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Afghanistan: Experts Say Soviet Military Withdrawal Holds Lessons For Future (Part 1)

The 15th anniversary of the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops from Afghanistan takes place on 15 February. RFE/RL spoke with Afghan experts about the legacy of the Soviet withdrawal and the lessons in those events for both the international community and Afghan citizens.

Prague, 13 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It was 15 years ago this week that the last Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan after nearly a decade of battling the country's mujahedin guerrillas.

Since their 1979 invasion to support Afghanistan's Marxist government, Soviet forces reportedly had killed more than 1 million Afghans and forced 5.5 million people -- about one-third of the prewar population -- to flee the country as refugees. Another 2 million Afghans became internally displaced within Afghanistan after fleeing their homes.

It was the Geneva Accords of 1988 -- signed by Pakistan and Afghanistan -- that set the timetable for a full Soviet withdrawal by 15 February 1989. The agreement called for the United States and the Soviet Union to act as guarantors. But it was not received well by the mujahedin commanders, who had been left out of the Geneva talks and were demanding the departure of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed President Najibullah.

Thus, although the departure of the last Soviet soldier raised the hopes of many Afghans that peace would return to their country, the fighting didn't stop. Afghanistan simply slipped from one war into a series of others.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is director of the Transnational Threats Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the disengagement of the United States from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal directly contributed to what happened during the 1990s.

"The 15 February withdrawal of the last Soviet troops from Afghanistan is still having repercussions to this very day because the United States walked away from it, as the Soviets did. And what happened was that ethnic rivalries came to the fore. There was a civil war that led to the creation of the Taliban, which conquered [most of] the rest of the country. And that is a direct consequence of the way [the United States] walked away from the area," de Borchgrave said.

In 1992, after General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Uzbek militia stopped supporting the communist government in Kabul, President Najibullah was ousted from power by several mujahedin factions -- including the Hizb-i-Islami-yi Afghanistan of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The power vacuum created by Najibullah's ouster was filled by Burhanuddin Rabbani, the political leader of a mostly ethnic Tajik faction called Jamiat-i-Islami. But without the Soviets as a common enemy, it wasn't long before the ethnic, tribal, religious, and personality differences between the mujahedin commanders surfaced. From 1992 to 1996, about 70 percent of Kabul was destroyed and some 50,000 Afghans were killed as the mujahedin factions battled each other for control of the capital.

Anatol Lieven, a senior associate in the Russian and Eurasian Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he agrees that the United States shirked a moral responsibility to stay engaged in Afghanistan during the early 1990s, particularly considering the contributions Washington had made to mujahedin fighters in the 1980s via Pakistan.

"After the Soviets withdrew, the U.S. really walked away from Afghanistan throughout the 1990s. It took no interest in Afghanistan whatsoever until Al-Qaeda began to be a problem. Whereas if the U.S. had remained closely engaged, if it had used aid as a lever, if it had used much more intensive diplomacy and had brought much more pressure and influence to bear on Islamabad, I think it probably could have made a considerable difference to the outcome," Lieven said.

Lieven recognizes that Washington, Islamabad, and Saudi Arabia all supplied Afghan mujahedin fighters as part of a proxy war against the Soviets. But he says it is wrong for Afghans to blame all of the problems in their war-ravaged country on foreign machinations.

"The fundamental responsibility, or blame, or guilt, for the disaster in Afghanistan which happened in the 1990s [before the rise of the Taliban] is, of course, in the hands of the Afghans themselves -- and above all, the mujahedin parties and their leaderships which took power in Kabul when the communists fell. It was their complete failure to cooperate successfully, their complete failure to establish a stable and effective government, their ferocious civil fighting between each other, and also the appalling behavior of their troops, which created the Afghan disaster," Lieven said.

Lieven concludes that as Afghans look back on the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal, they should remember the hard-learned lessons from the subsequent events of the early 1990s.

"The overwhelming lesson for the Afghans is not to hate each other so much, and not be so quick to take up weapons. To develop more a sense of being Afghans and less of a sense of being Panjshiris, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks -- or members of different religious tendencies. To develop more of a sense of nationhood. The problem is, of course, that these are tendencies with very, very deep roots in Afghan society, culture, and history," Lieven said.

De Borchgrave says the United States should apply to today's post-Taliban era what was learned from events in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.

"We should not be repeating the mistakes of the past. We got rid of the bad guys in Afghanistan -- got rid of the Taliban -- and we can't walk away from that. We have to see it through," de Borchgrave

Afghan expert Barnett Rubin, the director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, has warned that continued factional fighting in Afghanistan threatens the implementation of the new Afghan Constitution, as well as presidential elections due to take place in June.

Rubin, who helped draft the 2001 Bonn Agreement, has argued during the past year that the main priority for the international community should now be to prevent renewed conflicts between factional militia by curtailing the power of Afghan warlords -- some of whom are members of the internationally backed Transitional Authority.