Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Learning From the Soviets ... How to Withdraw From Afghanistan

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of Bin Laden's Legacy, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

One unique feature of Afghanistan's history, in addition to the ubiquity of foreign invasions that stretch back for 2600 years, is the manner in which one would-be conqueror after another found its position compromised due to its failure to understand this history. "The British would repeat the blunders of the Romans," writes Peter Tomsen in The Wars of Afghanistan, arguing that their nineteenth century invasions overlooked lessons that could be gleaned from the defeat the Romans suffered at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C. And, he added, "the Soviets would make the same mistakes a century later."

The lessons of history extend not only to those looking to use military force to enter Afghanistan, but also to foreign armies on their way out. On January 1, The New York Times published an interesting article comparing the U.S.'s coming 2014 withdrawal to the Soviet exit in 1989. This is a worthwhile period to familiarize ourselves with, one that is understudied compared to the Afghan-Soviet war that preceded it. However, the analysis in the Times demonstrates not only what can be gleaned through historical comparisons, but also some of the pitfalls of undertaking them.

Afghanistan's communist president at the time the Soviets withdrew, Mohammad Najibullah (sometimes known as Najib), is remembered primarily for his life's gruesome ending. After the Taliban lured him and his brother out of the U.N. compound where they had found shelter, they tortured and castrated Najibullah, then dragged him from the back of a vehicle. Tomsen writes that the following morning, both men's "bloodied bodies hung from a traffic pylon outside the palace walls, their cadavers mutilated." Symbolizing his corruption, decadence, and allegiance to a foreign power, "a wad of Soviet currency and cigarettes were stuffed into Najib's mouth and nostrils."

This brutal man encountered his brutal end in 1996, seven years after the Soviets left. Because his death is so well known, we tend to overlook what the Times emphasizes: Although most outside observers expected Najibullah's regime to collapse immediately when the Soviets withdrew, it in fact appeared surprisingly strong for about three years. The Times outlines the basic contours: The Soviets "continued large-scale military assistance" after leaving Afghanistan, and "the combat effectiveness of Kabul's security forces increased after the Soviet withdrawal, when the fight for survival became wholly their own."

There are two further wrinkles to add to this analysis...

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