Echoes of the Soviet Surge
The West's war in Afghanistan increasingly resembles the Soviet Union's.
The war in Afghanistan is not going well. A young president wants to pull out, but is boxed in by his generals. In Kabul, a corrupt, nominally democratic leader is losing his grip on power. A surge of ground troops has begun. The year is 1985.
It was 25 years ago that the Soviet Union experienced the bloodiest year of its occupation of Afghanistan, as the West is today. It was also the moment that Soviet forces there grew to a record 118,000 men — a number ominously close to the 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today. The strategy then was, as it is now, to produce a “surge” that could establish the conditions for withdrawal. Afghanistan’s early spring of 1985 offers a striking parallel with its current season of discontent, and as the U.S. government pushes ahead with its strategy, it would be wise to study how the Soviets failed in fighting and ending their war.
In 1985, Moscow’s mission was less an imperial adventure than an attempt to preserve some measure of dignity before exiting Afghanistan for good. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev swept into office in March 1985 as an agent for change, a politician who claimed he could get the Soviet Union back on track after the serious missteps of his predecessors. Minimizing his country’s involvement in Afghanistan topped his to-do list. Gorbachev had become increasingly impatient with the counterinsurgency against the stubborn U.S.- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen, which was costing the nearly bankrupt Soviet Union an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion a year. He was prepared to finally and decisively change course.
In front of the 27th congress of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in February 1986, Gorbachev owned up to the dire nature of the struggle, referring to Afghanistan as “our bleeding wound.” The delegates authorized him to seek a political solution for the conflict and eventually to end the Soviet presence in the country. But rather than chart an immediate withdrawal, Gorbachev conceived an effort to bolster the pro-Soviet Afghan government by military means.
First, the Soviet leader had to prepare the political ground in Afghanistan. Gorbachev started by breaking the news of an imminent Soviet withdrawal to his Afghan allies. In his initial encounter with Afghan President Babrak Karmal, Gorbachev made clear his determination to end the war: Karmal would have to defend his own country, Gorbachev told him in no uncertain terms, by the summer of 1986.
According to recently disclosed Russian documents, Gorbachev said that Karmal was shocked by this news. “[He] was dumbfounded, in no way expected such a turn, was sure that we needed Afghanistan more than he did, and was clearly expecting that we will be there for a long time, if not forever,” Gorbachev told a meeting of the Politburo in October 1985. Gorbachev decided that the Kremlin’s faltering Afghan allies stood no chance after a Soviet withdrawal unless there was a new face in Kabul’s presidential palace. “The main reason that there has been no national consolidation so far is that Comrade Karmal is hoping to continue sitting in Kabul with our help,” Gorbachev reportedly said of Kabul’s largely ineffective and unpopular ruler. Finally, the Soviet leader put his money on Mohammad Najibullah, the energetic former head of the secret police. On Nov. 21, 1986, Afghanistan witnessed one of the country’s rare peaceful transitions of power when Karmal “voluntarily” left Kabul for Moscow for medical treatment, paving the way for Najibullah’s takeover.
Najibullah took Gorbachev’s message to heart. In a bid to prepare his government to fend for itself, the president launched an all-encompassing national reconciliation policy in 1987. Every Afghan who accepted the principles of reconciliation would be welcome to return home. The insurgents were even offered seats in the government. Constitutional reforms were put on the table that recognized the pivotal role of Islam and established the country’s nonaligned status in the Cold War. The Kabul government’s concessions went so far as to relinquish control over the judicial system to the mullahs. The president clearly was determined to cut a deal.
Gorbachev was also now ready to start laying the groundwork for an orderly Soviet troop withdrawal. The Soviet Union began to invest heavily in the new regime and backed Najibullah’s reconciliation strategy. At this program’s core was a massive buildup of Afghan security forces. In effect, as it prepared for withdrawal, Moscow effectively produced a “surge” of military assistance intended to make the Afghan government more responsible for the battle against insurgents — a strategy that closely resembles the West’s current counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.
As part of this effort, the Red Army provided new military equipment and intensified training of Afghan forces to guarantee the new president’s survival. It left behind more than 180 garrisons, which were handed over to the Afghans in full operational condition. Lester Grau, of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, estimates that the Soviets also transferred to the Afghan government an additional 15,000 tons of ammunition, 3,000 tons of food, and 37,500 tons of fuel. The Soviet Union’s 40th Army also transferred massive supplies of heavy weaponry to its Afghan allies: approximately 990 armored vehicles, 3,000 trucks, 142 pieces of artillery, 231 air defense systems, 14,443 small arms, and 1,706 rocket launchers, according to Grau’s research. In the succeeding years, the Red Army also trained an Afghan army and police force of more than 300,000 people to wield these weapons.
The Soviet Union simultaneously engaged in efforts to create economic opportunities for Afghan civilians. Although some accounts deny that the Russians tried to win Afghan “hearts and minds,” recent research proves differently. An article by Paul Robinson of the University of Ottawa shows that Soviet thinking “evolved” in the conflict’s later years and that by 1987 “many Soviet commanders had come to realize that winning the support of the people was the key to the successful prosecution of the war.” In an office filled with memorabilia from Afghanistan, Victor Yermakov, a former commander of the Soviet 40th Army insisted on reminding me in June 2009 in Moscow that “you can defeat Afghans only with kindness, never by force.”
To the surprise of the CIA (which in 1988 had predicted that the Afghan government “may fall even before the Soviet withdrawal is complete”), Najibullah’s regime remained in power for another three years afterward.
Najibullah’s national reconciliation strategy and his willingness to cede political power to regional power brokers proved crucial for his survival, at least in the short term. The prospect of a fundamentalist takeover motivated Najibullah’s soldiers, and early military victories, such as the defeat of a mujahideen offensive against the eastern city of Jalalabad, further boosted their morale. (Of course, without the Soviet Union’s continuous supply of funds and military equipment, Najibullah’s regime would have collapsed much earlier. On a daily basis, the Soviets were flying between 25 and 40 flights to Kabul with supplies for the Afghan army.)
But even generous funding was not able to substitute for a core of motivated officers and soldiers. Najibullah’s military collapsed precipitously and definitively in 1991 as Gorbachev, who was preoccupied with managing the dissolution of the Soviet Union and fighting off coup attempts from Communist Party hard-liners, finally cut off its funding and withdrew Soviet military advisors from the country. As the mujahideen converged on Kabul in April 1992, Najibullah was forced to seek refuge in a U.N. compound. The Taliban, when they captured the city in 1996, dragged the former president from his makeshift home and executed him.
The Kremlin had no illusions about the long-term prospects for the regime it left behind. Afghanistan was still in the midst of a civil war, and the president, who had a history of human rights abuses as former head of the secret police, was acting ruthlessly in Kabul. The main problem, indeed, was the government’s lack of popular support. Although the regime still enjoyed some backing from the secular elite in Kabul and among Afghanistan’s Tajik and Uzbek minorities in the north, it never earned broader legitimacy.
Still, the gruesome end of Najibullah’s government conceals some of the notable successes of Gorbachev’s late “Afghanization” surge. Although the Red Army was unable to achieve a military victory over the insurgents, it was able to ensure, after its February 1989 withdrawal, that the Afghan government survived for another three years — outliving, ultimately, the Soviet Union itself, which dissolved in 1991.
The main take-away from the Soviet endgame for today’s NATO forces is less than rosy — namely, that an effective and able Afghan army is not sufficient to stabilize Afghanistan’s political system. An insurgency can survive and thrive if Kabul is in disarray. That said, the Soviet experience also casts some aspects of today’s effort in less-despairing light. The Red Army was largely successful in its effort to achieve one of the main goals the West has set out for itself: building an effective Afghan army. And even if the daily news from Afghanistan might suggest differently, conditions today are much more favorable than during the end of the Cold War. Indeed, while the mujahideen profited tremendously from U.S. and Pakistani aid, the Taliban today have no comparable international patron.
Finally, today’s Afghan government possesses a crucial advantage that Najibullah’s government lacked — a nascent, if flawed, democratic process that can be used to bolster its support among the Afghan population. Despite inefficient institutions and widespread corruption, Afghan citizens still turn out during elections to cast their vote. If their voices and desires are attended to, they could provide the political capital needed to ensure that the U.S. experience in Afghanistan has a different ending than that of the Soviet Union.