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  • Leaving AfghanistanEnduring Lessons from the Soviet Politburo
  • Katya Drozdova (bio) and Joseph H. Felter (bio)

Back to the Future

The longest U.S. war officially came to an end in a subdued ceremony at the former headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul on 28 December 2014, more than thirteen years after the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of this conflict-ridden country. Despite the departure of major U.S. and Coalition combat forces, a continued substantial role in Afghanistan and vested concerns for its future were far from over for the West. Ongoing commitments of U.S. and Coalition military advisers and counterterrorism forces, promises of long-term multilateral foreign aid, and, ultimately, enduring strategic interests in Afghanistan and the region ensure that the future of this troubled country will remain an important concern for U.S. policymakers and the international community. For more than fifteen years, Afghanistan has been embroiled in civil war. Rampant corruption, a resurgent Taliban, and a weak central government have stymied international efforts to stabilize the country and will continue to create daunting challenges in the years ahead. Since the withdrawal of major combat forces, the United States and the West have been forced to pursue their interests with diminished influence, relying on economic aid and security assistance to the nascent democratic Afghan government. They seek to avert conflict escalation but must prepare for contingencies in case of failure. The Soviet Union nearly 30 years earlier had a coherent and pragmatic withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan. The lessons of the Soviet withdrawal remain useful for U.S. policymakers and scholars.

In the midst of an ongoing insurgency, economic travails, and political strife on the ground in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Soviet leaders also withdrew their combat forces from Afghanistan after a decade of costly occupation that had left them short of accomplishing their original ambitious objectives. [End Page 31] Soviet leaders were well aware that the years following the withdrawal of their troops would determine whether they would achieve their latent minimalist goals as well as define the lasting legacy of their intervention. In top secret Politburo meetings on the eve of their troops' departure, senior Soviet leaders acknowledged: "Everybody understands that the main fight is still ahead" and that "the Afghan Side must thoroughly prepare for the decisive struggle to hold power."1 Soviet intelligence and diplomatic leaders warned, "In case of [our] Afghan friends' misfortune, Islamic fundamentalists are most likely to come to power."2

The Soviet and U.S. interventions differed, but the fundamental challenges encountered by both superpowers—and the minimal objectives they ultimately settled on in response—were similar.3 Both countries faced Afghanistan's unforgiving physical terrain, the complex social and religious fabric of Afghan society, a long history of resistance to foreign occupation, asymmetric insurgent tactics, traditional limitations on the reach of central government's rule in the countryside, and regional security dynamics involving cross-border safe-havens and support for insurgents. In turn, despite pursuing more ambitious early goals, both the USSR and the United States were obliged to reduce their policy objectives to that of disengagement and [End Page 32] withdrawal when attempting to prevent Afghanistan's turn to extremist rule. Figure 1 provides a comparative framework.4

In neither case did the counterinsurgent forces or the insurgents suffer defeat. Rather, facing a military stalemate and a lack of political will to continue their military campaigns, foreign political leaders chose to withdraw while pledging continued support for the Afghan central government they had helped set up and were now leaving behind.

Soviet-trained Afghan security forces held off the insurgents, and the Soviet-backed Afghan government survived for more than three years—empowered by sufficiently capable indigenous leaders and stabilizing measures of local autonomy. Local powers were won over with conditional aid for at least nominal loyalty to Kabul, and Soviet economic and security assistance propped-up the central government, which maintained itself in power until after the Soviet Union collapsed. Only after the USSR disintegrated did the Afghan government fall as a result of internal factional strife, key leader [End Page 33]

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pp. 31-70
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