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Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan

At the time the invasion took place on 24 December 1979, Mikhail Gorbachev met with Eduard Shevardnadze [Georgian Communist Party leader, future Soviet Foreign Minister under Gorbachev]. They were both members of the Politburo, but this decision was taken without their participation. It was taken by a very narrow group in the top leadership of the party, and they both thought it would be a disaster. Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. And from very early in his general secretaryship, Gorbachev wanted to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

By 1985, Americas attrition strategy gave way to a more aggressive approach intended to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Soviet Union. Thanks to Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, the CIA received increased funding to press the war against the Soviets. The most audacious move was a 1986 decision to supply the Mujahedin with heat-seeking, shoulder-launched Stinger antiaircraft missiles. These missiles turned the tide of the war by giving Afghan guerrillas the capability to destroy their most dreaded enemy weapon in the rugged Afghan battlefield the Soviet Mi-24D helicopter gunship. The first three Stingers fired took down three gunships. Rebel morale soared overnight. Devastating Soviet losses mounted.

In May 1986, in an attempt to win Afghan support for the Soviet-installed regime, Karmal was replaced by Sayid Mohammad Najibullah as secretary general of the PDPA, and a campaign was intensified calling for "national reconciliation" between the Soviet-supported regime and the Islamic resistance, the mujahidin (literally, holy warriors) and their supporters. When President Najib took power in 1986, there was a change of approach. First, Najib's government was designed as a massive project in political accommodation. Second, the government realized that Soviet military presence in Afghanistan was on the wane, and ethnic and tribal loyalties were exploited to establish local militias to fill the gap. The so-called Uzbek militia of General Dostum and the Ismaili militia of Sayyed Mansoor developed into major military units.

Gorbachev repeatedly termed Afghanistan a "bleeding wound," although he did not admit that the Soviet occupation and the Soviet-supported regime were opposed by the vast majority of Afghans. But he had the same problems that other leaders have when troops are there and a lot of people have been killed - its very difficult to say all these lives were wasted, the Afghan lives and the lives of Soviet soldiers. He wanted to get out, but with some dignity and some kind of agreement. The process took longer than Gorbachev expected.

Partly in support of the "national reconciliation" process, Gorbachev in his Vladivostok speech of July 1986 announced the withdrawal of a token number of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Despite talk of reconciliation, a major, but eventually unsuccessful, Soviet-Afghan army offensive against the mujahidin was launched in Paktia Province in mid-1987. At the December 1987 Soviet-United States summit meeting in Washington, Gorbachev proposed that the Soviet Union remove the 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan on the condition that the United States first cease aid to the mujahidin, a proposal in accord with the Soviet contention that "imperialist" interference was the main reason for the initiation and continuation of the Soviet occupation.

In April 1988, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed accords, with the United States and the Soviet Union acting as "guarantors," calling for the withdrawal of Soviet military forces from Afghanistan over a nine-month period beginning on May 15, 1988.

The Soviet Union's justification for sending its troops and tanks into Prague in August 1968 came to be known as the Brezhnev doctrine. The virtual codification of the doctrine, appeared in Pravda on 26 September 1968 "... a socialist state that is in a system of other states constituting a socialist commonwealth cannot be free of the common interests of that commonwealth. ... The weakening of any link in the world socialist system has a direct effect on all the socialist countries..."

In July 1988, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, spoke of a policy reliant "on such principles as non-aggression, respect for sovereignty and national independence, non-interference in internal affairs". At the United Nations in December 1988, Gorbachev declared his commitment to freedom of choice for all nations. His emphasis on this as a principle that knows no exceptions, and his announcement of the unilateral withdrawal of 50,000 Soviet troops and 5,000 tanks from Eastern Europe, sent a clear message to the people of Eastern Europe that the USSR would never militarily intervene in their countries while he was Soviet leader.

The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on 15 February 1989. The primary reasons for the Soviet failure in Afghanistan believed by some to be due to the Stinger missiles that CIA provided to the Mujahedin were the ignorance of knowledge about counterinsurgency warfare, the underestimation of ethnic, religious, and tribal nature of the Afghan society, and the complete lack of ethical standards of conduct. The horrible sufferings of the Afghan people swung international opinion hard against the Soviets.

Foreign Minister Shevardnadze later lamented, The decision to leave Afghanistan was the first and most difficult step. Everything else flowed from that. This view implied that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan led to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet-Afghan War may have been a key factor in the delegitimization of Communist Party Rule. The Soviet Army was demoralized and marginalized by society.

Gorbachev also oversaw the Soviet withdrawal of troops from Angola, and withdrew Soviet support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the communist governments in Cuba and Vietnam. He also negated the Brezhnev Doctrine that pledged Soviet intervention where communism was under threat, choosing instead to loosen Soviet control over the countries of the Eastern Bloc and allow them some freedom in navigating their own futures. The so-called "Sinatra Doctrine" was announced by Mikhail Gorbachev on October 25, 1989 - the policy became known popularly as the "Sinatra Doctrine" because it allowed the Eastern European states to "do it their way."

Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi I. Gerasimov said on 25 October 1989 that the Soviet Union had adopted the "Sinatra Doctrine" in its policy toward Warsaw Pact nations. "He has a song, '(I Did It) My Way,'" Gerasimov explained. "So every country decides on its own which road to take." Gerasimov appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" to discuss the speech delivered earlier by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in which he said that the Soviets now recognize the absolute freedom of choice of all countries, specifically the Warsaw Pact nations. This marked a fundamental departure from the past, in which Eastern European countries that strayed too far from orthodoxy found Soviet armies on their doorsteps. Asked if that includes an absolute rejection of any military force against any Eastern nation, Gerasimov replied: "That's for sure . . . political structures must be decided by the people who live there."

The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan demonstrated that in this conflict the capacity of the Soviet system was no longer adequate. In the end, however, the system did not crumble thanks to external pressures and not even thanks to pressure by the domestic opposition, but because it had exhausted its last resources. It proved no longer able to control developments on the periphery of Soviet power and, in the final analysis, not even at home. The power, which had at one time been so feared at home as well as abroad under Stalin's leadership, and had been respected under Khrushchev and continued to be dangerous during the time of the geriatric government of Brezhnev's fellow travelers, crumbled.

According to a United States Department of State estimate made in 1987, almost 1 million Afghans had been killed and more than 5 million had fled the country since the 1979 Soviet invasion. Over 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

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