Posted by: Christian | July 26, 2010

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Every once and a while an article appears that discusses the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan – particularly how the Soviet/Russian-supported government actually lasted a couple of years.

This article in the World Policy Review is just one example. But I’m only going to work from one article for this post, and for good reason:

Lester W. Grau, ‘Breaking Contact Without Leaving Chaos: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan’, Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2007.

You can read a PDF of an earlier version here.

Grau starts with this introduction:

There is a literature and a common perception that the Soviets were defeated and driven from Afghanistan. This is not true. When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, they did so in a coordinated, deliberate, professional manner, leaving behind a functioning government, an improved military and an advisory and economic effort insuring the continued viability of the government. The withdrawal was based on a coordinated diplomatic, economic and military plan permitting Soviet forces to withdraw in good order and the Afghan government to survive. The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) managed to hold on despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Only then, with the loss of Soviet support and the increased efforts by the Mujahideen (holy warriors) and Pakistan, did the DRA slide toward defeat in April 1992. The Soviet effort to withdraw in good order was well executed and can serve as a model for other disengagements from similar nations.

The vast majority of the English-language literature on the Soviet-Afghan war is far too biased to be of any analytical use. But with the passage of time the biases have mellowed a bit. However, there is not much in the way of serious academic or military studies of this period. This article by Grau is helpful, but still far too little given the overwhelming need for a objective assessments of the Soviet-Afghan war. Anyways, back to the article:

The Soviets did not abandon the Afghanistan government–the Russian Federation did. The Soviets left an advisory contingent behind to help coordinate logistics and air strikes. After the withdrawal, the Afghan government ran a 600-truck convoy weekly to the Soviet Union for resupply. The Soviet Union maintained its air bridge, flying in cargos as diverse as flour and SCUD missiles.

Grau’s conclusion start this way:

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan provides an excellent model for disengagement from direct military involvement in support of an allied government in a counter-insurgency campaign. It demonstrates the need for comprehensive planning encompassing diplomatic, economic and military measures, both during and subsequent to direct military involvement. It underscores the necessity for the host government to become able to function on its own and the supporting government to continue to provide adequate support subsequent to its departure.

I know it’s the same country. But the situation is now rather different (note that Grau isn’t selling this as a sure-fire plan). The main differences today that would affect any potential exit strategy:

  • the current insurgency is not as fragmented as the mujahideen were
  • today’s “pro-government side” is possibly less cohesive than in Najibullah’s day (i.e., powerful Afghan security firms as non-state actors)
  • massive corruption and incompetence of current Afghan government makes Najibullah seem like a very competent leader
  • Soviets had been building up the Afghan army for far longer and with more dedication
  • Soviet supported militias (Jauzjanis and Naderi’s guys) were downright professional and ‘modern’ compared to current weak attempts at the same thing
  • Soviets had direct communications with the mujahideen and had previous experience negotiating with them
  • The peak of fighting had already passed for the Soviets
  • And so on…..

Grau’s article is probably worth a read: PDF.


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