The war before the war: Soviet precedent in Afghanistan

Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) Roderic Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (London: Profile Books, 2011) Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011) The idea that history ...


Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Roderic Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (London: Profile Books, 2011)

Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)

The idea that history offers lessons for the present is uncontroversial and common to the point of cliché.  Yet, American foreign policy decisions often proceed with barely a look to the past.  And so we were informed in 2009 by then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, likely to return as a fixture in future Democratic administrations, "[T]here’s absolutely no valid comparison between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan" and the U.S.-led campaign to enable the Afghan people to "reclaim their country."  Is that so? 

In her award-winning book about the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances FitzGerald states:

Americans ignore history, for them everything has always seemed new under the sun….Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge of it as representatives for all mankind.  They believe in the future as if it were a religion; they believe that there is nothing they cannot accomplish, that solutions wait somewhere for all problems like brides.

Just as history’s lessons were dismissed as advisers begat brigades in the jungles of Southeast Asia, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan has been discarded as irrelevant to our own war by American policymakers, commanders, and commentators.  This has left us, in the words of Lord Butler of Brockwell, "like a driver who commits to some manoeuvre in the road without looking into the rear mirror."  Indeed, American leaders believe we are on a different road entirely.  While there are significant differences between the two interventions, the road winds through the same mountains.

Two books released as the latest incarnation of foreign intervention winds down – one by Rodric Braithwaite and the other by Artemy Kalinovsky – tell the troubled tale of the Soviet intervention and withdrawal.  In doing so, they shatter mischaracterizations that prevent the West from looking to this decade as a source of lessons.   The only major flaws of these books, Afgantsy and The Long Goodbye, is that they were published years too late to serve as rejoinders to Undersecretary Flournoy and others who came before her who insisted that Afghanistan, in the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, stood "at the dawn of a new day." 

Yet, while Braithwaite and especially Kalinovksy draw on previously unpublished Soviet records and interviews, they were not the first to strike at the myths of the Soviet intervention rooted in the Cold War.  Almost twenty years ago, Diego Cordovez, the U.N.’s point man on Afghanistan in the 1980s, and journalist Selig S. Harrison produced the insightful Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal.  These three books demand to be read and revisited in combination.   They very much complement each other.  Braithwaite’s Afgantsy provides a vivid, novelistic account of the war in its entirety.  Kalinovsky’s more scholarly text provides the oft-missing Soviet perspective based on Politburo records, now housed at the Wilson Center thanks to Kalinovsky himself.  Cordovez and Harrison give us the ultimate insider’s account, bringing readers along for the ride as the U.N. emissary shuttles back and forth between Moscow, Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad, furiously working to get deadly foes to sit down at a table and talk.

The common Western narrative holds that once Soviet forces crossed their southern border into Afghanistan in December 1979, they were modern-day Cossacks waging a war of unmitigated brutality.  With U.S. support, the noble mujahideen prevailed.  This narrative, rooted in the hostile spirit of the Cold War, tells us we have nothing to learn from the Soviets in Afghanistan because our mission is so different in its purpose, aims and methods.   Our very nature is so different that comparisons are useless.   Or so we tell ourselves, and in doing so ignore the nuances of history. 

The Soviets also had trouble reconciling their mission with Afghan history.  In one memorable exchange captured by Kalinovsky, Soviet Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Mikhail Kapista cited the British experience in Afghanistan in the 19th Century.  Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko responded, "Do you mean to compare our internationalist troops with imperialist troops?"  Kapitsa retorted, "No, our troops are different – but the mountains are the same!"

There are many aspects of the Soviet experience relevant to the current U.S.-led campaign, but none are more relevant to the present day than the Soviet efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement and withdraw their military forces.  On these aspects of the war before the war, these three books have a great deal to say, primarily by way of three key lessons:  Even a "reconciliation" that promises substantial government concessions may not succeed. Timing is everything. Pakistan is not to be trusted.  


By the time Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power in 1985, the view that the Soviet war in Afghanistan was a quagmire was commonly held in the Politburo and in the military. Frustration with Afghan partners – particularly General Secretary Babrak Karmal – was at an all-time high, leading to his replacement with Mohammad Najibullah in 1986.  Gorbachev came to accept that the Soviets would not leave a socialist government in their wake, but he was not ready to abandon their client regime entirely. He pushed a second, internal track on Najibullah: the policy of "National Reconciliation," which was far reaching in its concessions to the mujahideen.

The reconciliation program sought to reach out to biddable elements in the armed opposition, as well as non-Communist political and religious leaders not involved in the rebellion. In doing so, they sought to strengthen the position of the Afghan armed forces.  Through a re-tooled aid package, more emphasis on outreach to tribes, efforts to make Afghan officials more independent, and dialogue with insurgent commanders, the Soviets hoped to set the conditions for a durable state as they planned to withdraw. Attempts to make the Afghan government more representative, rather than dominated by the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), were key.  The new policy was announced in December 1986. That same month, Gorbachev called Najibullah to Moscow and informed him that a military withdrawal from Afghanistan was now official Soviet policy. The government, with Soviet advisers over their shoulders, drew up a new constitution that established "an Islamic legal system run by an independent judiciary, greater freedom of speech, and the election of a president by a loya jirga assembly consisting of pa
rliament and tribal and religious leaders."

While sensible, the National Reconciliation program arrived too late.  All sides were too entrenched.  The Khalq and Parcham factions of the PDPA were still at loggerheads.  The "Peshawar Seven" and "Tehran Eight" mujahideen parties were strong and confident in the countryside and the mountains, dripping with a desire for revenge and a hatred of the Kabul-based government.  The Pakistanis and the Americans doubted the Soviets and the Afghan government were serious about a negotiated settlement.  And they understood that, regardless of Soviet intentions, a compromise on their parts was not necessary.  One independent-minded Soviet colonel wrote in a letter: "[O]ne has to keep in mind that the counter-revolution is aware of the strategic decision of the Soviet leadership to withdraw the Soviet troops from the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] …The counter-revolution will not be satisfied with partial power today, knowing that tomorrow it can have it all."


Gorbachev also fumbled the timing of announcing troop withdrawals. In February 1988, against the advice of the Soviet negotiating team in Geneva, Gorbachev announced a full withdrawal would begin on May 15, assuming an agreement was reached in Geneva.  He hoped that his announcement and the signing of the accords would induce the United States and Pakistan to cease arming the mujahideen.  According to Harrison, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had warned Gorbachev that "a formal commitment to a specific target date would give the impression of an urgent need to withdraw." Gorbachev was wrong and Shevardnadze was right.  The withdrawal timeline was one of the few cards the Soviets had left in their deck and Gorbachev gave it away.   Subsequent Soviet efforts to negotiate directly with the Peshawar Seven and Tehran Eight were futile.

In response to Gorbachev’s announcement, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Schultz demanded that the the two superpowers take a symmetrical approach to the withdrawal of military aid to their respective proxies. In other words, American aid to the mujahideen and Soviet aid to the government would be withdrawn simultaneously. Early drafts of the accords had not envisioned symmetry. Gorbachev was apoplectic, but it was too late.  

Moscow had greater concerns linked to a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan – namely negotiations over American nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe. Success in these negotiations depended on improving relations with the United States.  And so, on April 14, 1988, the Geneva Accords were signed.  They committed the Soviets to execute a "front-loaded" withdrawal within nine months. The United States and the USSR agreed to "positive symmetry," meaning that aid continued to the mujahideen and the Afghan government alike, rather than negative symmetry, which would have withdrawn aid to both.  Besides, the Soviet leadership believed that the Accords, which prohibited Pakistani interference and intervention in Afghan affairs, would mitigate the problem of aid to the mujahideen. At any rate, Gorbachev assured Najibullah that, "Even in the harshest, most difficult circumstances, even under conditions of strict control – in any situation, we will provide you with arms."  Like the rest of the world, neither of them anticipated the dissolution of the Soviet Union less than four years later.


Pakistan has three interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan that endure to the present day: blunting Pashtun nationalism, preventing strategic encirclement by India, and maintaining strategic depth against India.  Support for violent Islamist non-state actors, from the Taliban of the present to the Peshawar Seven of the 1980s, has allowed them to accomplish all three.  With Pakistan under the leadership of pro-Islamist Zia ul Haq, the idea of a socialist state and Soviet forces on Pakistan’s border was intolerable.

As early as 1980, the Central Committee of the Politburo in Moscow understood Pakistan was the key, and envisioned, according to Politburo records, "a complex of bilateral agreements between Afghanistan and its neighbors, above all Pakistan, and systems of corresponding guarantees from the USSR, USA."  As such, the USSR and the Republic of Afghanistan signed the Geneva Accords, which committed Afghanistan and Pakistan to mutual relations, non-interference and non-intervention as well as to "interrelationships for the settlement of the situation." The Geneva Accords committed Pakistan to cease support for the mujahideen.  As Cordovez explains, the whole negotiations process was premised on "international disengagement" that would "allow the Afghans themselves to sort out their differences." 

Anyone hoping for Pakistani "disengagement" was disappointed.  According to Shultz, when President Reagan asked Zia how he would counter Soviet accusations that aid to the mujahideen continued, Zia responded, "We will deny that there is any aid going through our territory.  After all, that’s what we have been doing for eight years."  The UN monitoring mission – the key enforcement mechanism of the Accords – was an embarrassing failure.  Before the ink on the Accords was dry, the Soviets and Afghan government began lodging legitimate complaints against Pakistani violations of the agreements.   At one point, President Zia told the Soviet ambassador to Kabul that he would support a coalition that was divided in three between the former PDPA, "moderates," and the mujahideen.  We do not know if he was serious, however, because the offer ended with the Pakistani leader’s own life when his plane crashed later that summer.  What we do know is that Pakistan has always sought to be kingmaker in Afghanistan, regardless of what outside powers do. 

In the face of these treaty violations, the Soviet leadership hinted they might keep their military forces in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal deadline if the accords were not strictly adhered to.  The bluff failed.  The Soviets continued to withdraw their forces.  The last of them crossed back into the Soviet Union on February 15, 1989.  

The Nuances of History

History has not repeated itself in Afghanistan, but it has rhymed.  There are important differences between the Soviet and U.S.-led campaigns that are worth keeping in mind.  Brutal Soviet tactics, particularly early in the war, targeted entire communities.  This had a direct effect on how the international community, Pakistan, and the mujahideen responded, particularly in terms of their recalcitrance to negotiate in good faith. The Soviet campaign was more deadly and indiscriminant in its violence, resulting in the deaths of up to a million Afghans – about 9% of the Afghan population at the time (admittedly, this figure is debatable). By the time of the Soviet withdrawal, there were millions of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan.  Since the U.S.-led intervention began in 2001, most of these refugees have returned.

The scholar Louis Dupree described the Soviet strategy as "migratory genocide."  In other words, the Soviets sought, in some provinces, to depopulate the countryside, the powerbase of the rebels.  Joseph Collins, a longtime observer of Afghanistan, argued that for the Soviets, "[t]here was no talk about protecting the population; Soviet operations were all about protecting the regime and furthering Soviet control."  Later in the war, the Soviets became obsessed with connecting the government and the population – but still, the Soviet campaign stands in contrast to that waged by ISAF, which has focused on controlling key rural are
as and protecting rural communities.  There has been operational success on this front.  While there is reason to doubt these gains will endure, in this respect, the West has learned from the Soviet experience.  Now, it is time for the West, and America in particular, to learn from how they negotiated their withdrawal so as not to repeat their mistakes.

Ryan Evans is a PhD Candidate at the King’s College London War Studies Department.  His report, "Talking to the Taliban" – co-written with John Bew, Martyn Frampton, Peter Neumann, and Marisa Porges – will be released this month.

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