Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lessons from History: The Twentieth Anniversary of the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979. In the nine year war that followed, the Soviets lost 15,000 killed and 54,000 wounded. Tens of thousands of Afghan veterans returned with severe drug addictions and formed criminal gangs. The Soviet Afghan debacle played a key role in the end of the USSR in December of 1991.

Twenty years ago, on February 15, 1989, the Soviet Union completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It left behind a Soviet-backed government headed by the former chief of the Afghan secret police, Mohammad Najibullah, which controlled Kabul and other cities but not the countryside. Thanks to the disarray of rival forces, the Soviet puppet government lasted until April of 1992 as tribal and religious factions battled for control. The rest is known – the installation of Taliban rule, the harboring of Al Qaeda, and the defeat of the Taliban state in 2001. This twentieth anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal offers a timely benchmark to reexamine the USSR’s Afghan experience, particularly as attention turns from Iraq to the “good war” in Afghanistan. The Soviet withdrawal came after nine years; US and Nato forces are now in their eighth year.

The Soviet experience was succinctly summarized in a top secret memo co-authored by six of Gorbachev’s top advisors (including his foreign minister and KGB head) dated January 23, 1989 (copies of which are in the Hoover Institution archives). The USSR had bound itself by the April 1988 Geneva Accords to withdraw its forces by a deadline of February 1989. The memo to Gorbachev stated that the Afghan government could hold its position “only with the help of our aviation” and warned that opposition forces had reduced hostilities in anticipation of the Soviet withdrawal. The limited ground for hope was the armed struggle among opposition forces, which might escalate after the Soviet withdrawal. Although the Afghan allies “understood the decision for the Soviet withdrawal”, they were pushing hard for continued air strikes from Soviet territory, which would be “critical” to their survival. Although Gorbachev’s advisors appeared skeptical of the ability of Afghan allies to use advanced Soviet weaponry, their possession “might give them confidence in their power.” Neither significant air strikes nor massive weapon deliveries were authorized.

Gorbachev’s advisors did not downplay that the Najibullah regime, which “the entire world associates with us,” was hanging by a thread. Their biggest fear was that America and Pakistan would finally succeed in unifying opposition forces. The most immediate threat, however, was a blockade of Kabul and other cities, preventing foodstuffs from entering. There were no good options, because up to a full division would be required to keep the roads open. Another idea, floated and then rejected, was to call for UN troops, citing the threat of a human catastrophe to keep Soviet convoy troops in place until UN forces arrived. What was left was economic aid, which “despite the many difficulties we and the Afghans encountered in their delivery and distribution, prevented many undesirable turns in the development of the situation.”
The only remaining assistance to the Najibullah regime would be to maintain contacts and keep tabs on the opposition located in Pakistan, Iran and Europe and to drive a wedge between the “extremists” and the “moderates.” The Soviet Union would also use its security council membership to influence the UN and to work with all governments involved in the Afghan conflict, especially Pakistan.

Do the United States and its allies face a Soviet-like debacle in Afghanistan? There are similarities between the Soviet and US experiences. In both cases, the Afghan regime had control of cities but not of the vast countryside. The list of interfering neighbors (Pakistan and Iran) is the same, and the success in training a loyal and effective Afghan military was limited. The Russians and later the Americans and their Nato allies basically have had to fight insurgents on their own. The key differences are that the Soviets installed unpopular puppets, even using disguised KGB forces to execute non-cooperative Afghan politicians, while the Americans insisted on democratic elections. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with almost universal condemnation; whereas the U.S. entry garnered considerable international support, given the ill repute of the Taliban regime. Soviet forces matched the cruelty of their Afghan foes with incredible barbarism and atrocities on both sides. The American and Nato forces have attempted to fight a conventional counter-insurgency war. Although current Afghan opposition forces are far from united, the Soviets had the advantage of facing a much more fractured and factious opposition.