USSR and US in Afghanistan
The story of the two superpower invasions of Afghanistan (by the US and USSR) is entirely about the parallels that ultimately obscure the obvious distinctions.
Even though Moscow was aware that requests for more weapons were frequently rapacious and based on greatly exaggerated numbers of Afghan personnel, the Soviet Union increased its economic and military assistance to the Mohammad Najibullah administration as it prepared to depart Afghanistan in 1988. Mikhail Gorbachev and his Politburo sought to make amends to Najibullah and his people for abandoning them to face the wrath of the American-trained, -armed, and -funded opposition because they felt sorry over the retreat.
Gorbachev was also aware of a certain matter of dignity. His foreign policy adviser Anatoly Chernyaev recalled in 2009 that “he said multiple times that we cannot just pull up our pants and make a dash for it, like Americans in Vietnam.”
After the decision was reached, it took the Soviets more than three years to go. The transfer of garrisons and military hardware involved complex procedures, with the new local owners receiving spruced-up barracks and recently tested weapons in addition to signed receipts. In his 2019 book, “The Limited Contingent,” General Boris Gromov, who oversaw the retreat, recalls how the Jalalabad garrison left their barracks:
The beds were tucked in neatly. There were slippers under the lockers, and even the bedside floor mats were in their proper places. The barracks were outfitted with all the tools required. The water supply functioned flawlessly.
The United States withdrew in 2021 with the goal of completing the withdrawal within a few months after President Joe Biden made the decision to do so. It destroyed certain equipment because it seemed more worried than the Soviets about its weapons ending up in the hands of Afghanistan’s potential new rulers. Even the things that American troops did leave behind, including keyless automobiles and trucks, were sometimes inoperable. Neither does the United States seem to believe in lengthy farewells, at least based on their surprise overnight departure from the Bagram Air Base. The Americans turned off the electricity, which cut off the water supply, and then they vanished.
And yet, whatever how different something may appear, it actually remains the same. Hours after the Russians left Jalalabad, the clean Soviet garrison town was pillaged, and Gromov reported that “all the more or less valuable property — televisions, audio equipment, air conditioners, furniture, even army mattresses — was sold through the city’s market booths.” The same incident occurred in Bagram shortly after the Americans left; thieves broke in and took whatever they could find of value.
In support of a Communist-led coup in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union invaded the country as part of a Cold War expansionist policy. After 9/11, the U.S. attempted to destroy al-Qaeda, which is maybe a more honourable justification. In less than ten years, the Soviet Union lost about 15,000 personnel, while Americans (the Pentagon and private military organisations combined) lost less than half that number over two times as long. The US, which spent an astounding $2.26 trillion on the war, can live with that; at least they managed to break al-back Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden, even if not in Afghanistan itself. The USSR achieved nothing by entering its Afghan war; pouring resources into the conflict’s bottomless pit only hastened the end of the Communist superpower.
But once more, it’s challenging to concentrate on these distinctions when the parallels are even more striking. According to Gromov, “207 out of 290 districts” were under the control of the “opposition” in early 1989, a collective term for numerous Islamist organisations and self-serving warlords. Afghanistan has 421 districts, though the exact number is always changing. The Taliban are reportedly in charge of around a third of those districts and district centres. So both superpowers purposefully abandoned weak governments and a sense of impending doom in the areas these governments still ruled. When the Taliban arose as a just movement promising to put an end to warlord rivalry and took over Kabul in 1996, they hung Najibullah, who had by that time long since lost power; Afghan officials who worked with the U.S. may certainly suffer the same fate if they do not depart.
And in all instances, Pakistan was crucial in foiling the superpowers’ attempts to restrain Islamist militancy. As long as Pakistan offers the Taliban protection, safety, training, equipment, and funding, the battle against the Taliban will be impossible to win. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation with the fifth-largest population in the world, is impossible for us to defeat.
The accords on Afghan national reconciliation, which formed the basis for the Soviet withdrawal, were violated in 1989 by Pakistan. The Afghan rebels had outposts in Pakistan and recruited Afghans in nearby refugee camps, including fighters who would later join the Taliban. Like the U.S. today, the Soviet Union was unprepared to confront Pakistan militarily, so the U.S. and its Western allies helped enable the flow of weapons and money into the conflict zones from the neighbouring nation.
In other words, no matter your morals, no matter how much time you spend or how many soldiers you lose, no matter whether you’re on the winning or losing side in geopolitical battles, what you’ll leave behind in Afghanistan will be scenes of looting, a weak regime that depends too much on your support and is unlikely to last for very long, tough local fighters who feel justified for years of adversity and gloating Pakistani generals across the border. Another constant was the country’s thriving opium trade, which neither the Soviets nor the Americans were able to stifle.
As much as the Soviets of the 1980s and the Americans of the first two decades of this century differ from one another, both stepped into Afghanistan with too little planning and too much arrogance and confidence — and knew from the start that they couldn’t stay. This persisting situation has less to do with the stubborn magic of the place than it does with the straightforward fact that. Both parties were confident in their greater military prowess and moral superiority. Both discovered evidence that some people accepted what they brought—each their distinct brand of secular progressivism—and believed this indicated that those ideals might spread. However, neither could last forever because colonisation is no longer acceptable, and neither Gorbachev nor Joe Biden was willing to discuss the idea. Given the high human and financial costs, neither of them has found Afghanistan to be worthwhile.
But just like the several Afghan insurgent groups that came before them, the Taliban saw their entire purpose and significance in remaining there forever. Local fighters still believe they are defending their nation and way of life in 2021 as they did in 1989. The Taliban can be very persuasive in this regard. You can outlive superpowers if you’re not going anywhere, regardless of what occurs, the cost, or the length of time you must pay. As Afghanistan’s example demonstrates, attachment to a location and a way of life is a potent constant that generates additional constants.
Why Afghan Colonisation was Destined to Fail
It has been said that nation-building is a fool’s errand and, in the case of a nation already known as the “graveyard of empires,” overly ambitious if not downright naive, as evidenced by the creation of a façade of a state in Afghanistan that melted away the moment international support was withdrawn.
There are intrinsic challenges to rebuilding Afghanistan, the most significant of which is geographic. Afghanistan is a landlocked country that shares borders with Pakistan, the Taliban’s biggest supporter, and Iran, whose authorities prioritise the chance to humiliate the US over any desire for regional security. International efforts to convince the region that stability is preferable to chaos failed because Afghanistan is essentially a secondary concern to other foreign policy priorities, especially the Iranian conflict with the US, the Pakistani conflict with India, and its ongoing apprehension over a pro-Indian government in Kabul. An uphill battle was unavoidable when two of your closest neighbours were determined to undermine nation-building.
A significant contributing aspect is economics because, other than a natural richness that has mostly gone unexplored due to security concerns, Afghanistan has no comparative advantage in any legal trade. The main sources of income are illegal mining, forestry, and narcotics like opium and more recently methamphetamine. Building a legitimate state in a society where most economic activity is illegal is more difficult since so many economically significant players oppose the expansion of the state’s authority into areas where they are operating. Additionally, the absence of obvious viable alternatives continues to be a challenge because many people within the state apparatus were also profiting from criminal activity.
Afghanistan is not a unified, monolingual nation-state, but rather contains a number of ethnic groupings, each of which crosses boundaries, adding to the complexity of Afghan society. The entry of extremely well-armed international forces trying to settle disputes by claiming long-standing foes were actually allies simply prolonged warfare. Managing these complicated dynamics and internal feuds amongst clans are challenging.
Several military leaders made the observation that democratic systems resulted in the government changing every four to five years, despite the fact that nation-building takes several decades. In recent years, a standoff had developed because the Taliban was aware of its inability to retain urban Afghanistan, where a small number of western troops and more contractors were deployed. This arrangement might have continued indefinitely, but the US presence was no longer popular, especially in the US. The Taliban believed they could just wait it out after it was announced that US troops would be leaving.
The fact that the invasion involved overthrowing a group of violent, tyrannical thugs rather than a popular administration may have been the US-led coalition’s best benefit. The issue was that, following the liberation, Iraq was subjected to lessons learnt about how easily less powerful adversaries may be overthrown. The nation-building project wasn’t started for a few years, giving the Taliban time to reorganise in safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and Afghans didn’t see much direct advantage until then.
Tolerance of corruption, which served as the Taliban’s rallying cry and highlighted the most difficult issue of nation-building in the conditions Afghanistan found itself in, served as the foundation for all of this. Not just the Taliban, but the majority of Afghans, questioned early assertions that the multinational presence would last forever. Families were strongly motivated to take steps to secure their future because there was always a chance that the state would fail. As a result, fewer resources were available to create new states, which decreased their likelihood because the more resources there were, the easier it would be to commit corruption. Smaller sums may have been distributed to more local administrative entities, improving service delivery and the legitimacy of the administration.
Even if the devolution of financial control, though not political power, a more assertive stance against Pakistan, and some early examples of the advantages of a post-Taliban government could have changed things, fundamental problems would still have existed. An alternate strategy would have simply allowed the current transfer of power to take place over the course of months or years as opposed to only a few hours.