Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Drawing Lessons from an Earlier Afghan Pullout

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Drawing Lessons from an Earlier Afghan Pullout

Article excerpt

Though the withdrawal is now seen as a humiliating episode for the Soviet Union, scholars say that continuing military aid to the Afghan regime proved to be a successful tactic.

The young president who ascended to office as an agent of change decides to end a costly and unpopular war in Afghanistan. He seeks an exit with honor by pledging long-term financial support to allies in Kabul, while urging reconciliation with the insurgency. But some senior advisers lobby for a deliberately slow withdrawal and propose leaving 15,000 troops behind to train and support Afghan security forces.

This is a nearly exact description of the end-game conundrum facing President Barack Obama as he prepares for a critical visit by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, expected early this month.

But it is actually drawn from declassified Soviet archives describing Mikhail S. Gorbachev's closed-door struggles with his Politburo and army chiefs to end the Kremlin's intervention in Afghanistan, one that began with a blitzkrieg invasion and modest goals during Christmas week of 1979 -- but became, after a decade, what the Soviet leader derided as "a bleeding wound."

What mostly is remembered about the withdrawal is the Soviet Union's humiliation -- and the factional bloodletting across Afghanistan that threw the country into a civil war. It ended with Taliban control and the establishment of a safe haven for Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

But scholars who have studied the Soviet archives point out another lesson for the Obama administration as it manages the withdrawal of American and allied combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

"The main thing the Soviets did right was that they continued large-scale military assistance to the regime they left behind after the final withdrawal in '89," said Mark N. Katz, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia and the author of "Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan." (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.) "As long as the Afghan regime received the money and the weapons, they did pretty well -- and held on to power for three years," Mr. Katz said.

The combat effectiveness of Kabul's security forces actually increased after the Soviet withdrawal, when the fight for survival become wholly their own.

But then the Soviet Union dissolved on Christmas Day in 1991, and the new Russian leader, Boris N. Yeltsin, heeded calls from the United States and other Western powers to halt aid to the communist leadership in Afghanistan -- not just arms and money, but also food and fuel.

The Kremlin-backed government in Kabul fell three months later.

To be sure, there are significant contrasts between the Soviet and American interventions in Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion and occupation were condemned as illegal aggression, while the American invasion was embraced by the international community, including Russia, as a "just war," one with limited goals of routing the Taliban and eliminating Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks. That war of necessity has since evolved into a war of choice, one the Obama administration hopes to end as quickly as is feasible.

Despite the differences going in, once there both the Soviet Union and the United States learned that Afghanistan is a land where foreigners aspiring to create nations in their image must combat not just the Taliban but also tribalism, orthodoxy, corruption and a Medieval view of women. And a neighboring state, Pakistan, also had interests at odds with those of the sovereign government of Afghanistan, whether Kabul was an ally of Moscow or of Washington.

"The Soviet Union did not understand religious and ethnic factors sufficiently, and overestimated the capacity of Afghan society to move very fast toward a modern era -- in this case socialism," said Svetlana Savranskaya, the director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive, an independent research center at George Washington University. …

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