Obama’s Russian lessons: How the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan

Twenty years ago, the Soviet Union’s client regime in Afghanistan was starting to unravel.

For two years, Mohammed Najibullah, the latest leader the Soviets had helped install, had been trying to keep his country together without the Soviet 40th Army — relying on a combination of crack troops, Soviet weaponry, patronage, and the divisions and overconfidence of his enemies. His tenacity had even impressed President George H.W. Bush, who in mid-1990 told U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar that “I was dead wrong about Najibullah; I thought he would fall when the Soviet troops withdrew.” But with the Soviet Union itself crumbling and crucial financial support for Kabul drying up, Afghanistan’s prospects of emerging as a semblance of a stable state were beginning to look hopeless.

The cliches about Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires — an ungovernable mix of ethnic groups, tribes and harsh terrain where conquering armies find themselves lost and unable to fight committed insurgents — are familiar and perhaps too fatalistic. Even so, as President Obama approaches the initial July 2011 deadline that he set a year and a half ago to begin scaling down forces in Afghanistan, he and his advisers would do well to look back on how the Soviets grappled with their own decision to withdraw from their decade-long war in that country.

Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachevmade leaving Afghanistan a priority as soon as he became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 — but three years later, more than 100,000 Soviet troops were still there. Records of Politburo discussions show a pattern of deadlines set and then abandoned; one or two more years and then we’re out, Gorbachev insisted in 1985. He said the same in 1986 and again in 1987.

Gorbachev may have disagreed with his predecessors’ decision to intervene in Afghanistan in the first place, but he was committed to preserving the Soviet Union’s great-power status. He did not have the chauvinistic or xenophobic patriotism of some of his colleagues, but Gorbachev did believe in the achievements of the Soviet Union and the promise of socialism. He viewed the Afghan war through this prism and could not countenance, at least in his early years in power, the notion of defeat. Certainly, there were real security considerations as well — Afghanistan was the Soviets’ southern neighbor, after all — but the collapse of central authority in Kabul would make the Soviet Union look like a poor ally indeed: all those years of fighting, only to abandon ship.

Throughout the occupation, Soviet leaders launched a series of initiatives aimed at helping their Afghan allies stand on their own feet — to gain domestic and international legitimacy and to develop the wherewithal to fight off insurgent campaigns. This would in turn allow the Soviets to withdraw honorably. Each effort was announced with great fanfare, implemented and eventually found wanting.

Years of economic and development aid — employing thousands of Soviet specialists and costing billions of rubles — were found to have been largely wasted because of poor planning and corruption, and programs were pared back. The advisers the Soviet Union had placed at every level of the Afghan government, military and ruling party were doing the Afghans’ work for them, rather than developing competent and independent bureaucratic cadres, and Gorbachev withdrew them. Ambassadors were changed, generals shuffled, military strategies adjusted. Special forces were used with increasing frequency, and there was an effort to push the Afghan military into taking a more prominent role in operations — an effort made more difficult because Soviet officers often didn’t trust the Afghans.

And early in 1987, the Afghans announced a “policy of national reconciliation,” advocated and planned by Soviet officials, in the hope of facilitating some accommodation between the communist government, its various political opponents and insurgents. Soviet representatives even sought out top mujaheddin leaders and conducted meetings with them.

But by the fall of 1987, Gorbachev and many of his top advisers thought that none of their efforts to salvage Afghanistan were going to work. Their last hope was an agreement with the United States that would at least stop American aid to the mujaheddin while letting Moscow continue to supply Kabul with arms. (A deal was eventually reached but proved too vague to be effective.) At this point, though, Moscow had lost faith in being able to achieve anything in Afghanistan, and senior Soviet officials seemed to be mentally preparing for Najibullah’s defeat.

Today, the Obama White House seems to be going through a similar process regarding its own Afghan war. Recent books and news reports about the administration’s decision-making reveal that the president came to office well aware that Afghanistan had been neglected at the expense of the war in Iraq and was sliding into chaos. And since then, the administration’s debates and initiatives echo the Soviets’ in the waning years of their conflict.

From pretending the Taliban was a spent force, the United States has moved to talks not just with minor commanders but with the group’s leadership. The appointment of the late ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was reminiscent of Gorbachev’s appointment of veteran diplomat Yulii Vorontsov as a sort of Afghanistan factotum. And an early small-footprint approach has given way to a troop surge through which the U.S. military — with decreasing NATO support — is hoping to break the back of the insurgency, even as the date that a reliable Afghan army will be ready moves further into the future.

A cynic might say that Obama has doubled down in Afghanistan because he is afraid of domestic criticism should that country collapse on his watch. And Gorbachev’s concerns about how failure in Afghanistan could be used against him no doubt figured into his calculations as well. Yet it is likely that, for both men, worries about defeat centered on what it would mean for their country’s power and prestige. Like the Soviet Union, the United States is not just a country but an idea and a mission; like Gorbachev, Obama wants to fulfill rather than discredit his country’s promise.

What enabled Gorbachev to ultimately withdraw the troops — and to do so with almost no domestic opposition — was the shared realization that all policies had failed and that if peace were to come to Afghanistan, the Afghans themselves would have to make it happen, with Moscow playing only a supporting role.

I suspect that any remaining optimism about the Afghan war is fading within the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the deadlines have shifted: 2014 seems like the real date for a drawdown, rather than this summer. When this administration or another one decides to withdraw, it will not be because the war is too costly but because it no longer makes sense. At that point, perhaps, the president will say, as Gorbachev did to his colleagues: “We are not going to save the regime. We’ve already transformed it.” It is worth remembering that for a while, at least, the regime did manage to hold out on its own. As for the Soviet withdrawal, it was a popular move, perhaps the last uncontroversial and universally well-received decision Gorbachev made in the Soviet Union’s twilight years.

By Artemy Kalinovsky, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and the author of A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal From Afghanistan.

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