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Afghanistan: Soviet Withdrawal Hastened Collapse Of Communism

By Charles Recknagel Charles Recknagel Charles Recknagel Charles Recknagel

Prague, 15 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago today, the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in the final act of a war which sped the collapse of the Soviet Union and so destabilized Afghanistan that it has remained in conflict ever since.

The withdrawal ended a debacle for the Soviet military which began a little over nine years earlier when Moscow rushed troops into Afghanistan to prop up a tottering Communist regime in Kabul. The catalyst was the killing of the regime's Moscow-backed leader, Nur Mohammad Taraki, in a gun battle between his forces and those of his more Westward-looking prime minister.

But what started with the dispatch of a limited number of Red Army units on a short-term task turned into one of modern history's longest wars.

The Soviet army became mired in an expanding revolt against both the Communist regime's programs -- which threatened traditional Afghan society -- and the presence of foreign soldiers on Afghan soil. By the time the war was over, Soviet forces would suffer almost 50,000 casualties, including some 14,000 dead. The number of Afghans killed in the fighting remains unknown.

Ten years after the fighting ended, analysts continue to study both the reasons for the Soviet Union's disastrous intervention in Afghanistan and its consequences.

Barney Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, believes that Moscow's decision to send troops was a spontaneous decision which failed to consider how Afghanis, the West, and Muslim states would react. Barney Rubin says:

"It was extremely reactive [and] it was a decision taken by a very small number of people... [The] decision that they actually took was to send a limited contingent of troops in order to stabilize the situation so they could pull out within six months to a year. Of course, it did not work out at all as they had planned and I think they just blundered into something much larger than what they had intended."

Rubin says the war continued for more than nine years despite heavy Soviet losses partly because it coincided with a period when the leadership of the Soviet Union was in crisis and unable to take the difficult decision to get out. The Soviet intervention only ended after a fundamental change in Soviet politics occurred with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev. Said Barney Rubin:

"I think the dominant factor was that the new leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev really did not have any interest in accomplishing the goals that the old leadership had had. [Gorbachev's] primary goal was to establish good relations with the United States ... and the rest of the West so [Moscow] could de-escalate the arms race and free up resources for the internal reform which they knew their country needed."

The Afghan war lasted so long that it outlived the Soviet Union's once firm commitment to the idea that once a communist party was in power it must never be deposed. Just months after the final Soviet troop withdrawal from Kabul, Moscow officially also gave up supporting Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Many analysts now believe that the Afghan war hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union by undermining Soviet citizens' faith in one of the cornerstones of Soviet patriotism: the army. They point out that leaders in Moscow had for decades appealed to Soviet citizens to make economic sacrifices for the army, whose victories in World War Two gave it a tremendous mystique. The Afghan campaign weakened that mystique and with it the appeal of the Communist regime overall.

For Afghanistan, the long war proved so destabilizing that the country has remained locked ever since in factional fighting which has seen dozens of warlords rise and fall amid deep ideological, religious and ethnic enmities.

Analysts say that before the war, Afghanistan was headed for some instability due largely to tensions between modernist-minded leaders in Kabul and a tradition-minded population. But the Soviet intervention, plus the response to it by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, fragmented the country.

During the conflict, Pakistan funneled U.S. and Saudi aid primarily to Islamist groups which were among a number of factions fighting Soviet troops. Now, ten years after the Soviet withdrawal, the civil war which followed has resolved into a protracted struggle between Afghanistan's Islamist Taliban militia and a loose northern coalition which despite reverses holds on to ten percent of the country. Meanwhile, Afghanistan's economy has been utterly destroyed and its fields have become a major source of poppies used in manufacturing much of the world's illicit heroin.

Today, Moscow continues to regard Afghanistan as one of its greatest regional problems. Russia considers any rise in Islamic radicalism a key threat to both its domestic security and that of the rest of the former Soviet Union. Analysts say Moscow's strategy for Afghanistan now is to support the anti-Taliban alliance and keep the fundamentalist militia as far from the former Soviet border as possible.