A quarter century ago tomorrow, the last Soviet tanks rolled across the “Friendship Bridge” into Termez, a small town in Soviet Uzbekistan. The nightmare which the Soviet experience in Afghanistan had become was finally over.
Twenty-five years later, the Soviet experience still matters.
Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular are infamous for convincing themselves that their own spin matters. As the United States prepares to withdraw most if not all of its forces from Afghanistan, political leaders and perhaps even some political generals will testify that the withdrawal confirms victory and a mission complete. They can spend hundreds of man hours crafting talking points and convince themselves that such things matter, but Afghans let alone the wider world interpret events through their own experience, not that of Washington spin artists.
Every Afghan tribal leader, village elder, and politician lived through the Soviet withdrawal and interprets current events through their own experience. So, what do they see? With the assistance of my colleague Ahmad Majidyar, I was asked to address this question at a presentation for a U.S. army unit. Here’s the core:
On one level, the goals of the Soviet Union and United States are remarkably similar on a macro level: Both seek the survival of the system they helped construct. The Soviets hoped to prevent outright Mujahedin victory, while the United States (and its NATO partners) seek to prevent outright Taliban victory. Both engaged similar efforts to advise, assist, and train. Policymakers in both cases were ambitious: The Soviets initially envisioned a 15,000-man advisory team, but ultimately settled for just a couple hundred. Likewise, it seems the United States might have to settle for far less than what its military strategies say is necessary.
Both the United States and Soviet Union faced similar obstacles: First was military stalemate. And, make no mistake, the United States and NATO are stalemated militarily by the Taliban, although that is largely because we have made a policy decision in the White House that we will not do what it takes to win. Both the United States and the Soviet Union also faced similar problems emanating from Pakistan, which had become a safe haven for the opposition.
Both Najibullah and Hamid Karzai had pursued a reconciliation strategy which led them to negotiate with the Mujahedin and Taliban respectively. In each case, the negotiations backfired as opponents smelled blood. Simultaneously, both the Soviet Union and United States have sought to bolster local and elite militias. This benefited security in the short term, but was corrosive in the long term. Regardless, both Moscow then and Washington now swore by the professionalism of their respective 350,000-man Afghan military. Such military, however, was heavily dependent on foreign assistance.
The Soviet Union and then Russia continued to provide about $3 billion in aid for each of the three years after the withdrawal, but as soon as the money ran dry, his regime and its military collapsed. The same will likely hold true for Karzai and the new Afghanistan Security Forces. A major difference, however, is that Afghanistan’s Najibullah-era air force could operate independently. Such cannot be said about Afghanistan’s air force today, which cannot function without ISAF assistance. That said, Karzai’s regime has international recognition. The Soviets had simply appointed Najibullah, who was therefore never able to claim internal legitimacy let alone win broad external recognition.
2014 will be a pivotal year for Afghanistan. The White House might hope for stability, but given the degree to which Afghans see history repeating, the opposite is much more likely true: As soon as the money runs out, expect the system to unravel. Momentum matters, and the first few defections will lead to a deluge. Many Afghans expect a civil war, or at least a multi-party civil struggle. How unfortunate this is, because it did not need to be this way.