Through roundtable discussions, interviews, and other publications, the thirty-year anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan has recently being commemorated in Russia. It is worth highlighting though, that the entry into Afghanistan of a ‘limited contingent’ was only discretely noted if at all.
The question of whether it was necessary to enter Afghanistan has thus not been decisively answered. An expert in Afghan affairs, Aleksandr Umnov, commented on the viewpoint, according to which inserting troops into Afghanistan was seen an ‘oversight’, stupid, and even a provocation. He has described such judgements as ‘axiomatic’. He is of the opinion, rather, that the Soviet entry was “a logical consequence of the course of the political authority and ideology that was prevalent at that time in the USSR”. However, between both of these judgements there is no fundamental contradiction, since what was called an ‘oversight’ was really the inevitable Soviet ideological and strategic approach at that time.
The ‘Afghan’ who was in command of the division, General Aleksandr Lyakhovsky, wrote that “by inserting troops into Afghanistan, our politics have overstepped the permissible bounds of confrontation in the third world”. I assume his analysis to be correct and I would also add that the confrontation was not limited to the third world. The refusal of 60 governments to participate in the Moscow Olympics became a symbol of the confrontation. We might consider this boycott a form of testing ground for the sanctions that were to be imposed upon Russia in the second half of the 21st century. In addition to this, the USSR was declared to be the aggressor by the global Muslim Ummah.
In contemporary Russia, the question about the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan has become deeply politicised. For example, Duma Deputies are pushing to reverse a decision made by the second Congress of People’s Deputies, which declared it to be a crime. Simultaneously, the presidential administration remains silent on the matter. It has become highly fashionable to justify Soviet actions on the grounds of the machinations of the Americans, something that correlates with present-day politics and official ideology.
It has been common for some to draw similarities between the situation as it was in Afghanistan and that in present-day Syria. In my opinion, the practicalities share only a little common ground. However, according to official explanations, parallels can be drawn between both: in both cases, the protection of national interests and the fulfilment of an ‘international duty’ are being declared, only with Syria it is called something slightly different. Furthermore, there is a present ‘war against extremism and terrorism’. Here we could suspect the continuity of Soviet identity, which the Russian ruling class does not intend to relinquish.
Arguably, the US was not particularly opposed to the insertion of troops into Afghanistan. The Americans were more concerned by the Iranian Islamic revolution, and they thought that a Soviet military presence would be a deterrent to its spread.
Politics surrounding Afghanistan has always been turbulent. In his work, The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski characterised Afghanistan as an example of a “classic geopolitical centre.” After the Second World War, however, Afghanistan was declared to be a zone of Soviet interests, akin to a “Muslim Finland.”
Despite the aforementioned Olympic boycott, the world responded relatively calmly to the entry of this ‘limited contingent’. Of course, many countries, including the US and China, provided the Mujahideen with military and technological aid. However, this should not be exaggerated. It is not only external support for the resistance that determined the nature and outcome of the military action. At various stages of the war, the balance tipped back and forth from one side to the other. It is worth noting that even in 1986, when the progress of Soviet troops appeared to be most impressive, 70% of Afghan territory was under Mujahideen control.
I would like to stress that the many mistakes made during the course of war were the effects of the politics of the time rather than the military: “The most important national and historical factors were not always taken into account, nor were the existing possibilities for neutralising attitudes that were hostile towards us from a significant proportion of the population fully utilised”. This quote is taken out of the ‘official’ book titled, Heroic and patriotic instructions for the military during the fulfilment of military duties in Afghanistan. Considering that this is an authoritative source, this is a candid admission.
It cannot be emphasised enough that professional soldiers were against the invasion of Afghanistan. The army was simply not prepared for a lengthy guerrilla war in the mountains. Fighting in this kind of terrain is far from simple. This also goes to show that Moscow had clearly not learnt from America’s experience in Vietnam.
Much later, in 1994, some experienced generals publicly opposed the deployment of the Soviet army in Chechnya. Among them were the last Commander of the 40th Army, Boris Gromov; former First Deputy Commander, Georgy Kondratyev; and General Eduard Vorobyev. They recounted how Russia’s Defence Minister at the time, Pavel Grachev, who was well-known for his promise to take Grozny with one battalion, was also opposed.
Exactly when the Kremlin began to realise that the Soviet Union had arrived at an ‘Afghan stalemate’ is difficult to say. Between 1981 and 1982, doubts had already begun to fester amongst Soviet politicians – albeit not of the highest echelons – and also amongst diplomats serving in the East. These doubts concerned the necessity of getting out of Afghanistan but these concerns were not loudly aired. In 1984, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, allegedly uttered the immortal words: “We have to end this.” It is not hard to believe the credibility of this utterance but the end was still far away.
At the end of the 1980s, Gorbachev decided to withdraw Soviet troops. In 1986, at the XXVII Congress of the CPSU, the General Secretary gave a report regarding the initiation of a step-by-step plan to withdraw troops. The actual withdrawal, which only took place in February 1989, was both necessary and inevitable because the Soviet Union was no longer able to fight. The war was inconceivably costly; estimates vary from 3.5 billion to 8.2 billion dollars per year. The losses also measured at 15,000 killed, more than 53,000 wounded, and more than 11,000 permanently maimed.
It had been a failure. General Gromov claimed that his army had never lost a war and I concur with this. Rather, it is the politicians who conceded, by paying for their own mistakes with the lives of soldiers and officers.
We may busy ourselves with the question of what the Afghan war brought the government. To mention the positive outcomes, the army gained military experience, its military readiness was improved, and new types of weaponry had been tested. Conversely, it must be admitted at this point that the Afghan experience proved insufficient preparation for the first Chechen campaign. Still more, throughout the Georgian ‘blitzkrieg’ in 2008, military readiness was not always at its highest. Regardless, in some way or another something positive was gained.
It seems that there were many more negative consequences, however, both for the government and for society at large. Firstly, let us remember how the USSR’s collapse was hastened , beginning with what has been called the Afghan syndrome. I do not consider it all that necessary to recount exactly what this syndrome is and there stands only one viable connection to this concept. The Kazakh publishing house Kaziss: Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, published a series of books titled Memories from the flames of Afghanistan, consisting of interviews with Soviet soldiers and officers who fought there. Afghan syndrome can be exhibited clearly in the following typical statements, selected randomly from the memoirs: “I feel no nostalgia for my service in Afghanistan”; “they never asked our opinions”; “when I remember it, my head begins to ache”.
Secondly, the withdrawal of Soviet troops was not fully thought through. Moscow has been accused of leaving its faithful ally, President Najibullah, in the lurch. He fought until the end before his defeat and execution orchestrated by the Taliban. I agree that this may rightfully be considered treason. I wonder what would have happened had the Shuravi continued to fight for Najibullah against the Taliban, who were gathering strength.
A product of the chaos in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996 was a new phase in Afghan history. Pakistan had contributed to the organisation of the Taliban movement, but the soil of its victory was ploughed and fertilised by Soviet foreign policy. The Taliban is in some sense the delayed result of Soviet politics in Afghanistan.
The Taliban might sometimes be considered the Mujahideen’s successors but it most important to recognise that they are part of a global Islamist movement. Even if it were still theoretically possible to defeat the Mujahideen it would absolutely not have been so with the Taliban. Hence the inevitability of communications and discussions with them.
In 2007, the then president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai proposed such talks and asked the king of Saudi Arabia to act as mediator. At that time, neither Moscow nor Washington supported the motion. The US Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, George Krol, put forward deliberately unfulfillable conditions to the Taliban: the surrender of weapons; adoption of a peaceful life; and also recognition of the rule of the Constitution and president.
Today, talks are still being held in two locations, one in Qatar and one in Moscow. While it is not necessary to speculate as to what conclusions they will reach, what is crucial is that they imply recognition of the Taliban’s legitimacy and an a priori agreement to their participation in the future administration.
“In the history of its study, there is still no single answer to the question regarding the nature of that war; a war between a limited contingent of Soviet troops, the Kabul government, and a significant portion of the Afghan people,” remarked political scientist Aleksandr Knyazev. On reflection, it is likely that such an answer will simply never be reached. That is to say, each will have their own answer.
Perhaps it is necessary that a final answer is reached, at least so that dangerous past mistakes are not repeated and justified. In the justification of such mistakes lies the threat and risk that similar actions will be repeated. While each person has their own subjective judgement it is professional specialists rather than demagogues who believe that the Afghan ‘episode’ was a mistake, albeit one that was embedded into Soviet political logic. The present author subscribes to that viewpoint.
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