The Soviets in Afghanistan: Obama’s Deja Vu?

The Soviets in Afghanistan: Obamas Deja Vu?

“It’s a tricky situation,” said the decision maker huddled with his inner circle, debating what to do next in Afghanistan.
“We went in, but how to get out — our head[s] are splitting from this. Of course we can just pull out fast, without thinking of anything and blame the former leadership who started all this.” The dilemma may sound familiar as the Obama Administration weighs General Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops, but the quote comes from Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary-General of the Soviet Communist Party, during a debate that raged in the Kremlin during 1986 and 1987. Moscow was grappling with some of the same issues eight years after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan that President Obama today faces, eight years after U.S. troops went in. And eavesdropping, retrospectively, on the Soviet debate on Afghanistan offers some uncomfortable parallels.

The independent National Security Archive at George Washington University recently translated chronicles of the Soviet discussion, mostly from notes taken by Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s senior foreign policy aide at the time. While the U.S. insists it is not an occupying force as the Soviets were, both missions faced many of the same challenges. “We should honestly admit that our efforts over the last eight years have not led to the expected results,” a senior military commander confided to Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov in an August 1987 letter. “Huge material resources and considerable casualties did not produce a positive end result.”

Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, six years after the Soviet invasion, was flummoxed by the situation he had inherited from his predecessors. Obama too: “For six years, Afghanistan has
been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq,” the President said in March in a clear slap at the Bush Administration.

“Our ticket out of Afghanistan is the ability of the Afghans to maintain their own security,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in June. The Soviets believed the same thing two decades earlier, although they were disappointed. “There was a simplified view that the presence of our troops would set Afghanistan on the right track,” Politburo member and former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said in February 1987. “And now I would not bet a dime that they can create their own Afghan army, no matter how much resources we invest in it.”

Second-guessing of the original invasion was rampant in the Soviet debate. “I am not going to discuss now whether we
did the right thing by going there,” Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said in January 1987. “But it is a fact that we went there absolutely not knowing the psychology of the people or the real situation in the country.”

Like the U.S. mission, the Red Army lacked sufficient troops in Afghanistan to control the countryside. “After seven years in Afghanistan, there is not one square kilometer left untouched by a boot of a Soviet soldier,” Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the top
Soviet military officer, said in November 1986. “But as soon as they leave a place, the enemy returns and restores it all back the way it used to be.”

Pakistan was also a key feature of the discussion in both the White House and the Kremlin, although their conclusions differed. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to close the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” Gromyko declared in February 1987, “so we need to end this war.” See TIME’s photo-essay “On the Frontlines in the Battle Against the Taliban.”

Newly in power and untested, Gorbachev faced some of the same pressures to prove his mettle as Obama now feels. So he gave the Soviet military one last shot at turning things around, according to Gates, who was the No. 2 man in the CIA at the time. “During Gorbachev’s first 18 months in power, we saw new, more aggressive Soviet tactics, a spread of the war to the eastern provinces, attacks inside Pakistan, and more indiscriminate use of air power,” Gates wrote in his 1996 autobiography. But it failed to turn the tide. So in February 1988, Gorbachev finally threw in the towel. But at least he could console himself with the belief that the vacuum created by withdrawing would not be filled by Moscow’s key adversary. “The U.S.A.,” Gorbachev told his Politburo colleagues, “is not going to send in its armed forces if we leave.”
Read “A Window on the War in Afghanistan.”