On February 15, 1989, the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan. Over three decades later, on August 31st, 2021, the last United States soldier left Afghanistan. To understand why the USSR and US decided to depart from Afghanistan, it is crucial to learn why they came in the first place. Since its foundation in 1747, Afghanistan has been a battleground for conflicting worldviews. From the early 19th century, Britain and Czarist-Russia marked Afghanistan as a buffer zone to limit each other’s sphere of influence. However, Afghanistan remained a British client-state until its independence in 1919. From the 1919s to the 1970s, Afghanistan adopted a neutral policy toward world affairs. A series of modernization reforms took place, schools and universities opened, and women were active contributors to society and politics; Afghans nostalgically celebrate this as the era of peace and modernization. But peace was short-lived. With the beginning of the Cold War between the USSR and the US, Afghanistan was again a hot battleground amidst a Cold War.
The lack of a clear Afghanistan policy prevented the Soviet Union (1979-1989) and the United States (2001-2021) from achieving the goals they had set for their involvement in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union expected that the war would end in two years, a robust communist regime would emerge in Kabul, and the Soviets could easily withdraw their military forces. Similarly, 13 years later, the United States planned to clear Afghanistan from terrorism, ensure that the Afghan soil was never again used for terrorist activity, build democratic institutions, and leave, but remain a strategic partner with Afghanistan. The events that followed the invasions and the two withdrawals show us that neither the Soviets nor the US achieved their goal in Afghanistan.
The lack of a clear Afghanistan policy led to inter-agency rivalry and conflict in both the USSR and the US. From 1979 to 1989, the KGB, Soviet military, Politburo, and the political representatives of the Soviet Union each adopted divergent policies based on their interests and priorities. From 2001 to 2021, the CIA, FBI, Department of State, Drug Enforcement Agency, and military generals adopted contradictory approaches and policies on what needed to be done in Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan despite being convinced that the invasion would heighten the challenges that already existed in Afghanistan. In a meeting between Nur Mohammad Taraki, the president of Afghanistan, Alexei Kosygin, the premier of the Soviet Union, and other members of the Politburo, Kosygin clearly expressed to Taraki that the Soviet Union neither planned nor thought it wise to invade Afghanistan. This meeting was held on March 20, 1979. A series of primary source documents in Wilson Center’s digital archives show that the Soviet Union had no intention to invade Afghanistan until December 1979. The discussion on deploying troops to Afghanistan emerges in these documents after Hafizulah Amin murdered Nur Mohammad Taraki, and KGB reports that Amin has held secret meetings with the CIA.
The divergent views and lack of cooperation between various agencies of the USSR became apparent when the Politburo announced its decision to invade Afghanistan. On December 10, 1979, the Defense Minister of USSR Dimitry Fydovorovich Ustinov announced to the Chief General Staff N.V Ogarkov that the Politburo had reached a preliminary decision to send Soviet troops into Afghanistan and that he needed to organize around 80,000 people for this mission. According to Alexander Lyakhovskiy, Ogarkov responded to this request with outrage, calling the decision “reckless” and asserting that “the Afghan problem should be decided by the political means, instead of relying on using force. He cited the traditions of the Afghan people, who never tolerated foreigners on their soil, warned them about the possible involvement of our troops in military operations, — but everything was in vain.”
According to Major General Lyakhovskiy, the final decision to invade Afghanistan was reached after General Lieutenant B. Ivanov, the KGB representative in Afghanistan, presented a report on the situation in Afghanistan to the Politburo. Military advisor S. Magometov opposed this report; he called the information “excessive,” “dramatic,” and an exaggeration of the situation in Afghanistan. Ustinov responded, “You cannot come to an agreement there, but we need to make a decision.” Moreover, to show his disagreement with the decision to send troops to Afghanistan, Kosygin did not attend the Politburo meeting.
These drifts became more visible after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Muslim Battalion, consisting of Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik fighters, was tasked with entering Afghanistan and helping down the Herat rebellion. Still, until the last minute, neither they nor their generals knew why they had been sent to Afghanistan. Moreover, According to Rodric Braithwaite in Afghantsy, when the sepatnaz attacked Hafizullah Amin’s palace and assassinated him, the Soviet Ambassador in Afghanistan was shocked. He and his team were kept entirely outside decision-making and information sharing.
Additionally, the tensions between the military, KGB, and Politburo continued to increase during the war. Army generals were getting hired and fired at a high rate. Each agency had prioritized a different goal. Anxious about its survival, the Afghan government continued to pass false information to its Soviet friends to keep them engaged on the ground.
During the 21st century war on terror, the same pattern repeated itself. Lack of a clear strategy on what the US aimed to achieve in Afghanistan prolonged the war, weakened the fighting on the battleground, and disrupted nation-building (which was a policy the US adopted after toppling the Taliban government). This lack of a clear strategy was apparent from the start of the invasion. According to Bob Woodward in Obama’s War, in a meeting between then-Vice President Biden and Robert Gates, the director of the CIA, and Michael Mullen, chairman of the chief of staff, Mullen said to Biden and Gates “The Afghanistan war has been under-resourced for years, in truth, there was no strategy. In Afghanistan we do what we can, in Iraq we do what we must.” President Obama tried to change that. He directed his team to review the situation in Afghanistan and develop a strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The new strategy directed more economic support for Pakistan to encourage them to take serious action against terrorists inside Pakistan, announced that all American units will partner with Afghan units and will train the Afghan security forces to prepare to take the responsibility of securing Afghanistan, and it sought to create regional collaboration among actors. As I have discussed in the previous section of this article, this strategy had a counter effect on events in Afghanistan. Obama had made it clear that after the training of Afghan security forces the US troops would withdraw. The Taliban and their supporters gained more momentum and hope when they learned that.
In Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward writes about Vice President Biden’s visit to Afghanistan. In this visit he asked a group of colonels, lieutenants, and sergeants “What are we trying to do here?” The answer varied. One person said “ So we are basically trying to rebuild this country, so it can stand on its own feet,” another said “we are trying to get Al Qaeda” another “we are building a democratic country” but most answers were “we don’t know.”
The lack of a clear strategy created a gap. Various agencies filled the gap with conflicting views and priorities on how issues in Afghanistan needed to be handled. The CIA partnered with Afghans to collect intelligence and share that information with Washington. CIA’s partners on the ground were strong men with bad human rights records and primarily involved in drug trafficking. The Drug Enforcement Agency’s mission was to end drug production and criminalize the perpetrators. Partners of the CIA were the criminals that DEA was after. Furthermore, the State Department was invested in rebuilding Afghanistan and establishing democratic institutions, while the military was highly invested in war and further militarization. The changes in the US administrations between Republicans and Democrats and the resulting policy shift towards Afghanistan further increased the gap in interagency collaboration.
One incident that underlines the lack of inter-agency cooperation is the arrests of Wakil Ahmad Moutawakel, the foreign Minister of the Taliban, and Haji Bashar Noorzai, financier of Taliban and drug trafficker, who later worked closely with CIA. When he established contact with the CIA, Bashar tried to connect the Taliban with the government of Afghanistan as well as the CIA to begin a discussion about the Taliban’s possible return to Afghanistan. This meant a first step toward building trust between Karzai’s government and the Taliban. Bashar got assurance from the CIA, convinced the Taliban that they would be safe, and held a meeting in Kandahar. DEA arrived at the meeting, arrested Bashar for drug trafficking, arrested Moutawakel, and sent him to Bagram prison. This clash of agencies is believed to have ruined what many thought as a real chance at peace between the Taliban and the government of Karzai.
Furthermore, the disagreements between US administrations and military generals on the ground added to the challenges of the lack of a clear plan in Afghanistan. Until the last days of the fall of Kabul, military generals continually reassured the Afghan government that the US would not withdraw from Afghanistan. The Afghan government officials say “we did not believe that the US would leave.” In a recent article, Ambassador Douglas Lute was quoted as saying “Under Trump, we were one tweet away from complete, precipitous withdrawal. Under Biden, it was clear to everyone who knew him, who saw him pressing for a vastly reduced force more than a decade ago, that he was determined to end U.S. military involvement,” adding “but the Pentagon believed its own narrative that we would stay forever.”
On the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Ayman Al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, appeared in an hour-long video. He talked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying “America is broken and shattered, and finally returning from Afghanistan.” Earlier in August 2021, Al Qaeda issued a congratulatory letter to the Taliban for defeating the US and regaining control over Afghanistan. They praised the strength of their faith and called upon them to direct their attention toward Palestine and Kashmir. According to an article by the Wilson Center, Al Qaeda Attacks increased by 10% in 2020. The US failed to win its battle against terrorism in Afghanistan. It left Afghanistan under the pretext that “the war in Afghanistan does not have a military solution.” Similar to what the USSR had concluded 32 years ago, “the Afghan war cannot be won through military force.” But perhaps it was the lack of a clear strategy and plan that led to the disastrous withdrawals of the USSR and US, and not the impossibility of a military victory.
Image USA and USSR Flag Mix.svg by user ILikelargefries licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Nargis Azaryun is a first-year MA student in the MAGIC program at Georgetown University, studying the history of Afghanistan.