Did the U.S. "abandon" Afghanistan in 1989?

by Andrew Sprung

Robert Gates has attracted positive notice for his conspicuous contrition regarding past U.S. mistakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan (most recently from Maureen Dowd). On December 2, he told the Senate Arms Services Committee that the US “will not repeat the mistakes of 1989, when we abandoned that country only to see it descend into chaos and into Taliban hands.”  Jake Tapper recalled that for Gates, this was a familiar note:

“I feel a certain sense of personal responsibility,” [Gates] testified before the House Armed Services Committee in December 2007.

“I was deputy director of CIA and then deputy national security advisor during the period when the Soviets did withdraw from Afghanistan, and the United States essentially turned its back on Afghanistan,” Gates said. “And five years later came the first attack on the World Trade Center.  And so, you know, one of the lessons that I think we have is that if we abandon these countries, once we are in there and engaged, there is a very real possibility that we will pay a higher price in the end.”

Admitting mistakes generally wins one points for honesty.  But according to Robert Parry, Gates is perpetuating a myth with these confessions. From 1989 to 1992, the U.S. did worse than "abandon" Afghanistan.  In belated pursuit of Cold War aims, the administration of George H. W. Bush fomented further civil war.

After the Soviet pullout, the regime of Soviet-backed President Najibullah survived for another three years, in defiance of Gates' expectations. During that time, rather than support a negotiated settlement between Najibullah and the mujahedeen, the U.S. continued to fight a proxy war. Parry:

After the Soviets did withdraw in early 1989, some U.S. officials felt Washington’s geostrategic aims had been achieved and a move toward peace was in order. There also was concern about the Afghan mujahedeen, especially their tendencies toward brutality, heroin trafficking and fundamentalist religious policies.

Yet, the new administration of George H.W. Bush – with Gates having moved from the CIA to the White House as deputy national security adviser – chose to continue U.S. covert support for the mujahedeen, funneled primarily through Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

However, instead of a fast collapse, Najibullah’s regime used its Soviet weapons and advisers to beat back a mujahedeen offensive in 1990. Najibullah hung on – and the war, the violence and the disorder continued...[snip]

“Najibullah would remain in power for another three years [after the Soviet pull-out], as the United States and the USSR continued to aid their respective sides,” Gates wrote in his memoir. “On Dec. 11, 1991, both Moscow and Washington cut off all assistance, and Najibullah’s government fell four months later. He had outlasted both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union itself.”

Parry perhaps overstates the degree of Gates' dissimulation. Looking back at his 1995 memoir, I believe that in Gates' mind the failure to pursue accommodation in 1989 is conflated (perhaps conveniently) with the aid cut-off in 1991.  Here is his obliquely self-critical assessment in From the Shadows of the aftermath of withdrawal:

For a dozen years, under three Presidents, the United States-- through CIA--had supplied and armed those who resisted the Soviet invasion of their country. For the first several years, few believed that Afghanistan would ever be liberated. The road to the Termez Bridge in 1989 would be opened by the blood and courage of Afghan patriots, an international clandestine coalition led by the United States, the zeal of  President Zia of Pakistan, and the realism of Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduart Shevardnadze. It was a great victory. Afghanistan was at last free of the foreign invader. Now Afghans could resume fighting among themselves -- and hardly anyone cared.

Gates' confession of "abandoning" the Afghans (and, in other contexts, the Pakistanis) after 1989 is a convenient catch-all for a series of policy decisions that helped bring down the Soviet Union while simultaneously building up the Jihadist terror machine.  These include funneling billions in aid over a dozen years through the fundamentalist Pakistani dictator Muhamma Zia ul-Haq's ISI to brutes like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; supporting continued Jihad against the communist Najibullah after 1989; and truly abandoning the warring factions to their own devices after 1991.