they refrain from interfering in the country’s domestic affairs. It is hard to say how well-founded these claims are; they may be just attempts to discredit the Taliban in the eyes of regional actors.

Third, it is in Moscow’s interests to cut drug trafficking from Afghanistan into Russia and the neighboring states as much as possible. In the first years under the international occupation, poppy plantations in Afghanistan expanded from 2,000 hectares to 30,000 hectares. There are reasons to suspect international coalition members of condoning the unprecedented flourishing of Afghan drug trafficking and of being involved—directly or indirectly—in this lucrative business. The Taliban, for their part, actively began combatting drugs back in the late 1990s, since Islam decisively prohibits drugs. The future will show whether there will be any success in countering production and export of Afghan drugs in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

Much will depend on the perception of Afghanistan’s changing political landscape in the eyes of the U.S. and Europe. If Russia has to compete in Afghanistan with the EU and the U.S., Russia’s capabilities, which are modest as things stand, will prove even more limited. If the West decides to steer a course toward Afghanistan’s international isolation, any government in Kabul will have additional incentives to expand cooperation with Russia to at least somehow reduce its inevitable dependence on China.

Certainly, Moscow will have to sidestep—carefully—around many hidden pitfalls. For instance, how can possible complications with India, which has its own views of and approaches to Afghanistan, be avoided? What is to be done about the activities of Turkey, which claims an independent role in Afghanistan? What should be the response to Washington’s desire to preserve a residual military presence in the region by using the relevant infrastructure in Central Asia? Yet, no matter how important these and other questions might be, they should not distract Moscow’s attention from strategic collaboration with the principal regional actors in Afghanistan. The preliminary results achieved by Russia in Syria give us grounds to hope that the Kremlin might well succeed in avoiding obvious miscalculations in Afghanistan.

From our partner RIAC

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.