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The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan Didn't Sort Out the Country—Will Ours?

As the Russians went into Afghanistan at the end of December 1979, a cautious Soviet official is said to have remarked to his boss, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, that the British had got themselves into serious trouble there a century earlier.  “Are you comparing the imperialist British to our gallant Soviet boys?”  spluttered the indignant minister.  “Of course not,” the official hurriedly replied.  “The soldiers are quite different. But the mountains are the same.”

You have to be careful about drawing lessons from history:  the gritty details differ every time. But you have to be foolish to ignore what happened to your predecessors.  This time the soldiers are indeed different.  But the mountains—and the people of Afghanistan—are still the same.  The problems the Western coalition faces today are not so very different from those the Soviets faced three decades ago.  The Soviets, too, went in with high hopes, believing they could build a nation, settle its politics, and depart within a year, leaving behind a secure government of their choice.  It took nine years of bloody fighting before they could extricate themselves.

Our understanding of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan has been distorted by the persistent myths of the Cold War.  The Russians did not invade Afghanistan in order to incorporate it into the Soviet Union, or to use it as a base to threaten the West’s oil supplies in the Gulf, or to build a warm water port on the Indian Ocean.  They went in to sort out a small, fractured and murderous clique of Afghan Communists who had overthrown the previous government in a bloody coup and provoked chaos and widespread armed resistance on the Soviet Union’s vulnerable Southern border.  They believed that Amin, the Communist President of Afghanistan, had been recruited by the CIA when he was a student in New York, and would take his country into the American orbit.  It may not have been true.  But in the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War, each side always believed the worst of the other and found it safer to plan for the worst case.

For the previous nine months they had resisted repeated pleas from the Afghan Communists to send Soviet troops to help put down the insurgency.  Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin had then told the Afghan president:  “If we sent in our troops the situation in your country would not improve.  On the contrary it would get worse.  Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a part of your own people.  And people do not forgive that kind of thing.”

Kosygin was entirely right.  The Russians invader who overthrew Amin in December 1979 were initially welcomed by people who were sick of his bloody regime.  But they soon found themselves in the middle of an Afghan civil war, a bloody war of ambushes, roadside mines, ruined villages, aerial bombardment, and atrocities committed on all sides.  Untrained and ill-equipped for guerilla warfare in the mountains, the Soviet soldiers—mostly conscripts—adapted and became tough and effective fighters.  But news of the steady hemorrhage of casualties—some 15,000 dead and 53,000 wounded—spread fast once the sealed zinc coffins began to come home to towns and villages across the country.  The Soviet government suffered a relentless drip of protest from the families and friends of those who had died.

But it was harder to get out than it had been to get in.  The Russians were determined to withdraw with honor, leaving behind a friendly and secure government in Kabul.  But many Americans were equally determined to make them bleed for what they themselves had suffered in Vietnam.  The Pakistanis were determined that the next government in Kabul should be friendly to them—and an ally against India.  Some, indeed, hoped to install an Islamist government, an aim enthusiastically shared by the mujahedin.

Mikhail Gorbachev set out to cut the Gordian knot when he came to power in 1985.  That October he summoned the Afghan leader to Moscow, and told him to get used to the idea that the Soviet troops would depart in a year or eighteen months.  The first Stinger was not fired until a year later.  The Stingers had no noticeable effect on Soviet political or military decision-making. Charlie Wilson’s War is an amusing film.  But it is bad history.

But Gorbachev was stuck on the horns of a familiar dilemma:  “We could leave quickly, without worrying about the consequences, and blame everything on our predecessors.  But that we cannot do.  We have not given an account of ourselves to the people.  A million of our soldiers have passed through Afghanistan.  And it looks as if they did so in vain.  So why did those people die?”

Despite Gorbachev's best intentions, it was another three years before an agreement in Geneva for an orderly withdrawal of an undefeated Soviet army was concluded.  Nevertheless, the Russians did achieve their minimal aim.  The government they left behind, under their man Najibullah, survived for three years, until it was undermined by internal dissent and the cutting off of essential supplies by a Russia which by then was itself bankrupt and hungry.  The murderous civil war which followed was ended by the victory of the Taliban.

Quite recently Western policymakers—considerably confused about where to go next in Afghanistan—have begun to wonder whether they might, after all, learn something useful from the Soviet experience.

There are obvious similarities.  The opposition still receives support from across the Pakistani border.  The Afghan security forces today are probably even less effective than they were before.  People are still very angry when civilians are killed by foreigners.  Some Afghans even claim they were better off in the Soviet times.

Like the Russians, we have had to scale down our aspirations, and settle for the modest aim of departing with honor, leaving behind a secure and coherent government.  Unlike the Russians, we are rich enough to continue support our chosen government for as long as it takes—if we retain the will.

Some optimists hope we could craft a supportive regional arrangement involving the Indians, the Iranians, the Russians, and of course the Pakistanis.  But to get that lot together would be worse than herding cats.

Predicting the future is even more risky than trying to learn from the past.  But the best we can hope for may be an Afghan government that is effective in the old fashioned way, which uses patronage, money, and occasional violence to retain some authority throughout the country.  That worked in the first part of the twentieth century, and it does not preclude the possibility of reform.

The alternative would be a renewed civil war and a continuation of the tragedy to which Afghanistan has been subjected by outside interference and internal strife for more than thirty years.