IN THE NEWS
Rob at Laywers, Guns, and Money makes an excellent comparison between the US occupation of Iraq and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. While there are obvious differences--for example, the naked brutality of the Soviets' scorched earth policies go far beyond the worst abuses of Iraqi prisoners in US custody--the similarities are striking. Particularly worth noting, as Rob does several times, is that low casualty rates don't necessarily translate into staying power for the occupying power.
I don't agree with everything Rob says, however. For example, the Soviets did not uniformly use conventional operational methods against the mujahideen. In fact, the Spetsnatz missions, including cross-border raids into Pakistan, caused the mujahideen considerable grief until the introduction of Stinger missiles put a stop to the Soviet commandos' air mobility.
Most of all, I think he is overlooking an important political parallel between the Soviets then and the Americans now. In both cases, the occupier tried winning the support of the population by implementing progressive social and economic policies. In both cases, the occupying power was bewildered when these reforms failed to smother the insurgents' appeal. However cynical their motives, the Soviets did offer to improve the general level of education, the opportunities for women, the quality and pay of civil servants, and the distribution of land. Of course, the problem was that these benefits were being offered by the Soviets.
Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory includes an important chronicle of the negotiations over the shape of the interim Iraqi government and the US role in supporting or controlling it. According to Diamond, what Bremer and other US officials failed to understand was the primacy of both the appearance and fact of Iraqi sovereignty. While US officials supplied cogent arguments why holding elections immediately was a logistical impossibility, Iraqi notables, including Grand Ayatollah Sistani, continued to insist on having elections immediately. While you can easily pick apart the motives of the people on the Iraqi side of the discussion, no doubt there was a powerful antipathy to any occupation, no matter how benevolent.
After the Soviets withdrew, the regime in Kabul survived far longer than most observers had predicted. Certainly, the training and equipment the regime's military inherited from the Soviets helped a great deal. So, too, did the support of some fraction of the Afghan population, who genuinely worried that the mujahideen would turn back the clock. Nevertheless, the taint of being the instrument of a former occupying power never faded, and the regime eventually crumbled under a hail of rocket fire. As Rob says, there are many lessons worth learning from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan--especially for the current US mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.