30 years ago this month, on February 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldier crossed the Afghan-Soviet border marking the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts ever fought in Afghanistan’s history. Notably, the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan from May 1988 to February 1989 was not a rout. Rather, it was a well-executed and carefully planned disengagement operation that would allow the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) to survive for another three years after the end of the Soviet occupation. However, the public announcement of a rigid timetable for the withdrawal narrowed the Soviets options to respond to the changing military and political situation in the country.
It all began in November 1986 when the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev made the decision to withdraw all Soviet combat troops by the end of 1988 from the country. Afghanistan had become “a bleeding wound” in the words of Gorbachev. Throughout 1985, the Soviets attempted to force a military solution—the year became the bloodiest in the history of the war—but ultimately failed to break the insurgency’s back.
As a result, Gorbachev summoned key members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) including its new General Secretary, Muhammad Najibullah, to Moscow in late 1986 and informed the Afghan communists that they had two years to prepare for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and to implement a policy of national reconciliation backed up by massive Soviet economic, financial, and military aid.
The signing of the so-called Geneva Accords, on April 14, 1988, between Afghanistan, Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States as guarantors, finally paved the way for the Soviet withdrawal from the Hindukush, while it also boosted Moscow’s hope for the future existence of a friendly, neutral government in Kabul under the leadership of Muhammad Najibullah.
The Geneva Accords set out a strict timetable for Soviet withdrawal. However, a detailed plan had already been worked out by the Soviet General Staff and the 40th Army staff, along with the input from other commands, in the months leading up to the signing of the accords and orders for the withdrawal were already issued on April 7, 1988.
In April 1988, the Soviet 40th Army consisted of around 100,000 men divided up into three motorized rifle divisions, one airborne division, two additional motorized rifle brigades and one additional airborne regiment, as well as one air assault regiment, a Spetsnaz brigade, a number of Soviet Air Force regiments, and seven fighter jet squadrons. (Soviet military advisors, Soviet Ministry of the Interior troops, KGB officers, and civilian contractors are not included in the number above.)
Most of the Soviet military was deployed in the larger cities, along major roads and airfields with the majority of forces stationed in the Eastern provinces of Afghanistan.
The withdrawal was conducted in two phases. The first phase lasted from May 15 to August 15, 1988. The second phase began in January and ended on February 15, 1989. The withdrawal routes in the western half of the country ran from Kandahar via Shindand and Herat to Kushka. The eastern route ran from Kabul to the Salang pass (and through the Salang tunnel) to Khairaton and across the so-called Friendship bridge to Termez in Uzbekistan.
In the first phase of the retreat, 50,000 soldiers were withdrawn from 10 major garrisons. The 40th Army handed over to the Afghan military all the bases in the cities of Jalalabad, Ghazni, Gardez, Faizabad, Farahrud, Lashkargah, Kunduz, and Kandahar. This divided up Soviet forces into an Eastern and Western corridor stretching from Kabul in the East and the town of Shindand in the West all the up to the Soviet border. The gaps in between had to be filled by military units of the DRA.
In order to protect the retreating troops, the Soviets deployed additional tank and artillery units as well as round-the-clock close-air-support along the routes. The 40th Army also deployed a SCUD missile battalion, a weapon particularly feared by the Mujahedeen. In addition, the Soviets—to the dismay of the Najibullah regime—also negotiated local ceasefires and paid off insurgents not to attack them. This proved very effective and there were only limited attempts from different Mujahedeen groups to interfere with the Soviet retreat.
Nonetheless, while not focusing on the Soviets, the Mujahedeen were launching massive attacks on DRA forces, which had taken over former Soviet garrisons throughout the country. As a result, Najibullah urged the Soviets not to withdraw all troops from the Western corridor, as was the original plan for phase 1, and to maintain a presence in Herat and Shindand. The Soviets complied and evacuated Kunduz instead in order to fulfill the treaty obligations, which stipulated that 50 percent of forces had to be withdrawn by the end of the first phase.
The second phase began in January 1989 in the middle of winter after a two months delay due to consultations between Moscow and the Najibullah regime over what to do to stem the tide of increasing instability in the country. Among other things, Kabul tried to pressure Moscow for the right to request Soviet air support even after the pullout. While Moscow, conceded to many of Najibullah demands, the Soviets wanted to stick to the withdrawal timetable as outlined in the Geneva agreement.
However, as a result of the Afghan communists concerns and despite a safe passage agreement, the Soviets were compelled to attack the forces of Ahmed Shah Masood, who controlled the Panjhir Valley and who was one of the rebel leaders Najibullah feared the most in January 1989. The Soviets flew over 1,000 sorties against Mujahedeen targets, next to conducting hundreds of artillery strikes. This operation, dubbed “Operation Typhoon,” killed over 600 of Masood’s fighters, according to Soviet estimates.
The Soviets eventually withdrew all of the remaining 50,000 soldiers during late January and early February 1989. The last Soviet aircraft left Bagram Airfield on February 3. On February 4, the last ground troops left Kabul. Herat was abandoned and handed over to DRA forces on February 8. The last major Soviet troop contingent crossed the border into the Soviet Union from February 11-14, with the commanding officer of the 40th Army, General Boris Gromov, crossing the border on February 15.
According to General Makhmut A. Gareev, the last senior Soviet military advisor to the DRA Army, the 40th Army transferred around 990 armored vehicles, some 3,000 trucks, 142 artillery pieces, 82 mortars, 43 multiple rocket launchers, 321 air defense systems, over 14,000 small arms, and around 1,706 rocket launchers to the Afghan military. Overall, the Soviets handed over 184 garrisons to DRA military forces.
While the withdrawal was professionally conducted with minimum loss of life and material on the Soviet side, the announcement of an official timetable with the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1988 forced the Soviets to hand over authority in certain provinces prematurely, which created vacuums that could not be filled by the overstretched DRA military and substantially contributed to the insurgents controlling ever larger chunks of terrain, particularly in Eastern Afghanistan.
The withdrawal schedule also emboldened the Soviet Union’s adversaries–chiefly the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–to step up its support for the insurgents. While Moscow threatened Islamabad more than once with the suspension or even the reversal of the withdrawal, the Soviet Union’s strict adherence to timetable made it clear to its opponents that it sought under no circumstances to violate the terms of the Geneva Accords. (Many sources confirm that the Soviet Politburo would have likely withdrawn in 1988/1989 even without the signed Geneva Accords.)
After the end of the withdrawal in February, the Soviets began a massive airlift of weapons and supplies to Kabul in March 1989. In 1990 alone, the Soviet Union supplied the Afghan government with “54 military airplanes, 380 tanks, 865 armored personnel carriers, 680 anti-aircraft guns, 150 R-17 rocket launchers and thousands of tons of fuel,” according to a Russian diplomat.
From the time of its withdrawal until December 1991, the Soviet Union is estimated to have spent $3-4 billion in economic and military aid per year to prop up the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan. Hundreds of military advisors and civilian contractors remained in the country until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the cessation of Moscow’s financial and military support that ultimately doomed Najibullah regime, rather than the extended battlefield successes of the Mujahedeen against government forces.