A Soviet Bedtime Story: Obama’s Afghan Game

March 2, 2009

Been there, done that.

President Obama’s recent order to put 17,000 more US GIs in Afghanistan may be a move made too late, or in light of history, a shift toward disaster regardless of the number of boots on the ground.
Despite conflicting opinions from the Afghan people, Obama should also take stock in what happened to the flower of the Soviet military during it’s decade-long stay in country — going in is much easier than going out.
And it ain’t pretty.

(Illustration found here).

According to documents released last month by the The National Security Archive, the Soviets knew half-way into their horrible incursion into Afghanistan that the mission was doomed.
A synopsis is found on the Archive’s site here.
A few zingers for nowadays:

  • The documents suggest that the Soviet decision to withdraw occurred as early as 1985, but the process of implementing that decision was excruciatingly slow, in part because the Soviet-backed Afghan regime was never able to achieve the necessary domestic support and legitimacy — a key problem even today for the current U.S. and NATO-supported government in Kabul.

    But the road from (Soviet general secretary Mikhail) Gorbachev’s decision to the actual withdrawal was long and painful.
    The documents show the Soviet leaders did not come up with an actual timetable until the fall of 1987. Gorbachev made the public announcement on February 8, 1988, and the first troops started coming out in May 1988, with complete withdrawal on February 15, 1989.
    Gorbachev himself, in his recent book (Mikhail Gorbachev, Ponyat’ perestroiku … Pochemu eto vazhno seichas. (Moscow: Alpina Books 2006)), cites at least two factors to explain why it took the reformers so long to withdraw the troops.
    According to Gorbachev, the Cold War frame held back the Soviet leaders from making more timely and rational moves, because of fear of the international perception that any such withdrawal would be a humiliating retreat.
    In addition to saving face, the Soviet leaders kept trying against all odds to ensure the existence of a stable and friendly Afghanistan with some semblance of a national reconciliation process in place before they left.

By 1989, however, it was all over but the screaming:

  • By this time, however, the Soviet leaders well realized that the goal of building socialism in Afghanistan was illusory; and at the same time the goal of securing the southern borders of the Soviet Union seemed to be still within reach with the policy of national reconciliation of the Najibullah government.
    So the troops came out completely by February 15, 1989.
    Soon after the Soviet withdrawal, however, both superpowers seemed to lose interest in what had been so recently the hottest spot of the Cold War.

And this left Afghanistan, to use an old CIA rap, “twist in the wind,” which in turn allowed the rise of al-Qaeda, which in turn allowed for 9/11, which in turn leaves Obama where he’s not — in control.

Afghan history is not to be scorned.

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