On April 14, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, bringing an end to a nearly 20-year war. It was not the first time a foreign power has announced a military withdrawal from Afghanistan after a long, and inconclusive, war. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. war in Afghanistan has attracted parallels — some artful and others not — to the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in the country. Now the goodbye has begun for Washington, it’s worth revising Moscow’s own departure from Afghanistan, if only to accurately hold the history in our minds as we assess the current situation.
Artemy M. Kalinovsky, a professor of Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet studies at Temple University and author of the 2011 book “A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan” in the following interview with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz brings us back to the Soviet withdrawal and explains both how the Soviet Union became engaged in Afghanistan and ultimately why it decided to depart.
On December 24, 1979, Soviet troops began crossing into Afghanistan. What precipitated the Soviet Union’s decision to invade?
We have to back up to April 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power. The president of Afghanistan, Mohammed Daoud, had tried to arrest the party leaders, but they were able to mobilize their supporters in the military and turn the tables on Daoud. As far as we know, the Soviets had neither promoted a change of power nor had foreseen these events, although of course once the PDPA came to power the USSR pledged its support. Privately, however, they were worried about the PDPA’s radical proposals and, more importantly, the incessant infighting between party factions and individual figures. The first serious armed uprising took place less than a year later, and the PDPA leadership requested Soviet intervention. The Politburo debated sending in troops and decided against it. They didn’t want to lose Afghanistan, which has been a friendly state for most of the USSR’s existence. But they also didn’t want to go in and fight against a popular uprising, they didn’t want to be seen as aggressors, they didn’t want to undermine their détente with the U.S.
But over the course of 1979 a number of things changed: the infighting within the PDPA got even worse, resistance to the regime was growing, Soviet relations with the U.S. were more tense. And then there was the Iranian revolution. The Shah, a U.S. ally, was overthrown. Moscow’s concern was this: If the U.S. loses in Iran, will Washington try to make up for this loss in Afghanistan, taking advantage of the unrest there? When the first secretary of the PDPA, Mohammed Taraki, was killed by his deputy, Hafizullah Amin, in September of that year, it was more or less the last straw. There were some concerns that Amin might even be a U.S. spy, though he almost certainly was not. Basically, the top decision makers in Moscow became convinced their only choice if they didn’t want to “lose” Afghanistan was to replace Amin with a more moderate leader, and then provide support to Afghanistan’s military so it can go out and fight insurgents.
Can you summarize the Soviet Union’s objectives for invading Afghanistan?
The USSR’s objectives were to stabilize Afghanistan by putting in a more moderate leadership that would stop infighting in the PDPA and stop alienating the country’s population, and also to free up Afghanistan’s military to go out and fight the insurgency where it flared up. It seems that they believed in the beginning that they could largely stay out of the fighting themselves, focusing instead of guarding bases and infrastructure, providing training and advisory services, and so on. But support for the PDPA in the military did not run very deep, and very soon Soviet troops ended up taking a leading role in operations. They also hoped to stop the flow of arms from Pakistan, but this proved impossible to do. At the same time, Soviet officials hoped that they could win over the population by improving governance, providing economic aid, and helping the PDPA carry out propaganda work. Ultimately, it was a fairly classic colonial counterinsurgency, and it didn’t work very well.
After nearly a decade at war in Afghanistan, in May 1988 the Soviet Union began to withdraw. What motivated the Soviet Union’s ultimate decision to leave Afghanistan at that time? Had the Soviet Union achieved its mission there?
When Mikhail Gorbachev became first secretary in 1985, he made getting out of Afghanistan a top priority. It’s not that the war was necessarily all that costly to the USSR, but Soviet intervention didn’t seem to have accomplished much, even as it had made its foreign policy much more difficult. Gorbachev wanted better relations with the U.S. and Europe, and he knew that would be hard if the Soviet Union stayed in Afghanistan. But his first instinct was to try to get it right – he supported a change of leadership in Kabul, a military surge, and more energetic efforts to reconcile insurgent leaders to the PDPA.
Simultaneously Gorbachev tried to negotiate with Washington and Islamabad: stop the flow of arms to the resistance, and we’ll pull out. But the U.S. and Pakistan insisted they would only stop supporting the resistance when the USSR stopped supporting the government in Kabul. It was only after 1987 that Gorbachev and some of the reformers he brought in became convinced that there really was no way to win the war, and no chance of getting the Americans to stop supporting the resistance. So they decided to withdraw, hoping that by showing the USSR was serious about ending the conflict that eventually Washington and Islamabad will not only stop providing arms to the resistance but push the resistance leaders into a coalition government. That didn’t happen.
How was the Soviet Union’s decision to withdraw perceived by the government it had installed in Kabul, led by Mohammad Najibullah, and external actors, such as the United States and Pakistan?
In the U.S. and Pakistan there was a lot of distrust of Soviet intentions, even as U.S.-American relations on the whole were improving. The U.S., Soviet Union, Pakistan, and Afghanistan signed the Geneva Accords in April 1988, according to which Pakistan and Afghanistan pledged not to interfere in each other’s affairs, and the U.S. and USSR acted as guarantors. But the U.S. insisted it had the right to continue supplying the resistance – via Pakistan – at a level comparable to Soviet support for the government in Kabul. It does nothing to try to push the resistance to compromise, in part because Islamabad is resistant to do so, and in part because no one believes the Najibullah government can last long without Soviet troops (though it does, until April 1992).
Najibullah did not panic – he apparently felt fairly confident that he could hang on to power as long as Moscow continued to provide arms and cash and maintain some advisers in the country. He increasingly turned to arming militias to fight on behalf of the government, and he would pay them with resources he got from Moscow. It was only when post-Soviet Russia pulled out its last advisers in 1992 that he apparently called the Russians traitors.
In light of the United States’ decision to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by September 2021, some will try to draw parallels to the Soviet withdrawal. Is that comparison valid? What, if anything, does the Soviet withdrawal suggest when it comes to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?
The most important question is: What does this mean for Afghanistan? Najibullah outlasted the USSR when few observers thought he could last without Soviet troops. Ashraf Ghani might be able to as well. But does that mean peace, after 40 years of civil war and foreign interventions? Or does it mean a new phase of civil war, with indirect foreign involvement? Right now the latter seems more likely.
Another question is this: What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy? When Barack Obama was elected back in 2008 there was an expectation that he would pull the U.S. out of Afghanistan. At the time I thought that there were some interesting parallels between Obama and Gorbachev in terms of how they inherited the war, what they wanted to do, and how the war acted as a drag on their broader reform agendas. And Obama, like Gorbachev, wanted to give the military a chance to show it could finish the job before pulling out. But of course, in the end Obama did not pull out, and neither did Trump.
I think this has in part to do with the different ways that the USSR and the U.S. behave on the world stage. Both countries hoped to remake the world in their own image, but the Soviet Union was ultimately much more conservative and defensive. It supported revolutionary movements and friendly governments, but intervened directly only when it perceived a security threat. But the withdrawal from Afghanistan – and the public debate about the Soviet role in Afghanistan – opened up a wider discussion about the Soviet role in the world.
The U.S. is different than the USSR in that it intervenes more readily. Especially after the Cold War and then 9/11, the idea that the U.S. can and should intervene around the world to both change the world and secure its own interests took hold pretty firmly. There now seems to be some momentum to challenge that, and not just from the left. It will be interesting to see what role the withdrawal from Afghanistan, if any, plays in debates on U.S. foreign policy more generally.