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Afghanistan: Analysis From Washington -- An Event That Shook The World

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago today, the last Soviet army units left Afghanistan, closing a chapter on Moscow's disastrous military intervention there and opening the way to the disintegration of the Soviet system as a whole.

But as dramatic as those changes were, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to affect that country, the post-Soviet states, and the Western world in ways that may ultimately prove to be even more dramatic.

That is because the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan called into question many of the assumptions that had governed the international system during the Cold War and thus opened the way not only to a post-Soviet but also a post-Cold War world.

This change began on February 15, 1989, when General Boris Gromov led approximately 400 Soviet soldiers across the Afghan border into the USSR just five minutes before the deadline set for their withdrawal by the U.N.-sponsored Geneva accords of April 1988.

In addition to the impact such an event had by itself -- the first Soviet withdrawal from any territory since the Austrian State Treaty more than 30 years earlier -- its larger implications for the Soviet Union were suggested by two articles that appeared in the Moscow press on the same day.

In a front-page commentary, the Communist Party newspaper "Pravda" argued that any future commitment of Soviet troops must "not be decided in secrecy" as had been the case when Moscow decided to intervene in Afghanistan in December 1979, but only "with the approval of the country's parliament."

Also on that date, the Moscow weekly "Literaturnaya gazeta" published one of the first detailed accounts of Soviet atrocities in the Afghan war, atrocities that many Soviet citizens had known about but that the Soviet authorities until then had consistently refused to acknowledge.

All three of these events -- the withdrawal itself, the acknowledgement that the Soviet intervention lacked popular support, and the description of the atrocities -- had the effect of further delegitimizing the Soviet system. And they thus played a key role in its ultimate destruction.

But precisely because this withdrawal proved to be so pivotal in the history of this region, it has generated a set of images which continue to shape opinions not only in Afghanistan but also in the post-Soviet states and the Western world. These opinions appear likely to reshape the future even as the withdrawal itself already has reshaped the past.

In Afghanistan, the Soviet withdrawal had much the same effect that Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War had had more than 80 years before. It encouraged Afghans, other Muslims and indeed many non-Europeans to think that they could take on a major power and win, something few had assumed up until that time.

That shift in assumptions helped power the Taliban in Afghanistan itself, the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, and many other challenges to European and American dominance of international affairs.

Indeed, much of the current terrorist challenge to the West has its roots in the Soviet withdrawal not only because the mujaheddin demonstrated that a European power could be defeated on the field of battle but also because it showed that a great power would be willing to withdraw rather than continue to fight.

In the post-Soviet states -- and particularly in Central Asia and the Caucasus -- Moscow's withdrawal from Afghanistan has led many to conclude that political power is fragile and that popular groups inspired by Islam can challenge it and win. On the one hand, these conclusions have led some groups in Tajikistan and elsewhere to challenge the authorities. And on the other, it has led many of those in power to justify repressive policies in the name of preventing the kind of societal and political chaos that Afghanistan has suffered in the wake of the Soviet occupation.

And in the world at large, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to serve as a reminder that however strong a state may appear to outsiders, it can be defeated and even destroyed if it loses all popular legitimacy.

Before the Soviet withdrawal, many in both the Soviet Union and the West assumed that the Soviet Union would continue forever. After it, many in both places recognized that the days of the Soviet power were numbered.

Such prophecies not only proved to be self-fulfilling, but they also have led people in other countries, far different and far removed from the USSR, to think about changing structures that many had assumed could never be moved.

In 1975, four years before Moscow invaded Afghanistan and 14 years before it withdrew, the yearbook of the "Kabul Times" claimed that Afghanistan was "the beginning of the end of everything."

To a larger extent than the editors of this newspaper knew, their claim has proved true first by the Soviet withdrawal and then by the impact of that withdrawal on the world.