Leaving the Graveyard: The Soviet Union's Withdrawal from Afghanistan

By Fivecoat, David G. | Parameters, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Leaving the Graveyard: The Soviet Union's Withdrawal from Afghanistan


Fivecoat, David G., Parameters


Conventional wisdom states the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was defeated in Afghanistan and forced to withdraw in ignominy. A closer look at history, however, reveals the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1992 capably orchestrated its diplomatic, military, and economic efforts to disengage from the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) on its terms, under the aegis of an international agreement. It left behind a semi-stable regime, an improved military, a dreadful economic situation, and a commitment to a long-term relationship. Throughout the withdrawal process, the Soviet Union relied upon the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and Mohammad Najibullah to harmonize the instruments of power; developed a military strategy focused on controlling cities, securing major roads, and rapidly training and equipping Afghan forces; and used a transition plan that combined timelines and the phased "Afghanization" of the war. In 1991, four months after Soviet aid stopped, the Afghan government collapsed under mujahidin pressure.

This article provides a short history of the Soviet Union's efforts between 1985 and 1989 to end the war and withdraw. It examines and evaluates four key aspects of the withdrawal: leadership, the military strategy, the transition plan, and the economy. More importantly, the article mines the Soviet Union's experience for critical lessons applicable to the current situation in Afghanistan, such as vigorous leadership, a firm timeline, and a decade-long commitment of aid.

The War from 1979 to 1984

Afghanistan was important to the Soviet Union due to their shared border, a special relationship since 1921, and the threat posed by Afghanistan's slide toward chaos in the late 1970s. As the country teetered on the brink, the USSR's 40th Army invaded on 25 December 1979, "with the mission of rendering international aid to the friendly Afghan people." (1) It seized control of the government, killed President Hafizullah Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal. The Kremlin viewed the intervention as a short-term commitment--the "Limited Contingent of Forces" would assume garrison and urban security duties, while the Afghan Army deployed to the countryside to fight the mujahidin. The poor performance of the DRA forces, however, pulled the 40th Army further into the war. In the first four years, the combination of a military-focused strategy, the weak leadership of Karmal, and the emphasis on transforming the country into a communist state caused the growth of a widespread insurgency accompanied by a steadily rising loss of men and materiel.

1985: Gorbachev and the Military Solution

After becoming the leader of the USSR in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev informed the Soviet and Afghan governments they had one year to make decisive progress in Afghanistan. (2) Believing a military victory was the only solution, Gorbachev favored a strategy emphasizing a variety of military instruments. Militarily, the Soviets increased the strength of the 40th Army by 26,000 soldiers to 108,000, secured population centers and lines of communication, and conducted aggressive military operations. (3) Utilizing "new, more aggressive tactics, a spread of the war to the eastern provinces.., and an indiscriminate use of airpower," the 40th Army and their Afghan comrades conducted regimental-sized operations in Wardak, Kunar, Heart, Kandahar, and Khost Provinces. (4) In a "bloody year of fighting," 1,868 Soviet soldiers were killed with 1,552 wounded, as well as 3,690 Afghans killed and 8,898 wounded? The military operations "came close to breaking the back of the mujahidin" but did not produce the decisive progress Gorbachev demanded. (6)

The Soviet Union increased training and equipping of the Afghan military as it expanded to 252,900 troops. (7) The secret police, Khedamat-e Etala'at-e Dawlati (KhAD), consisting of some 26,700 agents, arrested and interrogated insurgents, conducted counterinsurgency operations, and negotiated ceasefires with local tribal and militia leaders.

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