Soviet lessons from Afghanistan

November 18, 2009

Previously secret transcripts of Politburo meetings and diary entries recently released by the Washington-based National Security Archive – detailing the difficulties faced by the Soviets make sobering reading for British and American leaders, as they decide whether to double-up or cut their losses in Afghanistan.

They knew things were not going well, but from their leader there was a whiff of panic.

“We just need to be sure that the final result does not look like a humiliating defeat: to have lost so many men and now abandoned it all… in short, we have to get out of there.”

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – the speaker of those words – was understandably alarmed.

It was June 1986, almost a year since he had taken the decision to start withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan and hand over more responsibility to the government there.

But Soviet losses, already above 10,000, kept mounting.

With conflicting signals this week about the direction of Western policy in Afghanistan, there is a hint of the same kind of panic and indecision.

Soviet exit strategy

US President Barack Obama is still deciding whether to send in thousands of US reinforcements.

Yet the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown – facing ever-greater opposition to the Afghan war – has been highlighting possibilities for UK troops to pull back in some areas next year.

It is less than two weeks since he was saying: “We cannot, must not and will not walk away.”

But as Mr Gorbachev found, getting out is at least as difficult as staying in.

It took almost four years to pull out entirely – because of a combination of dithering over strategy and last-ditch efforts by Moscow to prop up its client government in Kabul in the hope of maintaining some pride and influence.

The former Soviet leader’s difficulties are detailed in previously secret transcripts of Politburo meetings and diary entries recently released by the Washington-based National Security Archive.

They make sobering reading for British and American leaders, as they decide whether to double-up or cut their losses in Afghanistan.

There are certainly differences – not least America’s determination to make the Soviet withdrawal as costly as possible in blood and treasure.

Lost battle

But there are echoes too of the difficulties the US and its allies face now.

By the late 1980s, Moscow’s exit strategy was basically the same as Nato’s today – to build up an allied government in Kabul with sufficient trained army and police forces to defend itself, thereby allowing foreign troops to leave.

But even with the backing of a 100,000-strong Soviet army and billions of rubles in aid, the Afghan government struggled to establish its legitimacy and authority much beyond the capital – much like President Hamid Karzai’s Western-backed administration today.

This bleak assessment of the situation in late 1986 by the Soviet armed forces commander, Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, sounds eerily familiar.

“Military actions in Afghanistan will soon be seven years old,” Mr Akhromeev told Mr Gorbachev at a November 1986 Politburo session.

“There is no single piece of land in this country which has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nonetheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of rebels.

“The whole problem is that military results are not followed up by political actions. At the centre there is authority; in the provinces there is not.

“We control Kabul and the provincial centres, but on occupied territory we cannot establish authority. We have lost the battle for the Afghan people”.

Familiar problems

By that point, Soviet trainers had created an Afghan army 160,000-strong – double the size of the force Nato has trained so far – together with thousands of much-feared secret policemen.

Yet once Soviet forces had left, they could do little more than defend Kabul and a few other cities.

Only massive military aid, coupled with incompetence and in-fighting among the US-backed mujahideen opposition, allowed the Afghan government Moscow left behind to cling on in Kabul for a few more years before finally collapsing.

There were familiar problems too with the financial assistance Moscow gave.

It hoped the funds would bolster the capacity of the Afghan government and pay for projects that would benefit people, winning hearts and minds.

However corruption rendered much of its useless.

As the Politburo discussed a new aid request from Kabul in January 1987, Marshal Sergei Sokolov said: “In 1981, we gave them 100m roubles of free assistance. And all of that went to the elite. And there was nothing in the hamlets – no kerosene, no matches.”



  1. They have already lost the war – they are simply not prepared to admit it yet.

    Let them now negotiate the terms of their surrender, as defeated armies always have throughout history.

  2. the Soviets trained an army of 160k afgans
    Compared to the Nato trained army of 80k

    NATO has no chance in afganistan,

    Pakistan needs to find a 3rd poltical player in afganistan to support, not karzai not the deobandi taliban but someone else we can trust

  3. On the contrary,I saw a video of Alex Jones(Infowars and PrisonPlanet tv)where an American journalistin Afghanistan, was saying that it is a phoney war.Taliban are controlling 80% of the country and Americans are not fighting with them.Americans are only interested in gaining time to build few more bases for which they are pouring in money.They already have some big bases.He also said that US is paying money to Taliban by way of Bhatta.

    I think,once they are done with,they will openly try to make friendship with Taliban,which they have alrady started.

    American strategy is now focussed on Al-Quaida only which they say are in Pakistan.

    If so,much will depend on wisdom of Pakistani leadership and Taliban.I cannot even think of Taliban leaving us in the lurch.

    Have I put forward a conspiracy theory?

  4. US has already started to leave Afghanistan. Can someone verify this? Send an e-mail to Zaid Hamid or someone.

  5. […] PDRTJS_settings_11610_post_983 = { "id" : "11610", "unique_id" : "wp-post-983", "title" : "Soviet+lessons+from+Afghanistan", "item_id" : "_post_983", "permalink" : "http%3A%2F%2Fsiyasipakistan.wordpress.com%2F2009%2F11%2F20%2Fsoviet-lessons-from-afghanistan%2F" } By: PKKH […]

  6. The late President Anwar El-Sadat of Egypt was assassinated in 1981 by a faction of Egypt’s leading Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. The irony is that this was the same organisation that Sadat had purposefully patronised.

    He had replaced the charismatic Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser as the President of Egypt after Nasser died in 1970. Nasser had ruled the country as a popular president between 1952 and 1970, leaving behind a legacy of staunch secular/socialist Arab nationalism.

    Though Nasser remained popular till his death, the glow of his influence across assorted Muslim and Third World countries was somewhat dimmed when Egyptian and Syrian armed forces backed by the Soviet Union were decimated in the 1967 war against Israel. Though Sadat had helped Nasser in toppling the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and was also an integral part of Nasser’s socialist/secular policies, he initiated a shift. In Sadat’s view, Nasser’s socialist model could not sustain the new sombre realities that had surfaced after the 1967 war.

    Sadat’s move towards the western economic model was welcomed by the country’s urban bourgeoisie, but it was vehemently challenged by the pro-Nasser and left-wing student groups and the Arab media. To neutralise the pro-Nasser and left-wing challenge to his shifting policies on campuses and in the print media, Sadat brought back to life one of the staunchest anti-Nasser and anti-left forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The Brotherhood had been greatly radicalised by its second generation leadership led by the teachings of Syed Qutb. He had posed the biggest challenge to Nasser’s socialism and the regime’s pro-Soviet and secular make-up. However, after Nasser’s death, Sadat tactfully let loose the Brotherhood, using state power to help the organisation infiltrate campuses and the media.

    To appease the organisation, Sadat instructed the state-owned radio and TV channels to not only start regular religious programmes, but to also show as many images as possible of him saying his prayers at a mosque. Sadat also lifted the ban on various Muslim Brotherhood magazines and newspapers. All this was done to soften Egypt’s pro-Soviet and Nasserite image and to mollify concerns of the West and Egypt’s new allies such as the oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

    Immediately after Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel — in which Sadat (falsely) claimed to have defeated the enemy — he completely pulled Egypt out from the Soviet camp. However, in 1977 when Sadat, in an unprecedented move, agreed to make formal peace with Israel, the Brotherhood became Sadat’s biggest enemy. Eventually, in 1981, he was assassinated by members of the Brotherhood — ironically the very organisation he had encouraged to nullify the perceived communist threat to his regime.

    Something similar happened in Pakistan as well. In the 1970 elections, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party had routed the Islamic parties. But by 1973 Bhutto was under pressure from the PPP’s leading ideologues, asking him to hasten the regime’s socialist agenda. In response, Bhutto purged the PPP of its radical founding members. He then came under the influence of the party’s ‘conservative wing’ that encouraged him to appease his staunchest opponents, the Islamists, (especially the Jamat-i-Islami), which had declared the PPP’s socialism as ‘un-Islamic.’

    Though in private, Bhutto accused the Islamic parties of being ‘anti-socialist American stooges,’ in public he went along with some of his advisers’ counsel and declared the Ahmaddiyya community non-Muslim, naively believing this concession would appease and contain his Islamist opponents. The truth is, the Islamists were only emboldened by this gesture.

    Also, while purging the left-wing radicals in the PPP (from 1974 onwards), Bhutto is also said to have ‘allowed’ the student-wing of the Jamat, the IJT, to establish a strong foothold on campuses which, till then, were mostly dominated by radical left-wing student groups such as the NSF.

    Bhutto, like Sadat, had ignored the Islamist challenge to his regime, and seemed more concerned about imaginary ‘Soviet/ Indian-backed groups.’ His pragmatic indulgence in this regard had the reverse effect. Instead of containing the Islamist parties, his constitutional concessions only emboldened them. Not surprisingly, he was toppled by a reactionary general whom he had handpicked himself, shortly after the Islamist parties unleashed a countrywide movement against the PPP regime in 1976, calling for Sharia rule.

    These are just two brief examples of the blunders committed by certain leading secular Muslim leaders that annihilated the over-blown left-wing and secular challenges by regenerating and using Islamist forces against them. This created daunting political and ideological vacuums in societies that were eventually filled by reactionary military regimes, rejuvenated Islamist forces and, eventually, a new breed of extremism — the sort that now worked towards grabbing state power and carving out a theological hegemony, based on mythical and Utopian illusions about an eternal ‘Islamic State.’

    Pakistan and Egypt are prime examples; two of the many Muslim republics now desperately trying to reinvigorate moderate and secular forces to open a consensual front against extremism that was once state-sanctioned, to bludgeon opposing secular forces.

    One wonders if it is already too late to do that; or if there are any worthwhile progressive sections in society today, in these countries, who can once again demonstrate the same boldness and imagination that they exhibited in the construction of their respective countries’ nationalism before their downfall.

  7. @Yogi,
    Keep your analysis and advice to yourself.

    When you started your story from 1952,it was better you could have gone backwards to 1946-1947 when the demand for Pakistan was at its height in areas like UP,CP,Gujrat and other areas.These people knew that,on Partition,these areas will never become part of Pakistan.It was the love of Islam which made them die for Pakistan..You massacred 20 million people.

    The most popular slogan was:


    What Bhutto did,is a history.That will never be repeted in Pakistan.

    Now we are on the path of second part of the above slogan:

    MOHAMMAD-UL-RASOOL ALLAH,by establishing a true Islamic state,which of course will not be extremist state.Wait for another Pakistan to be created in India.


    Tell me why you stink so much?

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