Svetlana Savranskaya: Afghanistan Déjà vu? Lessons from the Soviet Experience
[Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya serves as the Archive's director for its cooperative projects with Russian archives and institutes and editor of the Russian and East Bloc Archival Documents Database. She earned her Ph.D. in political science and international affairs in 1998 from Emory University, where she studied under Professor Robert Pastor and worked as a Hewlett Fellow at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta.]
The debate over U.S. policy in the Afghanistan war features striking and troubling parallels with the choices faced by Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, according to Soviet documents posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive. The documents have sparked a series of recent articles by Rodric Braithwaite (“New Afghan Myths Bode Ill for Western Aims,” October 15, 2008) in the Financial Times, Peter Beaumont (“Same Old Mistakes in Afghanistan,” October 18, 2009) in the Observer, Mark Thomson (“Soviets in Afghanistan … Obama’s Déjà vu?”, October 19, 2009 in Time, and Victor Sebestyen (“Transcripts of Defeat,” October 28, 2009) in the New York Times.
The documents obtained by the National Security Archive from the Russian archives show that even if history does not repeat, it almost certainly rhymes—more than 20 years later, U.S. policy makers are encountering very similar choices and analyses as they discuss the options for prosecuting or ending the war.
In terms that parallel those offered to President Obama by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Soviet military told their leaders in the mid-1980s that the war was not winnable by purely political means and that the initial analysis on the basis of which the troops were introduced did not take into account the historical and religious context of the country. Most strikingly, the Soviets complained that the top leader they helped to install lacked political legitimacy and probably would need to be replaced.
The Soviet military bemoaned the fact that even though every single piece of land was at some point controlled by the Soviet military, the moment the Soviet troops moved on, the territory was immediately re-taken by the armed resistance. Even after Babrak Karmal was replaced by Najubullah and the policy of national reconciliation was introduced, the internal resistance kept intensifying. In January 1987, for example, Defense Minister Marshal Sokolov reports that “the military situation has deteriorated sharply. The number of shelling of our garrisons has doubled. […] This war cannot be won militarily.” The growing numbers of Soviet casualties are cited in every report and discussion.
The choice between putting in more troops and delaying the withdrawal or withdrawing decisively and on schedule eventually put a rift between Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who argued for a delayed withdrawal and providing more military support for Najibullah. In the end, the Soviets withdrew on February 15, 1989, fully anticipating the fall of Najibulah government. A major factor mentioned repeatedly in the internal Soviet exchanges was the need for comprehensive international mediation with Pakistan and the United States at the center of any such process – a condition that did not exist at the time of the Soviet pullout and would not come to pass.
Read the Documents
Politburo Session, November 13, 1986
(Full text also available from the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 1787-181)
The first detailed Politburo discussion of the process and difficulties of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which included the testimony of Marshal Sergei Akhromeev.
The Politburo discusses the results of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Head of the Central Committee International Department Anatoly Dobrynin’s trip to Afghanistan. Shevardnadze’s report is very blunt and pessimistic about the war and the internal situation. The main concern of the Politburo is how to end the war but save face and ensure a friendly and neutral Afghanistan.
Criticism of the Soviet policy of national reconciliation in Afghanistan and analysis of general failures of the Soviet military mission there are presented in Colonel Tsagolov’s letter to USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov of August 13, 1987. This letter represents the first open criticism of the Afghan war from within the military establishment. Colonel Tsagolov paid for his attempt to make his criticism public in his interview with Soviet influential progressive magazine “Ogonek” by his career—he was expelled from the Army in 1988.
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