Learning From the Soviets: How to Withdraw From Afghanistan

The New York Times bungles history in predicting the upcoming departure of U.S. troops.

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Soldiers work on vehicles that will be re-deployed to Britain, at Camp Bastion, outside Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on December 20, 2012. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

One unique feature of Afghanistan's history, in addition to the ubiquity of foreign invasions that stretch back for 2600 years, is the manner in which one would-be conqueror after another found its position compromised due to its failure to understand this history. "The British would repeat the blunders of the Romans," writes Peter Tomsen in The Wars of Afghanistan, arguing that their nineteenth century invasions overlooked lessons that could be gleaned from the defeat the Romans suffered at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C. And, he added, "the Soviets would make the same mistakes a century later."

The lessons of history extend not only to those looking to use military force to enter Afghanistan, but also to foreign armies on their way out. On January 1, The New York Times published an interesting article comparing the U.S.'s coming 2014 withdrawal to the Soviet exit in 1989. This is a worthwhile period to familiarize ourselves with, one that is understudied compared to the Afghan-Soviet war that preceded it. However, the analysis in the Times demonstrates not only what can be gleaned through historical comparisons, but also some of the pitfalls of undertaking them.

The lessons of history extend not only to those looking to use military force to enter Afghanistan, but also to foreign armies on their way out.

Afghanistan's communist president at the time the Soviets withdrew, Mohammad Najibullah (sometimes known as Najib), is remembered primarily for his life's gruesome ending. After the Taliban lured him and his brother out of the U.N. compound where they had found shelter, they tortured and castrated Najibullah, then dragged him from the back of a vehicle. Tomsen writes that the following morning, both men's "bloodied bodies hung from a traffic pylon outside the palace walls, their cadavers mutilated." Symbolizing his corruption, decadence, and allegiance to a foreign power, "a wad of Soviet currency and cigarettes were stuffed into Najib's mouth and nostrils."

This brutal man encountered his brutal end in 1996, seven years after the Soviets left. Because his death is so well known, we tend to overlook what the Times emphasizes: Although most outside observers expected Najibullah's regime to collapse immediately when the Soviets withdrew, it in fact appeared surprisingly strong for about three years. The Times outlines the basic contours: The Soviets "continued large-scale military assistance" after leaving Afghanistan, and "the combat effectiveness of Kabul's security forces increased after the Soviet withdrawal, when the fight for survival became wholly their own."

There are two further wrinkles to add to this analysis. First, Najibullah's government wasn't shored up solely by the increasing vigor of its forces -- a line that in some ways smacks of Western analysts using history to try to reassure themselves that the U.S.'s withdrawal won't go so badly. Rather, Najibullah was also bolstered on the battlefield by a major mujahedin blunder that occurred in March 1989, as 15,000 of their fighters -- egged on by Pakistani military intelligence chief Hamid Gul -- massed and attacked the city of Jalalabad.

The mujahedin were decisively crushed in this battle by the Afghan army, who in turn were strengthened by over four hundred Scud missiles fired by Soviet advisers. The scope of mujahedin losses -- around 3,000 dead -- without a single piece of territory to show for it swung momentum toward Najibullah, who had previously been viewed as a dead man walking.

The second wrinkle is the "soft" side of Najibullah's strategy, in which he rebranded himself and used a traditional tool of influence in Afghanistan -- patronage networks -- to neutralize foes. In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, Thomas Barfield writes that Najibullah understood that the Soviet presence had served as a primary catalyst for insurgency. Though he had been involved in the communist movement since the 1960s, Najibullah refashioned himself an Afghan nationalist, and bought off foes who threatened his regime.

The combination of the Soviets leaving and Najibullah's patronage networks worked well. As Barfield writes, "20 percent of former mujahedin groups defected and joined Najibullah's militia system, while another 40 percent agreed to ceasefires." He deems only 12 percent of the mujahedin to have been what he calls "irreconcilables."

Presented by

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of Bin Laden's Legacy, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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