Afghanistan: How not to end a war

President Medvedev has offered to help the west's faltering Afghan campaign—but both parties must heed the lessons from the Soviet army’s disastrous withdrawal in the 1980s
October 20, 2010
Crushed ambitions: Gorbachev failed to find a dignified exit from Afghanistan, to his cost

At his desk, the leader sat reading letters from mothers whose sons had been killed fighting in Afghanistan. They put him in a determined mood as he walked to the cabinet room. “We’ve been fighting for years now and if we don’t change our approach we’ll be there another 20 or 30,” he told his generals and colleagues. “We have not learned how to wage war there. We had a clearly defined goal: to get a friendly regime in Afghanistan. But now… we must end this process as quickly as we can.”

These could have been the words of President Barack Obama in recent days and weeks—or those of his closest ally, David Cameron. In fact, they were spoken by Mikhail Gorbachev at the Soviet Union’s politburo meeting on 13th November 1986. The Soviets were then in the seventh year of their Afghan campaign, and some 110,000 well-supplied troops from one of the world’s superpowers were still “failing to beat a band of terrorists.” Around 8,000 Red Army troops had been killed and 50,000 seriously wounded, along with three quarters of a million Afghan dead.

Historical comparisons can be glib, but by any measure the similarities between the west’s position now and the Soviet Union’s then are striking. Obama and Cameron will have bulging briefing notes on the campaigns in Helmand and around Kandahar. As they contemplate their next steps, they would be wise to look at a raft of highly revealing Kremlin papers from the late Soviet era, recently unearthed by US and Russian scholars. At the very least, they offer some warnings on how not to end a war.

White House and Downing Street aides can reason, justifiably in many ways, that things are entirely different now: that it is wrong to equate loathed communists looking to expand an empire with US and British war aims today; that the mujahedin in the 1980s were waging a just struggle for freedom that cannot be compared with the Taliban’s campaign; and that Nato is using far more sophisticated weaponry than the Soviets, who adopted brutal bombing campaigns, careless of civilian lives. All arguably true, up to a point. Yet a great deal is eerily reminiscent. Much of the fighting then was in places that have become hauntingly familiar to us now when we read British casualty lists: Sangin, Lashkar Gah, Nad Ali, Marja, Nawzad.

Of course, such parallels can never be precise. Yet in the Soviet experience Obama and Cameron may recognise a familiar political dilemma: how to devise an exit strategy from a war that has not gone to plan. When he came to power in March 1985, Gorbachev, like them, inherited an unpopular conflict which his predecessors initially said would be over in a matter of months. On his first day in office he and his chief aides identified withdrawal from Afghanistan as his “top priority.” As he soon discovered, though, this was no easy business. One uncomfortable point Nato leaders might reflect on is that almost as many Soviet soldiers died after the Kremlin leadership decided to pull out than before. Withdrawal proved an agonising four-year process as Gorbachev sought the elusive prize that continually evaded him: peace with honour. His tactics were similar to Nato’s today. The Soviets tried to train and support the then Afghan regime’s forces so they would do the fighting against the mujahedin. But the Afghan army never proved up to the task, and Soviet forces had to remain in large numbers to prop up the hated government in Kabul.

Gorbachev often identified the dangers of losing face. “We could leave quickly, not thinking about anything else. But we can’t act that way… it would be a blow to our authority,” he said at a politburo meeting in April 1986. “How will we justify ourselves to our people if, soon after we leave, there’s a real slaughter and the establishment of a base hostile to us?” At all costs, as he said time and again, he wanted to avoid repeating America’s exit from Vietnam, with the last helicopters departing Saigon in panic—“We cannot leave in our underpants… or without any,” as he put it. He was determined to spin humiliating defeat into a story he could present differently, telling his generals in April 1988 that “we must say that our people have not given their lives in vain.” David Cameron used almost exactly the same words when British troops vacated Sangin in July.

That same month, David Richards, now chief of the defence staff, argued in Prospect that if “we fail [in Afghanistan] or are perceived to have failed... the geo-strategic implications are quite horrendous.” So it proved for the Soviets. By the time their last troops left Afghanistan in February 1989, 15,000 Red Army soldiers had died. And even more major consequences followed. The humiliation in Afghanistan was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire; its perceived defeat encouraged opponents everywhere. In no small part, this contributed to the joyful revolutions that swept through eastern Europe throughout the rest of that year. Barely two years later, the Soviet Union itself no longer existed. There is a lot more to be lost in Afghanistan than face.