America Is Going the Same Way as the Soviets in Afghanistan
The Soviet withdrawal was a disaster. The U.S. version looks eerily similar.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
The bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group report released Feb. 3 has painted a bleak picture of what will happen to Afghanistan if the United States withdraws its remaining 2,500 troops prematurely. It warns that transnational terrorist groups will rebuild capabilities that were destroyed following the U.S.-led invasion and be operational again to attack U.S. soil within two to three years.
Under the flawed 2020 Doha agreement, the Trump administration promised to remove all U.S. troops in return for the Taliban’s pledge to enter into meaningful peace talks with the Afghan government—but without any promises by the Taliban to cease violence. Ironically, even though Pakistan played a pivotal role in the Doha deal, the Afghan government was left out entirely from the discussions. The deal also required the Taliban to ensure Afghanistan would not be used by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to target the United States or its allies.
Unsurprisingly, the Taliban flagrantly disregarded these conditions. The Taliban have not ended ties with al Qaeda, and the groups continue to collaborate. A United Nations Security Council report even indicates that the two were consulting during the Doha talks. Violent attacks are on the rise in Afghanistan, with an increase in targeted killings of government and military officials as well as an indiscriminate murder of journalists and civil-society activists. Almost two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban are stronger than they have ever been since their overthrow in December 2001.
There is a real concern that Afghanistan could revert back into the breeding ground for extremism that it was in the 1990s. Much will depend on the next steps the Biden administration takes this year. Withdrawing U.S. forces too soon could trigger civil war, hand the Taliban victory, and spur the reemergence of terrorist groups that could threaten the West.
Though only mentioned fleetingly in the Afghanistan Study Group report, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 offers important lessons—and warnings—for the United States. Although the present conflict with the Taliban has lacked the bitter intensity of the Soviet occupation, it has lingered far longer. And although the scale is different, understanding the experiences of the Soviet Union leaving Afghanistan, and the withdrawal’s aftermath, provides important lessons on exit strategies for the United States.
U.S. and Soviet challenges and uncertainties bear a striking resemblance on several levels: the question of how quickly foreign forces can exit Afghanistan without undercutting security, the ability and capacity of Afghan forces to protect the population, and the perseverance and functional ability of the Afghan government once the foreign troops are gone.
Soviet withdrawal was formalized as part of the 1988 Geneva Accords between Afghanistan and Pakistan, undersigned by the United States and Soviet Union. Although Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty, Moscow had difficulty enforcing Islamabad’s cooperation—just like Washington would witness post-9/11. In 1989, Soviet leaders discussed Pakistan’s problematic role: “Pakistani border troops are actively participating in military operations on Afghan territory,” a Politburo official was noted to have said, according to the meeting’s minutes. “[Pakistan] is the source of a continuous flow of weaponry, and armed bands also cross over unimpeded from there.”
The Biden administration has seen that reconciliation efforts among Afghan factions is not straightforward. The Soviets experienced this too. At a Politburo meeting in 1986, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev remarked, “there is a reconciliation concept, we approved it, but in practice the problem is not being solved.” Moscow remained eager to pull all its troops out of Afghanistan while leaving the nation secure to manage internal and external threats. Its plan focused on the endurance of a friendly Afghan regime and a political settlement.
Soviet leaders understood that the years following their withdrawal would determine Afghanistan’s future and define the legacy of their intervention. Disclosed Politburo meetings acknowledged this: “Everybody understands that the main fight is still ahead.” There was also a prophetic warning: “In case of [our] Afghan friends’ misfortune, Islamic fundamentalists are most likely to come to power.”
Between 1989 and 1991, Moscow supplied the Afghans with significant financial backing earmarked for capacity-building efforts along with a vast array of weaponry, some of which were used in the struggle against the mujahedeen—an Afghan-Arab amalgamation of Islamist fighters supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia with the goal of driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, with little oversight of how the movement would evolve. It was from within these groups that the Taliban later emerged. The goal was to ensure a viable Afghan military. Six months after the withdrawal, a wishful and premature assessment by Soviet leaders documented significant progress in 1989: “Clearly visible is the growth of [Afghan] self-sufficiency, self-confidence, ability to evaluate the situation correctly … which they lacked during our military presence in Afghanistan.”
In an unusual step for the centralized, all-controlling Soviet state, Moscow supported the devolution of power from Kabul to stabilize Afghanistan, with the Politburo creating autonomous alliances of ethnic factions. Much like post-9/11 Afghanistan under former President Hamid Karzai, then-President Mohammad Najibullah also reinstated the Loya Jirga, a traditional council of Afghan political leaders, tribal elders, and religious figures. Although it was not an official decision-making body then and is not now, its decisions—based on consensus—are seen as final and binding. The decaying Soviet Union provided financial and military support to Najibullah’s government for three years. It was only after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 that support from Moscow dwindled and Najibullah’s government also began to fall apart. In 1992, the mujahedeen captured Kabul. This was seen as a victory for the United States, since the Soviet-supported Najibullah was seen to have been on the wrong side of the Cold War. However, competing interests among Afghanistan’s ethnic groups—mainly the Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks—soon grew, and they began to carve up Afghan territory among themselves while simultaneously trying to take power from one another. Major cities, including Kabul, were reduced to rubble.
In the meantime, a Pashtun cleric, Mullah Mohammad Omar, emerged as the leader of the Taliban, a cohort of militants trained in Pakistani madrasas that preached violent jihad. The Taliban presented themselves as religious students seeking to end Afghanistan’s lawlessness and warlordism. Within just two years, they had captured major towns and cities before advancing on Kabul in 1996, where they publicly castrated and hung Najibullah. By 2001, they controlled around 90 percent of the country. Their brutal five-year regime represents one of the darkest times in Afghanistan’s history and brought horrific human rights atrocities, particularly against women. Their misogyny has remained a constant to this day. Afghanistan was also turned into a playground for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda to plot attacks.
The Taliban strategy in seeking to kill Afghan politicians and anyone who questions their agenda has continued unabated. Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who warned that the United States conceded too much ground to the Taliban in Doha, has survived numerous assassination attempts by the Taliban. Saleh has also drawn direct comparisons between the Taliban’s tactics and those of the Islamic State and noted that both entities are cooperating in Afghanistan with the shared goal of forcing Western troops out.
Though Soviet and U.S. interventions differed, they encountered similar challenges. Both faced insurgent threats, limitations on the reach of the central government in rural areas, and the conflicting influence of Pakistan, where both the mujahedeen and Taliban enjoyed safe havens. Despite initially pursuing ambitious goals, the Soviets were obliged to reduce their policy objectives to disengagement and the ultimately failed attempt to prevent Afghanistan’s collapse and takeover by radical extremists. Today, Washington faces a similar dilemma with a lack of political and military will to sustain the Afghanistan mission.
It is often forgotten that Afghanistan experienced a period of relative security after the Taliban’s defeat post-9/11 and that a Taliban-led insurgency did not emerge until 2005. However, by mid-2002, the George W. Bush administration was turning its attention to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. With Afghanistan neglected and the United States distracted by the ill-fated Iraq War, the Taliban reorganized with the Pakistani military’s support.
If the Biden administration orders a complete departure from Afghanistan, the country could follow its post-Soviet trajectory, plunge into a full-blown civil war again, and become the terrorist sanctuary it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned. The Taliban are far from defeated and have shown repeated bad faith. With several terrorist organizations—including al Qaeda and the Islamic State—retaining a presence in the region, these entities are likely to subject the Afghan people to a degree of brutality, misogyny, and oppression that rivals pre-2001 levels.
A U.S. exit from Afghanistan must be contingent on the Taliban ending ties with terrorist groups and ceasing their violence against the Afghan people. At the same time, it is critical that Washington hold Pakistan accountable for how it meddles in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
Washington also needs to better engage with its NATO allies that have a presence in Afghanistan and play a crucial role in developing the Afghan military, including Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, especially since previous rapid troop reductions under the Trump administration took place without consultation or coordination. In a positive development, U.S. President Joe Biden is seeking to restore the United States’ credibility with its European allies and seems intent on reestablishing a dialogue. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently underlined the push for greater multilateralism when he said that the alliance would not leave “before the time is right.”
No one wants “forever wars,” but an irresponsible exit is just as inadvisable. We must pause, look to history, and move forward with caution instead of sleepwalking into another disaster.
Sajjan M. Gohel is the international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation.