Posted by: Christian | January 11, 2012

Soviet Lessons for America in Afghanistan

Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal From Afghanistan (Harvard University Press, 2011)

Artemy Kalinovsky has worked his LSE dissertation on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan into a book that is both very readable and a valuable scholarly contribution to the literature on Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and International Relations. The book’s focus – the decision-making process behind the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan – is obviously relevant to the contemporary situation in Afghanistan as the American leadership decides how to attempt to manage its exit. Kalinovsky’s research question is stated clearly:

“Why did it take the Soviet Union so long to bring its troops home? After all, shortly after the invasion Soviet leaders realized that the intervention was becoming a quagmire, with serious costs for their relationship with the rest of the world.”

Kalinovsky helpfully, and honestly, describes the limited scope of his book at the very beginning. He states that A Long Goodbye is “first and foremost a study of Soviet decision making.” So if you are looking for a book on the mujahideen, the effect of the war on Afghan society, Soviet counter-insurgency, or on American and Pakistani military and covert involvement, then you will need to look elsewhere. These subjects are of course discussed, but not with the level of detail as is dedicated to the analysis on Soviet decision making.

Moving back to the book’s thesis, Kalinovsky writes that

“The single most important reason that Soviet leaders delayed the decision to withdraw for as long as they did is that they continued to believe the USSR could help stabilize Afghanistan, build up the Afghan armed forces, and make the Kabul government more acceptable to the people. This is hardly the only reason, however. Soviet leaders found it difficult to disengage from the Afghan conflict because they feared undermining Moscow’s status as a defender of Third World countries against encroaching neo-colonialism.”

Making comparisons to America’s present engagement with Afghanistan is far too easy, with just some alteration of the last sentence to replace “Third World” and “neo-colonialism” with the administration’s favored terms – perhaps “democratic” and “terrorism,” respectively.

The bulk of the analysis focuses on Gorbachev’s attempts during the latter part of the 1980s to secure an agreement on the terms of withdrawal from the United States and Pakistan. Of course, America was playing hardball with a force they knew was going to withdraw anyways, and Pakistan was Pakistan (e.g., “Pakistan refused to admit that it was responsible for any interference.”). Eventually Gorbachev had to settle for an agreement in the framework of the Geneva Accords of April 1988 wherein he did not get the hoped-for concession from America to stop supplying the mujahideen and acquiesce to an Afghan government run by the current President Najibullah. Pakistan did agree to stop delivering weaponry to the mujahideen, but it soon became clear that the Accords were just a piece of paper to the relevant forces inside Pakistan. Islamabad of course did not stop the “flow of arms.” For Gorbachev, “the blatant violation of the accords by Pakistan was an embarrassment, since it revealed that the accords were really little more than a fig leaf.”

And what of America’s future fig leaf? What is remarkable about the current situation is the inability of the US to find anyone to negotiate with. The Soviets were able to talk to people who they knew were in charge, whether it be Pakistani leaders, American diplomats, CIA officers or envoys, or even forces on the ground such as Ahmed Shah Massoud. The US has no such luxury today and instead scrambles for contacts with mid-level envoys of the major insurgent groups that may represent only themselves and, in one notorious case, may be an outright fraud (e.g., the “Quetta Shopkeeper”). Also a major difference is that the Soviet Union was able to negotiate with the funders and supporters of the insurgency. The US and Afghanistan have clearly been unable to find negotiating partners. And even if they could, funding for the insurgency comes from so many diverse sources including, as Hillary Clinton testified to the US Senate in December 2009, US Department of Defense contracts. For the United States, there is no guarantor partner that could stop funding from reaching the insurgency.

A further comparative analysis of failures can be extracted from Kalinovsky’s description of the Soviet management of their war in Afghanistan. He notes the failure of the Soviet troop surge of 1985 and of an attempt at “reconciliation” with the insurgents in 1987, failures with parallels to current trends too obvious to merit further mention. More importantly, he asks “How did those who came to dominate decision making on Afghanistan reach their individual conclusions about what policy should be followed in that country?” He finds several factors, including “Unjustifiably positive reporting was a problem in many areas of Soviet bureaucracy, and it almost certainly contributed to Soviet leaders’ misunderstanding of the situation in Afghanistan.” The result was that leaders from 1980 until well into the second half of the decade admitted that there were problems but claimed that progress was being made overall. Furthermore, he finds that interagency rivalry in Soviet organs resulted in opposed proxies in Afghanistan, with groups like the KGB supporting their own proxy in KhAD (the Afghan intelligence agency) even if it was not in the best interests of the USSR. Added to this were the calculations by members of the Soviet Politburo. Potential successors for various positions did not want to admit failure as they would then take the blame in any power struggle.

“Unjustifiably positive reporting?” Sounds familiar. Interagency rivalry and the backing of different proxies? The US has definitely done that by backing various power-brokers who are themselves opposed to the Kabul government or whose works degrades its authority and legitimacy. And while the acknowledgment of failure may not hurt US leaders in any Soviet-style politburo wrangling, Obama surely wants to defer the most obvious failure (i.e., a withdrawal that could well be viewed as an American failure) further into the future with presidential elections in mind.

Despite the parallels between the Soviet and American experience, the Soviet decision-making process was driven by much different factors. The Soviet Union was being pushed by its leadership towards an improved relationship with the West, and the war in Afghanistan was seen as an obstacle to that. For the United States, a withdrawal from Afghanistan does not hold the promise of an immediate improvement in relations with any entity as significant as it was for the Soviets. As Kalinovsky argues, the withdrawal was not just about the state of the war in Afghanistan. It was rather more so about a desire for reaping benefits from engagement with the US (e.g., the all-important nuclear weapons issue). Yet the war that Gorbachev called, in February 1986, a “Bleeding Wound,” would involve Soviet troops for another three years. Of course, as Kalinovsky notes, the belief by Gorbachev that he could both withdraw Soviet troops and salvage the friendly Soviet-supported government in Kabul is what caused him to drag out the final decision to withdraw for so long after coming to office in 1985. The second half of the 1980s saw drawn out attempts to negotiate at two levels: on with the US and Pakistan, and at a lower level with the “National Reconciliation” program closer to the grassroots level in Afghanistan. To a certain extent Gorbachev was successful. Soviet forces withdrew in February 1989 and the Afghan government of President Najibullah lasted until April 1992 – outliving the Soviet Union itself.

Kalinovsky’s book is quite readable. Kalinovsky does not burden the reader with obscure academic jargon or with thinly disguised op-ed style writing. In addition, Kalinovsky’s fluency in Russian and his academic training allows him to get deep into Russian archives, memoirs and secondary sources in a way that few other authors could. As a result we now have a much clearer view of Soviet decision-making and a better insight into the current dilemmas faced in Afghanistan. Kalinovsky’s book should be mandatory reading for students, scholars and practitioners who focus on Afghanistan, Soviet diplomatic/military history, American foreign policy, or even on International Relations in general.


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