13 February, 17:37

Soviet-Afghan War lesson: political problems never settled by force

Soviet-Afghan War lesson: political problems never settled by force

25 years ago, the almost 10-year long deployment of the limited contingent of Soviet forces in Afghanistan drew to a close. Experts have since been at variance about the assessment of the Afghan campaign, but they invariably agree that it was the biggest-scale (and actually quite ambiguous, obviously for that reason) foreign policy action throughout the post-war history of the Soviet Union.

The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15th 1989 as part of the Soviet 40th Army, which was the backbone of the limited contingent. The Soviet troops withdrew under the command of the 40th Army legendary commander, Lieutenant-General Boris Gromov. He managed to brilliantly carry out the withdrawal, with the US now trying to use his experience to more or less decently pull out of Afghanistan following the more than 20 years of actually useless occupation of that country. This is what an expert with the Centre for Modern Afghan Studies, Nikita Mendkovich, says about it in a comment.

"The Americans will have to rely heavily on intercontinental delivery means, because the troops are being evacuated to another region, to another continent. Back in 1989, it was largely a ground-force operation. The Soviet troops pulled out by land via Central Asia. The basic problem of any operation of this kind is security. Huge masses of troops and a great number of military vehicles are moving along the roads, so they should be guaranteed against likely attacks. To attain the objective, one can either reinforce local garrisons that will remain deployed in Afghanistan after the pull-out of the bulk of the troops and will cover the withdrawal, or reach agreement with the enemy not to attack the leaving troops, because this is not in the enemy’s interests".

There are both similarities and numerous differences between the Soviet and American campaigns in Afghanistan. The main difference is that the Soviet Union did manage to achieve its goal, whereas with the United States it is no go. The Soviet troops were to render assistance to the Afghan government in settling the home policy situation. Secondly, the Soviet troops were to prevent external aggression. Both objectives were fully attained.

The Soviet political leadership felt that the revolution of April 1978 had no right to lose. Ideological reasoning was reinforced by geopolitical considerations. This predetermined Moscow’s decision to send troops, says editor-in-chief of the National Defence magazine, Igor Korotchenko, and elaborates.

"The Afghan campaign was inevitable if seen from the perspective of defending the Soviet Union’s national interests. It may seem odd, but Afghans are still nostalgic about the times when Soviet troops were deployed in their country. Even former field commanders can’t help but show some sort of liking for the Soviet Union, for the Soviet Army. We were no invaders; we helped build a new Afghanistan. The Soviet troops built tunnels, ensured the operation of water-supply systems, planted trees, built schools and hospitals, and also production facilities. The Soviet troops were indeed performing their international duty, they accomplished quite a feat. When the Soviet troops pulled out, Najibullah had a strong Afghan Army under his command. He remained in control of the situation in Afghanistan for 12 or 18 months. His regime fell when the Soviet Union cut short its material supply for Kabul. The current Afghan regime of Karzai will certainly prove short-lived; it’s no more than a phantom. The US troops will hardly pull out with their heads held high, the way the Soviet soldiers did".

But then, some people disagree that all Afghans were happy about the Soviet military presence. The Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin pointed out the danger of the Soviet troops getting drawn into guerrilla warfare. He said in late 1979 that the invasion of Afghanistan "would trigger drastically negative many-sided consequences". "This would essentially become a conflict not only with imperialist countries, but a conflict with the proper Afghan people. Now, people never forgive things like that", Kosygin warned, and proved correct. This is what the chairman of the Common Afghan Centre in St. Petersburg, Naim Gol Mohammed, says about it in a comment.

"The people of Afghanistan have their own traditions, mentality and culture. The belligerent Pashtun tribes have never taken orders from anyone. These tribes never take to foreign troops. The locals revolted against the Soviet troops. The Soviet troop withdrawal in 1989 was followed by a period of anarchy. Government agencies were non-operational. The Soviet Union supplied Afghanistan with whatever was required quite well. But once the Soviet troops were out, the supplies were brought to a halt. That was bad. But the Soviet Union made the right decision, for it is impossible to defeat Afghans on their own soil".

Quite a few experts insist that however tragic or pointless the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan may seem, it had largely influenced the shaping of the new Russia’s optimal foreign policy. Moscow is perfectly aware today that no use of force can help resolve political problems, that these can only have a negotiated settlement. Moscow is trying to put the idea across to the main geopolitical players today. This is the most important lesson that should be learned from what experience the Soviet Union gained in Afghanistan.

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