Soviet Development Theory and Economic and Technical Assistance to Afghanistan, 1954-1991

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FROM 1954 TO 1991, the Soviet Union was the world's largest donor of economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan. This article studies the history of that assistance, analyzing the reasons it was given, its results, and the reasons for its ultimate failure. Many people now believe that the cause of the economic troubles of Third-World countries is not a lack of capital, but poor political leadership and weak institutions. (1) This article supports that position and concludes that, similarly, the reasons why Soviet assistance failed to substantially boost the Afghan economy were as much political and institutional as economic.

Soviet economic and technical assistance was better intentioned than Western commentators have assumed, but the Soviets were often economically naive. For instance, they believed that the loans they made were different in nature from those of Western countries, and were then surprised when their loans created exactly the same problems of indebtedness. To their credit, the Soviets were aware very early on of the importance of institutions in economic development, which put them in some respects ahead of their Western counterparts. However, while their critiques of Afghan institutional failings were often astute, they struggled to find better structures, and in the end their efforts to solve Afghanistan's political and institutional problems only made things worse.

Over a forty year period, the Soviets began around 270 major construction projects in Afghanistan, 142 of which were completed. These included roads, electrical power stations and power lines, irrigation canals, factories, housing, grain elevators, bakeries, automotive repair plants, airports, educational institutions, and others. (2) The Soviets also trained tens of thousands of Afghan specialists, provided hundreds of thousands of tons of humanitarian assistance, distributed food, seed and medical aid, and dug wells.

This activity has received very little attention. The war the Soviets fought in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 has tended to overshadow everything else they did in that country both during that period and in the previous quarter century. (3) As noted in a recent report produced by the Canadian Department of National Defence, "economic development in Afghanistan in the 1980s is largely overlooked by analysts and rarely discussed in the extant literature." (4) This is important as "it was not on the battlefield where Soviet strategy failed but in their efforts 'to influence Afghan social dynamics and to address crucial economic sustainability issues facing the government of Afghanistan." (5)

Such literature as does exist on Soviet economic and technical assistance dates overwhelmingly from the Cold-War period and is tainted by Cold-War biases, on both the Soviet and the Western sides. An early Soviet example of this is a 1958 book chapter by L.B. Teplinskii on the subject of the history of Soviet-Afghan relations. He wrote:

   The economic aid provided by the Soviet Union to Afghanistan has a
   disinterested character. The same principle guides the Soviet
   government in its relations with other countries.... The Soviet
   Union provides disinterested, active help to economically
   underdeveloped countries, so that, by liquidating their
   backwardness, they can become economically stronger. The Afghan
   people know that the Soviet Union, when it provides them with
   economic aid, will meet their requests and will not put any
   conditions. The aid provided by the Soviet Union is distinguished
   from the "aid" given to Afghanistan by Western powers. The
   capitalist countries, as a rule, do not want to give weakly
   developed countries credits to develop industry, so that these
   countries can eliminate their backwardness. (6)

Needless to say, Western authors held quite the opposite view. An extreme, but not entirely unrepresentative, example is an edited volume published by Freedom House in 1990. …