The story of two superpower invasions of Afghanistan is all about the similarities that end up erasing the undeniable differences.
As the Soviet Union prepared to leave Afghanistan in 1988, it stepped up economic and military aid to the government of Mohammad Najibullah, even though it knew the requests for more weaponry were often larcenous, based on wildly inflated numbers of Afghan servicemen. Mikhail Gorbachev and his Politburo felt guilty about the withdrawal and wanted to compensate their “Afghan friends,” as official documents of the era referred to Najibullah and his people, for leaving them alone to face the fury of the U.S.-trained, – armed and -funded opposition.
Gorbachev was also conscious of a certain dignity issue. “He said several times that we cannot just pull up our pants and make a run for it, like Americans in Vietnam,” his foreign policy adviser Anatoly Chernyaev recalled in 2009.
The Soviets took more than three years to leave after the decision was made. As they handed over garrisons and military equipment, the proceedings were elaborate, with the new local owners receiving spruced-up barracks and freshly tested weapons, all signed off on receipts. General Boris Gromov, who presided over the withdrawal, recalled in his 2019 memoir, “The Limited Contingent,” how the Jalalabad garrison left its barracks:
“The beds were neatly tucked in. Even the bedside floor mats were in the regulation spots, and there were slippers under the lockers. The barracks had all the necessary equipment. Water supply worked without a hitch.”
As the U.S. pulls out in 2021, it aims to finish the withdrawal mere months after President Joe Biden made the decision to leave. It appears somewhat more concerned than the Soviets about having its weaponry fall into the hands of Afghanistan’s possible new masters, so it’s destroying some equipment. Some of what U.S. troops do leave is, deliberately or not, unusable – for instance, cars and trucks abandoned without keys. Nor does the U.S. appear to believe in elaborate goodbyes, at least if one judges by its unannounced nighttime departure from the Bagram Air Base; the Americans shut off the power (which cut off the water supply) and were gone.
And yet the more things seem different, the more they stay the same. The spotless Soviet garrison town in Jalalabad was looted hours after the Russians left, and “all the more or less valuable property – televisions, audio equipment, air conditioners, furniture, even army beds – was sold through the city’s market stalls,” Gromov wrote. The same happened to Bagram minutes after the Americans went – looters went in and grabbed anything they could find of value.
The Soviet Union went into Afghanistan to prop up a Communist-led coup as part of an expansionist Cold War strategy. The U.S. did so in an attempt to purge al-Qaida in the wake of 9/11 – arguably a more honorable justification. The Soviets lost some 15,000 personnel in less than 10 years, the Americans (the Pentagon and private military companies together) fewer than half of that number over twice the time. The USSR achieved nothing by getting into its Afghan war – pouring resources into the conflict’s bottomless pit only quickened the end of the Communist superpower; the Americans, who spent a mind-boggling $2.26 trillion on the war, can live with that, and they did at least manage to break al-Qaida’s back and kill Osama bin Laden, albeit not in Afghanistan itself.
But again, it’s hard to focus on these differences when the similarities are even more powerful. In early 1989, according to Gromov, the “opposition” – a catch-all term for various Islamist groups and self-serving warlords – controlled “207 out of 290 districts.” The number of districts is rather fluid in Afghanistan, and it’s being reported that the Taliban now controls about a third of the country’s “421 districts and district centers”; that number keeps growing. So both superpowers knowingly left behind beleaguered governments and a feeling of gloom and doom on the territories these governments still controlled. When the Taliban emerged as a righteous force pledging to end warlords’ internecine fighting and seized control of Kabul in 1996, they hanged Najibullah, by then long out of power; Afghan leaders who cooperated with the U.S. could well face the same fate if they fail to flee.
And in both cases, Pakistan played a critical role in thwarting the superpowers’ ambitions of holding back Islamist radicalism. As the former high-ranking Central Intelligence Agency officer Bruce Riedel wrote bluntly for the Brookings Institution earlier this year:
“The war against the Taliban is impossible to win as long as Pakistan provides sanctuary and safety, training, equipment, and funds for the Taliban. We cannot defeat Pakistan, which is a nuclear-armed state and has the fifth largest population in the world.”
In 1989, Pakistan was the party that flouted the agreements on Afghan national reconciliation, which served as the basis for the Soviet withdrawal. The Afghan rebels, including fighters who would end up with the Taliban, maintained bases in Pakistan and recruited Afghans in local refugee camps. Weapons and cash also flowed from the neighboring country into the fighting areas, facilitated by the U.S. and its Western allies; like the U.S. today, the Soviet Union was unprepared to take on Pakistan militarily.
In other words, no matter what your values, no matter how much time you spend or how many soldiers you lose, no matter whether you’re on the winning or the losing side in geopolitical battles, what you’ll leave behind in Afghanistan is scenes of looting, a weak regime too dependent on your support and unlikely to hold out much longer, tough local fighters who feel vindicated for years of hardship, and gloating Pakistani generals across the border. Another constant: Afghanistan’s flourishing opiate industry, which neither the Soviets nor the Americans could undermine.
These enduring circumstances have less to do with the stubborn magic of the place than with the simple fact that, as much as the Soviets of the 1980s and the Americans of this century’s first two decades differ from one another, both stepped into Afghanistan with too little forethought and too much arrogance and confidence – and knew from the start that they couldn’t stay. Both were certain of their superior military might and their superior values. Both found evidence that some locals liked what they brought – each their own brand of secular progressivism – and took that to mean those values could take root. But neither could stick around forever; colonization just isn’t done anymore, and Gorbachev was no more prepared to entertain it than Joe Biden. Afghanistan hasn’t been worth holding on to for either of them, given its hefty human and financial cost.
To the Taliban, though, just as to the assorted Afghan rebels before them, their entire purpose and meaning were in staying there forever. The local fighters felt in 1989, and still feel in 2021, that they stand for the country and its way of life. The Taliban can be particularly convincing about it. If you’re not going anywhere no matter what happens, what price you’re forced to pay over how long, you can outlast superpowers. Attachment to a place and a way of life is a powerful constant that, as Afghanistan’s example shows, creates other constants.
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