25 Years After Soviet Withdrawal, Weighing a “Zero Option” in Afghanistan

A stunning vista in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border in 2010.

A stunning vista in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border in 2010.

I spent 31 months of my life deployed with the Army in Afghanistan, and I can’t say that I’m in any hurry to deploy again. A lot of American men and women have spent even more time than I did there, and after nearly 13 years, more than $700 billion spent, and 2,215 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, it is wise for Americans to think hard about what our country should be doing next. But I also think our preparations for a potential “zero option” of withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014 should be tempered by remembering the full withdrawal of Soviet forces 25 years ago this month.

There is no quick and easy summary of the American experience in Afghanistan since 2001, just as there is also no short version of the Soviet occupation from December 1979 to February 1989. And the focus on military operations can be a sort of tunnel-vision that excludes the critical view of the Afghans who have experienced over more than three decades of nearly constant warfare. This is not an academic article or a work of long-form journalism; this is simply a personal blog post to offer some thoughts on American withdrawal in the long shadow of the Soviet withdrawal. Here are those thoughts:

A view of U.S. equipment being readied to ship home from Balkh province--and it was in 1989 that Soviets completed their withdrawal from Balkh province, at the Hairaton Gate, a short ways north of here

A view of U.S. equipment being readied to ship home from Balkh province in 2012. In 1989, the Soviets completed their withdrawal from Balkh province’s Hairatan Gate, a short distance north of here.

The U.S. War is Pretty Different from the Soviet War. While there are many similarities between the Soviet enterprise in Afghanistan and the American experience, the conflicts have not been the same. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Soviets was the mass of land mines they planted to deny the mujahedin fighters, and the villages that supported them, access to open land. More than 95% of Soviet land mines were planted in fields, orchards, and grazing land. Between a third to a half of the victims of these land mines (which continue today at a rate of 40 Afghans killed by land mines per month) are children. A substantive point of contrast with current-day operations is that the U.S. has funded large-scale de-mining efforts, as well as military Agribusiness Development Teams whose stated objective is to restore farmland destroyed during these years. If the U.S. pulls out all forces today, we would leave Afghanistan a far better place to live than what it was in either 1989 or 2001. But the progress that has been made is still fragile, and could be overturned.

When War Causes Refugees, Refugees May Later Cause War. The latter years of the Soviet war brought a surge in forces, and the aggressive campaigns of Soviet forces caused a spike in refugees. A powerful description of this is in Tamim Ansary’s excellent history of Afghanistan, Games Without Rules:

The first year of Gorbachev’s tenure proved to be the bloodiest, most horrific period of the war in Afghanistan. It was in this year that the Soviet military adopted its genocidal plan to depopulate the Afghan countryside as its strategy for victory. In this year, Soviet carpet bombing laid irreparable waste to that universe of tribal village republics that was the old Afghanistan. It was then that the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan and Iran, already vast, swelled past six million–and Afghanistan had only twenty million people when the war began. In an age of refugees, Afghans became the world’s largest refugee population. The destruction of Afghanistan did not come at the hands of a mighty superpower at the arrogant height of its power: Afghanistan was destroyed by a dying dragon flailing its spiked tail in final agony.

All told, a total of 50% of rural villages were destroyed by the Soviets, and it was from the broken families and communities of the refugee camps that hardliners recruited thousands of hopeless young boys into their extremist madrassas, offering free room and board, and a seeming education. This army of young boys soon grew up to become the Taliban. I’ve written before about how one generation’s war can very well propagate the next generation’s, a refugee crisis being a principal mechanism for this. The vast majority of Afghan refugees that followed the Soviet era have returned during the American era. This is a good thing. But as the U.S. eyes a pullout, that critical gain is slowly beginning to reverse itself. A descent into civil war and violence will only worsen this, and create new problems in the long run. In addition to ruining the lives of innocent people.

The Soviets Left Behind a Credible President. Dr. Najibullah, who in his earlier life had qualified as a doctor, emerged as a Communist party leader, and became spy chief of a KGB-trained agency–was perhaps not left in an ideal position in 1989, but he showed a clear understanding of what was happening in Afghanistan, and ardently pursued solutions. A month before his government fell, Najibullah appealed to the United States:

“We have a common task, Afghanistan, the United States of America, and the civilized world, to launch a joint struggle against fundamentalism,” Najibullah told the New York Times, and described what he thought would happen to his country if Islamic extremists took power in Kabul. “If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many more years. Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.”

He implored the leaders of other nations to support the efforts he had been making toward national reconciliation since before the Soviet departure. He had sought to bring together leaders of the mujahedin factions (supported in the 1980s by the U.S.) and other tribal and regional leaders. He voiced his support for a United Nations plan to involve other nations in the effort to bring warring factions together, even if it meant for him to step down from power. Other nations did not heed his call, including Russia. In later years, a former head of the KGB would write:

“We betrayed Najibullah. … Today it is clear that exactly at the moment where Afghanistan was close to a political solution – at least partly, Russia’s recognition of the Afghan resistance dealt a fatal blow to the Kabul government. The end is well known. Russia did not only lose a friend but also its capabilities to influence developments in the region.”

After spending years imprisoned in a UN compound after the mujahedin toppled his government, Najibullah was executed by the Taliban. The situation in 2014 is radically different, and the presidential election this April has the potential to bring forward a leader with a popular mandate. But. Without a solid military force to contend with a skilled, armed insurgency, that president could in the end prove as vulnerable as Najibullah.

The Soviets Left Behind an Afghan Military, Too. The Afghan Air Force that the Soviets left behind was robust and considered their greatest success. The Soviets left behind a strong Afghan army, but the withdrawal of funding after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 also ended the purchasing of fuel for Afghan military vehicles and aircraft, as well as paychecks for troops. Mujahedin fighters  had waged brutal battles against the Afghan military, and by April 1992 demanded the surrender of Kabul by the Afghan army. The Afghan military was entirely defeated and disbanded in 1992. A bunch of the Afghan National Army (ANA) officers I worked with had served in the military trained and left behind by the Soviets. One of them admitted to me that he still knew more Russian than English. But even though there may be some of the same people, the Afghan military of 1989 and of today have some pretty big differences. Today’s ANA is a tremendous success story, and in a survey last year, 88% of Afghans expressed confidence in the ANA. That is good news. But the Afghan Air Force, although it has made substantive gains, yet remains lacking critical capabilities–most notably, it lacks adequate ability to provide air support for ground troops. In a frustrated political maneuver, President Karzai declared just two weeks ago that NATO (and U.S.) forces would no longer be permitted to provide air support for ANA ground troops. A week later, 21 ANA soldiers were killed in a raid by insurgents, the heaviest loss by Afghan forces in several years. Afghan forces have made tremendous gains in recent years, and have a great opportunity to succeed. But despite their strengths, they remain vulnerable without the right resources and support in place.

The Soviets Seemed to Understand Afghanistan Only in Hindsight. The Soviets entered Afghanistan in 1979 under the auspices of stabilizing the Afghan government and solidifying the ruling legitimacy of the Afghan Communist party, which had support in Kabul and other urban areas, but heavy resistance to the forced modernization of Communist ideologies remained across rural Afghanistan. Soviet advisers were sent into all levels of the Afghan government and military, prepared with a week of training, plus whatever reading materials the adviser chose to read on his own. The Soviets took decision-making into their own hands, took sides in the divisions within the Afghan government and Communist party, and eventually found themselves at war with much of Afghanistan’s religiously and culturally conservative rural population. A former Soviet marshal reported:

About 99 percent of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan were won by our side. The problem is that the next morning there is the same situation as if there had been no battle. The terrorists are again in the village where they were — or we thought they were — destroyed a day or so before.

Much went into the Soviet defeat, however, and it’s unfair to draw exact parallels. But we would be wise to realize that our understanding of Afghanistan has been limited. A friend and fellow blogger Rebecca Zimmerman states this succinctly:

Had we built the institutions of Afghanistan’s government from the beginning and trusted them with the work of reconstruction, the country might have become a true partner. Had we transferred only technology and equipment that Afghans could reasonably maintain themselves, they might not have seen us as breeding dependence. Had we been a bit more open about our failings and demanded better for Afghanistan, we would have fired our own generals for their incompetence. Had we waged a conflict around the concept of protection – of civilian life, of livelihoods, of land – there might not have been any instability to build a narrative upon.

It’s too late now to build the trust of the Afghans who believe that our purpose is to keep them weak and in disarray.  But what we can do now is show some understanding of this narrative, and some respect for the Afghans who navigate the toughest geopolitical waters in the world.

This is a lot, and touches only some of the complexity of the Soviet and American wars in Afghanistan, or the perspectives of Afghans themselves. I say all of this with tremendous respect for all involved in making the best of difficult missions, of those who have worked hard to bridge the gap of cultural understanding, and those who have risked their lives to help and defend others. This is also not to express pessimism about Afghanistan’s future, which I still believe can be a bright one. But I do believe, as I have for a long time now, that Americans would do better to look beyond the oversimplifications that are all too common in our war-weary national discussion of Afghanistan and press our elected officials to commit to helping Afghans achieve positive outcomes not just in 2014 but well beyond. The Soviet enterprise in Afghanistan proved a disaster, but the American enterprise need not end with similar collapse and enduring tragedy.

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