Leaving Afghanistan


Twenty five years ago today, Soviet General Boris Gromov oversaw the final withdrawal from Afghanistan. How will the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) leave Afghanistan?

Artemy M. Kalinovsky
15 February 2014

Twenty five years ago today, Soviet General Boris Gromov left Afghanistan with the last Soviet soldiers still in that country. Halfway across the ‘Friendship Bridge’ linking Termez in Soviet Uzbekistan with Hairatan in Afghanistan, he jumped off a troop carrier and made the rest of his way on foot. With reporters from around the world flown in to record the scene, Gromov’s son ran across the bridge, and the two made their way back to Soviet soil together. The scene was deliberately choreographed – the Soviet leadership needed to prove to doubters (and there were many, internationally and at home) that Soviet troops were indeed coming home. Gromov told the assembled journalists: ‘There is not a single Soviet soldier or officer left behind me - our nine-year stay ends with this.’

A company of Soviet soldiers poses for the cameras shortly before leaving Afghanistan.

A company of Soviet soldiers poses for the cameras shortly before leaving Afghanistan. Photo CC RIA Novosti/A Solomonov

Going in… and getting out

The intervention in 1979 had been a desperate move

The intervention in 1979 had been a desperate move. Soviet officials were ambivalent about the communist allies who came to power in Kabul, doubting the country’s readiness for the kind of radical transformation these revolutionaries promised. They became more worried when Afghanistan’s new leaders began imprisoning and killing each other, and facing spontaneous uprisings in parts of the country. By December 1979 they felt their only choice was to intervene, remove the erratic Hafizullah Amin, and replace him with Babrak Karmal, a more moderate figure that they hoped could stop the slide into chaos.

Soviet officials began discussing how to leave Afghanistan almost from the moment they decided to intervene. Karmal had to be given a chance to consolidate his power; the military needed time to help train the Afghans; the political advice and economic aid delivered by the Soviet Union had to be given time to work. Soviet intelligence officials from the military and the KGB tried to reach out to rebel commanders. They sometimes succeeded in securing truces, but also found their efforts being undermined by their Afghan allies or even their own colleagues – turf wars between the military and KGB were vicious during the war. 

Mikhail Gorbachev made getting out from Afghanistan a priority when he came to power in 1985, and yet it still took him more than four years to achieve this. He was trapped in the same logic as his predecessors – he wanted to withdraw without the Soviet Union losing face and without Afghanistan descending into civil war. Moscow withdrew its political advisers, replaced Karmal with Najibullah (an ethnic Pushtun and chairman of the intelligence committee), and stepped up its negotiating efforts. Again, all these things needed time to work. It was only in late 1987 and early 1988 that Gorbachev, convinced that nothing he could try would actually improve the situation in Afghanistan, and eager to build on the rapid improvement of relations with the US and Western European countries, decided to pull out, even if it meant that the US would continue supplying the opposition via Pakistan, and there was a good chance that Najibullah would not last more than a few months.

One of the most depressing aspects of researching Soviet decision-making on the war was discovering the extent to which the logic of sunk costs kept prolonging the Soviet involvement. Of course, Cold War logic was important too – in the wake of the Iranian revolution, Soviet officials worried that instability in Afghanistan, a country on the USSR’s southern border, would be tempting for the US. Still, it was the belief that there was still something that Soviet military, economic, and political might and experience could accomplish in Afghanistan that was most crucial in keeping the war going for ten years.

With the Soviet 40th Army gone, there was little hope that Najibullah’s regime would survive. In fact, his Afghan army beat back a major attack on Jalalabad by the mujahideen that spring, and held off waves of attacks on Khost in the coming years. He was skilful enough at manipulating alliances and rivalries to keep the mujahideen from taking power, even if he could not consolidate his own. Officials in Moscow hoped that US and Pakistani officials would push the mujahideen leaders to make an alliance with Najibullah, but they were mistaken – the CIA and its allies wanted total victory, and they had enough congressional support (despite strong doubts by many in the US foreign policy community and in Congress itself) to keep fighting for it.

Afghan Mujahideen, dressed in traditional pashto clothing, pose with their rifles.

The Afghan mujahideen, clandestinely supported by the US government, proved a match for the Soviets. Photo CC Erwin Franzen

The CIA wanted total victory, and they had enough congressional support in Washington to keep fighting for it.

US entanglement

US support for the Afghan resistance was, in my view, misguided but understandable – the logic of Cold War alliances, the genuine revulsion over the Soviet intervention, the calls to coordinate resistance from US allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would have made it very difficult for Washington to stay out. But the US insistence on fighting to a total victory was a disaster. I do not mean to suggest that US pressure and diplomacy could have achieved a lasting peace in Afghanistan and prevented the civil war of the 1990s. If there was one moment when international cooperation could have allowed for such an outcome, however, it was in the period between the Soviet withdrawal and the USSR’s collapse. It would have meant accepting Najibullah as some kind of transitional regime, while also finding a place for the main mujahideen groups. It may not have worked, but such a policy had a greater chance of achieving peace in the region than the one Washington did pursue. Instead, Washington decreased the volume of aid to the resistance, but continued to insist that there would be no place for Najibullah.

A Soviet soldier stands guard on an Afghan road. 15 May 1988.

A Soviet soldier stands guard on an Afghan road. 15 May 1988. Photo CC RIA Novosti/A Solomonov

The situation today is different in many ways, but it is equally depressing. Obama, too, came to office hoping to pull the US back from its foreign entanglements. Enthusiasm for new paradigms, some of them recycled from the war in Iraq or even Vietnam, has come and gone. The idea that hydroelectric dams and good roads can win people over to a government or occupying force seems to be particularly resilient. Consciously or not, the US and its allies have resorted to some of the policies pursued by the Soviet Union and Najibullah – including arming militias outside the regular security forces to help fight the insurgency. This worked in the short term, but eventually many of these militias turned their arms on Najibullah, and contributed to the chaos that followed, often terrorizing civilians. 

The situation in Afghanistan, in the meantime, seems to have worsened, rather than improved. The early-stage idealistic vision of transforming the country is mostly gone – now it is about doing the bare minimum to keep its problems localised. Relations with Karzai have steadily deteriorated, as have relations with Pakistan. What happens once the troops are gone (even if a ‘residual force’ of some 10,000 is left) is a matter of speculation. The questions are many. Will the Taliban retake Kabul and establish control over 90% of the country, as they had by the late 1990s? Will diplomacy succeed in bringing them into some kind of coalition government without alienating Tajik, Hazara, and other minorities? What would that mean for Pakistan? How would it affect the Central Asian states located north of Afghanistan? What role will China play in the region? How important will Indian involvement be in the years to come? 

The Russian position

In the late 1980s, with the withdrawal imminent, and the prospect of a collapse in Afghanistan, Soviet officials needed to find a way to explain the war. Gorbachev and his advisers wanted to shift the blame as much as possible to the people in power in 1979. In the new atmosphere of glasnost, they allowed some investigative reporting that delved, for the first time, into the reasons behind the intervention and the conduct of the war itself. The new Congress of People’s Deputies, the first democratically elected parliamentary body since the revolution, also undertook an investigation culminating in a 'political assessment' critical of the intervention. Curiously, the head of the Russian Union of Veterans, a deputy of the State Duma, recently said he would insist that this assessment be reconsidered. 

Today, Russian officials, despite their criticism of the US-led effort and the broader conflicts with Washington over various issues in foreign policy, are concerned that the US is withdrawing too quickly. In 2010, General Gromov and Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to NATO, co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times condemning what they saw as a willingness by Western countries to abandon Afghanistan: ‘We are utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at NATO headquarters, be it under the cover of "humanistic" pacifism or pragmatism,’ they wrote.  ‘We insist that NATO troops stay in the country until the necessary conditions are provided to establish stable local authorities capable of independently deterring radical forces and controlling the country. That is why we are helping NATO by providing transit for goods and training personnel for Afghanistan, including anti-narcotics officers.’ 

Two ISAF troop carriers in Afghanistan.

Despite poor relations between Russia and NATO, Russian politicians worry about ISAF's withdrawal. Photo via Lory Stevens

More recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that unless ISAF forces had finished what they started in 2001, it was premature to complete the withdrawal: ‘We supported an operation to eradicate the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, and added that attention should also be paid to the drugs threat. And we assume that if the international forces have decided to withdraw, then they apparently think that they are ready to report to the UN Security Council about accomplishing their mandate, issued by the UN Security Council in 2001. And we, of course, are expecting such a report.’ Meanwhile, Moscow has been hedging its bets, trying to reassert its influence in the region. It recently completed military agreements with Tajikistan, and is increasing its presence in Kyrgyzstan, while also trying to coordinate with China and India. 

In this mini-series, we have asked several authors who have studied the conflict to look back and to look forward. Anatol Lieven reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Soviet war and during the most recent conflict. He considers the similarities and differences of what he observed then and what he sees now, and what that might mean for Afghanistan’s future. Lieven does not believe that the Taliban will ‘storm’ Kabul, because there are too many interested powers in the region that will try to keep that from happening. Still, he sees the current Afghan state as weaker than the one the Soviet’s left behind, and is critical of the coalition for ‘simultaneously managing a military withdrawal and a political transition through elections.’

Markus Gorranson, currently finishing his PhD at the University of Aberystwyth, draws on his research with Tajikistan’s veterans of the Soviet war to consider the effects the war had on the Soviet Central Asian republics and the way it reverberates there today. Contrary to some contemporary predictions, the Soviet war in Afghanistan did not galvanize Soviet Muslims to turn their arms on the Soviet Union. As Gorranson’s research shows, however, the experience of the war did influence Soviet politics in the final years of Perestroika and played an important role during the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997). 

Rodric Braithwaite, a former ambassador to Moscow and the author of a highly celebrated book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, takes an even broader view, considering the British Empire’s involvement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Soviet intervention, and the current conflict. He pays particular attention to the way UK officials have understood and justified the conflict. 

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